The Adventures of Charlie Davis
For Charlie Davis, the adventures just keep coming.
Best known as Secretariat’s exercise rider, Davis has enjoyed a lifetime of adventures in horse racing – from the day he got on his first thoroughbred at the age of 10, to working fast racehorses before he was old enough to drive a car, to helping Secretariat make racing history. But the stories don’t end there. Now 70, Davis remains a part of the racing game, working with newborn foals and frisky colts at a breeding farm in Ocala, Florida – while periodically hopping a jet to fly off to another event honoring Secretariat. Davis even appears (just briefly, but he’s in it) in the new motion picture “Secretariat,” which premiered nationwide Oct. 8.
It’s a lifetime of racing adventures, and stories of a lifetime – which, it turns out, Davis is always happy to recall. Maybe the beginning would be a good place to begin …
Charlie Davis wanted to ride horses from his earliest days as a boy growing up in tiny Eutawville, South Carolina. His father worked at a horse farm that had several breeds of horses (and a mule), and young Charlie would tag along sometimes and jump on some of the tamer horses in the fields and ride. “I wasn’t afraid,” says Davis. “I had a cousin who rode the thoroughbreds, so I told my dad I wanted to be a jockey. But he said, ‘No, you’re going to school.’ ”
But the lure of racehorses proved too strong.
“I’d skip school a little bit and hide in the woods near the farm,” Davis recalls. “I’d hide behind the trees and watch them ride the horses out on the track. I was saying, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m going to be a jock.’”
Davis’ dad had other ideas. He talked to the farm owner, E. M. O’Brient, about the problem. “Bring him to me,” said O’Brient. “I’ll put him to work, and by the time I’m finished with him, he’ll be glad to go to school.”
O’Brient was good to his word, bearing down on the lad with extra chores and demanding discipline.
“One day, I came to work and it was cold and the other exercise boys had gloves,” Davis remembers. “So when I went to work the next day I had gloves, too. Mr. O’Brient says, ‘What you got on, boy?’ I say it’s gloves, and he says, ‘You don’t need no gloves.’ I say, ‘But the other riders … ’ He says, ‘Don’t worry about them other guys. Just worry about you.’ ”
None of the tough treatment shook young Charlie Davis’ dreams, though. He wanted to ride horses, and could take whatever they threw at him to get the chance. O’Brient believed in teaching every facet of horsemanship, not just riding, and Davis was paying attention. “I think to myself: keep your mouth shut, and your eyes open, and your ears open. Then you’ll learn something.”
The farm couldn’t hold Davis for long, though. The lad jumped at a chance to hook up with a racing outfit heading north to campaign a string of horses at Garden State Park, in New Jersey – the equivalent of running away to join the circus. Davis arrived small in size, and short in years – way short of 16 years old, which he needed to be to get a backside badge. But he snuck into the track and went to work, anyhow.
Every morning, Davis would exercise horses for his stable, then walk the shed rows, seeking more horses to climb aboard. Because of his size and age, most trainers were highly skeptical. But given an opportunity Davis showed he had a nice touch riding. He learned where the distance poles were, and if a trainer wanted his horse to work three furlongs in :37, Charlie could hit that right on the button. The biggest problem at Garden State was no ID. “If I ever went off the track, I couldn’t get back on without a badge, so I’d have to jump the fence.”
Come winter, Davis would return to South Carolina. When he was old enough to officially have a job, a cousin introduced Davis to trainer Lucien Laurin, who had a farm of his own in nearby Holly Hills, S.C.
Like other trainers, Laurin was similarly skeptical that the boy was up to a man’s work riding high-strung thoroughbred racehorses. Davis says he was about 5-feet-4 by then, but didn’t weigh more than 90 lbs. For a test ride, Laurin gave Davis a leg up on a jet black-colored horse named Dark Tail. One trip around Laurin’s training oval was all the trainer needed to see. Davis was hired and soon joined Laurin’s stable at the old Tropical Park, in Miami, in 1957. Blessed with good hands and now armed with an official badge, the little boy who loved riding horses was all-aboard for a career that would take him to the heights of racing excitement: To Belmont Park and Saratoga. To the Kentucky Derby, and to all the thrills Davis could scarcely imagine when he was just a little boy who wanted to ride.
For Laurin, Davis exercised some of the top stars of the 1960’s, including champion filly Quill and Belmont Stakes winner Amberoid, both owned by Reginald Webster. In 1971, Laurin took over the Meadow Stable string of Christopher Chenery. The barn’s first star was Riva Ridge, and Davis was immediately assigned as Riva’s exercise rider.
By then, Davis and Eddie Sweat, a groom in the stable, had been paired as the barn’s “road team.” When one of Laurin’s top horses had a stakes race date at a track in another city, Davis and Sweat would van the horse there, then set up a small, two-man training operation leading up to the race.
Such an assignment came up in the spring of 1972. While Laurin’s stable shipped to New York after wintering in Miami at Hialeah Park, Riva Ridge was dispatched to Keeneland Race Course, in Lexington, Ky. for the Blue Grass Stakes. The trip was the start of a great adventure for Davis and Sweat. When jockey Ron Turcotte, trainer Lucien Laurin and owner Penny Chenery arrived, the “team” was assembled and Riva Ridge won the Blue Grass to establish himself as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. The next day, Davis, Sweat and Riva packed up and headed on to Churchill Downs, in Louisville, to prepare for the 1972 Kentucky Derby.
“Riva started galloping better every day and he was giving me a little vibe,” recalls Davis. “So I started following that vibe. Every time he wanted to make a little move, I’d let him. If he wanted to gallop on, I’d let him. It seemed like he was getting ready for something big.”
And so he was.
“On Derby Day,” Davis continues, “Riva came to the paddock and he was giving me the vibe. When we started tacking him up he knows what he is supposed to do, and what he is going to do. He don’t break out in a nervous sweat like others do. Just taking his time. Just taking his time.”
As jockey Turcotte climbed aboard Riva Ridge, Davis mounted a stable pony to escort them out to the track for the post parade and the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Davis says he was the only one “breaking out.”
“I was trying to tell Ronnie how nervous I was, but I couldn’t bring it out, because sometimes I stutter and can’t bring my words out,” Davis remembers. “All the way to the gate I try to tell Ronnie I have butterflies in my stomach. ‘Bu-bu-bu …’ – I couldn’t say it. Finally we get to the gate and Riva is just about to load in and I still can’t say it, and Ronnie says, ‘Spit it out!’ And I say, ‘Butterflies!’ ”
Riva Ridge led all the way to take the Derby handsomely.
Things weren’t as simple the next year with Secretariat, who came to the 99th Run for the Roses as the most celebrated horse in decades, with a huge national and international audience following the colt’s ever move. To make matters more tense, Secretariat had run third in his final Derby prep in New York, and many wondered if Secretariat was really all he was cracked up to be. Whether, in particular, the son of Bold Ruler could handle the 1 1/4 miles Derby distance.
At Churchill Downs, Davis and Sweat kept a round-the-clock watch on Secretariat in the days leading up to the Derby. As the press and the public pressed closer, kept the curious at bay, and never left their horse’s side. A painful abscess had been discovered in Secretariat’s mouth. That’s a common ailment, and reliably treated with familiar remedies. But with every antenna tuned to the Big Red horse, the Laurin stable kept the news to themselves. The abscess healed and Secretariat began training like his old self again.
“I am going to say this,” says Davis, taking a deep breath. “Secretariat give me a better vibe than even Riva did. He showed me how much hold to take of him. Do this (Davis demonstrates, holding his hands and imaginary reins at just the right place) and he just glide, like you was in a ski boat. So I just give him his head and he just galloped on out. Like I tell everybody, I wasn’t the pilot, I was the co-pilot.”
“He give me a vibe,” Davis adds. “Like your kid is talking to you – but it was a stronger vibe, like, ‘Hey, man, I’m the man, you just along for the ride.”
Davis recalls a famous bit of video shot by the Canadian Broadcasting Company at Woodbine Racecourse, in Toronto. It’s taken the morning before Secretariat would run in (and win) the Canadian International – his final career start. It’s gray and misty and still not daylight as the camera follows horse and rider through the mists.
“You watch the video in Canada,” says Davis. “I start to pull him up and he shakes his head – ‘I’m not done yet!’
“I say ‘Easy Boy,’ and then he calms down.”
Of course, Davis has ridden a zillion horses besides Secretariat, but the exercise rider understands why he is famous for just one. And he remembers everything from the first day Secretariat arrived at Laurin’s stable.
“When he first came from the farm, he is a big, fat, lazy horse. If you in a hurry, I’m not in a hurry,” recalls Davis. “But then one morning we put Ronnie (Turcotte) on him, and Ronnie come back and say, ‘Whoa, what you got here, Lucien Laurin?’ ”
Paul Feliciano rode Secretariat in his first two starts at Belmont, but Laurin then switched to Turcotte.
“When we got to Saratoga, Daddy (Laurin) put Ronnie on him and … thweeet “ Davis whistles. “Oh, baby. Oh, baby. Oh, baby.
“From that day, I would gallop him, I would pay attention to how much he breathed. How hard he breathed. And after he changed leads how much he breathed. I’ll put it this way: He run a mile and a quarter, he win by three, and he didn’t drink half a bucket of water. Spit the water out. So I’d walk him back to the bucket of water. He get two or three more swallows, and he don’t want no more water. He’d say, ‘Take me to get something to eat. That’s what I want!’ “
Davis smiles as he thinks back on Big Red.
“Me and him had a bond,” says Davis. “He know and I know he could leave me on the racetrack any time he wanted to. That’s how powerful he was. He could throw me any time he wanted, but he never did. All he wanted to do was run.”
And take a few bows.
“We’d be walking along back to the barn, and people would be watching him walk and wanting to take a picture,” says Davis. “As soon as he hear that camera click, he just pose. Maybe I pose a little bit, too.”
After Laurin’s retirement, Davis worked for other trainers and got on other top horses, including Desert Vixen, for trainer Tommy Root, and Silver Series, for Oscar Dishman. After a spill in 1985 Davis hung up his riding tack but stayed in the game. Today, he works with young horses at Pennston Farm, near his home in Ocala.
Recently, Davis did a stint as an advisor with the Disney crew filming “Secretariat,” traveling with the location crew for filming at Keeneland and Churchill Downs and then on to Louisiana, where the movie’s racing scenes were shot at the old Evangeline Downs. One of Davis’ duties was to help the actors playing horse people to get into their characters.
“I gave them a few pointers,” says, Davis. “How you don’t walk in front of the horse when you’re leading him, you walk beside him. How you do everything.”
Director Randall Wallace found Davis so authentic, he cast him as an extra in racing scenes before the Derby. (Keep an eye out for him in a western outfit that is similar to one he owned at the time.)
Of course, looking authentic is no problem for Davis. He is authentic. And he understands he is fairly famous as part of the Secretariat team. But he’s helped thousands of other horses become racehorses.
“I don’t care if you’ve got a good horse that is wantin’ to run, if you ain’t got a good exercise boy, and you ain’t got a good groom, you ain’t got nothin,” says Davis. “A exercise boy, he needs to be knowing what he’s doing out on that track – when a horse change leads, how he’s breathing, when to take a hold. Left lead, turn for home, back to right lead. I learned it the right way, from Mr. E.M. O’Brient. He’s dead now, and people don’t know much about him anymore. He was one of the Old Timeys.”
Guess you count Charlie Davis as one of the Old Timeys now, too – except he’s still enjoying the adventures.
By Bill Doolittle