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Timely Writer: The Love of a Horse by Hank Nuwer

Timely Writer: The Love of a Horse by Hank Nuwer (first published in Boston Magazine).

Colic. Nonhorsemen erroneously think of burping babies when they hear the word. But to a horseman it is highly charged, conveying the image of an animal laid low, its hair “dying” on the skin, its insides twisted impossibly like old fish line. A better comparison would be to think of “crib death” if you are a new parent, to know how terrified the owners and trainer of Timely Writer felt when their once-in-a-lifetime colt was stricken with colic.

The ailment is particularly a hazard for racehorses that must travel to compete. A change of feed or a few mouthfuls of improperly cured hay is all it takes to generate deadly gas and blockage of the delicate Thoroughbred digestive system. So it was with Timely Writer. Training for the Kentucky Derby, he breezed through his paces, demonstrating the furious stride that had won $518,311 – with the promise of millions more to come. The next day he was down in his stall, helpless as a stroke victim. A vet phoned owners Francis and Peter Martin in Boston to tell them that a six-inch surgical slit through Timely’s belly might be the only chance the horse had to live, let alone race again.

What a far cry from six weeks earlier, March 6, when scores of startled flamingos, their feathers the hue of a Guaguin sunset, packed up landing gear to flee as the stampeding Timely Writer circled their soggy infield enclosure for the second time. The animal had accomplished everything jockey Jeffrey Fell’s crop and high voice had requested. Timely Writer, Nitram Stables’ prize three year old, had just won Hialeah’s $250,000 Flamingo Stakes, the richest race in Florida, with a time of one minute, forty-nine and three-fifths seconds. That race had established him as the favorite for the Kentucky Derby.

It was a day of triumph. Timely’s powerful hooves, the shoes shaved on the inside a quarter-inch to prevent him from nicking his own flying flesh, had sandblasted the jockeys aboard fifteen colts trailing him. The number-two finisher, New Discovery, was three and a half lengths behind when Timely boomed past the finish line like an MBTA train overshooting its station.

And jockey Fell had another surprise awaiting him. Pandemonium reigned in the winner’s circle. Hialeah, a track as sedate and decorous as a papal reception, looked as disorganized as a lynching. White-haired Jimmy Raftery, the official track photographer – bumped and stiff-armed in a swelling throng of celebrants while recording for posterity the snorting, plunging winner and his people – came back to his workroom and slung his equipment down. “I’ve never seen such a zoo in 30 years,” he complained.

Equally miffed track execs reproached Timely Writer’s owners for inviting the mob. The two men gently returned the rebuff. Then knew very few of the celebrants, many of them fans wearing pink souvenir jackets, that had spontaneously poured onto the soupy turf like basketball fans after a Final Four win.

“They’re not friends of ours,” the Martins told the bigwigs, “they’re friends of the horse.” The veteran trainer for the Martins was equally stung by the criticism. “I thought they were all newsmen,” said Dominic Imprescia.

Neither friends of the Martins nor newsmen, the crowd that jammed the winner’s circle were everyday people, many of them New Englanders vacationing in south Florida. And they were overjoyed. A dark horse—a once-in-a-lifetime horse—had triumphed. For the same reason that the movie Black Stallion packed in audience after audience, the crowd at Hialeah was delirious—the little guys had won. Fran and Peter Martin, two butchers from Boston, had beaten the system.

No knowledge of impending disaster spoiled this triumph for Fran and Peter. The two men were celebrating with the best of them down in the circle, even though neither was physically able to jump for joy. Fifty-five-year-old Fran and his brother, Peter, a self-described “senior citizen” who refuses to divulge his age, have slowed considerably from their younger years when they rode horses for pleasure and knocked around a baseball on Sundays. Their limbs are stiff and brittle as seasoned kindling. As co-operators of Kyes Supplies, a Boston wholesale-meat distributorship that services hotel restaurants with prime cuts, they are sorely afflicted with the rheumatoid arthritis that comes with the territory for butchers. Their upper cheekbones look perpetually frostbitten, and their countenances are ruddy, although not nearly so crimson as their faces appear in summer when the two reenter their government-required 35- to 38-degree cooler after lunching outside. “Your blood thins out,” says Fran to explain the phenomenon. Each brother’s hands are scarred from slipups with trephine-sharp boning knives. A butcher’s fingers, no matter how skilled, start to seem a part of the chopping table after a man bones ten hours in the blasting cold necessary to keep meat fresh.

Since their late teens, the brothers have put in 60-hour weeks to make the business pay. Kyes Supplies was started by an aunt’s husband back in the 1890s. The Martins are no less proud of the success they have achieved through the fruits of their labor than they are with their racehorse. “We’re both devoted to the business,” says Peter. “The business is the foundation, the horse is the glamour.” Fran gets annoyed when asked if the business used to be a struggle. “What do you mean, ‘Was it a struggle?’ That’s all this business still is, is work!”

Forced to classify the Martins, you’d have to call them nice guys who are bucking the odds to finish first these days. They believe in the Golden Rule, the Puritan Ethic, and the American Dream.

They also believe in spending their few leisure hours at the track. They like the adrenaline rush one gets while betting, the illusion of getting away from business, and the companionship of men who know and love good horseflesh. Unlike most working people, however, the Martins, back in 1954, dared to step down from the grandstand and into the stables.

Interestingly, the Martins fit right in at the track. At Hialeah, dressed in conservative suits, the butchers look as genuine as any of the millionaires eyeing their lesser steeds. As active players in the sport of kings, neither brother tries to pose as royalty, but both do come across as gentlemen rather than bumpkins. The Martins like to jest that they do not play golf “because the lines are too long,” but the real reason has more to do with their station in life. If portly Fran and happy-go-lucky Peter dressed in golf frippery, they would look as incongruous as David Niven in a bloody butcher’s smock.

When the pink-jacketed fans charged the winner’s circle after Timely Writer’s smashing Hialeah victory, neither Martin brother minded that ordinary people wanted to share in the moment of glory. “I’m reading between the lines to find that a Boston horse is not supposed to be a big horse; they [the people] demonstrated that when they all flocked out when he won the Flamingo,” says Peter a bit defiantly. “All those people were little people. They weren’t a Fitch or a Galbraith or a Firestone.

“It seems you either have to live in Kentucky or Texas to have a racehorse,” he shrugs, “and we’re not—we’re Dorchester people, that’s all. It’s not supposed to happen, but it has! The part that strikes me to the quick is that I’m thrilled to think that the average guy from Boston is behind a horse owned by a bunch of little guys. I’m all for the people who are rootin’ for the big horse, because all those rooters are my rooters.”

The Martins’ involvement with Timely Writer goes back to years when a postmidnight phone call shook Fran out of bed. On the line was a Durante-schnozzed horseman named Tony Everard. He came to America as an immigrant in 1956, a penniless, 18-year-old who even then possessed an uncanny knack for recognizing horses blessed with that runner’s “look of eagles.” A compact man several inches shy of six feet, Everard is the owner of the prosperous Another Episode Farm, in Ocala, Florida, where he breaks and boards horses. He met many of his clients, including the Martins, when he worked in Boston during the sixties as a free-lance trainer. The Martins recognized that Everard is racing’s equivalent to whatever Hollywood talent scouts pluck a Lana Turner out of a tacky drugstore. “This guy has a tremendous eye for a horse,” endorses Fran, who comes frequently with Peter to Ocala, suitcases in tow filled with fresh ribs for barbecuing.

Realizing that Fran had to roll out of bed for work at his customary 4:30 a.m., Everard apologized for the call’s lateness. As the designated representative of Nitram (“Martin” spelled backward) Stables, he had purchased a yearling named Timely Writer at Kentucky’s annual Keeneland sale. An hour earlier he had deposited a check with the sale’s bookkeeper, and now he was calling from the motel room so that the Martins could insure the horse.

This Keeneland auction is the equine equivalent of an eighteenth-century slave auction. It is an exciting, buyer-beware affair where several hundred thousand dollars are exchanged for approximately 800 one-year-old Thoroughbreds. Each baby horse is oh so pretty, but the great majority are oh so slow. Sellers must only guarantee that the babies are inoculated against communicable equine infectious anemia, and that the horses are not known “cribbers” or “wind suckers,” animals whose breathing is too labored to run. Once the gavel bites down, the new owner is responsible for the purchase. Period.

Fran Martin needed no coaching on Timely’s background. He had long studied the Keeneland sales material and knew this yearling’s lineage by heart. Martin was aware that Timely Writer’s grandfather was 1964 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Northern Dancer. The butcher calls the stud “probably the best sire in the country,” throwing off live foals at up to $150,000 apiece. The dam, going back two generations, is out of the 1968 Hialeah Handicap winner, Setto Bello. Martin also knew about a problem that made Timely a questionable purchase. The yearling’s mom and dad, Timely Roman and Staff Writer, had crippled themselves before setting hoof in any organized race—one-stepped on a drainpipe and the other was kicked. In plain terms, Timely Writer was a long shot, but successful long shots are what make racing addicts. “He’s out of an unraced mare and out of an unraced stud,” is the way Fran puts it, “but the parents before him were all champions.”

Everard did have one pleasant surprise for the Martins. Timely in the flesh was an unusually big and solid progeny of Staff Writer. The stud has had a propensity for throwing pint-sized offspring.

The trainer told Martin that he was a bit disappointed over the price he paid for Timely Writer, however. Since the yearling was one of the last animals on the auction agenda, many buyers had already blown their allowances or gone off julep hunting. Everard hoped to steal Timely for 10 grand. After all, he had bred two or three mares to the sire, Staff Writer, and had got “fair horses” at best. “Nothing great,” he says, “but I always liked their dispositions.”

Unfortunately for the Martins, one other serious bidder vied with Everard for the auctioneer’s attention. The selling price on the board closed at $13,500. To give some idea what sort of bargain Timely was, bear in mind that at a recent sale of colts in Florida several days before Hialeah, a younger brother of the Martins’ horse went for $255,000.

When Fran Martin finally returned to bed, he had no idea that Timely Writer was going to be any different from the run-of-the-mill plugs Nitram Stables had bought for the past 28 years. Fran won’t specify exactly how many horses were mistakes. “Just say we had a lot of losers,” he says. Except for Peter and Fran’s supportive wife, Mary Theresa, the remaining members of the Martin family were united in how they felt about throwing hard-earned money down on horses. “They thought I was cuckoo,” admits Fran.

?

When it came time to break Timely Writer, it turned out that Everard had misjudged the animal’s disposition. On the plus side, according to the Irishman who broke his first horse when only 11, the yearling “was very smart and very strong and things didn’t bother him. A lot of horses get real nervous when they’re under pressure; this horse gets better when he is put under pressure.” Timely was particularly adept at taking to the starting gate. He has always slipped quietly into place as if aware that unlimited freedom to run is but a bell ring away. Many horses break down training for the start, where the shock and strain on the limbs and nervous system is tremendous. On the minus side, Everard says, “He was rough to break. He owns his quarters. He was the same when he was turned out to pasture with 10 other colts. He was tough. He fought for his stuff, and he was one of the leaders of the field.”

 

When it came time to break Timely Writer, it turned out that Everard had misjudged the animal’s disposition. On the plus side, according to the Irishman who broke his first horse when only 11, the yearling “was very smart and very strong and things didn’t bother him. A lot of horses get real nervous when they’re under pressure; this horse gets better when he is put under pressure.” Timely was particularly adept at taking to the starting gate. He has always slipped quietly into place as if aware that unlimited freedom to run is but a bell ring away. Many horses break down training for the start, where the shock and strain on the limbs and nervous system is tremendous. On the minus side, Everard says, “He was rough to break. He owns his quarters. He was the same when he was turned out to pasture with 10 other colts. He was tough. He fought for his stuff, and he was one of the leaders of the field.”

Fran Martin agrees that Timely is a feisty rascal. Even as a yearling, Timely could be dangerous if underestimated. “There was this time he threw his rider down in Florida,” recalls Fran. “Everard told him not to take too much old of this horse, and this kid said: ‘I been on a hundred horses – don’t worry about it!’ The kid took hold of the horse, and he wound up on the infield. Broke the kid’s arm in three places. The horse went down the road maybe seven or eight miles between trees and everything else. He just had a hell of a time for himself that day. The son of a bitch came back about six hours later.”

An ornery horse does not a champion make. But, says Everard, Timely Writer merely had to sow some wild oats before settling down. “It was in January and February [1981] when we started to find out just how much he was developing. He kept getting stronger and just did everything 100 percent. This is when we knew we had a pretty good horse. We built him up slowly for about four weeks, when each Saturday morning he went a little stronger and stronger. Then, as we began pitting him more, he just began knocking dead everything we had. We knew we had a really good horse.”

Fran and Peter Martin, coming more and more often to Ocala to inspect their find, began to believe Everard’s glowing reports. Satisfied that the horse had “good action” and handled well, they decided to back the pony all the way. To the Kentucky Derby, if possible, and then the Preakness and Bellmont. In cold cash, that commitment meant an outlay of $50,000 for trainer Dom Imprescia’s $40 per day, ice, traveling expenses, horse feed, prime hay from New Mexico, vitamins, liniment, tack, fees, pine-oil wash, muslin bandages, Epsom salts, poultice powder, snaffles, rope leads, martingales, brushes, blankets, syringes, feed buckets, blinker hood, and silks. Fifty thousand. Without guarantees.

Rain clouds in the Florida sky hang full as udders as stable boy Ambrose Pascucci and Timely’s “bodyguard,” night watchman Chuckie Lawyer, putter around a long barn that houses Timely Writer and a half-dozen additional horses under trainer Dominic Imprescia’s tutelage. Pascucci, a reedy athlete with Neapolitan features, is idly pushing a broom, which is the most common sound around race barns next to hoof beats. Lawyer, a burly man is hauling manure out of the stalls, piling it upon mounds so fresh that the three feet of steam hisses like smoke into the air. Timely Writer is quartered in barn Q, stall 56, today for his battle in the afternoon for the Flamingo Stakes. “Showtime in eight hours,” says Ambrose laconically.

Timely is an impressive creature viewed up close, except for his ridiculous idiosyncrasy of keeping his tail dipped in his water bucket. Although not a pretty boy, his profile is noble. The bay colt’s wide forehead is marked by a falling star that looks more like a meteor. Thick veins line his head like tributaries. His eyes are full and dark, the flared nostrils are wide and hairy – signs of intelligence and breathing capacity. The mane and tail are thick and black. Red bandages, wrapped perpetually around the legs to prevent injury, cover a white splash of color on the rear left leg. A little over 16 hands tall, he possesses breadth and conformation that far surpasses his rivals. He looks a year older than most three year olds, the kind of “router” that thrives on distance courses such as the Belmont Stakes, and can spring like a jackrabbit even on a muddy course. A definite advantage today, it seems, as the first drops begin sprinkling. His loins are shockingly muscular – “close-coupled” as they say in the barns – and his chest is solid as a bulwark. The horse is built like a boxer.

Ambrose is as protective of his charge as a grandmother – and with good reason. “He gets hurt in the stall, and it’s all over. All over,” warns Ambrose.

Ambrose, who admits to losing some skin to Timely’s powerful teeth watches each moment in the three year old’s daily routine. The stable boy and the assistant trainer, Dom Imprescia’s son, take the animal out for exercise at 5:30 every morning. It is Ambrose who climbs aboard. Thus far he’s not been thrown, although there have been close calls. “Sometimes you have to put him strait, but you can’t get mad at him. You have to work around him and use common sense. He’s got a lot of spunk.”

 

Ambrose has Chuckie the watch’s full attention as he tells him about the small pizza parlor he owned in Boston nine years ago. On sudden impulse, he says, he quit the business and bought a cheap racehorse with the money. Unable to afford a jockey, or perhaps needing to prove something, he rode his own pony for five races and was the very model of consistency. “I lost every one.” Ambrose moves all the time while he talks. His hips roll. His hands clutch at a cigarette, the air, whatever’s in reach.

There is silence for a few minutes. “I used to make the best pizza in town.” Ambrose throws out the statement challengingly, like a glove across the cheek. Chuckie pulls a long sip out of his ever-present Colt 45, then takes the bait.

“Then why’d you quit?”

“Because I seen Secretariat on TV. I wanted to ride a horse like Secretariat. There hasn’t been one like him yet. Won’t be one like him, either.”

“Aw, come on. You just fell in love with a horse; I know what happened to you. Secretariat was the first good horse you ever saw,” Chuckie sounds as if he’s talking about a man who married his first youthful crush.

Ambrose’s arms curl and uncurl and curl. “That’s right.”

“But he ain’t the best around.”

The battle is on. “What do you mean? That’s the best horse—hey! I’ve seen some good ones in my time.” Ambrose is 27 but doesn’t look that old. “I’ve seen Affirmed run; I’ve seen Seattle Slew run; I’ve seen Spectacular Bid run. Ain’t never been a horse like Secretariat, and there won’t be.”

Chuckie polishes off his beer. He sets the dead soldier on the ground and frees a second Colt 45 from its plastic binding. It is his turn to drop a bombshell. “There won’t be a horse like Citation. Never.”

“But…”

“Never. You know what made him so great? He could run short or long, six furlongs or a mile and three-eighths. It didn’t make no difference.”

“Citation was a great horse…”

“He was the greatest horse I ever saw in my lifetime.” Chuckie is 57 and looks it. His mouth is ruined, the teeth caved in on one side like a fallen levee.

“That’s been a long time, I know.” This is said with respect.

“And Secretariat was a good horse—don’t let anybody tell you he wasn’t. He was a good horse.”

“A great horse!”

“But he wasn’t consistent enough.”

“This horse could win all of them,” says Ambrose, who, despite his youth and late start, has worked with two Derby contenders. “This horse here. Timely Writer.”

Dominic Imprescia’s hand curls around his coffee cup. A busy man, he gives the impression of having all the time in the world. His hair, thick as squirrel fur, is still full of glossy black curls, and his distinctive face is easily recognized. He smiles often, a trait perhaps picked up in his postwar days as a used-car dealer.

Dominic, who sports a ferocious pink blazer complete with matching carnation the day of the race, has come up the hard way. The son of a Fitchburg, Massachusetts, chicken farmer, he grew up with the tedium and stench associated with chicken plucking. Before World War II, his father helped him to escape the fowl business by setting up Dom with a riding stable. War ended that enterprise, and he went into the merchant marine. After the war and two boring years peddling clunkers, Dominic bought a cheap nag named Roman Abbot, and after an unhappy experience dealing with a professional trainer, decided to take on the job himself. He won a couple races and, in 1949, bought a second horse called Monstrance with the earnings. This one managed to clean up in six races out of six. Dom was now hooked, and he dissolved the car dealership. A scant 33 years later, in 1982, glory was all his.

“I’ve had to work with cripples, bad-legged horses, and stuff like that. You try to pick the easiest spots you can.”

His philosophy about horses is as inflexible as that of the late football coach Vince Lombardi, who believed winning was the only thing. According to Sports Illustrated, Dominic was once suspended from racing for allegedly drugging horses at Suffolk Downs, a charge he has steadfastly denied. “If they can’t win for you, they’re no good for you,” says Dominic. Interviewed at a Gulfstream Park cafeteria two days after Hialeah, Dominic, soft-spoken and not given to hyperbole, is effusive in his praise of the Nitram champion. “That’s a smart horse, believe me when I tell you. You don’t find too many of them around. He’s got everything. He’s got the ability; he’s got the heart; and he wants to run. He does everything so easily. That’s what makes a racehorse.”

Dominic’s job is to serve as coach to as many as 20 horses at a time. Enough winners came home in 35 years to land him and his wife of four decades, Ethel, a comfortable home and a Cadillac.

With Timely Writer, Dominic has found himself for the first time in his life in the national limelight, and he has weathered considerable criticism over some controversial decisions he has made. The trainer’s job was made easier by the fact that the Martins gave him total decision-making power. All they asked, and Dominic agreed, was that they be consulted.

The first controversial decision was to test Timely Writer’s mettle the first time out in a claiming race. Had you, I, or any one of 10,000 knowledgeable horsemen plunked down $30,000 before the Monmouth Park race began, the Martins would have lost the horse of the year, going down in ignominy with trainer Max Hirsch, who lost a million-dollar horse named Stymie in a $1,500 claimer. “We just took a shot and that was it,” says Dominic. Fran agrees. “We just took a shot.” But he adds that it was this race “what give me the ulcer.”

The second decision was to offer the horse up for sale. Fortunately, Kentucky millionaire Peter Brent brought two finicky vets to examine Timely. The vets said nay unless there was a throat operation to improve Timely’s wind. The Martins complied, and the vets still nixed the deal. They said he walked too wide. The Martins then took their horse off the block and instead sold half of their syndication rights for an estimated $3 million to a New York vet named William Reed. They now had enough money to bankroll their horse.

The third decision was to enter Timely in a minimum of races to save him for Hialeah and this summer’s Big Three. Miffed over what they apparently thought was chickenheartedness, the writers and racing secretaries snubbed Timely Writer for the so-called Oscar of racing, the Eclipse Award, for the year’s best two year old. Dominic and the Martins were hurt by the snub. Timely Writer, after all, had been the leading contender after finishing in the money in six of seven races, including a resounding win in the Champagne Stakes over Deputy Minister, the horse awarded the trophy.

Dominic’s explanation why he brought Timely along so carefully seems even more ironic in light of the horse’s setback due to colic. “A lot of good horses never get to the [key] races because they’re overworked.” The trainer gained sweet vindication when Timely went on to win impressive victories, two weeks apart, at Hialeah’s Flamingo Stakes and the Gulfstream’s Florida Derby. Experts picked Timely as the horse to beat at a Derby prep in Louisville, and for the most glamorous of races, the Kentucky Derby. Also, Eclipse Award-winner Deputy Minister was out of the Triple Crown running. His owners ran him in two relatively meaningless Florida races before Hialeah. Deputy Minister wrecked his ankles.

 

The Hialeah Flamingo is now one hour dead. The last bettors are trickling into an awful traffic jam, still jabbering incredulously about how Timely Writer came from behind at the three-quarter pole to streak victoriously up the fleshy outside of the track. Lights are all on in Barn Q, and except for a small crowd of people there is no indication that America’s horse of the moment dwells here. Fran, who likes to do things “very plainlike,” has no insignia or foot-high signs with his name on it anywhere in evidence.

Naked to the waist, wearing a spanking-new pair of Jordache jeans rolled way up over the ankle, Ambrose dutifully leads Timely around and around the barn to cool him off. Already put away is the bright orange blinker hood that makes Timely look as foreboding as a hangman in competition. Also shirtless and similarly Jordached is assistant trainer Dominic Imprescia, Jr. It is his responsibility to assist Ambrose with workouts, to curry and brush, to supervise dawn workouts, and to perform the 1,001 tasks that come up in a day. Until Timely came along, Dominic wanted to become a commercial pilot; now he is making his dad quite happy by following in the old man’s hoofprints.

It is a small but vocal party. The lone bench is filled with people from the barns. They are enjoying a few beers and munching on potato chips. A bottle of champagne, the $6.95 tag attached, is passed from eager mouth to mouth. Dominic, Jr., usually taciturn, is ebullient tonight. Precisely how angered and hurt the Imprescias and the Martins were by the Eclipse Award snub is evident here. Dominic, Jr., holds the champagne aloft as if it is a trophy. His dark handsome face is wreathed in smiles. “They just messed with my mind—the writers did!” he shouts. “If there’s someone better [than Timely], bring ‘em on! Bring ‘em on! We’re Number One!”

It is he who held the reins for jockey fell in the tumultuous winner’s circle. “There must have been a hundred photographers spread out in front of us. Finally I couldn’t keep Timely’s head still any more, and I told Fell to get off. That track photographer made him get back up again. He kept shouting, ‘Those aren’t the right photographers!’ I said, ‘How am I supposed to know which are the right ones? They all got cameras!’”

Timely Writer, at last looks placid. A charged but weary Ambrose leads him into his stall. Young Dom steps in to give the horse a brushing, and Ambrose steps out. All at once, a young stable hand from an adjoining barn ducks under the strap, a Budweiser in hand. Timely instantly snorts a challenge. He whirls into the youth, tearing his jacket and rolling him under the webbing. The intruder looks ruefully at his own blood. “He bit me.”

Dominic, Jr., stands ramrod stiff in the comparative safety of Timely’s withers. “Sure he did,” he whispers through clenched teeth. He waits for Timely’s bunched muscles to relax.

“It ain’t too bad,” clucks Ambrose. “He was just warning you.”

The injured youth shuffles off. The party instantly becomes subdued lest the guest of honor again become offended. By 7 p.m. it is over, and young Dominic and his fiancée, Ann, pile their things into the trunk of their orange clunker. “I just want some sleep,” says Dominic, Jr. A brilliant glow of headlights comes up fast. Dominic, Sr., springs athletically out o his caddy. The trainer peers into Timely’s stall. The horse’s back is turned, and he is asleep. Young Dom assures his dad that the horse is fine.

Dom, Jr., looks as though he is trying to say something profound. “We showed them,” he ends up saying.

His father kisses him gently on the face. “We showed them.”

During a horse race, the Martins are a study in contrast. Timely Writer’s come-from-behind style is rough on Type A owner Fran Martin. Using the King’s English, body English, and undeleted expletives, he grunts, swears, prays, cajoles, groans, and tears his hair. Peter, who always sits beside Fran, is about as calm as a man can be who hopes to rake in thousands of dollars. “I take things as they come,” he says. Peter is a man of few words, all of them clichés. “I don’t like to plan that far ahead,” he said a few days after Hialeah. “I like to take things presently as they happen. I take things in stride. I don’t know what’s going to happen next, I just go day by day.”

Peter, an animal lover who for 14 years treated his (now late) dalmation to ice cream cones on walks, thinks of Timely as the family pet. When he discusses the big horse, it is in the most anthropomorphic of terms. “When you put on his tack to go to the races, if you could see a horse smiling, this horse is smiling. He loves to get on a track and run.”

While Fran scarfs down milk night caps and steals a scant three hours sleep in two nights before the Flamingo, Peter claims that high-stakes races “don’t make any difference to me—it’s not like a death.”

Even with the untimely injury to Timely Writer, Nitram Stables is expanding as a result of Timely’s phenomenal success. The Martins now have five horses, including a brood mare with foal. The men plan to have a go at racing in a bigger way, but by no stretch of the imagination can their operation be compared to those of old money owners who have computers, planes, veterinarians, and blacksmiths at their beck and call. Despite gaining overnight fame after Hialeah, neither Fran nor Peter allows fickle fame to change their lives. They try to avoid interviews; yet when they submit to one, they are witty, charming, and helpful. They neglected to show up for a press conference after winning the Hialeah Flamingo, sending instead Dominic and the vet who bought his way into future syndication rights. The Martins may have intended to snub the writers who passed up their horse for the Eclipse Award, or perhaps they thought the vet would be more vocal. (He wasn’t.) They simply forgot to attend a pre-Flamingo “ABC Sports” interview, inadvertently leaving TV personality Jim McKay and crew fidgeting in front of Timely’s barn. They are, in fact, a lot like Timely Writer. Neither the Martins nor their horse try to be difficult; it’s just that they leave everyone else the hell alone—and expect the same courtesy.

On the day that Timely apparently ate a bit of bad feed or perhaps his own straw bedding, the evidence was clear that despite a claim by the trainer that Timely’s success “charges up your life,” money came too late to alter his and the Martins’ daily lives significantly. Dominic still toils six days a week, feeling guilty about leaving and hanging by the telephone when on outings with his wife or on trips to see his white-haired 93-year-old widowed mother in Fitchburg. The Martins get up each day at 4:30 a.m., as usual, then put in 12 hard hours. Fran bristles when retirement is mentioned. “I love my work,” he says, making it clear that he’d sooner see Timely Writer retire to a Florida Beach with a bikini on than to do so himself.

So if there is any way that Timely Writer charged up the lives of Dom and the Martins, it was to put them on a 24-hour-a-day high that crashed like a derailed train with Timely’s illness. As a result of the winnings and of wisely taking the vet’s advance on Timely’s reproductive glands, the brothers are now each millionaires (or quite close after taxes bite down). Despite missing the Kentucky Derby, they stand to make a nice piece of change from Timely’s future earnings, but in no way can they expect to garner the $24.9 million in winning and syndication fees accorded 1979 Triple Crown winner Spectacular Bid.

If the true test of a man’s mettle comes in adversity, the horse’s trainer and owners did themselves proud after Timely’s operation. Red-eyed and visibly shaken, Dominic Imprescia told a news conference that the race was unimportant as long as the horse lived. Interviewed at home, Fran and Peter refused to go into hiding. Both knew, as Fran often has stated, that “Horses are so fragile.”

Rather than despair about all that was lost, Peter thanked the Lord for all that was gained. “Timely came out of his operation wonderfully,” said Peter.     “Last night it was only a 55 percent chance that he would live, and now the doctors put it at 99 percent. He jumped into his feed bucket like there was no tomorrow. That made me so happy that I almost cried with joy.”

What’s more, added Peter, he and his brother are planning to attend the Kentucky Derby. “I’m still going down,” says Peter. “They’re not going to put no black crepe on me.” The Martins have but one regret. “I just feel sorry for Boston,” says Peter, “Because he was the Kentucky Derby winner.” The once-in-a-lifetime horse Timely Writer is recovering, but it remains to be seen how he will do in competition. “We’ll be back again,” says Peter.

Thus, two butchers and a used-car dealer were thwarted in their effort to show the world what they had all along—a winner. But they showed something else a damn sight more meaningful – true class.

 

First published in Boston Magazine. All rights reserved by Hank Nuwer

Postscript from HN: Timely Writer had to be destroyed after breaking a leg as a three-year-old at Belmont Park in 1982.

 

 

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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