LOUISVILLE, Ky. - By the end of yesterday morning's bath, the big gray horse was gleaming and the gray-haired groom had soapsuds on his chin and the right side of his nose.
The old groom also trains the big horse, and owns it - the only horse he owns, his first Kentucky Derby horse. Was Seabiscuit's story this good?
At age 75, Tom McCarthy, a retired biology teacher and high school principal, on the fringes of horse racing for five decades, has his Derby horse. McCarthy claimed General Quarters last year for $20,000, and the colt has already won the prestigious Blue Grass Stakes, which earned McCarthy $460,000. Before General Quarters, the trainer had career earnings of $229,020.
Since McCarthy taught school just outside Louisville, has lived in the area since 1962, and trains General Quarters out of Churchill Downs, half of Kentucky is riding along with this one.
Yesterday, in between the bath, watching the morning gallop, and overseeing the rest of the routine at Barn 37, McCarthy had an endless stream of visitors trying to get his attention: nurses at a local hospital who work with a woman who says McCarthy's biology classes got her interested in nursing; a Baptist pastor who mentioned a man from his congregation who used to teach with McCarthy; a woman who is a friend of a friend that McCarthy seemed to remember; a younger guy who claimed his first horse from McCarthy.
This Is Your Life . . .
McCarthy looked a little worn but acquiesced to every photo request, handed out General Quarters buttons outside the barn, and told everybody he was having the time of his life. His horse was 20-1 in the morning line.
Backstretch rumors have it that McCarthy has been offered $2 million for the horse and more recently $3 million for half the horse. His response: "How do you sell a dream?"
His tale alone is priceless. The Louisville Courier-Journal unearthed this gem, on how McCarthy's grandfather came to America from County Cork, Ireland, on a boat with five horses to deliver to a man in New York. When the 18-year-old missed his boat back to Ireland, he went back to where he'd left the horses, the old Jamaica Racetrack in Queens. Irish grooms hid him in a hayloft until an exercise rider didn't show up. McCarthy's grandfather got the job and a new life.
McCarthy's father and uncle trained horses at Narragansett and other East Coast racetracks.
"The Depression came along and I think they both got out of it," McCarthy said yesterday.
He grew up mostly in Arizona, learned to gallop horses there, and came to Kentucky for college, and because he wanted to train horses and figured the home of the Kentucky Derby was the place to do it. He began teaching, he said, because there was no winter racing then and he had young children. He retired from his job as a principal in 1990, but even before then, he would get to the track when it opened for training, work his horses, and then get to school. He never had more than five or six horses at a time.
McCarthy's sons took time off from their jobs this week to help, so at least the trainer, owner and groom has a hot-walker other than himself.
"You know, a couple of weeks ago, I couldn't even get anybody to hold the horse while I gave him a bath," McCarthy joked yesterday, happy to help the tale along.