LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- This is the story of a man whose best days could have been behind him, and of the runner who made sure they weren't. It is a story of long odds and longer hours, of hard work rewarded by the fulfillment of dreams. Most of all it is a story of the bond between horses and humans, and of the way that bond enables both to do great things. This is the story of Tom McCarthy and General Quarters.
On a misty morning two days before the running of the $600,000 Stephen Foster Handicap, a steel-gray runner poked his head out from a weathered stall in Barn 37 at Churchill Downs. He seemed to be looking for someone, and as horses circled the shedrow from another trainer's string, the big thoroughbred pricked his ears and looked off into the distance, waiting.
Before long, a pickup truck pulled into the stable area. Trainer Tom McCarthy, 76, clambered out from behind the wheel. It was 6:30 a.m. in Louisville, Ky., and above the bustling stable area, another sunrise was dawning.
Assistants rode past on stable ponies. Trainers drove from track to barn and back. Exercise riders swung aboard prancing thoroughbreds and hustled out onto the oval. Many were saddling their second and third sets of the morning, some outfits with as many as 30 horses to work. McCarthy only had to worry about one.
The colt relaxed as his trainer entered the stall and began the morning routine. Water buckets were emptied, dirty straw piled into a wheelbarrow. Overnight wraps were removed, poultice washed away.
McCarthy's son, Tom Jr., lent a helping hand as he'd done for years growing up on the family's modest farm. It's a 12-acre parcel near the track that is now surrounded by houses and highways. But thanks to the big gray runner, it doesn't matter that the paddocks are empty or that the farm, home to so many happy memories, is for sale. After decades of dreaming, McCarthy has finally found his big horse -- one who has galloped to earnings of more than $1 million in the past three years.
"It's amazing, you mess around with something long enough and bam! You finally hit it," Tom Jr. said. "A horse like this has always been Dad's dream. He had good horses, but he never had anything like General Quarters."
The trainer was born on Nov. 30, 1933, in Norwich, Conn., grandson of an Irish jockey whose horse-loving roots spread down through generations. Raised on racetracks in New England that have long since vanished into shopping centers and subdivisions, Tom McCarthy spent his early days galloping for his father and uncle. He even did a little time on the quarter horse circuit when he was in high school in the late 1940s, before moving to Kentucky to pursue his college degree.
It was here that he attended his first Kentucky Derby in 1955, never dreaming he'd eventually enter a contender in the race. As the years passed he always had a runner or two, but horses couldn't support a family, and that's where a degree in education came in handy. After marrying wife Pat in 1961 and while raising five kids (Tom, Dierdra, Molly, Tim, and Meg), McCarthy built his career as a teacher and high school principal. On the side, he built a four-bedroom house, constructed the barn from recycled railroad ties, and put up the fences.
Sitting in the dining room of his solid brick home a few days before the Foster, McCarthy reminisced of learning the ropes under old-school horsemen like Joe Puckett and Roscoe Goose -- names unfamiliar to today's generations, but legendary in the early part of the last century.
"Everybody thinks I just started with the horses, but I really started back in the latter part of the '50s," he said. "I had some good teachers and Joe Puckett was probably the best; he was one of the old taskmasters, a perfectionist. I thought he was awful hard on me at the time, but now I realize what valuable lessons I learned -- how to take your time and not get excited with a good horse. Now I like to take my time, and when I finally have a horse ready for a race I want him ready for a race. I want him ready to run."
Over and over again, he prepared thoroughbred runners to do just that, although the most he ever trained at once was a quartet that proved too much to handle on his own. But from 1986 to 2010, even including his recent success, McCarthy had just 15 winners on record with Equibase. Unable to grant full-time attention to the sport, he remained a small-time figure, a long shot to hit the big time.
"The boys used to say, 'Dad, cut your losses!'" Pat McCarthy recalled. "But he just kept on, and I would tell the kids, 'If you want to learn about perseverance, look at your father.' At this time in our lives and at the end of his career, who knew a horse like this would come along? You never know where life will take you, so it's wonderful to see the many turns in the path."
She smiled at her husband, but although McCarthy adores his wife, he did not relish all this talk of himself and his history. Instead, he directed conversation back to the one topic he enjoys the most.
"Let's just stay with the horse, I like to talk about him," he said.
The horse was born in the wee hours of a Tuesday morning in March 2006. It was about three days after his dam, a daughter of Unbridled's Song named Ecology, had been expected to go into labor, so foaling manager Rosendo Aguilar and his brother, Rafael, were keeping a close eye on her.
"My brother, he was night watching," Rosendo recalled. "I guess he was thinking the colt was too big, because he called me about midnight, 'Hey, come help me pull this one out!'"
With the two men grasping his slender forefeet, delicate muzzle tucked neatly in-between, the foal slipped into the world. Seal-black and shiny, he rested in golden straw, nostrils flaring with first breaths of air.
He's a beautiful horse; I can't describe it. I've taken care of him every single day except for two weeks when I shipped him down to Tampa. He understands me and I understand him. Just by doing the same thing the same way every day, and by being very kind to him, I give him a little reward and he's given me everything. I look forward, every morning, to going in and taking care of him. It keeps me going.
"He got up like 25 minutes later and went to nurse right away, and I said to my brother, 'Ah, he's smart, he's a good one,'" Rosendo said.
One of about 20 foals produced annually by Fallbrook Farm in Versailles, Ky., a small but powerful breeding operation owned by construction company CEO Robert David Randal, the colt did not merit much respect from the farm workers. They all talked, as horsemen will, of which yearling would be the racehorse of the group. General Quarters' name never came up.
"I remember him as a yearling," Alex Randal, manager of Fallbrook, said. "We always joked, with him being such a rough, kooky kind of colt, he'd be better suited for a plow than the racetrack."
They had low expectations for the colt heading into the sale as well. In a highly commercialized market where the slightest blemish or tiniest flaw would be inspected and re-inspected on countless occasions, he walked with an obvious defect, paddling his right front leg with an outward-reaching move.
"He's got a funny little walk, that's what held his price down more than anything," said McCarthy, who actually bid on the colt during the sale but dropped out at $16,000. "It's the way he walks and puts that one foot down, but he doesn't gallop that way at all."
General Quarters was purchased by leading Kentucky owners Ken and Sara Ramsay for $20,000 at an auction in which the top yearling sold for $3.7 million. His first trainer was Wesley Ward, a former Eclipse Award-winning jockey now known for his prowess with speedy 2-year-olds. Again, the big gray colt failed to impress. In his first start, on May 30, 2008, Ward encouraged his owners to enter him for a claiming tag because he was "really slow."
It was a fortuitous decision for McCarthy, who had been victim of the claim box in reverse order the previous fall. He'd spent all winter without a runner, and was itching to get back into the game. And although the McCarthys do not put much stock in racing luck -- "the harder you work, the luckier you get," Pat said. The trainer had placed a claim, but so had two others. The three were assigned a number on a pill, the pills were shaken in a bottle, and one was pulled out. McCarthy had a horse again, and it was time to get to work.
"He was pretty well cranked up when I got him," Tom McCarthy said of the 2-year-old General Quarters. "His ankles were warm, so I just took my time with him. We just started galloping; long, slow stuff. He's such a big-bodied horse, and on those little ankles ... we don't breed any more for soundness like we do for speed, you know how that is."
McCarthy felt the colt was ready to run again about five weeks after he got him. He would have run back in another claiming race, but one with suitable conditions did not seem to be available. The Bashford Manor, a Grade 3 event at six furlongs, was.
"I said, 'Well, I'll just take a shot and see what we can do,'" McCarthy said. "And he led right into the stretch and then got very tired, but he wasn't really ready to go that far. He'd won at four and a half furlongs and probably five furlongs would have been his next best distance."
It would take five starts before General Quarters ran his breakout race. In the early part of the 3-year-old season, when many horsemen ship their runners south to begin pursuit of graded-stakes earnings en route to the Kentucky Derby, McCarthy sent him to Tampa Bay Downs. There, the big runner found his stride. Capturing the 8 1/2-furlong Sam F. Davis Stakes in stakes-record time, he punched his ticket to the Derby.
"By that time, I'd begun to see, 'Wow, I have a pretty good horse!'" McCarthy said. "I actually knew a few starts back, in the Inaugural Stakes when he ran second. He was 12th by 23 lengths, 10th by 21, seventh by six and second by one. So he closed like that and I knew what I had."
Next, in the Tampa Bay Derby, the colt got a terrible ride. The jockey ran him right up on the heels of another horse going into the first turn, weaving out and in and in and out. But the fifth-place finish in that race was enough to merit a trip to the Blue Grass Stakes, and that's where General Quarters broke onto the national scene.
"He trained so well up to it, it was hard holding him down," McCarthy said. "He was very, very energetic. I didn't know if it'd be a winning race, but I was confident he could be one, two or three. When he came around the turn and I saw him flying, I said, 'Oh, they're never gonna catch him.'"
And they never did.
When General Quarters won the Blue Grass at odds of 14-1, representing his trainer's one-horse stable and the greatest victory of McCarthy's limited career, the world latched onto the story. Here was something worth rooting for, a classic tale of little-guy-makes-good, of hard work bringing big rewards.
The public began to hear of the retired high school principal and his Derby-bound runner. Old friends and students emerged from the woodwork. Some days, McCarthy would wade through a crowd of well-wishers just to get to the colt's stall. Even now, more than a year later, Churchill still gets requests from people who want to visit the backside and "see the General." Pat, in her silver Cadillac with the bumper sticker "I Love Kentucky-bred General Quarters," receives thumbs-up and enthusiastic waves from random drivers on the highway. And letters still arrive from everywhere -- even overseas -- from racing enthusiasts expressing their love and admiration for the trainer, his horse, and their story.
General Quarters did not win the Derby. Of 19 horses, he finished 10th at Churchill. There, a roughly-run trip over a muddy racetrack saw him battered and checked more than once. The race took its toll, but the trainer didn't immediately realize the complete ramifications.
"When he came out of the race one nostril was completely blocked from a clod of dirt that had come back, and one eye was closing," McCarthy said. "About three days later I felt a little heat in his knee and it turned out he'd chipped it in the race."
They went on to the Preakness, but after the colt encountered trouble again and finished eighth, it became apparent that the chip would require surgery. It took two weeks of stall rest, 30 days of hand walking, and 30 more days of rehabilitation on a machine called a Eurociser before he was ready to resume light training.
"I did it very cautiously," McCarthy said. "At first we just walked under the shedrow. Then we jogged him for a few weeks, and then we got him up to a gallop. He began to get very on-the-muscle, ready to run. You couldn't gallop another horse by him because he'd just pull you over and try to race it. So I finally got him race-ready, probably at 85 percent, in New Orleans."
Coming back from his injury, General Quarters finished second four times -- including in the Louisiana Handicap, the Mineshaft Handicap, and the New Orleans Handicap. Then McCarthy got the inkling to try him on the turf, where the colt will spend the rest of his racing career after this weekend.
"He's a better turf horse, I think, than anything else," McCarthy said.
Five weeks ago, one year from the day of his Derby start, in the May 1 Woodford Reserve on the grass at Churchill, the colt got his -- and his trainer's -- second Grade 1 win.
Their story will take its' next turn on Saturday, when 11 runners head for their posts in the Stephen Foster. Among them are last year's winner, Macho Again, Clark Handicap winner Blame, and New Orleans Handicap winner Battle Plan, who bested General Quarters by just 1 ½ lengths in that race. General Quarters will take them on, and if he succeeds, will become only the second runner in history to take a Grade 1 race over all three surfaces -- synthetics, turf, and dirt. So far, only Lava Man, a fellow former claimer, has accomplished that task. Last year, Einstein made a bid for similar honors in the Foster. He finished third.
"There's nothing on the grass for him," McCarthy said of his reason for running in the dirt race on Saturday. "I could go in an allowance race, but I don't want to go in an allowance race out of a Grade 1. I'd be taking an effort out of him that didn't really count, and I'd rather stay in Grade I races and keep him in better company where he belongs. And the Stephen Foster is going to be an excellent competition."
The steel-gray runner got his final prep for that event when he took a brisk gallop this week around the Churchill oval. McCarthy will brush his coat and wrap his bandages and clip the leadshank to his halter. Then the two will make their walk to the frontside on Saturday, and maybe one step further into the history books. Regardless of the results, they've already taken up residence there.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the Thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.