Glenn Thompson never cared much for formal education and said he quit school in the sixth grade. When it comes to life experience, the masterful job he has done caring for Ellis Park's racetrack for the last 69 years merits an honorary degree from any of the nation's finest universities.
Veteran trainer Larry Jones, three-time winner of the Kentucky Oaks, paid the 83-year-old Thompson the ultimate compliment. “As far as I'm concerned,” he said, “he's the best trackman in the country.”
When the Henderson, Ky., track conducted its live meet three days a week from June 30 through Labor Day, there were no fatalities on the dirt track. Although one horse died on the turf course, Ellis' overall safety record is nearly impossible to match.
Jeff Hall, director of racing operations, views that mark as a testament to Thompson.
“He eats, breathes and sleeps this racetrack,” he said. “He just does a superb job with everything.”
Thompson, who grew up in Reed, Ky., could not be more devoted to his job. “It's been all my life,” he said.
He made many of the tools he uses and possesses almost an innate understanding of what each surface needs. He said of the knowledge he applies as track superintendent, “It didn't come from school. I worked the ground a lot. I farmed a lot.”
His son, Clifton, is a member of his crew. His grandson, Garrett, 19, serves as his assistant. Doris “Heavy” Watson and Joe Hallmark are the other two full-time track maintenance employees.
Garrett all but reveres his grandfather.
“An old saying I've always been told, 'It takes a farmer to be a trackman,' “ Garrett said. “You gotta know how to work the dirt. You gotta know the dirt.”
Management honored Thompson at the close of the summer meet for his long and distinguished service to the second-oldest racetrack in Kentucky after Churchill Downs.
“It means a whole lot to me,” he said of the recognition, “because I'm just an old country boy and I've got no education about this thing.”
He has worked for every owner of Ellis Park since James C. Ellis purchased the property and reopened the track in 1925. It initially opened in 1922, but that owner went bankrupt after one season. Ellis Park has endured despite the devastating Ohio River flood of 1937, arson in the 1960's and a tornado in 2005 that brought down the terrace grandstand, destroyed nine barns and left three horses dead.
Thompson's longevity and his success stem from a relentless work ethic. When heavy rain comes, he stays up all night to work on the track. When the surface is dry, he waters it in the evening. It is always harrowed well before dawn. During racing season, he constantly talks to trainers and jockeys about what else can be done. He routinely works seven-day weeks. He is permitted to take two weeks for vacation, time he never takes.
His schedule is never his own. “It's according to what the weather lets you do,” he said.
The surface has much to do with attracting accomplished trainers such as Jones, Steve Asmussen and Dale Romans to Ellis Park. Romans' rising star Dennis' Moment, a top contender for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, broke his maiden by 19 lengths at Ellis Park on July 27.
“Trainers just rave about the training they can do here, especially with their 2-year-olds,” Hall said. He described the track as “very kind, very forgiving.”
Jones still gallops some of his own horses. He operates out of Churchill Downs and Ellis Park during the summer. “I take my very best horses to Ellis Park for them to train on that track,” he said. “By the time they are at Ellis for a week to 10 days, you can already tell it's a lot better.”
Thompson rarely takes a day off. He does not allow himself or his crew to rest until everything is as good as man can make it.
“It don't matter how long it takes to get the job done,” Garrett said, “as long as the job gets done and done right so the next morning, when the horses train, we'll have a safe surface for them to train on. To my family, that's everything.”
Garrett added, “The way we look at the racetrack is, 'Would I want my horse to go over that surface?' “
Garrett has partnered with his father and grandfather to raise and own a gray 2-year-old filly, More Approval, an Indiana-bred set to debut soon at Indiana Grand. They have typically owned at least one horse through the years. They know the anguish associated with losing one to a catastrophic injury.
“I've been around horses all my life,” the eldest Thompson said. “You just learn to love them.”
Thompson's wife of 58 years, Margaret, died in January, 2015. Although Garrett admits his grandfather has some hearing loss and is slowing down somewhat, there is no talk of retirement.
“I get up and I feel pretty good. As long as they want me, I'll probably be here,” Thompson said. “I'd just as soon die here as somewhere else.”
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