Rene Duplessis groaned.
“I just hurt,” he said.
His complaint had nothing to do with his work as a groom. He started in the early 1970s at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He has worked as a groom for trainer Neil Howard, currently based at Churchill Downs, since the early 1990s.
No, Duplessis' woes had nothing to do with kneeling in a stall or even with the feces that dropped past his face as he dutifully tended to a horse's hind hooves. He hurt because of a virus that caused him to come to his feet and bend over as if to vomit. Even then, his tumbling stomach would not cooperate.
The painful scene would make anyone wonder why Duplessis, 59, would choose such a life, one so minimal that he and co-worker George Salmond, 74, call Barn 25 home.
Neither contemplated attending college. Duplessis, from New Orleans, initially said his parents could not afford to send him to college. Then he reconsidered his answer. “It was a lot on me,” he said. “It wasn't them.”
Salmond began working at a training center in his hometown of Camden, S.C., and dropped out of high school as a junior.
“I leave out of school just like that,” said Salmond. “I never did regret it because what I was doing, I enjoyed. Everything worked out, balanced out even, stuff like that.”
Duplessis' career highlight came when he oversaw Parade Ground, who ran sixth in the Kentucky Derby in 1998. It was a day he will never forget.
“It was awesome. I was just glad to be in it,” he said. “I was proud of him.”
He was prouder still when Parade Ground improved to fourth in the Belmont Stakes, won by Victory Gallop. He was so happy for Juan, who rubbed Victory Gallop and whose last name he never knew, that he hugged Juan when they retrieved their horses.
Salmond will always be proud of the care he provided Mineshaft, the Horse of the Year in 2003. “You got a good exercise rider and a good groom,” he said, “that's what helps make a horse.”
Howard described Salmond's role in Mineshaft's development as “key.”
“He helped make that horse what he was,” the trainer said. “Sure, the horse had talent. But if you don't have a good groom, that horse is not going to perform up to the level that they should.”
For all the book knowledge Duplessis and Salmond lack, they are erudite when it comes to scrutinizing horses.
“Any nick, cut, scrape – the horse is not looking like it's acting just right – they will tell you,” Howard said. “George, especially, is uncanny about that. He can see something a mile away if something is not right with a horse.”
According to the trainer, the two men “pretty much mean everything” to his operation. Howard uses Churchill Downs as his primary base before shifting to Fair Grounds in the winter. In deference to Salmond's age and to keep him employed, he moved to the role of night watchman approximately five years ago. He works from 5 p.m. until 3 a.m., when the silence he enjoys is broken by the arrival of other members of the staff.
“You won't find any more coming around like them,” said Howard.
They are, indeed, throwbacks to an era long gone. They are African-Americans who have witnessed a dramatic shift in the backstretch population to a largely Hispanic workforce.
Duplessis and Salmond seem almost oblivious to the world outside their workplace and cramped living quarters. Their overriding concern revolves around the horses that line both sides of the barn.
“It's in my blood, horses,” Duplessis said. “Every day you learn something new.”
Salmond spoke ungrammatically but eloquently about his relationship with Thoroughbreds. “There is something about a horse and a person,” he said. “You pay close attention to them, and stuff like that, and the horse pay close attention to you.”
Duplessis never considered staying in the tack room and not working through a stomach virus that left him as quickly as it arrived. Salmond is equally dedicated.
“You take pride in all your work, and stuff like that,” Salmond said. “That's the only way to be.”
Duplessis never married. Salmond and his wife, Marilyn, have three children, Roosevelt, Joyce and Marissa. He was not sure of their ages. He spends time with Marilyn once a year, during a one-week vacation. Howard said he attempts to provide a second week of vacation, but it is not always possible with the demands of the stable.
When Salmond was asked if his time away from family is hard, he replied, “No, because you've got to work and stuff like that.”
Howard is grateful for their dedication. “You're in a comfort zone knowing you have people like that,” he said. “It wouldn't be the same coming to work every day if they weren't here.”
If the two men have any complaints, they do not voice them when given every opportunity to do so. Salmond noted that he has the benefit of living rent-free. Duplessis also appreciated the chance to live a few yards from the stalls where he works.
“It's home. It's a roof over your head. It's your blessing,” Duplessis said of the tack room. “You got a roof over your head, that's your blessing.”
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