Of course it all started as a love story.
Until 1940, the Maddoxtown Colored School just north of Lexington, Ky., served a small community of a few dozen families off Huffman Mill Pike. As many as 100 people lived in the predominantly black neighborhood of Maddoxtown in the early 1900s, but over the decades, many people moved into the city, and there were no longer enough children to support the school house. The building went up for auction, and Eugene Carter's father saw an opportunity to buy a good house for a good price. Carter won the auction and moved his family, including his 15-year-old son, Eugene. That year, the children of Maddoxtown began riding a bus to school for the first time.
Every morning, Gene found himself sitting next to a pretty girl about his age who was also his next-door neighbor. They were both too shy to speak to one another, so they smiled nervously back and forth as teenagers do.
After three weeks of this, Carter got up the nerve to ask Lillian Harbut (“Lill” as he called her) to go on a date. At first, he recalls, she was stunned to hear him speak.
“She said, 'I don't know, Gene. I see you at church all the time. I know you. But you've got to ask my dad, and he's real strict. He's got 13 kids, 10 boys and 3 girls. I don't think he wants another boy in the family,'” he recalled.
Carter decided his best bet was to demonstrate his trustworthiness to her father, Will Harbut, so early on Saturday mornings he would make the 1 ½ mile walk to Faraway Farm, where he knew Harbut would be tending to the great red legend Man o' War. Carter had already found work breaking yearlings at nearby Elsmeade Farm – a job he got through sheer persistence, hanging around each morning until an established rider was late getting to work.
In the stallion barn at Faraway, Carter watched Harbut shine “the horse that could outrun the wind.” He'd watch him speak to the visitors who came from thousands of miles away to stare at Man o' War, and he'd see that it was Harbut who would ultimately spell-bind them with tales of the stallion's legacy, still in the making. Harbut would be featured on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post alongside Big Red a few months after Carter and Lill began riding the bus together.
One of the things Carter noticed was that Will Harbut was always talking, even when there were no other people around but the pair of them. He talked to Red, but not in a way Carter had ever heard a groom speak to a horse. Harbut spoke to Red as if the horse could understand English, and it seemed to Carter as though he certainly understood something. When Man o' War dropped manure in the stall, Harbut would tell him about the extra work this created and ask the horse to move over so he could clean it up. The stallion would count off one, two, three steps sideways each time and wait for Harbut to come in with a fork.
“He was talking to him like he was a person. I couldn't understand that,” Carter said. “I rode horses on the racetrack every day, but I didn't see people get horses to do things just by talking to them. And Man o' War was a stallion; he wasn't some ordinary horse.”
Harbut's relationship with Big Red was legendary, and Carter said it lives up to the storybook hype. The massive Thoroughbred, who Carter remembers weighing 1,250 pounds, was as gentle as an old pony in Harbut's hands.
“They said he was chestnut, but when the sun shone on him, he looked like he was gold. The light would come right back off of him. If you stood there looking at him, he almost took your breath away. You'd go to walk away and you'd have to turn around and look at him again. You couldn't believe what you were seeing – a horse, looking like that,” said Carter. “Will Harbut, he was a gifted man to handle a horse. Man o' War was an unruly horse. He was by Fair Play, and all of them, especially the colts were high-strung, full of energy, even going to the post in the race. That's what Man o' War was, until Will Harbut got over to him,” said Carter.
One day when no one was around, Harbut turned to Carter, who he knew had galloped horses on the farm, and asked if he wanted to get on the most famous Thoroughbred in the world. Carter leapt at the opportunity, and Harbut gave him a leg up, right there in the stall.
“He said, 'Gensie, how does it feel to be on the mostest horse in the world?'” Carter remembered. “I said, 'Mr. Harbut to tell you the truth, I don't have words to express what I'm feeling. Words have left me. I'm just so thrilled. I've never been on a horse like Man o' War.'
“He said, 'Gensie, you take this to your grave. Ain't but three people been on this horse – the exercise boy, the jock that rides him in the race, and Gene Carter.'
“I said, 'I'll be darned.' I looked around and I said, 'Well where are the rest of the boys at who used to get on him?' and he said, 'Oh, they're all dead.'”
Carter did a double take from up on the red horse, wondering whether the stallion had helped put them in their graves.
No surprise then, that the boy Harbut liked enough to let him sit atop Man o' War had earned his way into Harbut's trust. He gave Gene and Lill permission to begin dating and later, to get married. They were together for more than five decades.
Meanwhile, Carter's career as an exercise rider was taking off. He hadn't sat on a horse until he was in his teens, though he had practiced galloping by riding and breaking kitchen chairs at such an alarming rate he said his mother was relieved when he announced he would quit school to ride full-time. Cy White, who conditioned horses for the Ogden Phipps stable, had first given Carter a chance in the stirrups and was one in a line of trainers who would sing the praises of Carter as a natural horseman. At five foot three, Carter was the right size for the job. He had an excellent sense of balance and rarely fell off a horse. He had a stopwatch in his head, and he also had a secret weapon, one he learned from Harbut: He talked to horses and he knew how to tell if they were listening.
“I wanted to prove to the other exercise boys there wasn't a horse I wouldn't get on,” said Carter, who became known as “The Test Pilot.” “I thought if Will Harbut can talk to a stallion and make him behave, maybe I can talk to a young horse and make them behave. What I did, I made up my own language. I'd talk backwards to them. All horses hear is 'Git up' and 'Whoa.' I'd say something they'd never heard before. I'd say, 'What for you actin like that? You better watch yourself before you be by yourself. Stand tall and be proud, horse.' And the ears, they'd start flicking. They'd put their head down, I'd put my cross on, and go on to the track.”
People asked him what his secret was and as long as he worked, Carter never told them. He let it stay between him, the horse, and the wind whipping by their ears.
Carter worked more than 15 years for Doug Davis of High Hope Farm, until his death (Carter was a pallbearer at Davis's funeral) and another 25 years prepping sale horses and handling stallions for Bruce Hundley at Saxony Farm. If Carter faced one disappointment during his career, it's that he spent so much of it as an exercise rider rather than a jockey. In the 1950s and 1960s, the era of Isaac Murphy, Oliver Lewis and Jimmy Winkfield was over. African Americans had been on the backs and by the sides of the nation's most famous horses, but in the era of segregation most states wouldn't license them as jockeys any longer.
“They didn't want black people to have that much money in those days. Keep us poor, keep us working,” he said.
Trainer William Douglas had at one point vowed to get him licensed as a jockey in the Northeast but suffered a heart attack the week before the pair were due to travel. Carter did get one shot at race riding, though – Davis came by the barn after training hours at Churchill Downs one day while Carter was cleaning his tack, still soaked to the skin and covered in mud from morning gallops, and informed him he would be riding in the High Hope charity race that afternoon. If anything, Carter was initially annoyed by the extra chore – here, he knew he'd be facing a field of white jockeys who would not be happy to see him, and he'd be the least experienced of the group.
When he got to the walk-up start, Carter sized up the situation. He was aboard Royal Matter, a horse he knew well from morning works, and he knew the horse had endless class. Davis told him to hang back and put in a closing effort, but Carter was certain the other riders would box him in and never give him a chance to run.
“I said, when they drop that flag, I'm going to be long gone,” Carter recalled. “I hollered like a panther. That horse jumped straight out in the air and went straight to the front.
“That was my highlight – Royal Matter.”
And, with Lill and his children in the audience – though not permitted in the stands – he won handily.
Carter retired from Saxony Farm, where he had been grooming and showing yearlings, in 2002. The next year, after 56 years of marriage and eight children, Lillian died of cancer.
It was the epilogue to his love story that brought him back to horses: Carter could feel himself aging every day he sat in the quiet house alone. He had to get out. That's when he learned about an open job at the Kentucky Horse Park's Hall of Champions, caring for retired racehorses on display to Park visitors. After managers there heard his resume, they told him he'd be a shoo-in for the job.
Carter still has his easy way about horses. He brings them out proudly, calmly, solemnly – Point Given, Funny Cide, Go For Gin, Da Hoss – all are supple and easy in his hands as Hall of Champions workers describe for crowds of tourists their many accomplishments. He almost disappears next to a horse, strategically setting them up to the best angles for visitors to get pictures on their smartphones, then staying out of their way unless he decides they need a peppermint for good behavior.
He also remains a master at reading a horse. His favorite Hall of Champions resident to date was CH Gypsy Supreme, an American Saddlebred who was his assignment for many years. At 11:00 on the dot each morning, Gypsy whinnied for Carter to take him for his daily walk around the Park.
“My name is Gene. When he'd nicker, it sounds like he's saying, 'Gene, Geeene!'” Carter said. “There's a spot up on the hill where there was a big patch of white clover. He knew where that spot was. He'd be pulling on the shank till we got to that spot. After we got to that spot, he'd drop his head.”
At 11:30 on the dot, Gypsy would raise his head and tell Carter he was ready to go inside. Carter was by his side every day, including his last day in 2010 when he succumbed to complications from laminitis. As Carter walked away from the barn, wiping his eyes, Gypsy's rider Emily Hess came running out of the barn, holding the last halter the big chestnut had worn. She gave it to Carter in recognition of his devoted friendship. The halter still hangs in Carter's house, where he sees it every day. Every two weeks, he takes out his tack soap and gives it a shine.
Carter recently celebrated his 93rd birthday at the Park, and Hall of Champions manager Robert Willis says he's the hardest working member of the staff.
“Do not think in any way, shape or form that Gene works any differently than anybody else,” said Willis. “Forty hours a week from April to November. I promise you, he's the hardest worker in the barn. If I have a problem with a horse, he's the one I get. Gene's as good as I've ever seen.”
A few birthdays ago, Carter didn't imagine he'd still be here, grooming horses every day, leaning down to paint their feet, and picking stalls. But he says, by the grace of God, he rises each day with no alarm clock. You don't need one when you're as excited as he is to spend another day in a barn.
“People ask what my secret is. I don't have a secret,” he said. “I wake up, he wakes me up [Carter nods heavenward as he says this] and I put my foot on the floor and look up and thank him. Then I get out of the house and find something to do.”
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