As a boy, Gene Carter’s school bus took him from Maddoxtown in northern Fayette County to the segregated Douglass School on Price Road. He’d pass acres of tobacco and corn, just like his father grew, and the storied horse farms where he could see boys his age exercising Thoroughbreds along the fence lines.
“That’s what I want to do,” he decided, and he would practice on his mother’s kitchen chairs, imitating the bent legs and crouched backs of the boys he saw. By the time he was 15, he’d broken three or four chairs, Carter said, and his mother was so mad that she didn’t even mind when he told her he was leaving school to learn to ride.
It was 1941 when he made his way to the nearby farm where trainer Cy White broke and conditioned racehorses for the Ogden Phipps stables in New York.
“I would go up there and watch these boys ride,” Carter said earlier this month, just two weeks after his 90th birthday. “I said, ‘Mr. White, you mind if I ride a horse?’ and he said, ‘Gene, you ever been on a horse?’ And I said, ‘No, but I’m not afraid of them.’”
White’s farm manager was a deacon at Maddoxtown Baptist, where Carter and his family went to church every Sunday, and he vouched for Carter as a “church boy, from a good family.” A late exercise rider gave Carter his chance one morning. Suddenly, there he was, sitting on the back of a horse just as he’d always practiced. Although horses were not like chairs, riding horses came easily to him; he could read them from the flicks of their ears and the feel of their mouths on the bit.
“The man said I was a natural: ‘He’s got a hell of a seat, that’s boy’s a natural, he’s going to be OK,’” Carter said.
Carter was a natural, all of 5 foot 3, a lithe exercise rider who could quiet the most high-strung of a nervous breed. He traveled from stables to racetracks from Lexington to Hot Springs, Ark., to Aiken, S.C., riding and handling horses on the backside of tracks all over the country.
If he’d been born a century earlier, Carter’s talent probably would have taken him off the backside and into the winners’ circles dominated by black jockeys. Jockeys Oliver Lewis, Isaac Murphy and Jimmy Winkfield won the nation’s top races; 13 of the 15 jockeys in the first Kentucky Derby were black, and they rode 15 of the first 28 Derby winners. By the 1880s, black jockeys, owners and trainers were gone. By the time Carter started riding, racing and everything else was gripped by legal segregation, and black men were confined to their roles as grooms and exercise riders.
Carter said he couldn’t stay away from horses if he tried, and he did try, retiring from Saxony Farm in 2002. But after his wife died in 2003, he couldn’t stand sitting around the house, so he started at the Kentucky Horse Park’s Hall of Champions, where retired champions live on display for tourists. Today, he’s there full-time, working with former champions including Da Hoss and Funny Cide, who, like him, left their best days behind them. His favorite today is Da Hoss, two-time winner of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, who hears Carter unwrap a peppermint, and comes ambling over every morning.
“I never really seen a horse I couldn’t get on with,” Carter said.
Carter learned some of his horsecraft at the feet of a legend: Will Harbut, the groom of Man o’ War, long considered one of the greatest racehorses that ever lived. After Man o’ War retired to stud at Faraway Farm, near Maddoxtown, Harbut’s intense bond with temperamental “Big Red” landed him on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post; after Harbut’s death, Man o’ War stopped eating and died a month later.
Carter used to walk over to Faraway and watch Harbut, although he had an ulterior motive — Harbut’s daughter, Lillian, whom Carter knew from school.
“I went down and talked to Mr. Harbut to get on his good side so I could talk to his daughter!” Carter said. “I would go down there and listen to him talk to these horses — he was in charge of five stallions, Man o’ War, War Admiral, War Relic, Crusader and American Flag. When people would come, he would always show Man o’ War last.
“He always talked to Man o ’War like he was talking to a person,” Carter said. “He’d say to him, ‘Step over, Red.’ He’d take three steps and stand there, wait until Mr. Harbut was done. That’s why he’s got this horse like a pony, he’s always talking to him.”
Do I want to get on the greatest horse of all time? Heck yeah, I want to get on him.
Gene Carter, who once sat on Man o’ War
One day, Harbut asked Carter if he wanted to sit on Man o’ War.
“Do I want to get on the greatest horse of all time?” Carter said incredulously. “Heck yeah, I want to get on him. Mr. Harbut said, ‘Come around here Genesie’ — he called me Genesie — ‘hand me your foot.’ He boosted me up, he said ‘Sit down.’ I sat down. ‘Pat him on the neck.’ I patted him on the neck. ‘Okey, now get down.’ I got down. I was on him a hot second! But I’m going to tell you, the people who knew Man o’ War, I’m the only one still alive!”
Carter got to sit on the horse, and he got to marry the girl. He and Lillian Harbut were married for 56 years and had eight children. And his time on Man o’ War might have been fleeting, Carter said, but his father-in-law taught him how to “be” around even the most high-strung horses.
“I took that cue from him,” Carter said. “I would get the horses who were fools and would run off; I’m the one who had to get on them. I started my new language; I would talk backwards to them. All they hear is ‘git up,’ and ‘whoa,’ so I would talk to them all the time. You’re up on a horse, you notice his ears, he wants to know what you’re trying to say to him. People would ask, ‘Gene, how do you get those horses to behave?’ I’d say, ‘I don’t know,’ but I never told them my secret. I talked to them all the time.”
Master class in horse handling
Carter had another gift, a virtual stopwatch in his head. Working for many years for trainer Doug Davis of High Hope Farm, Carter conditioned one of his horses, Annihilate ’Em, for the 1973 Travers Stakes at Saratoga. At one workout, Davis told Carter, who wasn’t wearing a watch, to take the horse a mile at a pace between 1:40 and 1:41. He was clocked at exactly 1:40.5.
“I had plenty of horse the whole way,” Carter said. “I just felt the horses and had a feeling about the time.”
Carter led Annihilate ’Em to the post, but the jockey was Ron Turcotte, Secretariat’s jockey. Secretariat was resting after losing one of his only races, the Whitney Stakes. Annihilate ’Em won.
All they hear is ‘git up,’ and ‘whoa,’ so I would talk to them all the time. You’re up on a horse, you notice his ears, he wants to know what you’re trying to say to him.
Gene Carter on how he got difficult horses to relax
Many years before, Carter had a shot to become a jockey himself. A trainer named William Douglas had pledged to take him up North and help him get a jockey’s license. But the week before they were due to leave, Douglas dropped dead of a heart attack. “That was it,” Carter says.
He did win a flat race — a race with no jumps — in April 1967 in the second running of the High Hope Steeplechase, where he then worked for High Hope’s Davis. Although Carter had spent the morning exercising horses at Churchill Downs, Davis told him to go back to the farm and get on a horse named Royal Matter. He won, and that was that, said his daughter, Vivian Carter Talbert. His family had come to pick him up from work, not knowing he’d be riding in a race.
“Segregation was going on, so we couldn’t sit in the stands; we sat near some bushes,” she said. “There’s Daddy right there, he came out in his silks, and he won, but he didn’t get a trophy or a cup or any recognition.”
Carter’s story has always paled in the shadow of Harbut, Vivian Carter said. (When Man o’ War’s remains were moved to the Kentucky Horse Park in 1976, officials asked if Harbut’s family would like him moved to rest with his favorite horse. The family declined, opting to leave him at Maddoxtown Baptist Church.)
“I never even knew he had a chance to become a jockey,” said Carter’s son, Tony. “I didn’t know how good he was, but now people will tell me he was the best exercise rider they ever saw.”
He had a way of dealing with difficult horses that completely relaxed around him. That man has forgotten more about a horse than I would ever know. He’s a phenomenal person.
Broussard Hundley, owner of Saxony Farm, where Carter worked for 25 years
After Doug Davis died in 1976, Carter moved to Saxony Farm, where he broke yearlings and handled sales horses for owner Bruce Hundley for the next 25 years. Hundley’s son, Broussard, who now runs the farm, grew up learning about horses from Carter.
“I learned so much from him and didn’t even realize it,” Hundley said recently. “How you present yourself to a horse, how you read horses. ... You had to watch him to figure out what to do. He had a way of dealing with difficult horses that completely relaxed around him. That man has forgotten more about a horse than I would ever know. He’s a phenomenal person.”
Carter took Saxony’s yearlings to the sales ring, including two that sold for more than $7 million. “I had $7 million in my hands and never saw a cent,” Carter joked.
A few weeks ago, his eight children, 15 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren gathered at Malone’s with a bugler from Keeneland to usher in Carter’s 90th birthday. They had a set of silks made up, in Carter’s favorite colors ——blue, black and silver ——“for the jockey he was never able to be,” Vivian said.
Carter is quiet around the house he now shares with Vivian on Johnson Avenue in downtown Lexington. “If it’s not about horses, you won’t hear a word out of him,” his daughter said.
He watches TVG, the racing channel, but he doesn’t have much use for sport or jumping horses. Strangely enough, his all-time favorite at the Horse Park was not a Thoroughbred, but a champion saddlebred named CH Gypsy Supreme, a sensitive chestnut who died in 2010. “He would nicker at me every morning at 11 a.m. to go for his grazing,” Carter said. “You could look at your watch, and it was always exactly 11 a.m. I couldn’t sleep for two weeks after he died.”
Robin Bush, a supervisor at the Hall of Champions, said all the horses are relaxed around Carter as he grooms them, grazes them and leads them out in front of large crowds of tourists for the Hall of Champions presentation.
“He talks to them in a very unique, sweet way, and they really respond to him,” she said.
His co-worker, Paul Caywood, said being around Carter is like “getting a master class” in how to handle horses. “He can take our most difficult horses and make them calm.”
Carter moves deftly around the horses with the energy of a much younger man. His longevity and good health, Carter said, is due to getting out of the house. He works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. every day but Wednesday and Sunday, because he goes to Maddoxtown Baptist Church. He plans to stay on that schedule as long as he can.
“Horses have been my life,” he said. “As long as I’ve got breath, I’ll be coming out here to be with them.”