In The Ghost Horse, Joe Layden tells the inspiring true tale of a one-eyed, club-footed thoroughbred racehorse and a journeyman trainer, Tim Snyder, who scraped together every penny he had to purchase the broken and unwanted filly. Snyder helped the horse overcome its deficiencies, eventually naming her in part after his deceased wife, Lisa, the great and only love of his life―a bright and sweet-tempered woman whose gentle demeanor seemed eerily reflected in the horse. The trainer (and now owner) was by nature a crusty and combative sort, the yin to his wife's yang, a racetrack lifer not easily moved by new-age mysticism or sentiment. And yet in those final days back in 2003, when Lisa Snyder lay in bed, her body ravaged by cancer, she reassured her family with a weak smile. "It's okay," she'd say. "I'll see you again. I'm coming back as a horse."
Tim Snyder did not then believe in reincarnation. But he acknowledged the strangeness of this journey, the series of coincidences that brought them together, and the undeniable similarities between the horse and his late wife. And so did those who knew the couple well, and who could now only marvel at the story of the filly, Lisa's Booby Trap, and the down-on-his-luck trainer who apparently had been given a new lease on life.
The Ghost Horse is a powerful horseracing story of underdogs and second chances.
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JOE LAYDEN is a multiple New York Times bestselling author and an award-winning journalist whose work has been honored by the New York Newspaper Publishers Association, the National Associated Press Sports Editors, the New York State Associated Press Association, and the International Reading Association/Children's Book Council. Mr. Layden has written or co-written more than thirty books for adults and children.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Restlessness gets in your blood.
Whether by genetics or circumstance, the tug of the open road, the need to keep moving and changing, fighting the urge to settle down—to avoid getting close enough to anyone who might encourage roots to sprout—is felt more strongly by some than by others. In the case of Tim Snyder, it could certainly be argued that the odd romance of the racetrack life, as weird and nomadic as the circus it sometimes mirrors, was imprinted on his DNA, and reinforced at every step thereafter.
His grandfather, Earl Snyder, had been a reasonable man living a reasonable life in the rural hamlet of Duanesburg, New York, not far from Schenectady. The family had a small, working farm that required the combined efforts of parents and children to keep it viable. One day, though, as family lore has it, Earl took everyone to the racetrack and quickly became enamored of the life. In fairly short order he had sold off the farm, the livestock, and the equipment to tend them, and used the proceeds to purchase a single thoroughbred racehorse. Bitten badly by the bug, he moved the family to Belmont, New York, and embarked on a spectacularly dreamy and ambitious (if unfocused) midlife career change, one made even more complicated by the fact that it occurred in the thick of the Great Depression: he would be a horse trainer.
“My grandfather fell in love with horses,” Tim Snyder said. “He couldn’t help himself. And six months after they got to Belmont, his son—my dad—became a rider. A pretty good one, too. He was only fifteen years old at the time—same age I was when I started. But back in those days, I guess no one really cared how old you were—not even at a big track like Belmont. Long as you could get on a horse and hold him straight, you could ride.”
Warren Snyder was a natural, small and lean, with firm but gentle hands, and an easy rapport with animals. Something else, too. He had a quiet confidence, the kind all jockeys have to some extent—after all, you need a sturdy sack in order to sit atop one thousand pounds of heaving horseflesh as it roars along the backstretch, in heavy traffic, at speeds of up to forty miles an hour. Not everyone is cut out for that sort of work. Very few people, in fact. But Warren Snyder was one of them, a gifted and aggressive youngster who didn’t mind guiding his mount through cracks too narrow for sane or safe passage.
It’s a truism around the racetrack that there are only two types of jockeys: those who have crashed, and those who are going to crash. It’s also a truism that a jockey is never quite the same after he graduates from the first camp into the second. The ability to harness fear is a skill whose importance cannot be overstated. The “bug boy” (an apprentice jockey often still in his teens) rides with sometimes reckless abandon and a seeming weightlessness that is prized by trainers and owners and bettors, his mistakes and inexperience a fair trade-off in a world that covets speed and rewards risk, both at the window and on the dirt.
For a while, at least.
There is no shortage of stories about apprentices who lost the weight allowance that comes with the designation and soon thereafter lost their mojo, and then, naturally, the support of previously loyal and supportive handlers. Fear creeps into the equation, as well, fueled by failure or a stumble and the first chaotic, terrifying brush with mortality.
In short, for the rider, horse racing is easy. Until it’s not. And then it becomes damn near impossible. A career that in its nascence seemed limitless suddenly becomes grounded in practicality and survival. Forget the Triple Crown; just get me a ride at Rockingham, preferably on a nag that won’t start coughing up blood at the sixteenth pole or snap a tendon while I’m trying to squeeze by on the rail.
A jockey’s career, like anyone else’s, ebbs and flows over time, for any number of reasons. But the trajectory tends to be parabolic, and once the descent begins it’s hard to slow it down. At the height of his career, Warren Snyder was a semi-regular in the racetrack equivalent of the major leagues, at places like Belmont and Aqueduct, where the horses generally are sound, the purses substantial, and the potential for fame and fortune tantalizingly real. Tim has photos of his dad, youthful and fit, sitting proudly atop his mount in the winner’s circle at Belmont, hordes of racetrack fans in the background, reminders of a time when life held infinite promise and horse racing ruled in the hearts and minds of American sports fans.
For whatever reason, Warren Snyder soon found himself in the minors, bouncing from track to track all along the Eastern Seaboard, but primarily at the hardscrabble tracks of New England—places like Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Suffolk Downs near Boston, and Scarborough Downs in Maine. He rode regularly and with varying degrees of success or failure for more than three decades, eking out a living any way he could. When his body protested the starvation and other reducing methods imposed upon it, and he became too big to secure mounts, he’d do what any seasoned horseman would do: he’d pick up a few bucks as a hotwalker or groom. Anything to pay the bills and support the family.
Sometimes, though, he’d piss away the paycheck on booze or betting, and it wasn’t long before promise and potential gave way to resignation.
“When people think of horse racing they tend to think of the glamour and the high level of racing at places like the Kentucky Derby,” said Cheryl Hall, Tim Snyder’s older sister. “But it’s not like that for most people. It wasn’t like that for Timmy and it wasn’t like that for my father. But I want to make one thing clear: in neither case was it because of a lack of talent. It was because of the drinking. It’s funny—Timmy and my father had so many issues with each other, and yet they were so much alike. They were both true horsemen who could have made different lives for themselves if alcohol had not been involved. Drinking changes people; it makes them unreliable. It causes a myriad of problems.”
Added Tim Snyder: “My father was a well-known rider in some circles, but in the end, he was just a waste of talent, mainly because of the drinking. That’s harsh, but it’s the truth. I don’t know … maybe he had reason to drink. He lost his family, his livelihood, everything, really. By the end he was broken in half. His life story was a story in itself.”
Warren and Virginia Snyder were, by necessity, an itinerant couple, roaming from one track to another, and one town to another, occasionally expanding on the family in ways almost too weird for words. Cheryl, born in 1949, was the oldest. She slipped into the world slightly ahead of schedule, as her parents were driving to Oaklawn Park Racetrack in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The couple stopped at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, just long enough for Cheryl to be delivered safely. The newborn girl spent her first night on Earth sleeping in the bottom drawer of a hotel dresser that had been rigged to serve as a crib.
Six years later Timmy came along, dropping into the crowd at Scarborough Downs with all the urgency of a gambler trying to get a bet down in the waning seconds before post time. His mother was jostling with folks on the escalator at the time, rushing to join her husband in the winner’s circle after he’d finished first in the last race of the day. She never made it, though, instead taking a detour to the first-aid room, where she gave birth to her oldest son. There would be two more children, Eddie and Danny, before Virginia Snyder called it quits. If the children had a sometimes chaotic upbringing, it was not without its charms.
“We grew up in the backseat of our cars,” Cheryl said wistfully. “I can remember sitting there at night, looking out the windows, staring at the stars. We never really settled down.”
What is normal, anyway? Tim Snyder never knew anything but the racetrack life, which was by definition an erratic, unpredictable existence. Through the eyes of an eight-year-old, though, it wasn’t so bad. The places they lived—Old Orchard Beach, Maine; Salem, New Hampshire—were veritable playgrounds for a little boy, especially in the sultry summer months, at the height of the tourist season. In the winter time they’d pack up the station wagon and head south to Florida or Arkansas. Uprooting had its downside, of course—the kids were always changing schools, trying to make new friends, leaving old ones behind—but they leaned on each other in times of transition, or when things got ugly between their parents, which was not infrequent as the years went on and money got tight and Warren’s drinking escalated.
It’s strange the way things can sour. For a while Warren Snyder was a hot rider on the New England circuit, and though that didn’t exactly make him Willie Shoemaker, it did carry with it a degree of notoriety that wasn’t unappealing. But when things went bad, they went really bad.
“My dad would go anywhere to ride a horse,” Tim recalled. “Maybe that’s part of the reason him and Mom stopped getting along—because he traveled so much. That and the drinking, of course. In Florida he didn’t just ride at the big tracks, he’d ride for the Seminoles on the reservation. Half the time they couldn’t find my father because he was off living with the natives. He was a strange guy—didn’t eat much because he’d get too big to ride, and so he’d drink a lot, maybe to fill his stomach, maybe to ease the pain. I don’t know.”
For most jockeys weight eventually becomes an issue, if not an outright obstacle. With age comes a slower metabolism, a loss of testosterone, and a natural thickening of the body. Bone and sinew give way to fat; injuries are slower to heal and result in diminished activity. An apprentice can eat almost anything, his body a veritable furnace of adolescent energy. The adult jock, though, must watch his weight and keep a careful accounting of his caloric intake, lest he find himself losing mounts because of excess poundage. With impending middle age, many riders find themselves facing a losing battle.
Knowing nothing else, and wanting only to hang onto the racing life, they fight anyway, using every weapon in the time-honored arsenal of reduction to keep their careers going. They do roadwork in rubber suits; they spend hours in the sauna; they gulp laxatives and amphetamines and coffee; they snort cocaine. Anything to curb their raging appetites. Sometimes they eat and retreat quickly to the toilet, where they heave their dinner before it has a chance to digest—a practice known in the business as “flipping.” So accepted is this practice that some jockeys’ quarters have a special stall designed specifically for this purpose.
Messing with the body’s normal rhythm in this way has predictably nasty consequences, some physiological (tooth decay, heart arrhythmia), some psychological. You try going years without a decent meal and see what it does to your temperament.
“My father was always reducing, always starving himself, and that made him nuts sometimes,” Tim said. “When he did eat, most of the time it was stuff he went out and found on his own. He’d spend hours hunting—pheasant and quail … almost anything. And then he’d cook it and eat it. Or part of it, anyway. Funny thing, though: he loved animals. My dad wrecked more cars than I can count just trying to avoid running over a squirrel on the highway. ’Course he was drunk most of the time, so I guess that didn’t help matters any.”
Tim got behind the wheel of an automobile for the first time when he was barely in his teens, not because he was particularly adventurous or mischievous, but simply because the old man occasionally required someone to drive him around after he got loaded. You grow up fast in a dysfunctional family, and the Snyders were hardly the Brady Bunch. As the brood expanded, Warren became more inclined to travel on his own, whether for reasons of practicality, or merely because he craved isolation. Regardless, the separation was better for all involved.
“Dad was there sometimes … sometimes not,” remembered Cheryl Hall. “When he was there, it was a very strict environment. My mother had too many children for my father’s tastes, so it was uncomfortable when he was home. And he drank, which made things pretty volatile. So when he was gone, it was almost like a vacation. We did our thing, just me and my mom and my brothers, and everything was pretty good. She was a good mother—or tried to be, anyway—and it was quieter around the house. It was a generally healthy environment.”
When Warren would return, though, tranquility gave way to turbulence.
“Mom was four-foot-eleven, and Dad was five foot,” Tim said with a laugh. “And they would go at it like a couple of prizefighters, whipping on each other like you wouldn’t believe.”
Cheryl recalls the fighting with a bit less whimsy (she was older, after all), and the combatants far less evenly matched or inspired. It was Warren who was usually the aggressor, the instigator, she said, and Virginia typically acted in self-defense. Both siblings, though, clearly recall an incident in which the fight spilled out of the house and into the driveway, with each parent screaming and flailing away, until Virginia finally got behind the wheel of one of the family’s cars and began ramming it into the two other vehicles that sat in the backyard. Backing up, rushing forward, spitting dirt and debris and then crashing into the side of the car, creating a veritable demolition derby in the neighborhood.
Such outbursts, though, were rare for Virginia. She was more passive, more inclined to bottle things up until she couldn’t hold the rage any longer. Repeatedly she threatened her husband: “Keep this up, and someday you’re going to come home to an empty house.”
Eventually, she would make good on the promise.
* * *
There was an accident.
It was one of many Warren Snyder endured during his career. Tim does not recall exactly when it happened. He was nine or ten years old at the time, and the family was living in Maine. Warren went off one morning to race at Scarborough Downs, as he had so many times before, only this time he didn’t come back. Instead he wound up in the hospital. Warren had been riding near the front of the field when his mount buckled beneath him. Every rider fears being thrown from a horse; what they really fear, though—even more than death—is the prospect of a life-altering injury and years of pain and incapacitation. At no point is that possibility more likely than when a horse breaks down at the front of a pack.
“I guess it happened about seventy yards from the finish,” Tim explained. “Bad spot to be in. He got run over by just about every horse in the field. Bunch of horses got hurt; his had to be put down.”
There was a pause.
“My father had a rough life, a rough career. Lots of spills and broken bones. Always made a comeback. But this one was really bad—the worst that I can remember.”
Warren Snyder spent several weeks in a hospital bed, trying to recuperate from a broken back and a compound fracture of the leg. Rehabilitative medicine in the 1960s was far from the science that it is today, and so Warren Snyder’s care involved little more than rest and painkillers and antibiotics, washed down with whiskey or beer.
“It wasn’t exactly upscale,” Tim noted. “Doctors today seem like they can put anyone back together and get you back out on the track in no time. Back then they’d just operate and put you in traction. It wasn’t long before he got an infection in his leg, and then he got really sick. Gangrene set in. They ended up drilling four holes in his leg: two ...
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Book Description St. Martin's Press, 2013. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # mon0000011950
Book Description St. Martin's Press, 2013. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0312643322
Book Description St. Martin's Press, 2013. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110312643322
Book Description St. Martin's Press. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. 0312643322 New Condition. Bookseller Inventory # NEW7.0092337