Death of Wheeler
It’s a touchy subject, a white man writing in the Jim Crow years just before the Second World War, to address his love for a “colored man” and show him the respect he deserved. But Harry Worcester Smith never shied away from showing Dolph Wheeler, his trainer and friend, his due.
“I had been racing a few years, training my own horses,” Harry writes, “when in 1897 at The Country Club, Brookline [MA] I saw a good-looking darkey, who had brought a horse or two from New York to the meeting, and with him was a little dog that he showed a sincere affection for.”
Ouch. Those terms, “darkey” and “colored man,” hurt our sensitive twenty-first- century ears, but bear with me, because Harry loved Dolph and in his monograph titled “The Death of Wheeler,” he is determined to tell the world, or at least anyone who reads his autobiography, all about his friend.
In fact, Harry, who had studied all the “great band of black trainers and jockeys” before his time, held the African American jockeys of the early and mid-nineteenth centuries in the highest esteem and he begins his tribute to Dolph with a list of greats and their accomplishments: Isaac Murphy, winner of the Travers Cup at Saratoga on Falsetto in 1879 and winner of the American Derby four times—the highest salaried jockey of his day; Pike Barnes, winner of the first Futurity at Sheepshead Bay on “Proctor Knott” in 1888; “Soup” Perkins top winning jockey in 1895 with one hundred ninety-two wins; “Monk” Overton, winner at Washington, DC, of six out of seven races—all on the same day— July 1, 1891; and “Jimmy Lane, who set the world’s record by riding every winner on a single entry program—six out of six races. And before these men, there were the slave trainers and jockeys with single names like “Hark,” who rode “Lacomte” against “Lexington” at New Orleans in 1855, and “Monkey” Simon who, early in the nineteenth century, rode “Maria” in most of the sixteen four-mile heat races the mare ran, winning all but one. “When one gets the regard and respect of a colored man,” Harry writes, “He gets something worth while.”
Dolph Wheeler started out as a jockey for Father “Bill” Daly, the hard-driving “get on top and stay there” trainer and starter of many famous jockeys. Dolph “was a good man across country…steeplechasing was his forte,” Harry writes. “We would go into New York at the spring sale, pick up three or four two-year-olds, at $100 or $150 a piece, bring them to Worcester and have endless sport training them and finding out their value.” They hunted together around Barre, Massachusetts, and Dolph arranged everything at the many of the country fairs they attended and in which they exhibited: Barre, Sturbridge, Oxford, Uxbridge and Worcester Counties. “He had hundreds of friends scattered all over the country.” Dolph accompanied Harry to Ireland in 1912-1913, the year Harry was master of the Westmeath Foxhounds.
“Dolph Wheeler taught my children to ride,” Harry writes, “and I can see him coming up Chestnut Path now, walking along on The Cad on a summer’s day bending a birch switch over the latter’s head to keep off the flies, while at his side was my little daughter with her long curls flowing with the wind, riding a pinto pony, with her head about at Dolph’s knee and around them eight or ten couple of the Grafton spotted puppies about five months old, all packed up like old hounds.” When Harry’s son Crompton became a champion steeplechaser like his father, Dolph “was as proud as could be of him, and used to tell him about the great races [Harry] had ridden.”
When Dolph’s diabetes flared, threatening his life, he called Harry from his home in Framingham. “I went down every few days and kept track of him on the telephone; the deadly disease gained on him rapidly, so I finally had him moved to the hospital and one day going to the telephone learned that he was dead.”
There is not one piece of writing in the National Sporting Library & Museum’s Harry Worcester Smith Archive that does not reflect Harry’s love of poetry. Emulating eighteenth and nineteenth century writers he admired, Harry turned to poetry frequently to express his feelings. Dolph’s death reminded Harry of John Greenleaf Whittier’s poem, “Telling the Bees,” describing the old rural English custom of dressing the hives in black when a family member dies. “The northeast of the four pillars in front of Lordvale has for years held a swarm of bees,” Harry writes, “and from all the country bee hunters had run their lines to this hive and begged me to cut the pillar open. Wheeler was much interested and would often figure how many pounds there must be there, and I felt like going out and putting black on that column so as to tell the bees, so that they might fly to House Rock, Potter Hill, the shady road to Red Farm, the lane to Dorothy Pond, and the Chestnut Path that led to The Kennels and the Grafton Country Club and give notice that Wheeler was dead.”
Harry brought to the funeral the cup that The Cad had won in the 1900 Champion Steeplechase at Morris Park, “and a number of trophies of stakes that Wheeler had trained the winners of.” He laid the cups and trophies around the coffin “and over that portion which was laid open, put my violet and white racing jacket and cap which the dead man loved so well.” A young woman named Martha sang ‘Nearer My God to Thee,’ “her breath making a mark on the frozen air.” Harry was asked to say a few words.
“I pulled myself together, walked up to the coffin, I looked at the face of the one who had been so faithful to me and turned and said, ‘You perhaps have heard of my fame as a sportsman, and the classic races which I won…but I tell you, here was the man that made me famous; it was his hand that trained the horses, it was his cheer that kept me enthusiastic, he tightened the girths when we went out for a race, and he held the horse’s head when I asked permission to dismount at the finish, he arranged the saddlecloth and weights and never were we short or overweight; he was my trainer at the track, my friend at home and my nurse when injured. I cannot say too much for him.”