Blan Wilson learned to sit a horse the hard way, the way some people learn to swim after they’ve been thrown into pond. Sink or swim. Ride or eat dirt.
The year was 1969. Wilson was 17 years old, eager to test his ambition, to see something of the world other than Chicago, where he grew up. The answer was California and the Rex Ellsworth Riding School.
“I got there the same time a fellow named Tommy Chapman did,” Wilson recalled. “He’s a famous artist now in California. I came out of Chicago. Tommy Chapman came out of Montana.”
They arrived simultaneously at the Ontario, Calif., airport, both destined for the riding school.
“They picked us up at the airport in Ontario and took us to the ranch where we stayed in these dorms,” Wilson said. “At this end of the ranch they had the layups, stallions, horses coming back into training and all the babies.”
Wilson and Chapman were told to take a look around, “to see how the ranch was set up. So, me and Tommy took a walk around,” Wilson said.
“Twenty minutes later, up pulls Ellsworth in his canary-yellow El Camino. he takes us into the tack room and hands us each a helmet and says ‘you ready to go to work?’ Neither one of us ever been on a horse but he tells us to get ourselves some tack.”
The fun was just beginning Wilson recalled.
“There was this old man ran that part of the barn. He grabs a D bit and one of those fiberglass saddles and then he grabs a gunny sack.”
The fellow started to pop that gunny sack at a bunch of babies. “They started runnin’ all over the place,” Wilson said. “Me and Tommy are standing outside the door to the ring lookin’ at it.”
The two boys were then told to copy that routine precisely. “He tells us to do exactly like that, then to put a saddle on ’em and get on ’em,” Wilson said. “That’s how we learned to ride. I guarantee it. We got on 25 to 30 babies a day for a month and a half before we learned to ride. That was the Rex Ellsworth Riding School.”
Ellsworth was once one of the kings of thoroughbred racing, a former ”cowboy” from Safford, Ariz., who bred and raced a number of successful thoroughbreds, the best known undoubtedly Swaps, winner of the 1955 Kentucky Derby under Bill Shoemaker a length and a half in front of Nashua and Eddie Arcaro. But there was also (1963 Preakness winner) Candy Spots, The Scoundrel, Olden Times and Prove It.
Ellsworth was one of the most successful trainers in Santa Anita history but he came to an ignominious end. His empire collapsed in the mid 1970s; well-bred thoroughbreds were found starving to death on his ranch, left to die in squalor. He was vilified by an industry in which he once stood tall.
“He had made a lot of money and had land as far as I could see in any direction,” Wilson said. “But he went broke.”
There were a number of riders familiar to Canterbury racing fans who learned to ride under the Rex Ellsworth method. “Randy Schacht and Daryl Montoya were there. We were the last crop of kids to come out of that school,” Wilson said.
Wilson returned to Chicago, riding some six years at various bush tracks. “I rode a couple of times at Sportsman’s,” he said. “But there were a ton of good riders, famous riders and it was tough for me, bein’ a black guy. I was lucky to get two or three mounts a week.”
He recalled riding at tracks before the age of cameras. “Those riders would reach right over and try to pull your foot out of the iron,” he said. “Or they’d crack you across the face with their whip. They didn’t cheat with medication in those days. The jockeys did the cheatin’. It was a rough business.”
Wilson left the business and became a mailman in the Chicago area, got married and raised two daughters. He was divorced in 1986 and joined his mother, who had moved to Arizona in 1984. He was working for a tile company in the mid 1980s. One day he was having tires installed on his vehicle and the fellow turned out to have horses and was involved in racing.
“All that time, every day at noon I heard that bell in my head,” Wilson said. “It was in my system and I never got it out.”
He quit his job at the tile company, headed to Turf Paradise in Phoenix. “And I ‘ve never looked back.”
Wilson, who is at Canterbury for the first time this summer with trainer Dave Wolochuk, is a partner with his brother, Roy, who started a popcorn business in Phoenix. “He’s got two shops now and 30 different kinds of popcorn,” Blan said. The company is Poppa Maize Gourmet and its slogan is “We do A maizing things with popcorn.”
Wilson, 59, related his story late Wednesday morning outside the barn where he saddles up daily. He gallops for Wolochuk and other trainers when they need him.
He looked across the way at horses fighting the automatic walkers. A lot has changed since he broke into the industry in the late 1960s. “Thoroughbreds used to be tall and skinny, spindley-legged things,” he said. “Now look at ’em. They’re so cross-bred, they look like quarter horses now. Big ol’ cannon bones on ’em. Big ol’ hips. In those days, most thoroughbreds were 16.5 to 17 hands high and crazy, skinny as could be and the spindliest legs you ever want to see. Now look at ’em with all that different cross breeding.”
Wilson still gets on nine or 10 of those horses every morning. He took a small drink from his can of Bud Light beer.
“That’s enough for guy my age,” he said.