Faces at the Races: Those Ain’t Highway Miles

Trainer and former jockey Herman Fennell talks bumpy roads and horse racing

Everyone in the horse racing industry seems to have a story. In order to highlight a few of the incredible people I’ve had the opportunity to meet and the stories they’ve shared with me, I’m going to begin writing the occasional feature, “Faces at the Races.” This article about  trainer Herman Fennell was a piece I wrote while working as the summer intern for the Minnesota Quarter Horse Racing Association. It ran in their August 2015 newsletter, but I wanted to spread the love and share it again, so enjoy!

Horse racing is a sport that can take you to the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Anyone who has been in the industry as long as Herman Fennell has undoubtedly seen both ends of the spectrum.

I found Herman cleaning his shedrow at Canterbury Park on a sunny Friday morning in June. The horses under the care of the 66-year-old trainer stared contentedly out of their stalls as they awaited their turn on the hot walker. Herman filled hay nets and cleaned stalls as I stood by and admired his protégés. I commented that his horses appear to be happy.

Herman laughed.

“Well, they’ve got a 24 hour buffet!” he exclaimed.

As Herman went about his work, passerby’s on their way to the track called out greetings. A tidy vegetable garden lies in front of his shedrow. It’s clear that Herman’s time away from the horses is spent just feet from his barn, cultivating tomatoes and other produce in the plot. One person commented on his green thumb as they rode by.

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Herman and his garden at Canterbury Park. Annise Montplaisir photo

“Just in case I don’t do no good I’ve got something to eat!” Herman joked back.

“That’s what I like about (Canterbury) is you don’t have a lot of negativity,” Herman said to me as he led a horse out of it’s stall. “Here when I come to work I’ve got all these friends of mine and we all laugh and joke and say funny things to each other that make the day go good, and we ask each other ‘How’s your day going? – Oh good, good!’ “

As I tagged along behind Herman from stall to stall and back and forth to the hot walker, he told me the story of how he found his way into the horse racing industry.

Growing up in Seguin, Texas, Herman passed by a racetrack on his way across town to help his cousin.

“When I was a kid, we pulled cotton when I was in school,” Herman said. “But my cousin had some donkeys, and they used to pay me to come out and help them. And we’d have to ride by the racetrack with his buggy and these donkeys… I saw them guys going around the racetrack, and I said ‘That is neat! Hey look at that guy standing up on that horse’s back.’ “

Herman and his brother began sneaking away from home to visit the racetrack and watch the horses.

“We’d sit around there and watch them going around the track. My parents would say ‘You can go out down the road and play but don’t leave this neighborhood.’ And we’d sneak down to the track because it was maybe half a mile from us.”

One trainer took notice of Herman’s interest in the horses and offered him the chance to learn about working at the track.

“I was standing looking at them guys go around the track, and some guy said ‘Hey, you look like you’re pretty small, would you like to do something like that?’ And I said ‘Sure!’ And he said ‘Tell you what, you just come down here to the track and I’ll teach you how to lead horses and you can clean stalls and learn how to do that stuff.’ And I said ‘Yeah sure!’ Some days I couldn’t make it because I couldn’t sneak away, so every time I got a break I’d run down to the racetrack and this guy had me cleaning stalls.”

Once Herman had learned his way around the horses from the ground, the trainer offered to let him hop on an old pony horse. Never having previously ridden – aside from his cousin’s donkeys – Herman was nervous to give it a try.

“I was scared,” Herman said. “But he put me on and led me around, he was telling me how to hold the reins and he told me how to hold my feet… I rode that pony horse for two years before he let me get on a racehorse.”

“I just kept going back and finally, he started letting me gallop some of them real laid back thoroughbreds that weren’t running. I got my balance and learned how to hold the reins and stuff, and so he’d take those thoroughbreds and the pony and he’d pony me around the track and tell me what to do… And finally we got to where he unsnapped me and I was galloping alongside him and pretty soon he turned me loose and he said ‘Take that horse out there and gallop him.’ ”

Herman jockeyed his first race as a 13-year-old back in 1963. His first approved ride came 3 years later at Bandera Downs – called Lost Valley Downs at the time.

So what was it like riding a race for the first time?

“Scary,” Herman said. “I tell you what, I was so nervous, before they even called the race up I was so nervous. It was like you were on the death row and they were getting ready to take you down and put you in the electric chair. I thought man, I’m gonna die!”

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Herman leads one of his horses in the paddock at Canterbury Park. Annise Montplaisir photo

Herman has jockeyed and trained intermittently throughout his 53-year career in racing, riding with such greats as Jacky Martin – seven-time winning jockey of the Grade 1 All-American Futurity. Martin, who was a good friend of Herman’s, passed away earlier this year. Jacky was involved in a life-altering riding accident in 2011 that left him paralyzed.

Herman recalled fond memories of the days he rode with Jacky.

“Best rider I’ve ever known in my life,” Herman said of Martin. “That’s the greatest Quarter Horse rider ever. They’ll never make another rider like him.”

Herman continued his own riding career until 2012, when previous riding injuries began catching up with him. Around 7 years ago, Herman suffered significant damage to his right leg after being drug by a horse at the racetrack in Fort Pierre, South Dakota. After undergoing therapy and rehabilitation, he made a comeback and rode at Fort Pierre again the following season.

“There’s so much stuff that can happen in a second,” Herman said. “Even the best, when they end up in the doctor’s office, they didn’t know that was going to happen that day. You see a lot of riders look up in the sky and they thank God that they was blessed to make it back, they was blessed to win, or they just had the blessing of making it through the day without getting hurt.”

In 2012, Herman sustained another riding injury, tearing ligaments in his left knee. He decided to hang up his tack for a while and focus on his training career. But that doesn’t stop Herman from wanting to return to the jocks room.

“I really liked riding,” Herman said. “Even now people tell me, ‘Herman you don’t need to do that, you’re too old, man. You’re gonna get hurt, man.’ I love riding. It’s just a feeling that you never get. I can gallop horses, I can work ‘em in the mornings and I can do all this stuff out of the gate and everything else. But it’s not like riding a race.”

Herman’s goal is to make an eventual return to the track as a jockey and ride longer than Quarter Horse jockey Roy Brooks, who is a member of the Ruidoso Downs Racehorse Hall of Fame, Oklahoma Quarter Horse Association Hall of Fame and the Remington Park Hall of Fame.

“I’d like to beat Roy Brooks. His last year he rode, I think he was 70. If he quit at 70, I think if the Good Lord blesses me I want to come back and ride at 71.”

“But it’s kind of like a car that’s got highway miles,” Herman added. “It’s not as tough as the one that’s got all the miles on the back roads, and that’s me. I was down in the ditch and on the gravel, hitting all those bumps. I rode a pretty bumpy road!”

Herman stands by two primary values that have carried him throughout his life and career in racing – patience and belief in the Lord.

“Anything you do, you’ve got to be patient for it. If you’re patient with everything you do in life, you live a lot longer. Stress is what really kills a lot of people. That’s what I do is I try to not stress myself out. I talk a lot to God and believe in God, and that’s what’s kept me alive, because God has always been there to save me.”

Whether they’re on the back roads or down the highway, Herman says he has plenty of miles remaining in his racing career and doesn’t plan to quit any time soon.

“I never want to be away from them,” Herman said about racehorses. “I always want to have some kind of contact with them.”

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