Saturday, January 16, 2010
Updated: January 21, 2:21 PM ET
Salty Roberts: An unlikely founder
By Claire Novak
Special to ESPN.com
Ask Salty Roberts whom he worked for during his career at the racetrack, and his craggy face breaks into a good-natured smile. It would take far too long to list each employer, especially since he's been on the racing circuit since 1947, when Jet Pilot won the 73rd Kentucky Derby and the average minimum wage was 43 cents per hour. To say he's seen every stable except the original one in Bethlehem wouldn't be far from the truth.
At 78, Roberts still sports the trim form of a dedicated exercise rider. Long and lanky, he favors faded Levi's and plaid shirts that hang loosely from his wiry frame. His pale blue eyes sparkle and he works a crowd with engaging candor. Equally at home among front-side executives and backside workers, he has been known to hold a prayer meeting in any place at any time and often gravitates toward the backside of the racetrack -- where he walks the barns and talks with the workers for hours on end.
"If ever a saint traveled this earth, it's ol' Salty," the horsemen say. That comment inevitably brings a chuckle from the self-described "happy old codger." He may be a saint today, but he raised enough hell during the first 34 years of his life to tide him over for a century.
From the early 1930s to the late '50s, South Carolina was the winter home of a steady stream of top-notch Thoroughbred trainers. They came to prep their stables for spring racing and to rest seasoned runners after taxing campaigns in the North. Horsemen loved the quiet setting, where sandy soil cupped gently under their horses' hooves and the small-town atmosphere provided a refreshing change of pace.
It was only fitting that Horace Walter "Bill" Roberts was born into this equine country in 1931, although his parents were not involved in racing. A young couple, they divorced during Roberts' early years, sending the youngster and his older sister Nola on a never-ending shuffle between relatives.
Uprooted and denied any semblance of normal family life, Roberts clung to his inborn love of horses -- the stabilizing factor in an otherwise traumatic childhood. Living in South Carolina, he followed the pony man who put children atop his shaggy Shetland (he obtained rides by holding the reins while the man snapped 5-cent pictures). Transplanted to Florida, he shoveled manure for hours on end, trading labor for valuable riding lessons. Back in South Carolina, he drove a team of mules to plow his uncle's fields, then galloped hell-bent for leather down the dusty country roads at the end of the day.
Roberts didn't get along well in school, spending more time in the dean's office than he did in the classroom. In fact, as far as he could see, the only benefit to his entire formal education was a friendship with a high school classmate who had connections in the racing industry. Her older brother galloped for Meadow Farm, eventual home of Triple Crown winner Secretariat. The brother invited Roberts to see the showcase facility for himself, so he played hooky and hitchhiked up to Doswell, Va. Perched on the rail that encircled the mile-long training track, watching sleek Thoroughbreds skim along in the early morning light, he fell in love.
Roberts witnessed the rise of the industry's greatest legends. Eddie Arcaro was booting home Classic winners like there was no tomorrow, Ted Atkinson was setting world records for purses earned in a single season. Between 1940 and 1950 alone, four Triple Crown winners made racing history. When the newsreels broadcast Assault's dominating 1946 Kentucky Derby win to theaters across the country, the youngster watched with wide-eyed admiration.
He had turned to racing to escape his dysfunctional family life (his mother was killed in an automobile accident while he was living in Florida and by the time he was 14 his father had remarried). When Assault won the Preakness en route to a runaway Triple Crown, the colt's fighting spirit and his jockey's youthful success inspired Roberts to leave everything behind for a new life in racing. Arriving in Baltimore with five dollars to his name, he hiked out to Pimlico. As he slipped past a dozing security guard and snuck down the shed rows, he couldn't have been happier. For the first time in his life, he was doing exactly what he wanted to do. For the first time in his life, he felt like he was really home.
Almost 3,000 miles across the country, another young man was heading home to horses. Alan Ladd, five years away from his epic role in Paramount Pictures' "Shane," had purchased a 25-acre ranch near Beverly Hills where only Jonesy, an extra horse procured for guests, was named without Hollywood origins. Ladd called his racehorse Alsu Ladd, named his own mount Lucky after his role in the 1942 spy thriller "Lucky Jordan," and called his wife's horse Salty for his part in the 1945 racing movie "Salty O'Rourke."
The film was no "National Velvet." Looking to provide Ladd's trademark gangster-turned-good guy role, writer Milton Holmes turned out a clichéd screenplay that revolved around race fixing. Reviewers called it a "light racing story," but thanks to Ladd's popularity it became a box office hit.
Bill Roberts had seen "Salty O' Rourke" a year before leaving home. He admired the lead character, a tough guy who had all the answers. Forging ahead with his new life, he remembered Ladd's cool portrayal and adopted a fresh identity. No one on the racetrack had ever met Bill Roberts, and they certainly had never heard of jockey "Horace Walter." For the rest of his life, the scrappy lad would be known as "Salty."
Roberts took to the backside like a racing fan to Kentucky. He told a few white lies in the morning, talked his way onto some horses, and although trainers could see that he hadn't worked Thoroughbreds before, he won them over with his amusing bravado. When they gave him a chance they discovered his gift for straightening out renegade horses no one else could ride. Within a few months he was galloping like a pro and loving every minute of it.
But the young man hadn't lost his rebellious streak. He starting running around, doing all the things responsible horsemen didn't do: drinking, smoking, staying out all night and showing up late in the morning. Sure, he galloped horses for the best trainers -- Ben Jones of Calumet Farm was a personal friend -- and could always be found at the nearest party, but that was the problem. Notoriously unreliable, he'd show up to work two mornings in a row, then go off on a three-day drinking spree. When he went to jockey school in Detroit, he spent too much time partying and grew too big. He couldn't become a jockey, but he wouldn't leave the track, either.
By the late 1960s Kelso was on his way to winning five consecutive Horse of the Year awards, Buckpasser was clocking the world-record mile, and Native Dancer had retired to sire a line that would include Ruffian and Mr. Prospector. On-track attendance dipped slightly as the decade drew to a close, but the horsemen didn't mind. They coddled their winners and cussed their losers and everyone anticipated the future.
Everyone, that is, except Roberts. Training blueblood stakes winners was one thing, training cheap claimers was another. After 20 years on the backside, he was far too familiar with the low-profile portion of the racing industry.
He knew that, while the Frank Whiteley-trained Damascus earned $792,941 in a single season, the yearly earnings of a regular racehorse could bottom out around $3,300 -- much less than it cost to keep that same horse in training. He knew most track managers maintained only the areas fans and owners could see: clubhouses that dazzled while backside facilities disintegrated. He knew how to wash his laundry with a hose that was meant for bathing horses, how to shower in ice-cold water when the hot failed for the fifth day in a row, how to drag himself off a lumpy cot at 4 a.m., how to fall back onto it at midnight after a long day of work and a long night of partying.
At 34, Salty Roberts was completely washed up. His personal life was a tragedy; his professional life was a disaster. He was riding the bottom of life's pendulum, swinging between responsibility and recklessness with sickening predictability. Just when it seemed like he'd turned over a new leaf, he'd be off again -- running around, chasing girls, sleeping off drunk spells and riding with hangovers. It was getting old fast, and the trainers were fed up. They started a backside boycott.
To replace his dwindling opportunities in the riding field, Roberts landed a job as a parking attendant. One morning after an all-night drinking spree, he was running a lot at Monmouth Park with a bunch of college kids. He felt like he'd been trampled by a field of 13 at the quarter pole -- and the first race had just gone off -- so he went to sleep in his car.
By the time Roberts' assistant shook him awake, the last race was over and the parking lot had emptied. The kid pulled a tract out of his pocket and threw it at his boss. "Some guy gave this to me," he said disdainfully. "You need it worse than I do."
Roberts drove home, tossed the tract onto his dresser, headed to Atlantic City, and promptly got into a fight with an irate cab driver. Given a chance to cool his heels in the local drunk tank, he took stock of life and realized that he was careening along at breakneck speed. He vowed to change, but upon release went right back to his trailer and that old pint of amber-hued whiskey. It was a fiery drink that came up almost as soon as it went down, and as he stood over a chipped porcelain toilet in his tiny bathroom, Roberts knew he'd reached the end of his rope. He wiped his mouth, blinking at his bleary reflection in the mirror. Two hopeless, bloodshot eyes stared back at him. There was only one thing left to do.
He stumbled into the sparsely furnished bedroom and fell across the bed, an eerie stillness enveloping the room as he reached between the mattress and wall for his 12-gauge. Metal tip clicked against the chamber with ominous readiness as his shaking fingers shoved a shell into place. Crouching with his back against the wall, he closed his lips around the muzzle.
Equally at home among front-side executives and backside workers, he has been known to hold a prayer meeting in any place at any time and often gravitates toward the backside of the racetrack.
The steel was cold and tasted of bitter oil. He was sobbing. He was shaking. He didn't want to end his life, but at the same time he was tired of the emptiness. As he searched the silence for a way of escape, something told him to put the shotgun down. This isn't the answer, the Voice seemed to say. Come learn about me. Suddenly, memories flooded Roberts' mind -- memories of a young boy who once dropped to his knees on the worn wooden floor of a little country church. He could feel the sharp pain of leaving his family, could hear his grandmother's soft-spoken pleas to hold on to his faith. Suddenly, that oft-ignored counsel seemed to make sense. Kneeling, he uttered a heartfelt prayer -- ineloquent but simple in desperation -- "Lord, I need some help, man, 'cause I'm in the worst shape of my entire life."
As he finished praying, Roberts' eyes fell on his dresser. There was that tract, the one he'd tossed aside in drunken disrespect. He walked over and picked it up, searching for answers. He wanted to know how to get peace, joy and contentment out of life; not how to make a living, but how to really live.
The first verse in the book spoke directly to his heart. He dropped the shotgun, pulled himself up onto his sagging bed, and read through the tract's direct message. Then he jumped up and ran into the kitchen, put on the coffee pot and read the little book again. He then pulled his dusty Bible off the shelf above the stove and started to read that. He devoured verses while the percolator bubbled, while the twilight hours waned and sunrise came.
The next morning, Roberts flew to Florida to stay with Nola, isolating himself from the rest of the world, trying to figure out exactly what had happened. He'd been two seconds away from blowing himself into eternity, but now he was actually excited about living. There was only one problem with the "new Salty." Saved or not, he had to make a living, and he only knew how to work with racehorses. He decided to go back to Atlantic City.
As Roberts looked around with new perspective, he saw a backside full of hurting people whose long hours of hard physical labor often brought little tangible reward; people who were lost, lonely and looking for something to hold onto. Horsemen started coming to him with their problems, and soon he found himself trying to help with issues that licensed pastors had a hard time addressing.
He couldn't understand it. He'd lived on the backside for 20 years, and not once during that time did a minister come see the workers. He wanted the members of his backside family to discover the joy he'd found, but no one would have anything to do with them.
"Lord, send somebody to minister to my racetrack family," he prayed.
But no one came.
Roberts eventually left Atlantic City, went back to Florida, and landed a job at Gulfstream Park. Although his game plan was simple -- exercise horses in the morning and talk about Jesus in the afternoon -- executing it wasn't easy. Fellow Christians told him not to associate with horsemen because they were "all sinners." Roberts was furious. He'd studied the Scriptures, and as far as he could tell, the Bible didn't say anything along those lines. In fact, he argued, Jesus once told his disciples, "Who needs a doctor, the healthy or the sick? I'm after mercy, not religion ... I came to seek and save what is lost."
In 1970, he managed to persuade Al Dawson, missions director for the Florida Southern Baptist Convention, to walk the Gulfstream shed rows with him. Church services had never been held on the backside before, but that didn't mean it couldn't happen. Track manager Jack Blair gave his approval, even offering a rickety old paint shop near the quarter pole to serve as a makeshift chapel. Before long Roberts was hauling in an old honky-tonk piano, brewing up a pot of coffee and setting out a box of doughnuts.
Twelve backside workers came to that first service, and church became a regular part of the track routine. Often, the doors and windows were flanked by those too timid to enter the building -- but no one was pressured into attending. The workers came on their own and the ministry grew.
In 1971, Calder Race Course allowed a part-time chaplain on the backside and full-time ministry began at Monmouth Park. Soon Hialeah welcomed a full-time chaplain and Calder's chaplain began to work full-time. Ministries were started in Pennsylvania, Ohio and California, workers across the country clamored for more and Dawson and Roberts had a vision -- to put a chaplain on every racetrack in America. It was an ambitious goal, but long odds had never bothered Roberts. While Dawson organized the ministry with a nationwide focus, Roberts canvassed local areas in search of support. In 1972, the two joined with pastor Earnest Campbell of the Hialeah First Baptist Church and several other dedicated individuals to form the Race Track Chaplaincy of America.
Along with his wife, Dallas, Roberts served on the RTCA's executive board for 15 years, helping to establish more than 50 chaplaincy programs. It wasn't always easy -- at one time, the RTCA's budget topped out at $25,000 -- but somehow, they always found a way.
Salty and Dallas Roberts are still actively involved in ministry based near Gulfstream. Since their "retirement" from the RTCA they've traveled to 14 different countries including England, Ireland, France, Germany, Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and Mexico, as well as Puerto Rico on chaplaincy-building trips.
"There are thousands of people who benefit from the chaplaincy, and you know what the secret is?" Roberts says. "We did what Jesus would have done. We went to the people in need. We met them on their level. We showed them the solutions to their problems and helped them get free.
"I never did become a top jockey or a leading trainer, but God has given me something better than all that," he adds. "He gave me the gift of salvation through his son, and at the end of my life, when I hear him say, 'Well done, my good and faithful servant,' I'll know I've won my race. That's the greatest honor I could ever receive."
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse Magazine, The Albany Times Union and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.
The steel was cold and tasted of bitter oil. He was sobbing. He was shaking. He didn't want to end his life, but at the same time he was tired of the emptiness.