Apr 2014 Racing Calendar
1600 ExpositionLiving your dreams: Ernie Oswald's story
I am 39. I had no idea before reaching it that it would be such an interesting age. When 39, you're entering the middle of life and the stories of those who have been through more and are typically a generation or two ahead of you begin to carry more weight and teach lessons that might not have been so readily understood a decade or two earlier. Invariably, a part of the human experience is to dream about something that you want to do in your life. Even as you do those things that are right in the mix of your dreams, there's always that last little bit that you want to pursue and know one time what it was like.
Ernie Oswald and I have something in common. From a young age, we both sought to have a life around horses. My growing up in California's sprawling suburbia and limited rural exposure made my life around horses more of the racing variety, with a DRF or a Night Lines tucked under my arm as I made my way into California racetracks or simulcast outlets at whatever part of the state I was living in at the time. Conversely, Ernie Oswald's life has always been rural in scope, his involvement with horses has always been a direct touch, and his racing story came long after his career in working with horses in other disciplines, plus a lengthy career in banking that culminated in his retirement as a Vice President of Western Farm Credit Bank.
At age 86, Ernie Oswald's story is diverse and filled with a history that encompasses so many different areas of equine life. Born and raised in California's Modoc County, which is deep into the northeastern corner of the state and is one of those places that truly requires quite a journey to reach, he came from a stockman's family and caught interest in working with horses at a young age. His path found him working with show horses, plus getting involved in a style of horse training that I've only recently learned about: Cutting. A horse trained to perform cutting duties is able to make extremely sharp turns in a series, all done in such a way that it separates and keeps a cow from returning to the herd.
His work in the this aspect of the ranching field was so well-regarded that he was placed into the Pacific Coast Cutting Horse Hall of Fame 2000, as a member of the first group ever installed. His longtime interest in finally getting some time with racing Standardbreds ultimately led to a connection with Lou Pena via Cal Expo's Kate Phariss. Oswald recalls Pena as "a great, great teacher. That's how I got hooked on harness racing!"
Through the years, Pena had several memorable horses in California racing, and one that many recall is the hard-knocking Phipps. Oswald jogged Phipps just about every morning on training tracks, along with others, and while doing so had learned all about what it takes to prepare a Standardbred for the races. It should be noted that Cal Expo's backstretch grounds include a small training oval that is very popular in the mornings (people reading this column before may recall my first-ever jog cart journey on it with Garland Bot Joefee a couple months ago) and Oswald was a frequent sight on the course. Over time, the horse and his morning driver got along better and better. He had long dreamed of taking one out onto the main track was the horse he jogged each morning, admittedly well before he had ever been given that opportunity by Pena. The day finally arrived where it was asked of him to take Phipps out onto the main Cal Expo track. "You can't explain the power those horses have, when you hit that final turn and head for the home stretch. I never had that feel before – so much power ahead of me" Oswald recalls.
As we talked on the phone, I can remember that my own voice slowed down substantially as. I began to think of my own experiences in the sport, like that first time with the lines, that first time I called a race, that first time I ever caught a superfecta. One of the greatest things that often will happen behind the program or leather lines in harness racing is that if you ever dreamed about it, there's most probably a way you can do it. On the other end of my phone, I was reminded of this. Learning some years back that people in their seventies and eighties still work in the industry with very active roles all the time, still debut a new activity, and still show up every day for the fight because people will give them a chance, even when many of their contemporaries have long retired, it is more than inspiring.
- Leighton Worthey