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Horse racing is in his blood

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In this 1938 photo, Remlik native Willis Braxton (second from left) holds the race horse Nedary in the winner’s circle at Chicago. With him is trainer A.W. “Doctor” Crawford (left) and Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro, who rode Nedary to one of his 4,779 career victories as a jockey.
by Tom Chillemi

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Willis Braxton

Exterminator, the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner, retired to Middlesex County at the farm of owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer at Remlik. (Remlik is Kilmer spelled backwards.)

Willis Braxton Sr., who was a groom at that farm, remembers seeing the legendary horse. “He was very calm,” recalled Braxton, who was born at Remlik and now lives at Riverside Convalescent Center in Saluda.

Exterminator’s rise to “Horse of the Year” in 1922 had an unusual beginning. Kilmer had authorized his trainer to buy a “truck horse” to work out with his favored colt Sun Briar, who was set to run in the Kentucky Derby. The trainer paid the huge sum of $12,000 for Exterminator, and Kilmer was not pleased. Exterminator was only supposed to be a horse to pace Sun Briar during workouts. He soon had the unflattering nickname “Old Bones.”

Sun Briar came up injured just before the Kentucky Derby. The story goes that Kilmer did not want to enter Exterminator, afraid of being embarrassed.

It took some persuasion by Colonel Matt J. Winn, who served as vice president, general manager and president of Churchill Downs from 1902 to 1949, to convince Kilmer to enter Exterminator, according to Lew Koch of Thoroughbred Champions.com.

It is written in Winn’s biography Down The Stretch that Colonel Winn had earlier witnessed a workout between Sun Briar and Exterminator, and suggested Kilmer enter Exterminator. Kilmer initially scoffed at the idea. However, he changed his mind a few hours later and entered the big, lanky Exterminator in the Derby.

On a muddy track in 1918, Exterminator was fifth at the head of the home stretch. Many horses will give up once they get a face full of mud, but not Exterminator, who slipped through on the rail and dueled with Escoba to win the 1 1/4-mile Derby by a length.

Exterminator won races at distances of 3/4 mile to 2 1/4 miles, and set records even though he carried extra weight as a handicap.

Exterminator was solidifying his place in horse racing history and Kilmer wanted to race him against the great Man O’ War, whose owner always avoided the match-up.

In 1924, as a 9-year-old, Exterminator won three of seven races and retired. In his 99 races, Exterminator won 50, finished second 17 times and third 17 times. He collected $253,000 in earnings. He is number 29 on the Blood Horse Magazine’s list of the top 100 race horses of all time.

Exterminator lived to be 30. He always had a pony named Peanut by his side as a companion.

Willis Braxton Sr. is lucky. After 96 years of living, his eyes still twinkle when he tells stories about race horses. Braxton was fortunate to have known the 1918 Kentucky Derby winner “Exterminator.” That legendary horse retired to a farm at Remlik and lived until 1945.

Braxton’s story starts at sunrise on April 1, 1913, when he was born near Remlik Hall Farm, which was owned by Willis Sharpe Kilmer.

Braxton’s father was a groundskeeper at the beautiful farm on Kilmer’s Point between LaGrange and Robinson creeks, about 3 miles west of Urbanna. The estate had a horse training track.

Braxton, a little too big to be a jockey, was a groom for horses that ran only “stakes” races—the top tier of racing. He would ride the lead horse that was used to keep some race horses in check during training at Remlik Hall Farm.

Braxton became good friends with the horse trainer at Remlik Hall Farm, A.W. “Doctor” Crawford.

A race horse named Nedary is a special memory for Braxton. Nedary had been scheduled to run in the 1938 Kentucky Derby but was scratched from the race. He went on to win a stakes race that summer at Saratoga, New York—the place for movie stars and the rich and famous. “There was a lot of money up there,” Braxton recalls.

While at Saratoga, Braxton met Alfred Vanderbilt Jr., an heir to the Cornelius Vanderbilt railroad empire. They played gin rummy at the barn every morning. “When you get to the barn you forget about prejudices,” said Braxton.

Vanderbilt and Braxton were about the same size, and Braxton got many hand-me-down suits and shoes from the millionaire.

Dr. Crawford had trained Nedary for a Chicago Classic race, which was to be run at the same time as the Saratoga meet. Three days before the Classic, Braxton and Nedary were put on a train for Chicago while Dr. Crawford stayed at Saratoga.

The racing world is full of hope and anticipation of a big win. And, so it was for Braxton, Nedary and a young jockey named Eddie Arcaro, who would go on to win 4,779 races in his Hall of Fame career.

Braxton said he and the trainer were further motivated by the eccentricity of horse owner Willis Sharpe Kilmer, who’d been known to have another trainer and groom ready to replace losing teams.

Braxton recalled how horses would get worked up as a race approached. “Horses know when they are coming to the edge of a race,” he said. “Some horses get too excited to eat.”

Dr. Crawford’s plan had been to send Nedary early to Chicago so the horse could work out between the afternoon races in front of a crowd and get used to the noise. Two days before the race, a training jockey ran Nedary at a leisurely pace. The day before the race, he “breezed” Nedary, letting him run faster.

Dr. Kilmer liked his horses to come from behind. They were trained to have that reserve stamina to pass the early leaders. “Good jockeys had a good sense of timing,” said Braxton, “and they knew where to place their horse and wait for an opportunity.” Arcaro had that gift.

Dr. Crawford had been known to breeze horses in the darkness at 4 a.m. before the photographers and media were at the track. If word leaked out how good a horse was, it could affect the race outcome—and it might drop the betting odds.

In those days there was no “official” wagering. Braxton knew bettors usually got their best odds when the bookies showed up at the track at 8 a.m. In those days, the odds a bookie gave a bettor stayed the same and did not continuously change as they do in today’s system of pari-mutuel betting.

For Nedary, the race began after the half-mile pole as the thundering field entered the backstretch. He passed on the straight to save ground, and entered the turn close to the rail.

When they turned for home, Nedary was in fifth. That’s when Arcaro made his move. Nedary won by a length and collected $27,000—a princely sum in those days. As groom, Braxton got a percentage that amounted to $25.

When you’re on top, there’s only one way to go. Dr. Kilmer became ill and died in the late 1930s. Mrs. Kilmer did not share her husband’s passion for horses and eventually sold them and the Remlik farm.

Braxton went to work in Pennsylvania sweeping floors but also learned how to grind camshafts for the Auto Car Company until the factory closed.

He served as a cook in the Navy until, by chance, he met an officer. The officer had showed up for breakfast after 9 a.m. It was past the cut-off time and Braxton was not required to serve him food, but he did. The officer knew a friend of Braxton’s. The friend told the officer Braxton was more than just a cook. The officer made Braxton manager of the officers club. “All the whiskey had to come by me,” he recalled. “So you know I was on everybody’s list.”

In 1952, he broke the color barrier and was accepted and graduated from a TV and radio repair school in Mt. Vernon, N.Y.

Soon after that Braxton became a butler and caterer. He and his wife were visiting upscale Westchester County, N.Y., when they got a job working at a wealthy family’s estate. That job lasted 40 years. “I met the rich and famous,” he said.

Even so, Braxton’s most memorable times were when he was part of the exciting world of horse racing. 

posted 12.03.2009

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