My grandpa is standing to the left of the Guys and Dolls banner with his hand on my Aunt Carole who is wearing the polka dotted skirt. My grandma is holding up the banner at the corner by Rillito Boy. My mom is standing behind her towards Rillito Boy and holding the white purse.
If a horse loses an eye, some will tell you to put the horse down. They say the horse will never be able to get around or be able to do anything of merit. Luckily, other people realize that it is just something that a horse can adjust to and overcome, because of their amazing senses.
A couple of years ago a thoroughbred named Patch qualified for the Kentucky Derby, and he is proved that losing an eye has nothing to do with speed and heart. While many are in awe about this with good reason, my grandpa wouldn’t be surprised by Patch. He also would love to follow Hard Not To Love. He would understand what she goes through before a race better than most.
Back in 1951, a bay thoroughbred colt was born to Mrs. Marge Allen; a prominent horse breeder and horse racing enthusiast in Arizona. The story goes that one night a bad storm moved in with a lot of thunder and lightning. Rillito Boy was a newly weaned colt, and he got the idea that the stallion in the next pasture might be good to hang out with during the storm. I’m sure he was scared, and he wanted to be with an older horse for comfort and protection. Whatever the reason, Rillito Boy climbed through the barbed wire fence injuring his eye causing him to lose all vision in it. Mrs. Allen and her trainer, Manny Figueroa, both saw a horse that didn’t seem hampered at all by the loss of his eye, so they put him into training when he was ready. Figueroa told my grandpa, “This is why he is so tough.” Rillito Boy had a reputation amongst humans and horses for being fierce as you will see.
Whenever I visited my grandpa, I pulled out the photo albums of his horses and asked him to tell me about Rillito Boy again and again. I never tired of hearing about him. He is the type of horse that most people run from, but for some reason he was the exact horse my grandpa and I both were drawn to. He told me about how hard he was to handle by past grooms, how he ripped a groom’s lip off, and how he took a chunk out of another groom’s ribs one day.
My mom, Lanie Fouch, recently said, “There were many times that we had former grooms come up and tell us that he had put them in the hospital, or at least knocked them against the wall. I could always go in with him, and so could Daddy. However, I never let my guard down.”
Grandpa marveled at his desire to win. “Once he bit a horse on the neck that was beating him, and he got disqualified for that,” chuckled my Grandpa. He got such a kick out of horses that had fire in their belly.
My mom said, “If a horse acted up next to him in a gate, he would reach over and bite his neck. It must have gotten around among the other horses, because eventually horses that were next to him were perfect in the gate.”
My grandpa was born and raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where he brought jukeboxes, pinball machines and the first drive-in movie theatre to Fox Point, Wisconsin. When my mom developed rheumatic fever, the family moved to Tucson, Arizona where my grandfather got involved with horse racing.
“Our first quarter horse was kept at Mr. Jelk’s place on the backstretch at Rillito Park. That must be how Daddy got to know Manny (Figueroa) and Mrs. Allen. The whole atmosphere around that little race track and the people were great. We had lots of rich people, we had mobsters, and we had the people on the backstretch; they were great. They accepted Daddy and the rest of our family right away,” said my Mom.
My grandpa also lost vision in one of his eyes. My mom isn’t sure what happened, but he came home from the eye doctor in severe pain. She remembers my grandma doing everything she could to help him. He never made an issue of it, and in fact, he seemed to see things more clearly than all of us with two eyes. He would take me to visit the horses, and he taught me to close my eyes while running my hands down a horse’s legs. Eyes can fool us he explained, but our hands feel the truth. I still do this, and he’s right; our eyes see what they want to see.
When my grandpa and Rillito Boy met, I think Rillito Boy, a thoroughbred, knew my grandpa understood him, which made him feel a bit safer. They both knew what the other one went through. That silent communication between horse and human that my grandpa excelled at possibly allowed Rillito Boy to let his guard down a bit. My mom said she always kept an eye on him when she was around him, but my grandpa said she could walk under his belly if she wanted to. Rillito Boy knew he found people that understood him, accepted him, and didn’t try to muscle him. My grandpa always told me to be creative when working with a horse; that trainers get into ruts thinking one method is good for every horse.
Some might think a horse with only one eye couldn’t be a good racehorse, because they can’t see their competition coming. While horses have great vision, their hearing is often what alerts them as to what to look at. Since they are prey animals, all of their senses are heightened, so losing an eye could be a problem; not a disaster. My guess is Rillito Boy could hear them and feel them coming. It sounded to me from all of the stories I heard that he was an incredibly astute horse. He learned what my grandpa taught me; your eyes can tell lies.
Rillito Boy was a sprinter that placed in the money forty-eight times. One race in the photo album stood out the most for me, because everyone is so happy in it. It is a race that stands out for my mom as well.
On April 13, 1956, the Arizona Republic spotlighted the 5 ½ furlong race called Guys and Dolls at Arizona Downs. The six horses in the race were “Arizona Downs” stars, and Rillito Boy was one of those horses. He just won at Santa Anita Park in California, and he was going against two others that the paper thought could win the race: Sistony and Karen Arthene.
When the gate opened that day, the other horses never had a chance. All of the fight and love for running that roared through Rillito Boy’s veins broke out of the gate on top leaving all the horses with perfect eyes in his dust. Try as they might they couldn’t catch him. Rillito Boy ran with such purpose and drive that he led the others by more than six lengths in the backstretch. When he crossed the finish line, he broke the track record with a time of 1:03 3/5 and ran one of the fastest sprints in 1956 winning by several lengths.
If Mrs. Allen or my grandpa thought Rillito’s lost eye ruined him, Rillito Boy never would have been able to do what he loved most; run. Some horses are never made to hit the track, but Rillito Boy was. He loved to run, and my grandpa enjoyed every moment with him. I enjoyed sitting at this feet listening to him tell me stories about his stride, his powerful shoulders and hindquarters, the fight in him, the grooms that he had his way with, how he won by a tongue (yes, he stuck his tongue out to win a race), and how he thought Rillito Boy would have liked me; which I asked him all the time. My grandpa taught me through these stories to not give up on a horse because others have, or because others tell you to. If you see something in a horse, believe in it. They also taught me is that disabilities aren’t a limitation unless we make it so; my grandpa showed me that every day. Often a horse’s limitations are the ones we impose upon them, and luckily no one did that to Rillito Boy or Patch or Hard Not To Love.