The Blacksmith Who Just Might Become US President

by Perry Lefko, courtesy of Harness Racing Update

Lincoln Chafee left home in his twenties to begin a career in the standardbred racing game as a farrier in western Canada and now some 30 years later he is considering a run for the President of the United States. And if it’s true that America is indeed the land of opportunity, the former Governor of Rhode Island who proudly wore a tie with a design of harness horses in his official bio photo and who figuratively still has hoofprints on his heart could find himself leading the country.

Two weeks ago, Chafee announced he’s running for the Democratic nomination for President in 2016, hoping to fill the seat which Barack Obama will vacate after two terms. While it’s early in the process and he’s just formed an exploratory committee, he is nonetheless in pursuit of the biggest victory of his political life, and because of his background in horse racing he knows that you can’t win if you don’t enter the race.

“Anything’s possible,” he told me in a telephone interview this week.

Chafee, who co-chaired Obama’s re-election campaign, has a history of politics dating back to his great-great grandfather, who was Governor of Rhode Island, and his father, who also served as Governor of the state. To use the horse racing analogy, Chafee has a good pedigree. How his life and political career evolved to this point is an interesting journey. A child of one the five founding families of Rhode Island, Chafee attended a prestigious high school in Massachusetts and his classmates included former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who is seeking to become President as a Republican, and New England Patriots‘ head coach Bill Belichick. Chafee attended and graduated from Brown University with a concentration in classics, and it was then that the well-heeled, well-educated individual took a dramatically different turn in his life by enrolling in a blacksmith school at Montana State University in Bozeman, Montana.

“I worked construction during summers as a laborer, but I saw the skilled construction people – the bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters – and I admired them,” he said. “They had a skill and they could go anywhere they wanted and find a job, much easier than a laborer could. I was thinking how do I get a skill? Then I saw an ad for a horseshoe school. I had grown up with horses and had always watched the blacksmith do his job, so I thought there’s a skill, a little different from construction, but you could go anywhere in the country, or North America as it turns out, if you have that skill.

“The school just gave me the rudiments. I knew I needed to continue my education. Someone said the best shoers are not on the thoroughbred track, they’re on the harness track because they do so much on the forge, much more than just plating.”

To put his skills to work, he assembled a list of the racetracks in the East Coast and in what seems like the Johnny Cash song I’ve Been Everywhere, he went to places such as Brandywine, Batavia, Roosevelt and many others hoping an experienced blacksmith would be interested in a young assistant. But he met with rejection. It was at the Red Mile in Lexington, late on a Friday, where he finally found someone who would hire him. Jack Perry was closing up shop for the weekend but told him to come back the following Monday and he would be hired.

“He paid me $75 a week, which was great, and I found a room at the University of Kentucky, and he taught me,” Chafee said. “It was a great experience. I started by just pulling shoes, paring out the hooves and rasping off the clinches. He kept me doing a little bit more and then we started to do really well. With a helper he could do more and better work and his business prospered.

“Sometimes at the end of the day, trainers came to him and said ‘my horse is racing tonight, can you shoe him?’ He said, ‘I’m done, but my helper will shoe ’em if that’s okay with you?’ He’d sit there drinking a Rolling Rock and tell me if I was making a mistake. I got to do it all.”

When the meet ended and Perry went to Louisville Downs and couldn’t afford to keep his assistant, Chafee began looking for a place to work. A trainer who raced in Alberta told him he couldn’t get his horses shod there, so Chafee went to the Canadian prairie province, which he was familiar with because it was northwest of Montana. He came to Stampede Park in Calgary and began a working relationship with trainer/driver Dave Downey, who had some 40 horses.

“He showed up one day in my shedrow, this tall, lanky blond fella,” Downey recalled. “He seemed well-spoken and he was asking me if there was any work for a blacksmith. I had a large stable, but I already had a blacksmith. I said, ‘I’ve got a couple horses that need to be shod, how about you shoe them for me and see what kind of job you do and we’ll go from there?’ He did a great job and over time he became my blacksmith. He was good at it. He was the type of guy that when you explained the way your horse travelled, he would do the job and come by the barn the next day and say, ‘What do you think? Did we get it right?’ I appreciated that. A lot of times trades people do the job and collect the money and then it’s ‘see ya later,’ but he was very conscientious and we became friends.

“I had a horse, Widow’s Honey, and when I purchased it he wouldn’t voluntarily pick up his back feet so you could clean them or put his equipment on or shoe him. Every time you picked the back feet up, he’d try and nail you. This is one of the first horses I took over to Linc to shoe. He’d pick the foot up and the horse would kick at him, so he’d go pick it up again and the horse would kick at him again. He’d go and rub the horse’s face a little bit and talk to him and then come back and pick up the foot again. Never raised his voice, never lost his patience. The second time he shod the horse, Linc got along great with him. He was very patient and had a soothing voice that the horses took to.”

Chafee went to Northlands Park in Edmonton when the circuit shifted there. One of the horses he shod, Over Burden, set a track record and became a major star. Chafee had a placard in his office as senator and governor of the horse’s shoes.

“It was a great time of my life,” Chafee said. “Nobody knew anything about my background. It was fun, the money was good. I worked hard. It was just a terrific experience. Calgary and Edmonton, it was just the best.”

Clark Beelby, who in later years would be voted Alberta Horseman of the Year three times, fondly recalled Chafee’s early years. The two are still close friends.

“When he arrived in Canada he was so quiet (and) humble,” Beelby said. “He always wanted to listen, but in his humble way not really wanting to talk about himself. Of course the racetrack being a close-knit community, a lot of us were wondering what’s his story? What is it with this blond-haired American guy coming up here to the north? Nobody knew anything about him. It was only natural to wonder is he running from the law? We found out later.”

Chafee spent two winters at Pompano Park in Florida to sharpen his skills. He worked for farrier Dick Neville, whose accounts included prominent horsemen Stanley Dancer, George Sholty and Bill Popfinger. When Chafee returned to Alberta after the first winter and began working again, he was busted by Canadian Immigration for not having the proper papers. He went to court and was among a crowd of prostitutes and drug dealers, and when his case came up the judge read out the fine for illegally shoeing horses and fined him $50. It was essentially a minor office, and he was told he could continue working if he was able to get Landed Immigrant Status by having someone vouch for him. When various trainers turned him down, he found one who would do it and signed the form with a letter X instead of his name, claiming he was illiterate. Gradually the Canadian horsemen found out about his identity. Beelby learned about it after playing tennis against Chafee.

“I asked where he played and he said when he was growing up they had a tennis court in their backyard,” Beelby said. “At least now we in the backstretch knew he came from money, but nothing like what was to happen a couple of months later. I came into his shop one day and he said, ‘Clark, I would like you to meet my dad, Senator John Chafee from Rhode Island.’ It totally floored us that Linc’s dad was a senator. He had never said anything. He was just so humble. In hindsight, he just wanted to get away and be treated like a real person instead of ‘John’s son.'”

After seven years away from home, Chafee decided he wanted to return to Rhode Island. One day after work, he decided to place a bet on the opening Pick 3. He liked to bet horses he shod, and on this particular occasion he bet $4 and won the exotic wager, cashing $1,002. He used the money to buy a roundtrip ticket home, hoping to only stay a couple days. He arrived in time to see his father re-elected in the 1982 Senate.

“I was away from Rhode Island for all those years, and I wanted to come back east to be closer to home and see my friends,” he said. “Seven years is a long time up there, but once I got back east I decided to try something different, get into a business or work for a company, so that’s what I did.”

He started his political career in municipal politics and began his ascent to become senator, replacing his father, who died in 1999, and then running for election and winning a six-year term. In 2002, the late Stan Bergstein invited Chafee to speak at the Harness Racing Congress. Bergstein read that Chafee had once shod horses in western Canada, which he found highly unusual for a son of a distinguished senator father, and figured the senator would be an interesting addition to a strong roster of Congress speakers.

“I did not expect that he would accept, but I like longshots, on and off at the track,” Bergstein would later write. “I called HTA and USTA director Paul Fontaine, a Rhode Island constituent of the senator, who told me Chafee was a delightful guy, and I invited Paul and Plainridge Racecourse president Gary Piontkowski to introduce him at the Congress. They did, and Chafee was not two minutes into his speech when his enthusiastic knowledge of harness racing, and his obvious affection for the sport became apparent. His talk was wonderful. There is no other word to describe it. (He) not only knew harness racing intimately, but obviously understood it and loved it, every bit as much as any one of the hundreds who attended the Congress.

“He gave it as a chat between friends, and it was easy to understand listening to his fascinating delivery why this natural spellbinder would be elected to the Senate. His constituents obviously feel they have a friend, not merely a politician, representing them.”

Chafee was later made an honorary member of the New England Chapter of the United States Harness Writers Association, and in 2003, he received the USHWA William Haughton Good Guy Award. Chafee would later be elected as Governor, but not before leaving the Republican Party and becoming an independent. In May, 2013, he switched to the Democratic Party. A few months later, he decided not to run for re-election.

While his political career has gone in various directions, his affection and fondness for harness racing is still strong. Last year, he attended the Living Horse Hall of Fame induction ceremony in Goshen, New York, and invited Downey and his wife Sandra to join him and his wife.

“It blew me away to see heads of big industry farms and people from high places in our industry who knew him personally and made a point of coming over to shake his hand,” Downey said. “The support he’s given the industry with the various articles that have been written on him and his fondness for the sport didn’t go unnoticed. He has made some amazing friends in the business just by being who he is. He’s a very genuine man.”

In 2013, the Downeys were travelling to Atlantic Canada and stopped in to see Chafee in Rhode Island. In his office, Chafee had a win photo of Barney B. Wings, who Downey trained and drove. Chafee is holding the gelding’s head in the photo.

“He still has that passion for the horses, you can see it,” Downey said. “He still is very proud of his accomplishments as a farrier and he should be. This was way outside the box of the way he was raised. He made a successful career on his own without anybody making a phone call somewhere hooking him up with something. He did it on his own and he’s justifiably proud of it. That’s a part of who he is today.”

Chafee knows that he can be a valuable focal point and spokesman for the sport of horse racing, in particular harness racing, which is fighting to maintain its relevance.

“The gambling dollar just got spread so thin with all these lotteries and casinos. There’s just too many choices,” he said. “It used to be the thoroughbreds, the harness racing and maybe some dog racing and quarterhorses. It’s a great sport, and any time you’re around the horses it’s a good thing. I’d like to be an ambassador for the sport.

“I’d encourage ownership. That’s how you get the bug. You buy a young colt or a filly at a sale or get a claimer. It’s just so much fun being involved in the sport. I haven’t done enough with Plainridge. I just got involved with my career as mayor, then senator and then governor and I haven’t bought a horse myself. I have not been a good attendee at Plainridge. It’s not for a lack of passion for the sport, though; it’s a matter of time, raising a family, all kinds of obligation.”

When asked about his attempt to become President, Chafee is realistic. He is now trying to gain support from voters, similar to when he was trying to gain support from horsemen to shoe their horses and no one in the business knew anything about him. The stakes are considerably higher now, but it’s still about proving himself, albeit he has a track record, pardon the pun, in politics.

“The process is that the early states are important – that’s Iowa and New Hampshire,” he said. “I have to meet people. It’s called retail. That’s how I started at the local level, going door to door after work and on weekends, and asking for their vote. That’s the process. I think what’s happened after September 11, wars everywhere seemed to come back, conflict everywhere. I think the United States is making some mistakes internationally, harming our long-term interest, so that’s really when I started to think about running for President.”

Those who know Chafee are not entirely surprised about his Presidential aspirations. He sent a letter to Beelby after the events of 9/11 and prior to the Iraq war saying he was concerned President George W. Bush was “sewing the seeds of hatred for generations to come.” Beelby visited Chafee in Washington in 2005 and was told of his designs on running for President. And this past January while Chafee and his wife Stephanie were in Florida, they visited Beelby who was training horses. Beelby inquired about what the former Governor planned to do now that he wasn’t in political office.

“I will let Linc tell you,” Stephanie told Beelby. “Later Linc and I were sitting on a golf cart waiting for somebody I wanted him to meet. I asked, ‘So what are you doing now, Linc? I know you are thinking of something.’ He just said in his humble way ‘I don’t think Hillary (Clinton) should get a free ride’ (as the Democratic nominee for President). Once it dawned on me what he was saying, I just reached out and shook his hand. It was one of the most memorable times in my life. He basically said he wants to run on a ‘kinder America.’

“Of course Linc thinks he can win it and of course he realizes he is an underdog. The money Hillary has raised is really not intimidating. It really is going to end up being a hindrance. Too much froth in her system.

“I know one thing: Linc would exhaust all avenues before a war. If he ever said it needs to be done, it would need to be done. He would only make the decision after openly listening to all parties openly and thoroughly. I totally would trust his judgment 100%. He is his own man and has a great overall picture and understanding of the world. Bottom line, he wants to say what he wants to say. People can do with it what they want, but it will be said.

“I really feel he is by far the most patriotic candidate in the race – Democrats or Republicans. When I visited him in Washington, he was carrying around the U.S. Constitution in his pocket.”

Dave Downey said it would be quite a stretch to envision the young man who came to his barn in the ’70s would one day become a Presidential candidate.

“But after he did my shoeing for awhile, I got to know a bit about his background,” Downey said. “Looking back, I’m sure he took up shoeing just to find himself. Turning forward to his life later that, I can see where he wants to be a difference maker.”

Don’t bet against it. As the expression goes, if the shoe fits…

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