The young athlete standing next to me is an impressive physical specimen. His name is Jake. Jake is an orphan from Indiana who now lives on a white-fenced ranch in Russellville, Arkansas. Tall and muscular, Jake has an unmistakable air of confidence surrounding him. He has a presence. Linda Rhodes-Utley, one of Jake’s trainers, pats his muscular shoulder as Jim Stamps talks about the athlete’s first race coming up later this year. “He’s so big I’m going to have his knees checked out before his first race,” said Jim. Though he’s an orphan, Jake’s lineage is known. His mother was also an outstanding athlete, and Jim is hoping that Jake inherited his mother’s speed along with another quality that’s not so easily measured.
Inside the stables, Jim is patting and admiring Jake’s outstanding physical form, noting areas of growth and potential. “Look at this. Just look at how he’s filling out in his hips.” The robust curve of Jake’s quadricep is where the power comes from, but Jim is pinning his hopes for Jake on the excellence of another particular muscle. “It’s all right here,” said Jim as he points to Jake’s massive chest. “He’s got to have a big heart. When they did an autopsy on Secretariat, they found out that his heart was huge. He just had a bigger motor than other horses.”
Jim is right. Though Secretariat’s heart wasn’t weighed after his autopsy, It was estimated to weigh 22 pounds. The veterinary pathologist performing the autopsy remarked that after thousands of equine autopsies he had never noticed a dramatic difference in size of horse hearts until he saw Secretariat’s heart. The average weight of a horse’s heart is eight and a half pounds.
A big heart is essential both literally and metaphorically. A large heart means oxygen starved muscles are replenished quicker resulting in better performance and winning runs. But Jim was also referring to something abstract. Something unquantifiable. Did this horse have gumption? Was there a competitive flame flickering behind Jake’s chestnut eyes? Would that flame escalate into an inferno with jockey astride and challengers on either side? That would remain to be seen. For now, Jake was learning about how his body reacted to the guidance of Linda along with her sister and fellow trainer, Cathy Rhodes. Jake’s story is just beginning. But if history is any indication, Jake is in capable hands. Jim Stamps knows a thing or two about racehorses and success. Jim and his wife of 49 years, Paula, have lived a life that would leave many envious. Beginning with his first solo flight at the age of 16, Jim, now 83, has spent about as much time in the clouds as on the ground. That inaugural solo flight from an airstrip at Arkansas Tech University led to Jim visiting every country in the world. Jim has piloted planes for politicians Bill Clinton, Barry Goldwater and Jimmy Carter. Mick Jagger asked Jim to fly over an island volcano so he could get a better view. Jim flew a young starlet named Cameron Diaz from Ft. Lauderdale to Burbank. Paula, a former flight attendant, hasn’t logged as many air miles as Jim, but has seen much of the globe at high altitude and met many interesting people. Jim’s distinguished career led to his 2004 induction into the Arkansas Aviation Hall of Fame where the inductee speaking just prior to Stamps was a World War II POW. “What do you say after you hear a speech from a guy like that,” said Jim. “I thought about how different our lives had been .” So when Jim took the podium all he could think to say was “It’s a long way from Pea Ridge, Arkansas.” Jim was referencing the Pea Ridge located just north of Atkins where as a boy two things always held his attention: competition and speed.
Race horses are perhaps the perfect combination of competition and speed. Athletes in the purest sense, racing thoroughbreds and quarter horses are groomed for the track from the time their hooves hit the ground. Jim bought his first racehorse in 1955. “I was too old to compete, and I like to compete, so I let someone else do it for me,” said Jim. “And I’ve always liked horses. Ever since I can remember I’ve liked horses.” The horse, an animal built to run, an animal that in Greek mythology was given wings, is a worthy choice for Jim’s vicarious life. Physical attributes aside, the horse holds a special place in the hearts of humankind. Humans and horses have a unique, centuries old bond that forever altered the course of both species. And, like Jim’s statement about big hearts, the different elements of this relationship between humans and horses sometimes become blurry.
Cathy Rhodes, Linda’s sister, is now saddled up on Jake and cruising smoothly through the pasture as Jim and I discuss racing, horses, and the power of a big heart in both man and beast. As Cathy and Jake reach the far end of the pasture, a dip in the landscape obscures some of my view. All that’s visible is Cathy’s torso and the upper third of Jake; it looks as if Cathy is gliding. The two move as one with barely a bobble. As I watch the seamless wave of energy transferred from ground-thumping hooves to rider, the word that comes to mind is efficiency. Jake’s movements are a study in efficiency, and when you couple that efficiency with Cathy’s expert riding skills it produces synergy: the interaction of elements that, when combined, produce a total effect greater than the sum of the individual elements. This makes it easy to see how another Greek myth was formed, that of the centaur, half man and half horse. The fusion of raw power and intelligent guidance. A force to be reckoned with. Precisely the relationship between Jim and his stable of winners over the years.
Jim and Paula’s track record speaks for itself. “We did real well. We used to win 30 or 40 races a year,” said Jim. Photographs of winning horses like Dianetomeetcha and Stamps One stack on top of one another on Jim and Paula’s dining room table. Jim reminisces about wins and lineages with a smile. A lot of the horses’ success can be traced back to Jim’s dedication. “I was senior at the airline then, so I could set my schedule around races and my son’s football,” said Jim. “I’m not saying I was better at training than anyone else, but I really took care of the horses. And if you take care of them they would take care of you.” Jim’s competitive nature was on full display in his training regimen, and it led to some revolutionary ideas in horseracing. It was just a little thing, but competitors look for any edge no matter how small. “I used to watch the tapes of every race, win or lose, and try to find ways to improve,” said Jim. “This was something that no one else in horse racing was doing at the time, but it made a difference.” Though Jim has passed horse training on to Linda and Cathy, he does so with reluctance — he just can’t stay away from the stable. Jim still does the afternoon feeding.
Outside the stables, in a large white-fenced paddock, a 10-month-old colt frolics in the cold January sunshine. “We call him Big Mike,” said Jim. “We named him after our grandson in Florida. Mike, our grandson, set the school record the other day for weight lifting. He lifted 545 pounds. He weighs 276 pounds and he’s right at six foot, and he’s only 16-years-old.” Big Mike, the colt, is also large and strong for his age. Besides distinguishing size, Big Mike also sports twin bumps on his forehead. “Our vet said he’s never seen another horse with bumps like that,” said Jim. The bumps, along with a rambunctious attitude on display most vibrantly when he kicked Jim (causing just a bruise) a while back, led Linda and Cathy to give Big Mike another name. “We call him Lucifer,” said Linda. Big Mike gives all outward appearances of owning a big heart, but he settles down as Jim approaches and leans over the white fence to stroke Big Mike’s nose. The connection is complex. Jim is already harnessing that power and spirit, guiding what will likely be another winner into his stable of legends.