The stable area at Los Alamitos Race Course stinks.
Its ambiance, courtesy of horse and nature, strikes the uninitiated visitor smack between the nostrils.
Odorous though it may be, the stable’s barns are home to a few hundred trainers, grooms and assorted hangers-on who change with the racing seasons.
If this is September, it must be harness racing.
Orlando Larson loves harness racing. He’s been driving and training standard bred horses for 25 years. Before he graduated to the big tracks such as Los Alamitos, he raced at carnivals and state fairs.
Carnivals and state fairs don’t have ambiance. Just dirt, hay and makeshift facilities. Racing there is just a dusty sideshow for people not willing to wait in line for the parachute ride or Ferris wheel.
But if the situation arose, Larson would return to the sideshow, and do it with a smile. Because no matter the condition of the race course or its stables, the horses are there, and horses are the great love of Orlando Larson’s life.
As he goes about his chores at Los Alamitos, Larson’s eyes flash a childlike gleam that says he’d rather be nowhere else. It’s probably the same look he had as an 8-year-old when eyed the his first horse, a gray saddle horse named Harvey.
“I worked driving a team of horses to get the money.”
When Larson says he drove a team of horses, he doesn’t mean in the back of a truck. We’re talking buckboard and reins stuff. Understand that when Larson was 8, Warren G. Harding was President of the United States and Will Rogers was knocking them dead in the local nickelodeons.
Orlando Larson is now 71.
Until he was 46, he was a successful grain farmer in North Dakota. He had made enough money to comfortably retire. In fact he did retire, but only from farming.
He got into the racing business by trading a neighbor one of his saddle horses for a standard bred.
But Larson failed his test as an equine comparison shopper. The horse he traded for was crippled.
“He was hurt pretty bad in his front legs,” Larson said. “He could hardly walk.”
Within a few weeks, though, the horse was walking with ease. A couple months later, Larson had his first harness racing horse.
“He was cut on his fronts, I just put hot towels on the legs to clean the cut,” he said. “Then I just took care of him.”
It wouldn’t be the last time Larson would resurrect a horse from a seemingly hopeless affliction. There was the time he bought a horse knowing the animal was terrified of track tractors after running too close to one in a warmup run.
“I took him because I thought I could get his confidence back,” Larson said. “The guy who I bought him from thought I was crazy. He said he’d never run on a track again.”
Larson was patient with the horse. There were times when he would sit on his sulky for hours waiting for the horse to run.
“He didn’t want to go out on the track at first. He was pretty scared of those tractors,” Larson said. “So I just sat out there with him. I’d tell him, ‘I can wait as long as you, and at least I get to sit down.’ ”
Eventually the horse came around. Larson had cured another.
He cares for his horses as if they were his children. And, in a way they are. He spends countless hours, at race tracks or back home in Buckeye (where else?), Ariz., brushing, cuddling and talking to them. His horses are quiet and look content. They willingly nuzzle up to Larson when he extends his hand.
This is a far cry, quite literally, from the racket that pervades some trainer’s barns. Horses can be heard banging against their paddocks as if they were prison inmates anxious to escape.
Larson believes he knows why other trainers might have a disgruntled guest or two.
“It’s just the way you treat them,” he said. “You treat them good, they’ll be good to you. Some guys think they can just feed them and that’s all it takes. You got to take care of them. Make them trust you.”
If Albert Schweitzer had gone into racing, chances are he’d of turned out like Orlando Larson.
There’s one thing the two men have in common. Both lived and worked in wild areas, Schweitzer on the edge of the Ogooue ( River in French Equatorial Africa, Larson along the backstretch.
A Day At The Stables (overheard at the stables recently) :
“What did you call me, you blankety-blank-blank? Why don’t you come over here and say that?”
“Why don’t you blankety-blank outta here you, you blank.”
“I swear I’ll bash you over the head with this if you just had enough guts to get over here. . . fatso!”
And that was a married couple. Honest.
The stables breed lasting friendships, but because of the close working atmosphere, people can wear on each other. Larson pretty much keeps to himself. He has a very respectable winning percentage of more than .300. Looks like tender loving care pays residuals. After a race he doesn’t go with all others to congregate in the drivers’ lounge. He heads directly back to the barn to be with his friends--his horses.
“Orlando sticks pretty much to himself,” driver Gene Vallandingham said. “He’s a good driver, he’s patient with his horse. He’ll wait at the back of the pack and let his horse rest every now and then during a race. Then he’ll make his move in the stretch. I’d rather have him out with me, than one of these young kids whose hell-bent on getting to the front of the pack. That’s dangerous.”
Larson says he doesn’t know when he’ll stop all this, go back to Buckeye and finally really retire. He’s tried it a couple times, but something always called him back.
“I don’t think I could ever really leave,” he said, leaning against the small cot in his barn office on which he catches naps every afternoon. “I love what I do. And I love the horses.”
The feeling is mutual.