Backstretch Bob Verhoest loves running. He still runs competitively. He has coached cross country and track. He loves to watch thoroughbred horses run. Running is and always has been a part of his life.
Del Mar has also been a big part of his life.
As a youth, racing was always a part of Bob’s life. His father, Raymond, and his mother, Madeline, were in the military. When Bob’s father left the military, he had a job working on a top secret aircraft and went to work on Monday morning and returned on Friday evening.
“As soon as my dad got home, he would pack my brothers, Gene and Eddie, and me in the back of our station wagon and we would go to Caliente and watch the dogs run on Friday night and then stay and watch the horses run on Saturday and Sunday. We would also go to Hollywood Park, Santa Anita and Del Mar. We loved every minute of it.”
When Bob was 15 he went to live with his brother in the summer. His older brother, Gene, was a jockey at Sunland Park in New Mexico. Bob got a job for $36 a day holding up a red flag at the starting gate. When the flag went up, the announcer and the spectators knew that the horses were set in the starting gate.
The timing of the race does not start until the horses are 10 feet out of the gate. That is where Bob stood. When the first horse passed Bob, he took the flag down and the timer started his watch.
“I got hooked. I got to see every race and I made 36 bucks a day. That was a lot of money for a 15-year-old kid then.”
The next summer Bob got a job at Del Mar Race Track where the surf meets the turf. “I started out walking hots. I would walk the horses after they worked out or ran. The second Monday I was there (on Mondays there are no races) there was an employees’ picnic. One of the events at the picnic was a mile race on the turf for humans. My brother knew that I ran track and cross country and talked me into running in the race. Like everything at Del Mar, bets were taken on the race. My brother told trainer Roger Clapp that I could run and in fact I did win the race. After the race Roger came up to me and gave a $100. He said that he had made a lot of money on me. My days of walking hots were over. I became his personal assistant for the rest of the meet.”
He decided to start working full time at Santa Anita when he was 17.
“I would go to work at 4 a.m. in the morning and I would then go to school in the kitchen at 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. on the backside of the track. I actually graduated from high school at Santa Anita. You had to be in school in those days if you were under age and wanted to work at the track.”
Bob had various jobs as he worked his way up the ladder. He worked in the jockey room, he ran bets for trainers, he was a groom, a stable foreman, an assistant trainer, and he eventually got his trainer’s license (he is also licensed to train humans as a personal trainer). “I got my education at Backstretch U.”
Bob has hundreds of great stories.
“When I first got my trainer’s license, George Scott and Alan Paulson had a horse and told me that they would be out of town and they needed me to saddle a horse for them at Del Mar. There has to be a licensed trainer there to saddle up a horse for a race. The horse was named Mt. Laguna. I saddled up the horse and gave the jockey the instructions that the owner and trainer gave me. The horse went off at 9-2. George would always bet a hundred to win for me and the jockey when he wasn’t there. The horse won and paid $11.80. After I left the winners circle I got a call. George and Alan told me that they thought I did a great job and looked good in the winner’s circle. They were at the track. They told me that if Alan saddled the horse it would have gone off at 6-5. Because I saddled the horse it went off at 9-2 and everybody made more money. That was the first horse I saddled up.”
Bob traveled for the trainers when they had horses running at more than one track. He would travel with the horses to Churchill Downs, Hot Springs, Arkansas, Canada, Chicago, New Orleans, New York, Florida, New Mexico and Northern California.
“I would ride in the cargo planes with the horses and actually sleep in the barns for security.”
Continuing, he said, “I have had every trick played on me and I have played about every trick on rookies at the track. I spent a whole day looking for a bucket of steam for Paulson. I have looked for the key to the quarter pole and the key to the backstretch barn door. On my first flight with a horse, the pilot came to me with a hatchet. He said that the horse we were flying was very dangerous and if he started kicking and got loose I would have to chop off his head. If the horse kicked him, I would have to land the plane. He gave me instructions on how to land the plane. I was scared to death the whole flight. I didn’t know it, but the rest of the guys in the plane hid the hatchet after the pilot told me where to get it in case of trouble. They never told me that it was a joke. I found out on the next flight when they pulled the same trick on another rookie. I kept my mouth shut and went along with it.”
Bob has worked with Hall of Fame trainers and jockeys. “Baffert, Whittingham, Mandella, Stevens, Pincay, Shoe. I have been very fortunate.”
He has worked with Best Pal, Kentucky Derby winner, Lil E. Tee and hundreds of other stakes winners, “and a lot more losers,” he joked.
When he started working at Del Mar, “We would really take the horses to the beach to work out in the sand. We would take them under the train trestle at low tide. We would go from the turf to the surf. You can’t do that anymore—insurance and lawsuits.”
Bob has had some good days betting at the track. “When I was 18, my brother Gene and I went in on a $100 Pic Six ticket. We hit it and it paid $106,000. I gave my mom $10,000 and bought a truck and I don’t know what I did with the rest of my share. I don’t even bet that bet anymore.”
When asked what advice he would give to rookie bettors, he laughed and said, “Stay home! No. Just have fun. Bet within your means. Only bet what you can afford to lose.”
After 26 years of training horses, Bob got into the people training business. “My son entered high school and I was working at Golden Eagle. I met coach Al Schaffer and started helping with boys basketball and baseball. I really liked working with kids, so I got a job as campus security and as a trainer and started coaching.”
When asked what the big difference was between working with horses and humans, Bob just laughed and replied, “Horses never complain.”
Del Mar is Bob’s favorite track. “It is just about everybody’s favorite. The beach, the weather, the atmosphere. Everybody is happy to be there. It is like a working vacation for the jocks, owners and trainers.”
Bob runs six miles a day and up to 100 miles a week when he is training for big races. He loves to run.
Will he ever get back in the horse business? “You never know. I loved it. It put food on the table for my family. I met and worked with a lot of great people. Right now I have the best of both worlds. I get to work with kids and I keep in touch with the horse business.” Backstretch Bob loves running.