Rodney Rash was 15 and stubborn when he left his family's dairy farm in Woodbine in Carroll County to go to Southern California to learn the horse-racing business.
A friend gave him a list of five trainers to contact. At the bottom of the list was the name of a legend, Charlie Whittingham.
"A friend told me to not even bother going to Mr. Whittingham. He wouldn't even take me," Rash said. "So, of course, I went to Mr. Whittingham first. I just showed up at his doorstep. I got to his barn really early, 3:45 a.m. He showed up 15 minutes later, and I asked him for a job. He sized me up and said he didn't have any work for me. I started walking away when I ran into his old foreman, Mr. Ed Lambert. I asked him if he had any work for me. And Mr. Lambert gave me a job as a hot walker. That's how I got started."
Sixteen years after his lowly start in horse racing, Rash is on his own as a trainer. Saturday, he'll saddle the first horse he's trained on his own, Honor Grades, in the Preakness.
Honor Grades isn't just any bay colt to round out the field in the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. The horse is owned by Bruce McNall, a Los Angeles-based businessman who has a habit of collecting things such as coins (the rarer the richer), sports teams (the Los Angeles Kings and Toronto Argonauts) and sports stars (Wayne Gretzky and Raghib "Rocket" Ismail).
Gretzky and Magic Johnson are part owners of Honor Grades, which makes this horse the ultimate L.A. big deal.
"All I need is a football player, and I've got all my tickets covered," Rash said. "My mama didn't raise no fool."
Rash was raised to be a dairy farmer, just like his father. But he caught the track bug early, accompanying his father and uncle to Pimlico to deliver hay.
"I said the hell with cattle, let me at the horses," Rash said.
Doris Harmon Rash wasn't thrilled when her son said he wanted to leave the family farm for California. But she wasn't going to stop him.
"I didn't care that much about horse racing," she said. "But it was his life-long dream. How can you get in the way of a dream?"
Rash learned the racing business from the ground up, working for Whittingham at Santa Anita.
"The two biggest things Charlie taught me were patience and there are no big deals," Rash said. "If you take an animal and do the fundamentals, like give them water and feed them and train them right, the horse will run. I apply that to my life. You take care of the fundamentals, you'll be all right."
His early years at the track weren't easy. Rash lived in a room in Whittingham's barn. No windows. No toilet. A concrete floor. And a cot. Pay was $75 a week.
"You spend your holidays alone, and you wonder why you're doing this," Rash said. "The first 10 years were not easy. I knew what I wanted."
Rash, with Whittingham's help, also was forced to deal with his alcoholism. He says he has been sober for five years.
"Charlie is like a father to me," Rash said. "He'd see me going to take a shower on a Saturday night, ask me where I was going that night and tell me not to get in any trouble. They don't make people like that. He's the most influential person in my life."
But, eventually, Rash had to break out on his own to become a successful trainer. After nine years as Whittingham's chief assistant, Rash decided to make the break last winter.
"It was the toughest decision I ever made in my life," Rash said. "I always had goals set in my head that I'd like to be a trainer when I'm in my 30s. Next month, Charlie turns 78, and he isn't getting any younger. But I'm 31, and I'm getting older. Who knows when it's really time to leave? Who knows when a bird jumps out of a nest and flies away, or when a son leaves a father? I miss Charlie very, very much. The strength he gives me is incredible."
When Honor Grades finished second in the Derby Trial, Rash called Whittingham to get his former boss' reaction.
"Charlie said, 'Well, you trained all the speed out of him,' " Rash said. "That's the way Charlie tells you that you've done a good job."
Now, Rash is trying to train his horse to complete a storybook finish in the Preakness. Rash wants to come home a winner.
"Win this race?" Rash said. "I'd be flatly astounded. I'd just think of how lucky I am, and how grateful I am to get the opportunity. I'd be one lucky S.O.B. Hey, things just don't happen that way."