When they found Morris Gardner dead in his bed on the Pimlico backstretch, he was curled up as if he were sleeping.
That is the only positive aspect to the death of the soft-spoken, caring, respected horseman. He went quickly, apparently without suffering.
Gardner, 51, died of a massive heart attack early Sunday. That left 28 horses in Mary Eppler's barn without the two surest hands they probably ever will know. Dozens of workers at the Pimlico barns lost the one strong male who would always try to set them straight, and the ancient and proud profession of groom lost one of its most dedicated practitioners.
"He was part of a breed that's becoming rarer and rarer: a groom who is a true horseman," said Dan Dreyfuss, a veterinarian who cares for horses at Pimlico. "He was strong as a bull. But he had infinite patience and kindness toward horses as well as people."
Vernon Johnson, a fellow groom and also Gardner's cousin, said: "Morris was one of the old-time grooms who put his heart and soul into his horses, who could tell you anything about a racehorse. Many a groom right now is a good groom because of him. If they had a school to train grooms, I'd recommend Morris to be the teacher."
Gardner worked as foreman for Eppler and oversaw her horses in Barn 3 on the Pimlico backstretch. But Gardner worked for many trainers throughout his lifetime on the racetrack, which began when he was a boy living in Towson -- the youngest of nine children -- in the care of his father, Tommy, a trainer now retired.
"Morris had as much class an anyone I ever met," said Ann Merryman, a trainer who employed Gardner in the mid 1980s. "When he took your horse over to the paddock, you were the proudest trainer there because the horse just always looked the best."
A man of medium build, few words and a twinkle in his eyes, Gardner bathed horses, applied bandages, rubbed, fed, walked and talked to horses -- and taught others how to do that, too. He arrived at the barn about 4: 45 a.m. and stayed until about 8 p.m. -- except when he spent the night in a room above the barn.
That's what he did Saturday because he was going to accompany horses to Saratoga early Sunday morning. But Gardner, always first to arrive and last to leave, did not emerge from his room. He had died during the night.
"It's even hard to talk about him," Eppler said. "He was such a good man. He never had a sick day. He never drank, never smoked, never did drugs. Everybody loved Morris."
Gardner lived straight, and he tried to steer barn workers in the same direction.
"Ninety percent of the young men on the backstretch looked up to Morris in some way, shape or form," Dreyfuss said. "He was either the father figure, the uncle figure or the older-brother figure.
"Let's face it, a lot of those men came from families that didn't have a stable male in their upbringing. For a lot of them, Morris was that man. That is probably the most telling testimonial to him."
Nevertheless, Gardner, who worked for modest wages like all backstretch employees, struggled financially. Friends said he worried so much about finances toward the end that it might have contributed to his death.
His wife of 27 years, Faye, was laid off from her job in computer repair and maintenance shortly after the couple bought a townhouse in Rosedale -- a dream of theirs for years.
"Morris never made a lot of money," Faye Gardner said. "But he did what he loved. That was his whole life."
Backstretch workers, trainers and owners of some of the horses Gardner cared for over the years are collecting money to aid his family and to help pay funeral expenses. Gardner had a daughter with Faye, a son by an earlier marriage and three stepdaughters.
A public viewing will be held from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. today at Chatman-Harris Funeral Home, 5240 Reisterstown Road. Family members will receive friends in the chapel from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m.
Tomorrow, a wake will commence at noon at Mount Calvary A.M.E. Church, 300 Eudowood Lane, Towson. Funeral services will begin at 12: 30 p.m.
Since his death, a niece has assembled a mural of photographs that will be displayed at the funeral. The photos show Gardner with many of the horses he rubbed -- horses with names such as Soul Of Honor, Smile Be Happy, Reach The Top, Over The Brink and Hey Up There.
In nearly every case Gardner is the one closest to the horse. And both horse and groom stand tall in the winner's circle.
(Contributions to the Morris Gardner Fund can be made to the Maryland Horsemen's Assistance Fund, 6314 Windsor Mill Road, Baltimore, Md. 21207.)
Pub Date: 8/20/98