Life of indelible impressions

Horse racing: Bernie Houghton, who makes his living with ink, needles and a sharp eye, hears a lot of snickers, but the state's bettors are the better for his work.

February 06, 1999|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

Bernie Houghton is the one racetrack denizen who gets all his information straight from the horse's mouth.

He doesn't mind taking lip from the thoroughbreds who compete at the Maryland tracks; it's all in a day's work.

As the identifier (or lip man, in track parlance), Houghton has a vital, yet thankless, task at Laurel Park and Pimlico -- making certain that the right horses are running in the right races. He is the last line of defense against cheating.

"Nobody really likes doing this," said the Towson resident and one-time steeplechase jockey, who led the nation's jump riders in victories in 1985. "You have to check 80 to 90 horses a day and, if a horse runs that shouldn't be in there, you're in big trouble."

Houghton had worked at a variety of positions (patrol judge, entry clerk) through the racing secretary's office when Maryland Jockey Club vice president Lenny Hale told him a tattoo man was needed after Joe Furfure left.

Each thoroughbred must have a number tattooed under its top lip before being allowed to start in any race recognized by the jockey club. That number must be the same as that on the foal certificate issued for the horse before the age of 2.

"Foal papers are like the title to your car," Houghton said.

So, Houghton launched a career that takes him to a variety of Maryland barns on the tracks' dark days, where he tattoos soon-to-be runners with small needles, and to the track on live days, where he must check every horse's identity upon entrance to the paddock before a race.

"This came to me by accident, really," he said. "For a while, I was an assistant to [trainer] Barclay Tagg, who went to Penn State with my father, but that got tough getting up at 3: 30 a.m. seven days a week."

Said Hale: "Bernie is a top horseman. I even let him ride my horses. And the job he's doing is obviously very important. Thoroughbreds are pretty keyed up when they come to the paddock, so an identifier could easily get hurt. And when they're being tattooed, they've been known to rear up and strike because it's a process they're not used to.

"He'll go above and beyond to try to help horsemen out, going to distant farms to tattoo."

From a racing family, Houghton's idol as a youth was jockey Steve Cauthen, but it wasn't long before it was impossible to emulate him.

"The closer I got to 16, the more I struggled for weight," Houghton said. "That wasn't a problem in steeplechasing, so that's how I went. But I quit one night after being in the sweatbox for four hours trying to make 156 pounds. I decided if I won that one, I was going to retire."

He now confines his riding to occasional point-to-point meetings.

On a typical race day, Houghton arrives at the track in the morning and begins to prepare, arranging foal papers with the racing card's entries on small notebooks with plastic inserts, race by race.

Twenty minutes before the first race, he takes the board to the paddock and begins matching the numbers to those under the horses' lips. When each race is over, he records the win on the back of the appropriate foal papers.

"If there is any question at all about the identity of the horse, that horse doesn't run," he said. "Three different people check, but I'm the final one. We want to make sure the integrity of racing is safeguarded. None of this stuff [switching a better horse for one of lesser quality] should happen like it did 20 years ago."

Sometimes, coloration inside the lips of older horses -- which obscures the black ink -- forces him to identify a horse from the foal papers alone. Once, when a race for fillies was coming up, he knew simply by looking at a particular horse, there was a problem.

"You could tell by looking between the legs, this horse didn't belong in that race," he said.

Houghton stands slightly to the side of a horse in case of a negative reaction and checks the numbers "quick. You have to do it real fast; you can't be shaking their heads."

A few just won't cooperate, so they must be identified from the markings on their foal papers. "With some, you just can't flip the lip," Houghton said. "They don't like it."

A devotee of all sports, particularly roller blading, motorcycles and skiing, Houghton said it's very rare that a horse has to be tranquilized to accept the tattoo procedure.

"The younger ones are better than the older ones," he said.

He has suggested a computer system be set up in which foal papers would become unnecessary on site. A central office would have the information in a data base, so "a trainer wouldn't have to worry about moving papers with him when he runs at different tracks and in different states."

Houghton does not believe that branding -- used for standardbreds -- is a better method of identification.

"That's a little barbaric, I think," he said. "We have the best way."

Pub Date: 2/06/99

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