HOME on the backstretch

'Tiny' Whye rarely leaves the confines of Pimlico Race Course. And why should he?

November 23, 2001|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Clarence Whye, as he is not known, has never voted or paid a mortgage or had a driver's license or a wife. He never wanted to settle down, so he settled down at Pimlico Race Course, where he's rubbed, bandaged, saddled, blanketed and walked horses from about the time Citation won the Preakness in 1948 to when Point Given won in 2001.

All Whye wanted out of life was to take care of horses.

"I never rode a horse," he says. "You see people get hurt, and you figure you [are] better on the ground."

As an older groom, Whye lives free at Pimlico - except for the $90-a-month meal ticket in his name at the Track Kitchen, where Goldie "Mama Nickey" Morris keeps tabs on him. Old friends, such as Mama Nickey, make sure he eats every day. Old friends, such as stall superintendent George Clarke, drop by Room 8-Q to make sure he's tucked in for another night over the brick barn. WBAL-TV talks Whye to sleep.

Whye is not one of those racetrack characters people memorialize in print. He's not crusty or quirky. He's not a memorable storyteller. At 70, he can't catch all the dates, details and names running through his mind. Whye is one of the 150 or so hot walkers and grooms who work on the backstretch, an area of low barns and hay-strewn walkways where the work of racing is done. But he's lived here as long as anyone.

"He's the last of a dying breed of real racetrack indigenous people," says retired trainer John DiNatale, who for 18 years employed Whye.

Growing up in a Baltimore County village called Texas in the 1930s, Whye's mother nicknamed her son Teeny. "That was too small," Whye says. So, he changed his nickname to Tiny. As a teen-ager, he would walk down the railroad tracks to the State Fair to watch the horses. Whye worked his way on Timonium's racetrack as an exercise boy before moving on permanently to Pimlico. Fifty-odd-years later, he's still around horses and still called Tiny.

Clarence Whye - a pinch of a man at 5-foot-4 - lives off a small track pension and the kindness of others. People know him and like him. Among the great names in horse racing, he's made a small name for himself at Pimlico. "Tiny is capable of inhabiting this one world," DiNatale says. "He never would have made it on the outside."

Whye rarely steps foot in the outside world. There's nothing for him there. Whye has lived inside the guarded gates of a racetrack - an enclosed world in which he's felt safe, wanted and needed for half a century.

Staying inside

"Here to see Tiny," a visitor says at the main security gate at Pimlico. Go on through. The nickname opens doors.

It's November, and the backstretch is still open. Because of money considerations, the Maryland Jockey Club had decided to close the backstretch Oct. 31 until March. But trainers' needs for stabling this winter prompted management to change its mind. For Whye, the decision meant he didn't have to find another home for the winter.

The announcement about the backstretch's opening is taped up in the Track Kitchen, where Whye comes every day until closing time at 1 p.m. His friends are here, Clarke and Mama Nickey. She is also the cook. "I came here in 1969," says Mama Nickey. "Tiny showed me around, and I've been looking out for him ever since."

She brings Whye a large coffee, sugar, no cream. He watches one of the kitchen's seven televisions broadcasting today's races from Laurel. Mama Nickey and Clarke remember the old days when Whye was a runner - an about-town man. "Tiny would dress to kill," she remembers. "He'd wear Stetson hats and alligator shoes," Clarke says.

Whye says, "I was young and speedy."

He and Mama Nickey and others went to the old Stable Bar near Pimlico, and Baltimore Colt Willie Richardson had a place also near there. On holidays, Mama Nickey invited Whye to dinner with her parents. She didn't want him to be alone. She threw birthday parties for him at her Baltimore home, including the one party he cried he was so touched.

About 15 years ago he was robbed outside these gates, Mama Nickey says. A man, a friend, robbed and beat him. Whye had been drinking too much again. She took him back inside Pimlico.

"Tiny won't go on the outside anymore," Morris says.

"You blame me?" Whye says.

One could say people won't be remembered for the races won or the stories told or written - but for the kindnesses shown. Many years ago, Whye would get off work at 10 a.m., walk off the grounds, and help raise four girls from the neighborhood. These girls grew up to be nurses, one of whom offered Whye a place to stay had the stable closed this winter. She also offered him a place at her Thanksgiving Day dinner table, if he wants. True to his memory, Whye can't remember their names, but Mama Nickey keeps in touch with them.

People take care of Whye because he hasn't always taken care of himself. If George Clarke has spaghetti or a chef's salad for dinner, he'll give a portion to Whye. "He's not going to go hungry," Clarke says.

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