Clarence Courtright, 74, puts his prized horse, Cha Cha Baby, through her paces during an early-morning workout. - Dan Guthrie

Still in the saddle

It is midmorning at Grants Pass Downs and Clarence Courtright is finishing his chores on Shed Row F, where he stalls four racehorses and a mule. The 74-year-old trainer still wears the padded vest and leather chaps he donned to exercise them at daybreak.

"I'm an early riser," he says. "I get done before some of the others have started. They lead the life of Riley."

The mule pokes her long roan head over a stall door to eye the newcomer. She is Bar JF Docette, and she knows her way around the track.

"She's made probably $45,000," Courtright says, adding that she turned 13 this year and probably won't run. Instead he uses her to pony racehorses and guard foals.

"When dogs or horses come near a baby, she pins her ears back and tells them enough's enough," he says. "She gets along with everyone but she likes those babies."

Courtright has a goat, too, who serves as a comforting companion to one of his horses.

"I always vowed I'd never own a goat. Then I bought a filly, Cha Cha Baby. She was real nervous. So I finally got a goat and she settled right down," he says.

Cha Cha Baby persuaded him to break the goat vow because of her potential. She's a big, imposing daughter of Behrens, one of the top sires in California. Now, she really does seem serene as she and the goat, Lulabelle, hang out together.

Courtright talks while he darts in and out of stalls, mucking them and filling feedbags. He has never smoked; he drinks only one glass of wine a day, with dinner; and he's continually exercising. It shows. He's in such good shape that some have suggested he ride in one final race just to set the record as America's oldest jockey.

"I weigh 120, 122 pounds. That's lighter than most of the boys here, and I eat all I want," he says. "I was a real heavyweight as a jockey. I weighed 102 pounds. I'd eat a big salad, a steak every day. I used to eat a dozen eggs a day."

Maybe other riders should give that dozen-eggs diet a try.

On Sunday, Courtright will take a break from the Grants Pass meet. That's when he is being inducted into the Appaloosa Racing Hall of Fame in Jackson, Miss.

"I rode all the fastest Appaloosas back in the '60s and '70s," he says. "Apache Double — his feet never touched the ground — he was the fastest."

Indeed he was. In his three years on the track, Apache Double won 18 of 21 races and set 14 records, most of them with Courtright in the irons.

As with most jockeys, his career ended abruptly.

"I got hurt real bad at Santa Rosa in 1974," he says. "I was in traction for 19 days. After that I went to work for the post office."

Nearly three decades later, Courtright retired from the post office and returned to horse racing as a trainer. He was never without horses during his time away from racing, though. He and Nancy, his wife of more than 40 years, ran an English riding school at their ranch above the Columbia Gorge. Also, he jumped horses in shows.

"I won the Canadian National Jumping Championship for Appalooses," he mentions casually as he neatens gear in another stall.

He started racing at Grants Pass Downs four years ago and had success with a mare named Soup N' Crackers, who didn't make this trip. She's at home with a foal.

"Usually I race on the California fair circuit," he says. "I come here to have a good time. I told my wife, as long as the horses pay their way, I'll keep doing this. They made over $30,000 last year."

Two days later at dawn, Courtright is all alone on the track working Cha Cha Baby. He gallops her for one, two, three laps. She gains momentum relentlessly. As she passes, the only sounds are her hoofbeats and the clapping of pigeons startled into flight. This is no gasper, no horse urged to do what it cannot. This is a thoroughbred in prime condition born and ready to run.

It is something to see: a 74-year-old rider on a horse 17 hands tall, charging into the rising sun.

Later, when Courtright walks Cha Cha Baby back to her stall, the mule greets them with booming brays and the goat strains at her tether until they are reunited.

Courtright dismounts and unsaddles Cha Cha. He appraises how she weathered the work. She barely broke a sweat.

"She's the best-bred filly on the grounds," he concludes.

Then he puts her on the hot walker and prepares to exercise his other horses.

Who says this is no country for old men?

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