Her name is Laurie Cotte. Laurie was the Mighty Sham’s exercise rider. Much has been written about Sham, always wrapped within Secretariat. But, this story is about Laurie and her love for Sham. Laurie knew Sham as well as anyone, during his racing days, and her memories of him are priceless. Too priceless not to share. I will be adding many more posts about Laurie and Sham. This is just the beginning of Laurie’s stories, humble Laurie.
Laurie grew up on a dairy farm in the Catskill Mountains. She loved horses. The first time she saw a horse, she was in love with them according to her family. When she was 14, she watched the 1968 Derby. It was so exciting, watching “The Dancer” go from last to first, then draw away to win. She was hooked.
Laurie had an uncle who trained thoroughbreds in New England. His horses raced at Rockingham Park, Garden State, Great, Barrington, North Hampton, Green Mountain, Atlantic City and Suffolk Downs. “My uncle knew I was a GOOD rider at a young age, AND a girl. There were not many of us girls at the track then. But, there were some, it’s just that nobody really noticed.”
“One day my family went to Great Barrington to see the races and my uncle and I went over to the barns. One guy asked me if I could walk a horse and handed me a lead rope, bucket and sponge. He gave me $20.00 to wash and walk a horse he was claiming. Between The Dancer and the backstretch, I was HOOKED. I was fourteen years old.”
“The following week, my uncle and I went to Suffolk Downs. My uncle put me on a racehorse.”
“After that, I took the bus from home to Boston every Friday to work at the track. I worked weekends, holidays, summer, every chance I could. I rode a lot. I also walked, paddocked, cleaned tack and stalls for anyone who needed help. My father had to tear me away on Sundays to go home. To this day, whenever I visit Woodbine, off to the barns I go.”
“Every week on Monday, my uncle went to Atlantic City to have a meeting with other trainers and some owners. I went along. I went swimming, sightseeing, nosing around the old boardwalk, while waiting for him. After my father died, I stayed at home long enough to finish school. He wanted that for me. HE was my reason for doing that, my sense in life. He knew, though, that horses were going to be my life. He was a farmer, a mechanic, hard working, and he encouraged us to do what made us happy: be who we were. Well, horses made me very happy.”
“After high school, my uncle took me to learn more about racing to Suffolk Downs, where I got to ride a lot of horses. Anyway, Mr. Sommer was racing a horse on the undercard of the Mass Handicap that year. My uncle knew Mr. Sommer from Atlantic City.”
“As you know, girls were a rare sight on a track then. Mr. Sommer was chatting with my uncle while I was galloping a horse. It was Mrs. Sommer who noticed me. While I was walking the horse after (Santiago Lad) she came over and told me I was very brave and what a good seat I had. Seems she could ride some, too. Told me I had a very light touch on the bit (I still do). Mr. Sommer said he would be buying horses at sales and his trainer was looking for an exerciser for some young horses. Those Latino guys could ride for sure, but were sometimes too strong and a horse could not stay relaxed with them. My uncle was getting married and moving to Florida, so I accepted their offer. I found myself at Aqueduct, amid a barn full of Spanish speaking men, and a quiet, businesslike trainer, who shook my hand like I was someone, He welcomed me, introduced me to the guys, who tried to speak to me in their best English, or just smiled. Then Frank Martin, Mr. Sommer, and I sat down and they explained why I was there.”
Sham and Laurie: Hired by the Sommers!
“That autumn at Belmont Park was cool and wet a lot. I tried my best to fit in with the guys. I did my share , pitching in where hands were needed.”
“I wanted to impress Frank (Martin) as a rider, and he put me up on a lot of different horses, as trainers did at Suffolk Downs & Rockingham. He told me how to handle each horse, how they travelled, who they were.”
“When the Sommers bought Sham, they were hoping they had something special, because Frank said, “he had a brave look in his eyes“, maybe not the exact words, but he saw promise of something. He came to the barn, after the sale, after some play time in a paddock. He ended up with lots of free time, as all Frank’s racehorses did.”
“He believed keeping a horse happy went a long way in developing a good mind.”
“The next day, I rode SHAM for the first time around the barns, around the track. He was interested and well mannered. I liked him.”
“Training went well, our new horse was very quick and willing to run. In his first race, which he won easily, he showed he was powerful, tough and LOVED mud.”
“His workouts going into the race were fast, and though he “ran out” a bit at times, Frank wasn’t bothered. He said young, green colts often did this.”
“Race day, early Dec, 72, COLD, Rainy, Windy ! I think it even snowed ! Terrible day to race, but they did. Sham got beat around a bit, came through the gloom, a winner by daylight. Too bad we had no Saturday TV racing on back then, because the owners were not there.”