Willard Clark “Mike” Freeman, who conditioned one of the greatest racemares of all time, died Wednesday at age 84 at Wesley Springs Nursing Home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. The horseman also was president of the Aiken Training Track for a number of years.
The Thoroughbred trainer was born in Providence R.I. on Feb. 23, 1929, and was exposed to horses at an early age. The horseman was a steeplechase rider before becoming a Thoroughbred trainer.
Early part of his career
Freeman saddled his first winner at the old Narragansett Park in 1952, sending out a bay filly by Revoked named Little Whim. However, there were several turning points during the horseman’s career. He conditioned Parnassus, a son of the 1937 Triple Crown winner War Admiral, to win the 1954 Bougainvillea Handicap for owner John Phipps, but it would be his association with another horse owner that would transform his career.
Freeman began training for Alfred Vanderbilt’s Sagamore Farm in 1964.
Training for Vanderbilt
The horseman sent out multiple stakes winners Cold Comfort, and the mare Freeman referred to as the greatest horse he ever trained, Shuvee, while conditioning horses for Vanderbilt. Cold Comfort won the 1969 Matron and the Hempstead Handicap in 1970. But, it was a chestnut filly foaled on Jan. 22, 1966, that would provide Freeman with his greatest success as a trainer. A durable campaigner, Shuvee raced from ages 2 through 5, winning 15 stakes races, and was named Champion older female in both 1970 and 1971. The daughter of Nashua was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1975.
“Mike Freeman was a major factor as to why we’re here in Aiken,” said W. Cothran Campbell, Dogwood Stable president. “We knew Mike and Mack Miller, and they were friends. Mike Freeman was the president of the Aiken Training Track at the time we decided to sell the farm in Georgia. He bent over backward to provide us with a barn and encourage us to come. We had 30 to 40 head at the time. He was a friend and a fine trainer.”
Chime Bell Farm
An Aiken resident, Freeman and his wife Iris owned Chime Bell Farm, and Thoroughbred trainer Todd Turner has had a long association with the horseman, working on and off for him for the past 25 years.
“He’ll be greatly missed,” said Turner, who currently is breaking and training horses at Chime Bell Farm. “He’s from the last group of old time gentlemen trainers. He was definitely one of the top trainers who wintered in Aiken. He was my employer, but also my friend. He did what he loved. He trained horses and was successful at it. He trained horses during racing’s golden era.”
A love for the community
Freeman’s impact in the community was far reaching, and he touched many lives during his time in Aiken.
“It’s very sad to lose another outstanding trainer from the classic era of Thoroughbred racing,” said Lisa Hall, Aiken Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame and Museum programs supervisor. “The successes of the outstanding horses he trained will ensure that he will always have an important place in the history of Thoroughbred racing. He was a great friend to the Aiken Racing Hall of Fame, and he will be sorely missed.”
The horseman also conditioned Hostage, winner of the 1982 Grade 1 Arkansas Derby; Hodges Bay, the winner of the 1989 Rothmans International and Seneca Handicap and Buckhar, the winner of the Grade 1 Washington D.C. International in 1993.
‘End of an era’
It was Freeman’s love and enthusiasm for the Aiken Training Track that was palpable, said Steve Penrod, Thoroughbred trainer. Freeman had an old-school approach to training and had many attributes that other horsemen admired.
“It’s the end of an era,” said Penrod. “MacK Miller, Buddy Raines, and Mike Freeman is the last of the big three. He wasn’t the easiest guy to get to know. He loved the Aiken Training Track. He didn’t want anything to change. He was an old time horseman who did things the old-fashioned way. He would take his time and let nature take its course. He was quiet and kept to himself, but was pretty easy to talk to once you got to know him. He was a great person and he really loved the Aiken Training Track.”
Generous as the day is long
An altruistic spirit, willingness to help others, and a great sense of humor were among the traits that endeared the late horseman to others, said Doug Tribert, retired Thoroughbred trainer.
“I went to work for Mike in 1974 at Aqueduct,” said Tribert. “A friend of mine had been galloping horses for him, and told me he was looking for a groom. I had been working with fox hunting horses in New Jersey. I came to Aiken for the first time working for him during the winter of 74. I worked for him for about five years.”
Tribert would eventually go to work for Thoroughbred trainers Frank and David Whiteley, before going out on his own. But, the two horsemen’s paths would cross again.
“It was the winter of 1982-83, I had babies to train, and he got me stalls at the training track at a time when they were difficult to come by,” said Tribert. “He was able to get me six stalls, and sent me an owner who had three horses to put in those stalls. He was generous and honest to a fault. He was a good horse trainer and an even better person.”
You would be able to tell if you’d have to put blankets on the horses based on whether or not the trainer had on his sweater, said Tribert.
“He always wore the same nasty, green sweater, with a hole at the navel, and if he came with the sweater on, you knew you’d have to put blankets on the horses.”
Freeman was also an avid golfer and would play regularly with fellow trainers MacKenzie Miller and Billy Hirsch, religiously making an 11:30 a.m. tee time, said Tribert.
A gentlemen and extremely good horseman
Freeman sent several horses to Hall of Fame trainer Janet Elliot. The two had a great respect for one another’s abilities. One of the horses Freeman would send Elliot was Rothmans International winner and millionaire Hodges Bay.
“He asked me to make Hodges Bay into a steeplechase horse,” said Elliot. “He was always good to me. He sent horses and owners my way, one of the owners being Greg Hawkins.”
However, Hodges Bay wasn’t the only horse Freeman sent Elliot’s way. Campanile, who under Elliot’s charge, would go onto win the Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup Steeplechase Handicap, and consecutive runnings of the Grade 2 A.P. Smithwick Memorial Steeplechase Handicap. Elliot also conditioned Fighting Star for Freeman.
“He had a good eye for horses,” said Elliot.
However, it was Freeman’s mannerisms and the way that he treated people with respect that still resonates to this day.
“When I broke yearlings for him one winter, in between jobs, and was around his barn, he was just as polite to his staff as he was to friends and relatives,” said Anne Mitchell Pezzano, Thoroughbred trainer.