Tom Horner, a horse trainer at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds, changes the blanket on one of his horses in the barn to keep him warm during a cold snap. File photo

Tom Archdeacon: Celebrating a true character at Dayton Raceway

The doctor didn’t quite get it right.

Back in the 1950s and early ’60s, Tom Horner Sr. had an impressive career racing modified and late model stock cars across the Midwest and some sprint cars, too.

“He was one of the original NASCAR drivers,” Tom Gray, his longtime pal and a harness racing partner said Wednesday. “He used to race against Richard Petty’s dad, Lee, and Buddy Baker’s dad, Buck.

“In fact that’s how I first met him. I was a kid riding the roller coaster and Ferris wheel at the Forest Park Amusement Park and I kept looking over at the races going on there.

“Finally, I went over but I didn’t have any money to get in, so the guy gave me a job selling programs. That’s when Tom won six features in a row. Everybody knew Tom Horner.”

While over the years he held his own against such famed racing stalwarts as Johnny Parsons, Troy Ruttman and Fonty Flock, Horner also had some spectacular misadventures at local tracks.

His car once went flying off the high-banked turn one at Dayton Speedway and landed high in the trees.

And then there was the nearly deadly crash at New Bremen Speedway.

“I tangled with another car and started barrel rolling,” he once told me. “I hit the wall and by the end there wasn’t nothing left but me and the seat … and I wasn’t doing too well.”

He said he had a broken neck and was rushed to the hospital in St. Marys. When his condition worsened, he said his brother suddenly showed up with his station wagon and a mattress laid out in the back.

“He put me in the back of his car and toted me back to St. Elizabeth Hospital in Dayton,” he said. “I’d cracked the bottom of my skull,

“Back then they didn’t have the most modern techniques so they put two eye screws in the top of my head, ran a rope through them and then put weights on the ends of the rope so it would pull my skull up and release pressure.

“I was in the hospital a long time and when I left, the doctor told me: ‘You should never drive again … your days running around a race track are over.’”

The doc was right … and oh so wrong.

While Horner admitted his desire to drive a race car after that waned, he quickly embraced another form of horsepower.

Remembered tonight

Horner first ventured into the world of harness racing soon after he’d arrived in Dayton as a 14-year-old from St. Clair, Tennessee.

“I was kind of an onerous kid,” he once told me. “I was getting into all kinds of b.s. So my dad sent me here to live with my older brother who had ended up on Jasper Street.”

Soon after, he wandered across the street to the Montgomery County Fairgrounds and found himself drawn to the horse barns, where he was given odd jobs cleaning stalls and then tending the standardbreds.

Advancing through the ranks, he drove his first race at the old Lebanon Raceway in 1960 — and won.

In the over half century that followed, he established himself as one of the better drivers and trainers in Ohio. He tended to the horses of several Miami Valley horsemen, including his own son, Tom Jr., and at one time even handled standardbreds for the late Teamsters boss, Jimmy Hoffa.

In recent years he had battled health issues and on July 22, after yet another hospital stay for lung and kidney problems, he passed away.

He was 83.

Tonight, he will be remembered at Dayton Raceway with the running of the Tom Horner Memorial Pace. It’s the sixth race of the night — it’s for non-winner fillies and mares — and a celebration will follow.

“I believe we should have a pretty good turnout,” Gray said. “Tom was known by a lot of people in the business and he was a pretty colorful character.”

Runyon-esque figure

A grizzled, Damon Runyon-style character, Horner often could be found wearing an old, faded orange Tennessee Vols cap, jeans held up for the most part by suspenders and mud-splattered shoes.

There were old tattoos on his forearm and sometimes a scraggly growth on his cheeks and chin. His jaw, at times. was packed with a plug of Levi Garrett chewing tobacco and his glasses, always smudged, were usually sliding off his nose.

Over the past couple of decades — until he got seriously ill, which was just before the fair board brass kicked the horsemen off the grounds so it can try to sell the legendary property for redevelopment — you could find Horner in Barn 17, often in the tack room.

The small expanse — with a pink door that had TOM printed in crude 10-inch letters across it — was his domain.

There was a cot in there, often a calendar sporting a pinup girl and always a card table that sometimes held an overflowing ash tray or a crumbled racing program, but certainly a deck of cards for the daily gin rummy games

For a while a one-eyed dog shared the place with Horner.

“Tom had himself a pretty feisty horse,” trainer Mike Millard explained to me one day over two decades past. “It kicked him one day last winter and nearly killed him. We found him lying out here.

“Well, he didn’t do anything then. But when that horse kicked his dog in the eye, that was it! Tom loved that dog and he didn’t waste no time. He sold that horse right after that.”

Gray said no one knew horses any better than Horner:

“He had a knowledge of them second to none. He could diagnose a horse’s problem as good — maybe better — than any vet could.”

But as he thought about his late buddy, Gray had to laugh:

“Yeah, he could be a grumpy, old guy and pick on you for this or that, but as soon as you needed something he was right there to help out.”

Horner wouldn’t dispute that.

“I tell you straight to your teeth just how it is, whether you like it or not,” he once told me. “Tom Gray gets mad at me every day. Then we go to Denny’s or the Pancake House on Keowee and have breakfast. After that, we come back and play some cards and then we head off to the races.

“And I’ve never wanted to change a thing about that. I always felt better when we headed out to the track.”

The doctor didn’t quite get it right.

Racing was always the best medicine for Tom Horner Sr.

Thank you for reading the Dayton Daily News and for supporting local journalism. Subscribers: log in for access to your daily ePaper and premium newsletters.

Thank you for supporting in-depth local journalism with your subscription to the Dayton Daily News. Get more news when you want it with email newsletters just for subscribers. Sign up here.