The man known as “Si” makes sure everything runs as smooth as silk at Fort Erie Race Track in Fort Erie, Ontario.
For the past seven years, Richard Simons has been the “colors man” at the Thoroughbred border oval, responsible for more than 2,500 “silks” – the long-sleeved shirts worn by jockeys – that hang from large racks in the space that’s connected to the jockeys’ room.
His little corner of the world is a literal kaleidoscope of color.
Four washers and four dryers – each of them heavy-duty machines – are in constant use on race days at Fort Erie. Simons will also put them to work on the days prior to and the days after live racing, depending on what he’s able to get done.
It is, despite the odd challenge, a labor of love for the 74-year-old.
“I was at the racetrack here in Fort Erie starting when I was about 10, selling newspapers in the jocks’ room,” recalled Simons. “From there, I worked in the administration building. I was involved with horses for a long time when I was a kid. But I left the sport for 35 years before I came back to the track. I worked in the railroad industry for 12 years and I had my own business for 19 years. But I came back and I’m sure glad I did. I worked in the backside walking horses, but Harry Eder [Horsepeople’s Relations at Fort Erie] asked me if I’d be interested in being a valet. I felt I was too old, so he asked if I wanted to do the colors.”
Accompanied by a somewhat self-deprecating laugh, Simons initially had little understanding of what the role was about.
An affinity for the Thoroughbred world, and the opportunity to learn his craft from one of the best in the business, convinced Simons to give it a try.
“I had no idea what Harry was talking about, but the guy who was doing it, Des McMahon… nobody is as good as Des, who does the same job at Woodbine. The guy’s got a memory like a copy machine. You could call him at Woodbine and ask him for anybody’s colors, and he’d know the whole bit. He’s really good and he taught me. He’s unreal.”
It took Simons less than a six-furlong race to appreciate the colors job was anything but black and white.
“Looking back, I’d say this job took me five years to feel really comfortable. But no one day is like the next. You have to be really focused and organized.”
Not surprisingly, the more horses entered for a race card means more work and longer hours.
“If we have eight races with nine horses in each race – after each race I wash the silks and I do the saddlecloths. Say if in the third race that you have a comeback [set of silks] that was used in the first race, you have to make sure that you have done it and it’s ready for that third race.”
Preparation is paramount, offered Simons.
“We race Monday and Tuesday. I start my job on Sunday. I work Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. Sunday, I’ll go in and get all my silks ready, and all the saddlecloths ready. We race Monday and Tuesday, and whatever I didn’t get done Tuesday, I’ll take care of it Wednesday morning.”
In a sport dominated by numbers, Simons has an important one of his own: eight.
It’s the amount of time the washer takes to clean each load of silks.
“Eight minutes, that’s it. Then I throw them in the dryer. There have been a couple of times when the same silks are being used soon after the first time in a day when they haven’t been ready. But that’s rare. You just do what everybody else in this sport – work hard, take pride in what you do, and always do the best you can.”
Not even a sloppy Fort Erie main track can diminish Simons’ love for racing.
Rain and mud are, however, an unwelcome coupled entry for the man at the control of the washers and dryers.
“What happens is after you wash the silks and the saddlecloths, there’s always sand in the bottom of the washing machine, and it’s tough. What happens is that sometimes I have to take them out, throw a rinse in them, and put them back in the machine. When it’s muddy, that’s the hardest part.”
The best part?
“The guys and girls in the jocks’ room. They’re all good. It’s just like a family. They all call me ‘Papa.’ I get along with everybody.”
Among the countless color combinations, some traditional pairings, others bolder in appearance, Simons does have a particular set of silks that he counts as his favorite.
They belong to owner-trainer Layne Giliforte.
“They’re Miami Dolphins colors,” noted Simons. “And I’m a Dolphins fan.”
He’s also a stickler for organization.
“I have my silks all alphabetically arranged. You get to know where they are. For example, Julie Mathes, she’s the leading trainer this year. I can tell you exactly where hers are, and her husband’s are right beside hers.”
Don’t expect Simons to be calling it a career any time soon. He’s too busy enjoying his time at Fort Erie.
“I love the job. My bosses are great and they treat me very well. I always keep busy. And I love the racing.”
After the Fort Erie racing season ended on Oct. 13, Simons doesn’t plan to kick back and wait for the new campaign to begin.
He’s still attached to colors, albeit in this instance just two, specifically, green grass and white snow.
“I do lawns. I have six lawns that I do for elderly people and in the wintertime, I do their driveways with a snow blower. I just keep on trying to go.”
Simons, who lives three blocks from the racetrack, is encouraging his wife to have the same approach.
“My wife is sick, but the [health] benefits we receive are very good. She’s battling lung cancer. But if you ever saw her, you’d never know she had it. It’s her second bout with it. She tries to keep busy. All you can do is hope and pray.”
And, with a little good fortune, Simons can keep on doing what he loves to do.
“I would like to do my job as long as I can. Why wouldn’t I want to? It puts a smile on my face every day.”
The preceding featured by Chris Lomon was originally published at OntarioRacing.com and republished here with permission.
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