By Dick Jerardi
Frank Henson has been around the race track for seven decades. He had seen it all and done it all—from growing up in Baltimore where he remembers sleeping in the car on his way to Laurel and Bowie as a little kid, to moving with his family to Harlem when he was nine and going with his horseman dad in the summers to Belmont Park and Saratoga, and seeing the legends of the game in the 1950s, including Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Bill Shoemaker and Eddie Arcaro, on the backstretch in the mornings.
See Frank’s trainer profile on equibase here.
“I used to get down in the stall and lay down with the horses,” Henson said.
Henson, 74, was telling his story on a Tuesday morning while standing outside the stall of the first horse he would run at Parx in many years.
According to Equibase, Henson, who looks at least a decade younger than he is, trained horses from 1977 to 1987 and won 125 races. But record-keeping from that era is notoriously unreliable and does not go back to when Henson started at Liberty Bell and Keystone when it opened in 1974. What is certain is that Henson is back at Parx.
Henson purchased Son of Darkness for $35,000 at the Timonium sale in May. The two-year-old New York-bred son of Justin Phillip was with the leaders for a few hundred yards in a maiden race on Oct. 12 at Parx before fading to ninth of 10 at 67-1.
Henson’s best horse was Golden Chance Farm’s Good Ole Master who raced 83 times over seven years with 17 wins, 11 seconds and 13 thirds. Good Ole Master was a son of 1975 Preakness winner Master Derby (also owned by Golden Chance). Henson trained Good Ole Master for the final 44 races of his career from June 1984 until August 1987.
The horse raced at Atlantic City, Keystone, Suffolk Downs, Meadowlands, Aqueduct, Garden State Park, Pimlico, Bowie, Monmouth Park and eight times at Philadelphia Park after the name change from Keystone in 1985.
Ten of the horse’s wins came with Henson, but the win he remembers most is the $50,000 City of Baltimore Handicap at Pimlico on May 18, 1985, the race before Tank’s Prospect won the Preakness. Good Ole Master was 10-1 that day. Henson did like to bet.
“I would run a horse here (Parx) and she would get beat,” Henson said. “I ship up to New York and she would win. I’ll never forget the horse ID guy tell me: ‘Frank if you come up here again and do this again and don’t tell me, I’m calling the IRS’. And he didn’t crack a smile.”
Henson was not betting $2 to show.
“I just looked at him and smiled, said, ‘I ain’t telling you nothing,’” he said.
Henson got Good Ole Master and some other Golden Chance horses later in their careers. He did so well with them that he became the farm’s trainer. He trained Win Dusty Win, a grandson of 1970 Kentucky Derby winner Dust Commander, both horses owned by Golden Chance, one of the top farms of the day.
Win Dusty Win finished third in a $500,000 stake at the Meadowlands and third in a $200,000 stake at River Downs, both in 1986. The horse was in the money in eight of 11 starts for Henson in 1986 and 1987 before a breakup with Golden Chance sent all the farm’s horses to another trainer.
Henson never really stopped being around the game. He owned horses and contributed to their training. He relocated to Ocala, Fla., where he bought and sold horses for years.
In 2010, he suffered a major heart attack. He survived that only to be diagnosed with terminal cancer the next year and given 90 days to live. There were massive tumors all over his body and his PSA level was off the charts.
Miraculously, he beat that too and is now back in the area, living with his son in Princeton and spending every morning at Barn 10, surrounded by Eddie Coletti’s horses with one of his own.
Henson knew all the Parx training legends like Dennis “Goose” Heimer, Mark Reid, Dave Vance and E.T. Garcia.
“I gave E. T. Garcia horses to train,” Henson said. “Everybody we touched turned to gold.”
He remembers spending summers at Monmouth Park, hanging out in a box seat right on the finish line.
“I was something when I was young,” Henson said.
He still is.