This column by Doug Moe appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal, on Sunday, April 3, 2011.
Doug Moe: Karl Garson a rare breed
I will go anywhere and talk to anybody about horse racing — especially this time of year, with the Kentucky Derby looming next month — but it is not easy to find fellow enthusiasts these days.
It used to be you could go Downtown, stop in either Snappy’s Place or Pic-a-Book and buy a Daily Racing Form, then head for the bar of the Golden Dragon Chinese restaurant off the Square on Mifflin Street.
There you would find guys with names like Doc Clocker and Frank Pots and Pans, who couldn’t tell you the name of the sitting governor but knew which horse might run well on a wet track at Churchill Downs.
I was missing the Golden Dragon the other day — and you haven’t been able to buy a printed Daily Racing Form in Madison for a decade — so I asked Karl Garson to meet me for coffee.
Garson knows who’s governor — indeed, he writes regular Op-Ed pieces for the State Journal — but he has lived this life that might have been scripted in part by Damon Runyon.
Garson, 70, flew reconnaissance planes for the Navy overseas, studied poetry under the great Richard Hugo in Montana, once wrote a gossip column in the Daily Racing Form titled “Turf Tattler,” and is married to one of the most influential women in the world of thoroughbred racing. They split their time between a farm near Gays Mills and a home in Lexington, Ky. If it sounds like a nice life, well, it is.
Garson was born in Cedar Grove, attended high school in Milwaukee, and then went to UW-Stevens Point on the G.I. Bill after serving in Vietnam. He thought he might be an accountant, but somehow — maybe because he’d had his nose in a book constantly as a kid — Garson wound up taking a poetry class taught by the Madison poet David Steingass.
Steingass offered encouragement, and then another established poet, Mary Shumway, suggested the University of Montana for graduate work. Dick Hugo, a Montana legend, was teaching creative writing in Missoula. James Crumley dedicated “The Last Good Kiss,” perhaps the best crime novel of the last 50 years, to Hugo.
Hugo and Garson had military flying in common. Garson had done reconnaissance in Vietnam and Hugo had been a bombardier in World War II. They talked flying and poetry and Garson left Missoula with a masters degree in creative writing.
He left for a teaching job at Boise State University, and in the company of a woman, Peggy Hendershot, whom he had met in a Missoula library. They were married in 1984.
The next year, a summer course that Garson was to teach at Boise State was cancelled, and he got a job writing press releases for the Les Bois horse race track in Boise. Garson soon embraced racing. His wife remained indifferent.
“I couldn’t get her to come to the track,” he said.
She did eventually, and she, too, was hooked. Hendershot liked it so much that she enrolled in a race track management program at the University of Arizona. Garson went along and landed a job in the English Department.
The couple eventually headed east — Peggy to work for Thoroughbred Racing Communications, and Karl to write for the Daily Racing Form.
In 1999, Thoroughbred Racing Communications merged with the National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA). Hendershot rose to her current position of senior vice president of legislative affairs for the NTRA, a role that put her on a recent Thoroughbred Times list of 25 “women of influence” in the racing industry.
Garson left the Racing Form to write essays, poetry and fiction. He’s currently finishing a novel. But racing is in his blood, too, and over coffee he spoke about visiting Secretariat a year before the great horse died. Garson also mentioned having a treasured leather bound copy of “This Is Racing,” a rare collection of essays by the revered racing writer Joe Palmer.
Garson has an eye on this year’s Kentucky Derby, too. He likes a 3-year-old named The Factor, trained by Bob Baffert, but said other contenders may emerge out of this weekend’s Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park.
For a minute there, I thought I was back at the Golden Dragon.
Contact Doug Moe at 608-252-6446 or firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday.
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