Thursday, October 11, 2012

Silent Anvil: John Collins Was Zenyatta's Hoof Man, Kentucky Horseman, Everyone's Friend

John Collins shod horses, played polo and enjoyed his friends. He died suddenly in Kentucky last week. (Scott Morrison photo)

I wrote about Kentucky horseshoer John Collins once. But I wasn't really writing about him. I was quoting what other people (and horses) had already written about him.

John Collins
Take, for instance, what Zenyatta wrote on her blog about her Bluegrass hoofsmith when she returned to Kentucky from her stellar racing career:

"My blacksmith here at Lane’s End is the same person who took care of my feet years ago when I lived in Kentucky! His name is Johnny Collins. He is the same man who put on my shoes when I went to the Keeneland Sale in September, 2005! He took care of my feet when I was a little girl!

"Now, here he is taking off my shoes at the farm several years later. This is absolutely adorable! Johnny told me he’d been keeping track of me and all of my progress since then! It was so great to touch base with him, my first blacksmith, after all of these years!"

I quoted what the New York Times had to say about John Collins, too, and shared their photo of him.

And after his sudden and premature death last week, I once again found myself reading what other people had to say about John Collins.

The wrong side of John Collins was featured in the New York Times the day John pulled off Zenyatta's race plates when she arrived back in Kentucky to become a broodmare. I guess the photographer didn't know that if he waited a few minutes, the horseshoer and horse would both face the same way. What I love about this photo: Zenyatta's near hind is off the ground. She's balancing on two legs. John's apprentice could have been pulling the hind shoe at the same time...(Credit: Luke Sharrett for The New York Times

I never met him. I always meant to. I figured I'd run into him in Kentucky some time and introduce myself, since I was sure he wouldn't have a clue that some writer in Boston had been writing about him all this time.

But I never got the chance. John Collins was only 50.

What I do know is that other people are still talking about John Collins, and I've pulled together a patchwork quote quilt to share with you:

John Collins learned horseshoeing as apprentice to the legendary Jackie Thompson who in turn learned the trade from George Tompkins. In my last conversations with Jackie before his death, he said he was worried about how to keep African Americans in the Bluegrass active in horseshoeing. (Hoofcare file photo)
Doug Watkins, Breeders Supply (horseshoe retailer in Lexington): "He loved horses, period. Loved working on 'em, bettin' on 'em and ridin' 'em."

Mike Cline, manager of Lane’s End Farm: “No one had more friends than Johnny Collins.”

Dr. Scott Morrison, Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital: "I knew him well, from polo and horseshoeing, we took a few trips together."

Don Robinson of Winter Quarter Farm in Lexington, where Zenyatta was foaled: "We are crushed."

Doug Watkins: "He was an avid polo player which is a bit unusual for a person of color. Bobby Bryant, who worked for John a while, commented on Friday that he played polo at Bruce Hundley's on a regular basis which probably would have been frowned upon except that everybody loved to see the women who came to watch him play."

Mike Cline: “He’s just one of those people you wanted to be around. I feel really bad for his mother, his sisters and his family. We are all in shock out here. He was a really fit, healthy guy.”

Scott Morrison: "I think everyone he met quickly considered him a friend. He loved horses, going to the races, playing polo and shoeing them. He was an ex-boxer and basketball player."

Johnny Collins (far side) and Scott Morrison at polo. (Scott Morrison photo)

Don Robinson: "John was like your friend and family. And he had a way with horses--he was a natural. He’s one of the few people I’ve seen that was just a natural with horses. He was absolutely at ease with a horse, and they felt it.”

Doug Watkins: "Every time he walked in this door he had a smile on his face and we would laugh and cut up with his apprentices, Nate and his nephew, Carl (Scoobie)."

John Greathouse of Glencrest Farm in Midway, KY: I'd like to think that John was not only our friend but a go-to guy at the sales and the farm. Will he be missed? More than anyone can know..."

The Paulick Report noted that John Collins was a graduate of what Robinson called the “Jackie Thompson finishing school,” a reference to the highly respected Central Kentucky farrier who, in turn, learned from the legendary George Tompkins. Though the three men, all of them African-American, were unrelated, their craft was passed down from one generation to the next almost as if they were family. Collins referred to Thompson as “Uncle Jack.”

Doug Watkins: "There were also many discussions about how to fix problems on foals and yearlings and stories about 'Uncle Jack'. Every visit (to the shop) was an adventure."

Don Robinson: "He was a class guy. I’m lucky to have known him.”

Scott Morrison: "He took on, and trained, many young farriers. He was the kindest guy I knew. He had a smooth friendly way about him, with people and horses."

Doug Watkins: "One of the last times I saw him he had forgotten his receipt and his truck was still in the parking lot so I took his ticket to him and Scoobie rolled down the passenger window. There they were eating Lee's fried chicken with Nate in the back seat and I said 'I see how you guys are,  white folks sit in the back, huh?' and we laughed and laughed over that one."

Scott Morrison: "He shod at Lane's End, Winter Quarter (where Zenyatta was foaled), Winter Green, Mill Ridge, Miacomet, Glencrest . He handled the feet of many great horses. He learned from Jackie Thompson (and) started shoeing when he was 16. He was 50 years old when he died."

John Greathouse: “The world lost a great person...You were as good a guy as there was out there and a good friend. I will miss our time together. My condolences go out to Johnny's family. I was glad to have known him and will miss him dearly. RIP Mr. Collins.”

Doug Watkins: "Don't get me wrong, he was a VERY good horseshoer but that fact is not what made him. He was fortunate enough to work on some very nice horses with some great people in his career and horses like Zenyatta are hard to screw up. What made John was the fact that he was such a good person.  I hope the way I put this doesn't take away from his abilities because it wasn't meant to. He was just such a good person."

Rest in peace, Mr. Collins. And anyone reading this: please pass this man's spirit on.

To learn more:
Online funeral guest book for John Collins
The Paulick Report: RIP John Collins, Beloved Central Kentucky Farrier
Trim Toes for Zenyatta

Post script: John Collins was inducted into The Black Sports Hall of Fame at the 2012 Black Horsemen's Derby Eve Backside Party in Louisville, Kentucky.

Thanks to Doug Watkins, Scott Morrison, The Paulick Report  and everyone quoted for their help.

Read more here:

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