Charlie Camac, association steward at Calder Race Course, sat down one evening last week to recall the highlights of a life spent in the racing industry. He will retire Jan. 2, and the decision to end this chapter of his career was not an easy one to make. But time marches on, Camac said, and if anyone has enjoyed a rewarding tenure at tracks across the country, it’s him.
They call Camac "a Calder original," but the more appropriate term might be “racetrack original.” Brought up on the backstretches of Mid-Atlantic racetracks like Delaware Park and Garden State Park, he inherited a love for horses and the skill to handle them from his father, leading trainer Charles Camac. His uncle, Joe Camac, was also a well-known trainer. They taught Camac to walk hots and gallop and even to work as a stable foreman – but he found his true talent on the starting gate.
“An assistant got hurt one summer at Atlantic City, so I took his place,” Camac recalled. “I was about 16 or 17, and I just got into it. I did other things on the track, but I was a good athlete, and working the gate just kind of came naturally to me.”
Camac’s self-description of “a good athlete” is a modest one. While in high school he lettered in four sports – football, basketball, baseball, and track – and he also played a year of freshman football at Delaware University. That natural athleticism likely kept him from the physical damage often suffered by members of the gate crew.
“I got banged around some,” he said. “I’ve been in a few spots where I very well could have been seriously injured, but I was fortunate over the years not to get hurt that badly.”
Early in Camac’s days on the gate crew, while he was working as an assistant starter at Delaware Park, a typical incident occurred.
“I was schooling horses with a veteran crewman, and this colt from South America was giving him a problem,” he said. “Like a lot of people do, he held one hand up, and in a heartbeat, the horse bit his finger off. Right through the leather glove. Everybody was in shock, and there was the finger laying on the ground. I’ve seen some guys get hurt worse than losing a finger, though. Guys would get fractures, break arms, get hit in the head…it’s not an easy job.”
In spite of his profession’s dangers, Camac became best-known for his concern about the treatment of the racehorses under his supervision.
“The main thing with him is the health and welfare of the horse,” Florida state steward Kevin Scheen said. “He’s an old-time horseman and he’s kind of an old softy. He loves the horses and has a tremendous amount of empathy for them.”
As an assistant to Delaware Park starter George Palmer, for example, Camac worked to end the now-extinct practice of using ear tongs to load horses.
“They used to put these plyers on a horse’s ear and squeeze them to hold the horse in the gate,” he explained. “Everybody did it. I was one of the first ones to start taking them off. It used to bother me – the horses got headshy and didn’t want to come over; it was doing more bad than good.
"Mr. Palmer agreed with me. I think learning a horse from the ground up, touching them all the time, having more patience – that’s the way to go. A horse doesn’t have to be punished to know they’ve done wrong. A lot of times, if you gain their confidence, they’re more than willing to do what you ask.”
In 1965, the word coming out of Hialeah Park had Camac in a very enviable position. Head starter Cecil Phillips had resigned, and Camac was hired to take his place. Then 30, he was one of the youngest starters in the country.
“I wasn’t nervous,” Camac recalled. He then recanted. “Well, I was a little nervous, until I got in the stand. But once I got up there it was like somebody pushed a button, and I went to work. It was a thrill, that’s for sure.”
There is a scene from the 1979 movie “The Champ” (starring Jon Voight, with Faye Dunaway and Ricky Schroder) in which the starter at Hialeah talks to the jockeys in the gate. Camac played that starter, and calls that portion of the film his “speaking role,” though the script requires just three words.
“I said, ‘Let’s get ready,’” Camac recalled with a laugh. “But I also helped them get the horses together for the movie. It was a funny feeling – Hialeah was dark, but you’d go through the barns and there were all these horses I’d picked out.”
Camac knows good horses. Throughout the years, he started the best of the best – champions like Buckpasser, Secretariat, Kelso, and Seattle Slew. He also knows good horsemen, having raised two of them – his son Andy is the stakes coordinator at Calder, while son Chris is the assistant racing secretary for the New York Racing Association.
Camac moved to the stewards’ stand in 1995. He madee that decision with mixed emotions because it took him away from his direct interaction with the horses and his crew.
“But I accepted the responsibilities of the job and have enjoyed my time as steward,” he said. “I also got to travel some, as I was the presiding steward at the Caribbean Racing Confederation’s Clásico del Caribe for several years in the 1990s, and also served as a consultant in Japan.”
Though Camac will retire to his six-acre farm with wife Lisa and their six horses, he hasn’t quite finished leaving his mark on the industry he came to love.
“I’ll help school some horses on the local farms,” Camac said. “I’ve been working 12 months a year a long time…I’ve always been into the job.”