The bond between grandparents and grandchildren is most often a special one in any case, but it’s even stronger and more intimate when the grandparent is a legend and mentor in the grandchild’s chosen profession.
That’s the case for Vance Childers, and within the sadness he’s feeling these days, he’s really feeling that bond.
Childers, a native of Marseilles and a 2018 graduate of Marquette Academy, expected this week to be a special one as he and his grandfather — successful thoroughbred horse trainer James Childers, of downstate Collinsville — prepared for the opening weekend at their favorite track, Arlington Park in suburban Arlington Heights.
Sadly, the elder Childers succumbed to a lengthy illness and died last Monday at the age of 68.
The loss has hit Vance Childers hard, for personal reasons but also professional. It has forced Childers and his fellow trainers to take over the scheduling for their stable of 40 mounts, including those on the card at Fairmount Park in Collinsville, Arlington Park this weekend and beyond and for Hawthorne Park in Stickney later this summer.
“My grandpa would have never wanted us to stop in the middle of a racing season,” said Vance, who received his trainers assistant certification this spring. “We did take off half a week last week and he would have probably been upset with us for that. I’m sure he’s smiling down at us seeing that we’re all back to work.
“His not being there changes everything. I was always motivated and inspired to do the best I could for the animals themselves, but now, it’s a lot about him … He wanted his legacy was not about how many races he won, but how I was able to take this over, how I was prepared enough to take this over in case something like this happened. But right now, my main focus is to try and win races in his honor and in his name for his legacy.”
The younger Childers took the first step in honoring his grandfather on Monday when Lt. Dan Attack, one of three entries the stable had entered at Fairmount that day, won the seventh race under jockey Alvin Ortiz.
He got another the next day when Rangoon Attack, ridden by Elizabeth Thurman, won Race 2, then a strong second in Race 4 with Chrome Attack under Ortiz.
“I’m sure he was right there in the winner’s circle with us,” Vance said. “We have three more going on Tuesday and seven running at Arlington this weekend. Toward the end of my grandfather’s career, Arlington Park was probably his favorite place to race. That’s why I tried to enter as many horses as I could, hoping we could win just one race for him.
“We’re just trying to find a way back to normal. It will never be the same as it was with him. It will be a new normal for all of us.”
That will be a steep challenge, as James Childers had the best year he’d ever had in his 40-plus years as a trainer in 2019. According to Equibase, that year Childers trained horses winning 20 races, placing second 24 times and third 22, posting a whopping $304,149 in earnings. That’s $1,395 per start.
So far in 2020, in 44 starts, the stable has two wins, three places and six shows, taking in $42,694 in earnings, bringing his charge’s record to 167-219-231 with career earnings of nearly $1.65 million.
His grandson took the first step toward similar success on Monday.
Vance Childers had been around horses virtually all his life, saying that he’d “been to the racetracks before he ever went to school.” Realizing early on he’d probably be 100 pounds too big to be a jockey, he spent years learning the trade from his grandfather and mentor bit by bit until one day, he woke up and decided to put all that knowledge into action and follow in his grandfather’s footsteps.
Now Vance finds himself in charge of overseeing those 40 valuable young horses belonging to two owners, making sure the grooms that are each assigned six or seven of them are caring for and feeding them properly while he searches cards for races that are a good fit for their stock.
That’s a big responsibility for such a young man, but he’s confident he can handle it as long as he remembers the sage words of his mentor.
“Grandpa always said to handle yourself with class, to never let your temper get the best of you,” Vance said. “If you’re upset about something, just wait 24 hours, sleep on things and then talk about it, to never let your emotions cloud your judgment. That’s how he always did it and how I try to do it, too.
"It will be tough without him, but I have no regrets. This was the best decision I ever made in my life. And I have a proud name to live up to.”