NEW PORT RICHEY
Start to finish, it takes about six hours to build a saddle that's light yet sturdy and a good fit for a 115-pound jockey and a 1,000-pound thoroughbred clocking it down the stretch.
When it comes to getting that saddle out the door, "too little time" is the nature of the business — particularly when live racing wraps up in Tampa and jockeys head to tracks such as Presque Isle Downs in Eerie, Pa., and Thistle Downs in Cleveland. In those paddocks and other local haunts around the circuit, the name Keith Beeson is an easy roll off the tongue.
"They're always asking us to do the impossible," said Beeson, 70, in his native Yorkshire accent. "The jocks all want their new saddles. They want things repaired."
As he laid out fresh-cut pieces of Clarino, a synthetic leather, on the plywood workbench in the back yard of his New Port Richey home recently, Beeson talked like a man who's been there and done a lot.
"I've been around, done every job at the track," he said. "I've rode there, galloped there, been a patrol judge, outrider, clerk of scales, jockeys' room custodian, photo finish man, valet."
All while establishing a side business making and repairing horse tack.
On one recent day's agenda: six new saddles and a slew of girths. A few saddles to mend and a pair of man's size 5 riding boots needing soles. Add to that, the quest for 3 yards of blue Clarino — a task in itself since the primary supplier of the synthetic leather was wiped out by the 2011 tsunami in Japan.
"Daniel Centeno — the leading jock for the last five years — he likes red. A lot of the others want blue," Beeson said. "But they might have to settle for black."
It's all in a day's work for the saddlemaker who shrugs off the last-minute rush with a "happens every year" kind of thought.
Besides, now he has help.
• • •
Jake Koehn, 21, is an accidental apprentice. He was about a dozen years old, splitting days between divorced parents, when he wandered under the saddlemaker's wing, a grateful kid with a polite, unassuming nature looking to repay the man providing a home for him and his mom, Maggie, who had been dating Beeson for a time.
Koehn did household chores and hung out under the shade of a backyard oak where Beeson pieced saddles together. "I started watching him work and helping out — just gluing things and doing small stuff that needed to be done," Koehn said.
The boy had a knack, even though he hadn't been around horses much.
"He's a fast learner," Beeson said. "It took him just three months to learn how to make a saddle. That's the fastest of anyone I've ever taught."
It was a serendipitous opening for a man looking for someone to pass his business on to and a kid sorting out his future.
"When I was in high school I thought I might want to go into computers because I'm kind of a geek," said Koehn, a 2009 Mitchell High graduate. "But I liked making saddles. I like to take an inanimate piece of leather and turn it into something that has a life of its own."
• • •
Beeson's own apprenticeship was fueled by necessity in 1957 when he was a 14-year-old living in Southend-On-Sea, in England.
"I came home one day and the door was locked," he said. "I pounded on the door and my mother opened it and handed me a suitcase and 4 pound 50 — about $10 — and told me, 'You're done with school, now to go make your living.' "
Beeson hitchhiked north to Newmarket, landing on the doorstep of jockey handler Basil Foster.
"He took one look at me and said, 'You're going to be fairly tall — too tall for flat racing — but you'll do for jumping,' " Beeson said. He signed as a steeplechase apprentice, earning 70 cents a week plus food and lodging, and began a lifelong friendship with Foster, who died in April, and the late pop icon, Davy Jones, who also apprenticed with Foster before joining the Monkees.
"We grew up together," Beeson said of Jones. "He was happy as hell when he was riding. But he went into music and I stayed with the horses."
Beeson raced until 1972 in Europe and the United States, save for three year' service in the British Army. His favorite horse was a hurdle racer called Straight Lad. Another, Bumble's Pet, was a close second.
"They liked to run," Beeson said. "They were in their glory when they were jumping."
As was Beeson. But the toll got to him.
Over the course of his career, Beeson logged more than 700 wins. He purged and took water pills to meet weight, got tossed enough to break 42 bones, bust out a mouthful of teeth and fracture his skull. He also married five times and fathered 11 children, paying child support until he was 62.
"I made a lot of money in my time," he said. "Some I gambled, some I spent chasing women. The rest I wasted."
The last time he climbed on a horse was nine years ago.
"A friend in Ocala had two babies he was galloping so he convinced me to get on. I had three days of pain on the inside of my legs. I felt like I was hit by a ball bat," Beeson said. "I don't miss it much when I think of all the times I had to be helped in and out of bed. I've been through the mill. My body aches all the time."
Miraculously, his fingers are still nimble enough to build a jockey's seat that weighs less than a pound.
Beeson was working as a valet at Thistle Downs when he got into saddlemaking.
"I noticed all these saddles were broke and no one was fixing them," he said. "So I took one home, took it apart and fixed it."
His experience as a rider came in handy.
"I know what the jocks like. I know what they need," Beeson said. "None of my saddles go out the door unless I would ride in it myself."
He sells about 350 to 400 saddles a year, charging from $225 to $350 depending on custom features such as lead pockets that help lighter jockeys meet the required weight. Some go to jockeys at the downs, others are shipped to riders throughout the world. His biggest customer is A. Ed Cohen Inc., a tack supplier at Calder Race Course in Miami Gardens.
"As long as I can remember we've been buying stuff from Keith," said Jon Cohen. "He's awesome. Reliable. We buy more saddles from him than anyone else."
Most business comes word-of-mouth and has expanded some.
You name it, Beeson says he'll make it — wallets, gun holsters, belts, guitar straps for Davy Jones, trick saddles for circus performers.
"Then there's the kinky stuff," he said. "And the repairs. It's never ending."
• • •
Come fall, Koehn will step into Beeson's position as a valet at Tampa Bay Downs, where he now has a seasonal job doing laundry for the jockeys and inserting tracking devices in saddle cloths before each race.
"I like it a lot. It's like a big family," Koehn said. "You meet people from all over — Canadian riders, French riders, Russian riders. "
At one time Beeson thought he would pass his saddle business to his son, Erik, who can make a fine saddle but would rather not. Now he is easing the reins over to Koehn.
"He calls me his son. He is like a real father to me," Koehn said. "I could go to any track and say, 'I'm Keith Beeson's son,' and people would know him."
Soon, Beeson will pack up his blue Hyundai Santa Fe and head to some of those tracks to deliver products and attend a reunion with old friends at the original Winking Lizard in Ohio.
While he's away, Koehn will run the business.
It's an opportunity the elder knows his apprentice is ready for, one Koehn is happy to take on.
"I know how fortunate I am. I'm really grateful for everything Keith has done for me," he said.
"Well, I've got to do something good in my life to pay for all my sins," Beeson said with a wink. "This will be good for Jake. He'll never have to work for anyone in his life. He can go anywhere in the world and make a living. He can go make saddles in Alaska or the middle of the mountains. He's got it made."
Michele Miller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.