ARCADIA, Calif. -- Rick Mettee used to spend weekends with his grandmother in the eclectic Baltimore rowhouse neighborhood of Hampden, not far from Pimlico. They took the bus to the track.
First thing each morning, he checked the Orioles box score and the charts from whatever Maryland track was running.
He used to ride his bike to Timonium, the little track north of Baltimore that operated during the Maryland State Fair. One day, he saw an ad in the Towson Times.
"They wanted a girl over 18 with experience," Mettee said Wednesday morning while seated in the Santa Anita grandstand, overlooking one of the most glorious settings in sports. "So, I was a guy 17 and never touched a horse in my life."
He got himself hired as a groom at Timonium.
"I thought I knew something," he said. "I didn't know anything. I couldn't have been more unqualified for the job. I just rode my bike up there and went to work one summer."
That was 35 or so summers ago.
Mettee's morning was nearly over as he climbed into the stands to talk about where he's been and where he is now. It was closing on 8 a.m.
The last of the moon was still hanging in the sky as the sun peaked over the far edge of the grandstand, a few furlongs from the chaos of Clocker's Corner where everybody who is anybody gathers to watch the horses train, drink lots of coffee and tell stories that are sometimes believable.
Just down the horse path is Barn 48 where the Godolphin Racing horses, preparing for their assault on the Breeders' Cup, are housed, one barn away from where the legendary Seabiscuit resided 70 years ago.
Mettee starts early, really early. The horse traffic, he said, is too much at Santa Anita so he likes to get the horses out well before dawn.
For the last five years, Mettee has been the assistant trainer in charge of the Godolphin's American division. He is an assistant in name and politics only. He runs the show. And, for the last three months, it has been the greatest show in racing.
Godolphin won four Grade I stakes at Saratoga. It would have been five if Vineyard Haven had not been disqualified after finishing first in the King's Bishop. The American division of the world's most powerful stable has nine horses running in five Breeders' Cup races Friday and Saturday.
It is long way from Timonium for Mettee.
Horse training, more than anything, is feel. The best trainers have it. Mettee, for instance, can see one of his horses from hundreds of yards away and know instantly which horse it is by how the horse moves or the color of his coat or something even the kid who lived in little Lutherville, Md., never could have imagined.
Mettee came to Santa Anita in 1981, sort of horse racing's version of the unemployed actor hoping to get discovered in Hollywood. A friend of his had hooked on with a young English trainer named John Gosden. Mettee took a chance and went to work for Gosden, "living in a tack room."
It was a wonderful time to be part of California racing with Laffit Pincay, Bill Shoemaker and Charlie Whittingham at or near their peaks. Gosden's barn took off when they got the dominating older horse Bates Motel and the brilliant filly Royal Heroine.
Gosden eventually went back to England. He returned last year to win the Breeders' Cup Classic with Raven's Pass.
It was Gosden who recommended Mettee for the job with Godolphin.
"It took me about two seconds to make up my mind," Mettee said. "My bags are packed, let's go."
Godolphin leases a house for Mettee in Garden City, N.Y., not far from Belmont Park. He still owns a town house in Monrovia, close to Santa Anita. And, in a few months, he will pack up and spend the winter in Dubai as Godolphin gears its stable up for 2010.
"It's really amazing," Mettee said. "And they're good guys to work with."
The job description was to oversee a small, elite group of horses and win graded stakes in America. Godolphin already was winning many of the major European scene with its barn based at Newmarket in England.
These past few months have been total domination of some of the best races in America.
"All the pressure is self-imposed pressure, just wanting to see the horses run well," Mettee said.
Most American grooms have four or five horses to care for. Godolphin's American grooms work with just two horses.
"You can imagine the care they're getting," Mettee said.
The man in charge of his operation once went from Timonium to Bowie where he lived in a bunkhouse that could charitably be called substandard.
"I thought I was doing well," Mettee said. "I was 18, out on my own, living in a tack room at Bowie. I didn't think it could get any better than that."
Now, he commands a small army of horses.
"With nine over two days, we're going to be racing back and forth to the paddock and the barn and the grandstand," Mettee said. "I'll have to go back and watch the whole card (on tape) afterward."
Sara Louise (Filly & Mare Sprint) is the last horse to beat Rachel Alexandra. Cocoa Beach and Music Note will have a lot to say about the Ladies Classic. Gayego may very well win the Sprint. Midshipman looks like lone speed in the Dirt Mile. Every last Godolphin horse is live.
And this isn't even the real goal for some of them. Some are gearing up for the 2010 Dubai World Cup to be run at the futuristic Meydan Racecourse with its 1,000-meter long grandstand, its 76 million square feet, its hotel, its IMAX and its $1.25 billion cost.
Godolphin is the stable of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai and the man, along with his family, who have kept American horse sales going over the last generation.
"Everything is being pointed for those big races in Dubai in the winter," Mettee said.
You may want to keep an especially close eye on Girolamo in Saturday's $5 million Classic. The beautifully bred colt likely is not ready to beat all those top horses, but the stable wants to see how he measures up.
The race they really want to win is next March, the $10 million Dubai World Cup when the sheikh will arrive via canal at his new racetrack just in time to win the race with the world's largest purse.