Larry Horning Jr. was back at work yesterday. Seven weeks after rescuers pulled him from the wreckage of a private-plane crash that only he survived, Horning supervised the training of his horses in the morning at Bowie, and then went to Laurel to see his good sprinter Semaj finish second in the fourth race. Any disappointment the 29-year-old trainer felt over the outcome of that race was overwhelmed by the sheer joy of being there, of being able to resume his promising career, of being alive with no permanent disabling injuries.
On the August day that he will never forget, Horning had run one of his horses at Saratoga and was about to come back home when he saw a fellow Marylander, trainer Harrison Johnson. He learned that Johnson was going to fly his small plane back to Virginia after the races. Johnson had only one other passenger, owner George Griffith, and he invited Horning to come along.
"It was a beautiful day and a beautiful flight," Horning said. "We were circling the Woodbridge Airport, but when he hit the switch on his radar he couldn't get the runway lights to go on. I guess he tried to land, anyway. I don't know if he clipped the trees, but I remember the sensation of saying to myself, 'Get up! Get up!' " That is the last thing Horning remembers.
The plane was demolished; in photos, the wreckage isn't even recognizable as a plane. Harrison and Griffith died instantly. It took rescuers an hour and a half to get Horning out. He was hospitalized with a fractured skull, fractured pelvis and fractured collarbone, but he was released Sunday. Although he will need crutches or a wheelchair for a time and will only be able to work part-time for a while, he should be back to normal in a few weeks.
This was not the first time Horning has been suspected of leading a charmed life. There aren't many people who have accomplished so much so fast in his profession.
Horning developed an enthusiasm for horses early in life: "My dad would tell my mother he was taking me in to work with him, but he'd babysit by going to the track." While he was in college, he worked for Dick Dutrow, one of the top horsemen in Maryland, and after three years as a groom he got his trainer's license.
The racetrack backstretch is filled with kids like Horning who want to break into the profession, but who don't have the money or the connections to get horses to train. Horning was lucky: he had a supportive father, Larry Sr., who owns a property-management and construction business in Washington and had been racing a very modest stable with very modest success for a number of years.
When he helped put his son in business by giving him four horses to train in 1980, the Hornings' probability of success was not high. It is easy for a trainer to fail with more experience and better horses than Larry Jr. had. But his performance has been remarkable.
From the outset, Horning compiled a solid winning percentage with his small stable, and in 1984 his record was astonishing. With 100 starters, he scored 25 victories and ran second 20 times. He showed he could succeed in the toughest competition when he made two big scores at Saratoga. Chazmo won there at 14 to 1, and then Snowden's Gold won at 28 to 1. New Yorkers who had never heard of Horning were asking the racetrack equivalent of "Who was that masked man?" when he left town.
Horning evidently has the right skills and instincts. "I played a lot of baseball in college," he said, "and that actually helped me a lot, because horses are athletes and you've got to treat them like athletes. When they're not doing good, you have to back off them, but when they are good, you lean on them. When they start getting confidence and getting into the swing of things, everything falls into place."
He loves his work, and he missed it badly during the past seven weeks. "When I was in the hospital," Horning said, "I was so anxious to see those horses again -- see how they move, look at their feed tub every day. They get to be like your kids. I appreciate them more than ever now."