Sentell 'Sonny' Taylor, Jr. remains a constant in New York racing
by Najja Thompson
Each year, as the first day of spring approaches in New York, racing fans embrace the promising 3-year-olds gearing up for a chance at Triple Crown glory at the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival.
As the talented sophomores build up their stamina during morning training in the hopes of realizing the dreams of their connections, they will also unwittingly be eyed by placing judge Sentell Taylor, Jr. The man nicknamed 'Sonny' has a deep knowledge reservoir of what it takes to succeed at the highest levels of the game.
Taylor, 80, has been employed at the New York Racing Association (NYRA) for the past 55 years. Initially hired as an assistant clocker in 1964 thanks to his uncle Earl Williams, who was NYRA's head clocker at the time, Taylor has served in various capacities, including official timer, patrol judge and placing judge.
His time on the NYRA circuit has provided the opportunity to clock many of the sport's greats, including Triple Crown Winners: Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
"Secretariat was a super horse," said Taylor. "When I first clocked him, it was at Hialeah Park when he worked as a 2-year-old. You couldn't tell at the time how good he was going to be, but when I saw him again later that summer at Saratoga where he won the Sanford and Hopeful you could tell he was going to be something special."
The Chicago native attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he played collegiate basketball. After working as a U.S. Postal worker from 1957-61, he joined the U.S. Army, serving from 1961-63 as a supply clerk, when one visit to New York changed the path of his life forever.
"After I served in the Army, I visited my uncle in New York and I liked what he was doing clocking horses in the mornings and also working races in the afternoons," said Taylor. "I asked him if he could help me get a job here, and the rest is history."
Since that fateful trip, Taylor has witnessed legends and Hall of Famers on track eyeing the likes of Ruffian, Forego, Dr. Fager, and the 1977 Belmont Stakes and Triple Crown champion Seattle Slew.
"The atmosphere at Belmont was especially big when [Seattle] Slew was going for the Triple Crown," said Taylor. "I first clocked him at Hialeah Park in the winter before his debut at Belmont, and it was the best workout I've ever seen. He went six furlongs in 1:10 which is phenomenal and something you don't see today.
"As he continued on undefeated in his Triple Crown campaign the entire building was electric," added Taylor. "Where we're positioned as clockers and placing judges on top of the grandstand it's very rare to hear any noise, but on special days like that you could hear the roar travel up to the rafters and it's something to behold. The entire grandstand was packed with people and it's nice to see. The last time I heard it that loud was when American Pharoah won the Triple Crown."
Taylor also made long lasting friendships with prominent figures in racing such as the late John Nerud, Cot Campbell, Ogden Phipps II, and legendary entertainers and figures who attended the races, such as Count Basie, and Rachel Robinson, wife and widow of the late Jackie Robinson.
"I've seen plenty of great races and some terrific performances, but I think what I've especially enjoyed the most is all the different kind of amazing people I've met and encountered in racing," Taylor said.
With no plans to officially retire yet, Taylor, whose wife Claire passed away in 2012 after 46 years of marriage, continues to arrive at the track each day with the hopes of witnessing more great performances and continue to meet fascination people.
As the most senior NYRA employee and longest-tenured African-American, Taylor also relishes in the spread and success of minorities in racing.
"It's great to see the different riders from countries like Panama, Puerto Rico, Venezuela and other places have a positive impact on the game and be successful," said Taylor "There is a lot of opportunity to be made in racing and it's great to see a new generation taking advantage of that."
The Belmont Stakes Racing Festival, now in its fifth year as a 3-day event, returns to beautiful Belmont Park from Thursday, June 6 through Saturday, June 8, with the 151st running of the Belmont Stakes the centerpiece of a festival that will feature 18 stakes races over the three days including an unprecedented 8 Grade 1 races on Belmont Stakes Day, June 8.
Taylor's good friend, trainer Bob Baffert, recently captured two Triple Crown victories with American Pharoah in 2014 and Justify in 2018, and Taylor said he hopes to still be around to see the feat accomplished again when the Belmont Stakes Racing Festival returns .
"We've been fortunate the last few years with our Triple Crown winners. I don't really like to compare between the eras," he said. "I've seen too many great horses to recall, but I hope to be around to see another Triple Crown winner this season as well."