At seven years old and as the youngest of 15 children, in 1940 Charles Williams found himself left to his own devices much of the time. Williams, who considered himself the runt of the family, spent his time looking at comic books, staring at the western heroes such as Gene Autry and Roy Rogers -- and their horses.
"They had them pretty horses," he said. "That's what embedded in my head that I had to get into horses."
And so the young Virginia boy took himself to the fairgrounds and paid his 50 cents admission.
"I went on to the barns and that's where I stayed," he said.
Seven decades later, Williams is still there. The 77-year-old currently trains three Standardbreds at the Atlantic District Fairgrounds in Ahoskie, North Carolina and still climbs into the race bike on the rare occasion -- even winning a conditioned pace this summer with What A Fantasy at the Great Pocomoke Fair in Maryland.
What A Fantasy is just one of the hand-me-down horses Williams has had success with.
"That's what I focus on," he said. "Things that somebody else had."
Williams said he enjoys working with horses that are considered problem horses or have not been able to get their act together for other trainers. He said when he first took over What A Fantasy's training, she tended to be very hot on the track, so the first thing he did was change her bit.
"If she's hot upstairs you want to make her comfortable in the mouth," he said.
Under Williams' care, What A Fantasy -- recognizable by her bright red saddle pad and bandages -- has only found the winner's circle once but has had a bevy of respectable performances, racking up three seconds and three thirds in 2009.
One of Williams' more successful projects was the mare High Hopes Gracie, who he campaigned in 1996 after getting her in exchange for $200 and a 2-year-old he figured was worth $500. From 30 starts, the mare had the best year of her career, with seven wins, two seconds and eight thirds under Williams' care.
While his own horses are known on the fair circuits, in his lengthy harness racing career Williams -- who is known to many as "Red Eye" Williams -- has taken care of numerous others that have received wider acclaim, including Miss Conna Adios, The Engineer and Adios Boy.
He was even honored for his work in 1998 with Harness Tracks of America's Caretaker of the Year Award.
One might think that over the years the horses would start to run together, but for Williams the past remains clear. He can still recall the details of the October 1954 sale in Felton, Del., when with bidder's number 268 he selected hip number 33 -- aptly named Red's Reward -- for mentor Frank Albertson. Albertson purchased the horse for Williams to train for $1,500.
"I remember all this as good as I can see," Williams said. "He was a nice big stud colt."
Although he was still just a young man, Williams by then had had plenty of harness racing experience having traveled throughout the mid-Atlantic area with Albertson. His first time behind a horse had come at the age of 12, when he decided to jog one of the stable's older horses one morning.
"I thought he'd be the easiest one," Williams recalled. "But my little skinny pencil arms couldn't hold him."
And so around -- and around -- the track they went.
"When we finally went through the gate he was barely walking," Williams said. "That broke the ice for me."
Today, in spite of his age, Williams is still always to be found at the track, whether it be driving at the Pocomoke Fair, organizing Ahoskie's annual Mother's Day racing or taking catch paddocks at Colonial Downs. He is even still looking for a trotter to round out his current stable roster.
by Charlene SHARPE, USTA Web Newsroom Senior Correspondent