Canadian horse trainer Dave Downey still remembers the day Lincoln Chafee showed up in his shed row looking for work.
He was “this tall lanky blonde fella,” Downey told Thoroughbred Daily News writer Perry Lefko. “He seemed well spoken and he was asking me if there was any work for a blacksmith.
“I had a large stable,” Downey remembered, “but I already had a blacksmith. I said, ‘I’ve got a couple horses that need to be shod. How bout you shoe them for me and see what kind of job you do and we’ll go from there.”
So he led Chafee to a particularly difficult horse named Widow’s Honey. “Every time you picked the back feet up, he’d try and nail you,” Downey told the paper. And sure enough, when young Lincoln picked up his foot, the horse kicked at him. Then he picked it up again, and the horse kicked at him again.
But then Chafee did something different. He went over to the horse, rubbed his face and talked to him for a while and went away. Then he came back, picked up his foot again, and the horse was compliant. “Never raised his voice,” Downey said, “never lost his patience.” After that, Widow’s Honey and Lincoln Chafee “got along great.” And Chafee got the job.
Now the former Rhode Island governor and former Republican senator (Chafee left the GOP in 2007), still tall and lanky but no longer blonde, is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, with zero chance at winning — leaving everyone wondering why he’s doing it, just as the horse trainers in Canada wondered what he was doing there almost 40 years ago, shoeing horses.
“… A lot of us were wondering, ‘what’s his story?,'” trainer Clark Beelby in Calgary told Lefko. “‘What is it with this blond-haired American guy coming up here to the north?’ Nobody knew anything about him. It was only natural to wonder is he running from the law?”
Absolutely not. But he did seem to be running from his patrician roots in Rhode Island, where his great-great grandfather and his father, John Chafee, served as governor.
After graduating from Andover and Brown University, Chafee decided he needed a skill, he told Thoroughbred Daily News.
“I worked construction during summers as a laborer, but I saw the skilled construction people–the bricklayers, plumbers, carpenters–and I admired them,” he said. “They had a skill and they could go anywhere they wanted and find a job, much easier than a laborer could. I was thinking, ‘How do I get a skill?’ Then I saw an ad for a horseshoe school. I had grown up with horses and had always watched the blacksmith do his job, so I thought, ‘there’s a skill, a little different from construction, but you could go anywhere in the country, or North America as it turns out, if you have that skill.'”
“The times were fairly rebellious,” Chafee told The Post in 2001. “That was normal then.” On the other hand, he added, both of his parents were “very supportive. It was almost encouragement. Making a living. Working hard.”
In 1976, Chafee packed up an old truck and headed for Bozeman, Mont., where he enrolled in a three-month horseshoeing course at Montana State University. They were used to all kinds at MSU, recalls Tom Wolfe, a veteran instructor there and an inductee of the International Horseshoeing Hall Of Fame. Among the school’s former students, he recalled a lobsterman from Maine who was just looking for a few months away from his boat, a man from Hawaii who was chauffeur to the last living princess of the Hawaiian royal family, and Chafee, who the school describes as its “most famous alumnus.”
In addition to being the only former blacksmith in the White House, Chafee would have another distinction if he wins in 2016: He would be the only president who was once an illegal immigrant, albeit in Canada.
After Montana State, Chafee headed to the harness racing tracks in Canada when he couldn’t find farrier work in the U.S. He recalled in a 2002 speech, quoted in Canada.com, that he didn’t have any kind of permit to live or work in Canada and hid his blacksmith tools in the trunk of his car to avoid trouble with Canadian customs.
Ultimately, he was picked up and hauled to court with “all these kinds of prostitutes and drug dealers” and berated by a Canadian judge in a wig. “‘What are you doing up here in the land of gophers,'” the judge asked him. After paying a fine, he went and obtained the status of “landed immigrant.”
Eventually he grew lonely in Canada. “I had more equine than human company for seven cold and dark Alberta winters, paying my way by welding borium cleats on the shoes of horses that would race over frozen tracks until spring,” Chafee wrote in his 2008 book, “Against the Tide: How a Compliant Congress Empowered a Reckless President.”
At the age of 30, he returned to Rhode Island and worked in a low-level management job at Electric Boat, the submarine-manufacturing division of General Dynamics, before picking up the family torch and entering politics, with a run for the Warwick City Council.
The rest is history.