George Munsell will tell you he was born in Miami in 1939 then he’ll fast-forward to the time, 14 years later, when he would deliver papers on his bicycle then stop at the liquor store to get the coins he was paid with turned into bills.
One day the liquor storeowner told George’s dad, “I’m going to make that boy a jockey when he’s 16.” His dad was fine with the idea.
“They could tell I was a born natural,” says George. “Big hands, little feet.” George also has the jockey’s classic light and compact build.
Sure enough, when George turned 16, he was taken to the track and introduced him to a horse trainer, George Odin, who “took a look, had me sign a contract, next thing you know I was getting boots and walking horses. It came easy to me, being around the horses. I was a natural.”
Up to this point, George had never ridden or even been around a horse. Now, in addition to walking horses and holding them for the grooms, he started learning to ride on a pony stand and, after six months, he was galloping thoroughbreds. “I was getting $40 a week and a meal ticket,” says George. “The first horse I rode [at Miami’s Gulfstream Park] won.” A year after George’s introduction to the track, he was sent to the famed Belmont Park in New York to continue his education.
For the next 40 years George was a jockey, often riding as many as eight races a day. He had career peaks where he rode four or five winners in a single day. “I did very well,” he says. “I wasn’t a famous jockey but I had famous times.”
After Belmont, George continued his apprenticeship in Boston for a year, then went on to Rhode Island, where he got married and began commuting to races in Miami, New York and Boston. A decade later, he went west to California and Arizona, then up to Omaha where the racetrack was part of a huge livestock barn.
“I would travel around hustling jobs,” he explains. “In Omaha, nobody knew me — I met a trainer, won races for him, met another man, won races for him. I had to prove myself all the time.”
George remembers a horse named Gray Squirrel who was always coming in fourth or fifth in a race. The day George rode her, it occurred to him to take her blinkers off and, he says, “she shot off, dragged me around that track, and won!”
George figures he won about 3,000 races in the course of his career. “Everything in front is me,” he says with a laugh.
Despite his many successes, his career was not all been good times and the Winner’s Circle. “I’ve gotten hurt; I’ve fallen, broken my leg, hurt my back. But as soon as I healed, I’d go right back to riding.”
One accident in particular is memorable. When George fell from a horse in June of one year, he knocked his jawbone out of place, broke both cheekbones, his nose, a leg, and had a spinal fluid leak. He was in such bad shape, they gave him 72 hours to live and didn’t even treat his injuries. Even his agent gave up on him.
Fortunately, George’s wife called in a Dr. John Norton, George’s chiropractor and a horse owner himself. Dr. Norton took George’s face in his hands, inserted his thumbs in the roof of George’s mouth, and with a swift and powerful push upwards, popped his cheekbones back in place. “He fixed my face right up,” George says. “Even the spinal fluid leak stopped.”
George was back in the saddle for a 4th of July race. “They called me Iron Man Munsell,” he chuckles.
It’s a name he still deserves as he recovers from a broken hip at Williston Rehabilitation and Nursing Center. Brad Ellis, his physical therapy assistant at WRNC, says that George has gone from hardly able to take a step to walking independently with his walker. While George credits Brad with getting him back on his feet, Brad says, “If everyone worked as hard as George, we’d be good to go. When someone like him succeeds, I tell them ‘Don’t thank ME, thank YOU.’”
Dr. John Brandt, George’s physician at WRNC, adds that George is a charming and popular member of the community at Williston Rehab. “He gets around, visiting other people and helping out wherever he can. He was near death when he came here, and he’s traveled a long road to get to where he is now. It’s a pleasure to know him.”
When asked what words of wisdom he has for young people, George says, “Stay away from the bad things. Get a good job. Pray that you’ll get what you want.” He pauses, then smiles and adds with a wink, “I went to college on the race track.”
“I understood horses. It all came natural to me,” he continues. “God gave me a gift. I thank him all the time.”
George has enough racetrack tales to fill a book and, when asked if he’d enjoy being around horses again, he allowed that he would. If you or someone you know would enjoy visiting George or could take him to visit horses, please contact WRNC’s Director of Social Services, Carmen Wagner, or Activities Director, Penny Moore, at 352 528 3561. Williston Rehabilitation and Nursing Center is located at 300 NW 1st Avenue behind Hardee’s.