CHERRY HILL, N.J. -- You don't know Robin Gross. She has trained horses for 12 years but never won a stakes race. She has saddled a few allowance races but never even dreamed of a Kentucky Derby.
Mostly, she has lived in the shadows of the shed row, grooming somebody's 2-year-olds, training somebody's second-stringers.
She has easily walked a thousand miles with a horse at her side, round and round the shed row, through hot, dusty summers, into the raw wind of winters, when her eyes watered in the morning darkness and the tears froze on her face.
She has unloaded hay trucks, mucked stalls, been kicked and bitten and thrown and stepped on. But she is not a poor, underprivileged soul, trying to carve out a living on the backstretch, shoveling manure because she never knew how to do anything else.
There is nothing poor or underprivileged about Robin Oliver Gross, from Linwood, N.J. Her upper middle-class family is full of high achievers, and right now she could be relaxing at her parents' home in Key West, Fla., or playing tennis at some country club.
She has movie-star good looks -- dark hair, olive-green eyes, the complexion of a rose -- and all the grace and poise that go with intelligence and class. Maybe she could have become a surgeon, like her older brother, Greg. Or be working on a Ph.D., like her older sister, Sue. Or have a big advertising job in Dallas like her younger sister, Patti.
Not Robin Gross. She went to Stockton State for two years, worked as a waitress nights and weekends (at the Linwood Country Club) to pay stable fees for her pet thoroughbred, Banshe. She dropped out of school when a horseman she was serving at a banquet made her an offer she couldn't refuse -- a job as a hotwalker, for $100 a week. Starting time, 5:30 a.m., seven days a week. On the backstretch here at Garden State Park.
Her mother almost choked. Cute little, fragile little, sweet little Robin? The cheerleader at Mainland Regional High? The little princess who used to ride her thoroughbred in local horse shows? She's going to be shoveling what?
She made so little money, Gross took two other jobs to pay her rent. No matter. This was a chance to be around horses, to watch them train, to walk them, rub them and feed them and maybe even ride them. She had no greater love, save God and family, than horses. Not Derby horses. Not stakes horses or claiming horses, not jumpers or Clydesdales. Just horses. Any horses.
When she reported to the barn that first day on her new job, the trainer and her new boss, Brian Enright, could hardly conceal his contempt. Said Gross: "I'm sure he looked at me and said. 'Oh, boy. The boss has sent me one of those, quote, 'family friends.' She'll last about three days.' "
And then he attempted to prove it. He gave her the rough, the tough, the dirty. Never pulled a punch. He criticized. He insulted. He made her cry. Over the next two years, through the backstretch mud and urine and blood and manure and scabs and green flies and foul language and shed-row passes and belches and whistles and bad jokes, Gross learned to handle horses.
She not only made a believer of Enright, she became one of his dearest friends.
Gross went on to get her license to train and eventually was put in charge of the stable's Florida training center by the same horseman who had hired her away from the country club dining room -- Robert P. Levy, owner, breeder and mover and shaker in the thoroughbred world, owner of the Atlantic City Race Course.
Gross blushed as she told her story recently in the Phoenix Room at Garden State. Married, at age 29, to a trainer she met at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, N.J., she continued to train for a time, but always under her husband's name, Mel W. Gross.
Last month, her husband joined his family's business in New York, and Robin, after an absence of about five years, went back to the barns. She took over his stable, now the Robin L. Gross Stable. She is head trainer. That is her name in the program with a horse in the fourth race and another one in the 10th. And she will instruct the jockey.
She'd never been interviewed before, she said, modest and polite and so accommodating that she soon was telling family secrets, trade secrets, tales from a marriage.
"My God," her husband blurted out at one point after pretending not to listen, "don't tell everything you know!"
"Well, why don't you tell him what my mother said to you in the driveway before we were married?" Robin asked, grinning.
"I don't believe you!" said her husband, rolling his eyes in mock dismay.
It is all part of growing into her new role. Her husband, who once saddled a Derby horse (On The Sly) and had two stakes winners in one day, said he would have to teach her about interviews, but there is little he can tell her about training horses.
So now Robin is back to three jobs again. She is a housekeeper, mother of a 16-month-old adopted daughter, Samantha, and head trainer.
Before he retired, her husband reduced the stable by about half, to 14 horses. Robin Gross saddled a winner the first day of the Garden State meet (and has since had two other winners). It is a stable of claiming horses, a couple of them at the very bottom, but they get the care and attention of champions, even when they lose.
Of special interest in her stable are two 3-year-olds recently shipped to her from Lawrenceburg, Ky.
"That's Joanie," Gross said, pointing, "and over there is Buddy." The owners, Mr. and Mrs. James C. "Buddy" Ryan, bred the horses and want to know if they have any ability.
"It's a little too early to tell," Gross said, grinning, "but they haven't shown much yet."
Of the 14 horses in her barn, Joanie and Buddy were the only ones lying down.
"They're tired," Gross said. "They've been resting on the farm for 30 days, out of training. They galloped two miles today for the first time, and they're not used to it."
Buddy and Joanie rolled their eyes toward the stable door and put their heads back in the soft straw.
Gross grinned her approval.
"Hey," her eyes said. "You don't have to win the Kentucky Derby to be happy."