BY JIM WELLS
Table 544 has an emptiness to it, a void, something missing, a presence once energetic, lively, full of stories about life, especially those lived on the racetrack, stories about the successes, struggles, hardships and triumphs of racetrackers just like herself. And, of course, the occasional disagreement, too.
Oh, people still occupy the table, some of them her close friends, but Barb Noll is gone, no longer a part of the conversation, no longer connecting the dots between this person and that one, between the multitude of personalities, stories, tales and fables that make up the fabric of life on the racetrack.
Not many months before, her close friend, Hall of Fame owner/breeder Cam Casby, left the table, and Barb followed on April 16.
Barb Noll, 84 when she died, actually left the table months before her death following a stroke, leaving a legacy of friendship and business relationships. She and Casby had been fixtures at table 544 for several years and could be found there every racing day.
A former elementary and special education school teacher, primarily in Sioux City, Noll turned to training horses following her divorce in the 1960s, subsequently won races in a number of racing jurisdictions, mainly in the Midwest, but eventually turned to hustling book, for a wide range of jockeys. She was a woman in a man’s world but didn’t back down from anyone.
She was the first female trainer in South Dakota, changing the state’s male-only policy at the time. She used to take Hall of Fame trainer Billy Mott, then a youngster, to the track kitchen for cereal in the morning.
When people asked Steve Noll if he was related to Barb, he would say “I’m her favorite child,” not mentioning he was her only child.
The stable area will miss Noll’s ability to put together dinners, lunches and raffles for people in need. She did a lot of the cooking herself. “She seemed to know everybody and everything that was going on at the racetrack,” said the HBPA’s Patrice Underwood.
She also filed income tax statements for a large number of racetrackers, certain they were being cheated because of their employment in several states during the course of a year.
“She’d be up all night filling out those forms,” said her son, currently an outrider at Canterbury Park.
Up all night, with her omnipresent cigarette sending its tiny smoke plumes into the ether.
“We were smoking buddies,” said stall superintendent Mark Stancato, “and we shared at least one or two happy hours together at Dangerfield’s.”
Stancato recalls Noll as a hands-on worker, not someone who relied on telephones. “She did her business by golf cart, working the barns,” he said.
Noll worked almost exclusively with the little guys, the riders having a hard time getting mounts. “That was her specialty,” Stancato added, “getting the little guys well mounted.”
She wasn’t afraid to let a young rider know when he was out of bounds, either.
“I can picture Barb banging on one of the kid’s doors if he had overslept and had a horse to work that morning,” Stancato said. “I can just see her steaming mad.”
One of her best known riders was Paul Nolan, with whom she had a partnership for a decade or longer. “She was a hard worker, a nice lady and she knew a great many people,” Nolan said. “She could really round up business…sometimes on horses you didn’t want to ride, but she worked hard.”
Nolan recalls an occasion or two when Noll suggested that he seemed a bit moody that particular morning. “I’d tell her, Barb, I’m just tired. I worked 14 horses this morning and rode 10 last night. I’m not moody. I’m tired.”
Racing secretary Doug Schoepf first met Noll in the late 1960s when she put him on one of her horses at Park Jefferson. “She was a racetracker through and through,” Schoepf said. “I remember that she used me and my brothers Kenny and Brad and brother-in-law Dale Nix to ride her horses. “We all called her mom. It seemed like everybody hung out together in those days and everybody called her mom.”
Well, except perhaps for one individual, a singer of various country genres named Lyle Lovett. Nolan had been riding in Houston and got mounts on horses owned by Lovett’s uncle. An introduction here, another one there, and you guessed it.
“Mom got to be real good friends with Lyle,” said Steve. Good enough friends to receive an invitation from Lovett when he traveled to the north country one time.
Lovett had an engagement in the Twin Cities and sent Noll 20 tickets to his show in addition to sending two limousines to Canterbury to escort the party to his concert.
“Halfway through the show, Lyle stopped for a moment to thank the Queen of Canterbury and her group for coming to his show,” Steve added. “Well, she got pretty puffed up about that and we called her the Queen of Canterbury.”
Some people simply called her a pain whenever she rubbed them the wrong way or went face to face with them over her rights. Many people called her a friend,a friend who is missed by the racing community, during morning coffee breaks, during happy hour, while scooting from barn to barn in a golf court or putting together a fundraiser __ a friend who is missed at table 544.