Friday, November 02, 2012

Horse People

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 I am going to tell you a story with a moral.  Just so we’re all clear  on what a moral is; it is a lesson that we learn. Not every lesson has a moral, but every moral is a lesson.

My family moved to Northeastern, Colorado when I was just eleven. We moved from Denver when my father opened an auto parts store a small farming community. We rented a shabby little two-bedroom bungalow with a jockey living next door on one side and the local newspaper owner and editor on the other. 

The jockey was a little man, shriveled, bow-legged and limping with short grizzled hair and a squint.  His house was even smaller and less attractive than ours. Occasionally I saw him hobbling around in his yard, but we never spoke.  The newspaper people never spoke to us either.  We were an unknown quantity, the new folks in town.   

This town had recently opened a small horse track where quarter horse racing, thoroughbred racing, and rodeos were held throughout the spring and summer. My dad didn’t like me going to the racetrack, because of the bad element.  My dad had many prejudices and he had plenty to say about “horse people.”  Horse people were only one level above carnival people, who were on the bottom rung of the human ladder.  You could not get any lower than “carnival people.” I never knew whether my dad got these prejudices from his father or from his experience.  From the conviction in his voice, I assumed he had experience. As a kid, you don’t ask. By osmosis, I adopted my Dad’s attitudes

I liked the run down little house because there was a big sprawling climbable apple tree in the back yard and plenty of room to hit a baseball into the alley.  I spent the summer in the apple tree, going to the Saturday afternoon double feature, and at the Carnegie Library.  A year later we moved to a nicer house. After I graduated, we moved back to Denver.

Denver also had a new racetrack, called Centennial, and occasionally I went to the races there. The P.A. system played the Colonel Bogie March when the horses began their walk to the starting gates. My friend was an usher and always showed me to a good seat in the grandstand or even in The Jockey Club.   The most money I ever won on a horse was at Centennial, on a long shot, a horse that had won a race at our little track in Northeastern Colorado.

In the early days of our marriage, my husband and I occasionally attended a horserace, not for the betting, but for the ambience:  a nice track like Tijuana or Del Mar, a good lunch, wonderful pageantry, and the prospect of winning enough to at least pay for lunch. And the horses!  The glorious, beautiful horses. The beautiful, unpredictable horses!  I still wrinkled my nose at horse people, but I studied them carefully as I had studied the jockey, trying to figure out what made them low.

When we lived in the suburban Chicago area, my prejudices were reinforced, as there was an infamous family feud between two stable owners, the Jayne brothers, who regularly tried to kill each other and anyone else who got in their way.  The unsavory saga of the Jaynes went on for years. Events can reinforce prejudices.  Living in suburban Chicago reinforced mine.

Years passed.  Many racetracks disappeared with the introduction of casino gambling. We moved to the Boston area and seldom went to the races.

One night last December, a preview of an HBO program called Luck caught my attention.  What was remarkable was how the program captured the essence of all the race track people from the owners to the jockeys the railbirds and the down and outs who hang around tracks—the people my dad said were one cut above carnival workers.  Yes, they were sleazy and they all had problems and conflicts, but they seemed like real people and I began to root for them.  The show was filmed at Santa Anita, and I watched every episode, pulling for the gamblers, the trainers, even the drugged out jockey.  

Bad luck! The show was cancelled because three racehorses died during the filming.  This seemed horrible, but then I read that thousands of race horses die every year from unscrupulous owners and trainers who race sick horses, old horses, horses who should no longer be racing.  Obscure New Mexico tracks are the worst, but even famous places like Aquaduct are guilty.  It was a bad business, but Luck, had opened my eyes to the problems of being an owner, a trainer a jockey, even a bettor. 

Two weeks ago we traveled to the Los Angeles area to research the novel I’m writing.  We stayed in Arcadia, about halfway between Pomona and Pasadena, the two towns I needed to learn about.  Driving into Arcadia, I was startled to see signs to Santa Anita, the racetrack where Luck had been filmed.  Moreover, it was racing season at the track.  I felt a strong urge to visit Santa Anita. 



We had allowed a day to go to Santa Catalina Island, but ferry reservations were impossible, unless you like to catch 5:30 a.m. boats. I said, “Let’s go to the races!”  A little surfing on the Internet clued me in to the Turf Club at Santa Anita, a posh area in the stands that had a strict “dress code.”  I couldn’t remember if anyone from Luck had ever sat in the Turf Club, but I was going to.

We dressed in our vacation best. The staff was super-friendly and there were many young people there, as well as old timers studying the racing form. Both men and women wore fancy hats, and obviously enjoyed strutting around, all dressed up on this lovely Saturday afternoon. Some of them owned horses as we noted when they appeared in the winner’s circle.  We ate huge club sandwiches and won enough money to cover our modest bets. We were careful to avoid the $100 minimum window, where the heavy hitters wagered. 

The art deco racetrack was beautiful and the trumpeter who alerted the audience that it was almost post time, played Trumpeter’s Lullaby after one race.  The day felt so special. I discovered that there were early morning tours of the track, where visitors got a behind the scenes look. On Sunday morning, we saw Seabiscuit’s original stall and barn and met the horse that played Seabiscuit in the movie.  We visited the jockey’s room, the silks room and saddling paddock, and the walking ring along with stable area, receiving barn and the Paddock Gardens with their flowers and topiary trees.  Our guide was woman, a horse owner and trainer.  It looked like the workers at Santa Anita took good care of the 1600 horses currently living there during race season.  While the horses exercised on the track right in front of us, we had breakfast at “Clocker’s Corner,” and my husband recognized a man who was always on television at the Kentucky Derby.  His photo was in the Globe today.  Tomorrow is the Breeder’s Cup.  Wish I could go.

On the flight home, thinking about the day at the races, I realized I no longer thought “horse people” were “one step above carnival people.”  Horse people are cool.  After all these years, I finally felt sympathetic to our one-time neighbor, the poor broken-down jockey who must have been thrown off his mounts, probably had no pension and looked forward to an arthritic, poverty-stricken old age.  I could have at least said ’hi’ to him, and now I wish I had.

The moral of this story is that you may adopt your father’s prejudices when you are young, but at some point in your life, you need to re-examine them and maybe even discard those prejudices. Every occupation has bad apples.  And good apples! These days my view of “horse people” is a lot more nuanced.  I’m going to work on “Carnival People” next.




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