In 1974, I moved from a life of considerable poverty as a single mother living in a tenement on the Lower East Side to Boston for a one-year contract teaching photography at MIT. This put me out of my element and Suffolk Downs, a small local racetrack, became a comfortable destination on weekends. I never bet, but just mingled in the crowd of preoccupied, noisy men, some tipsy.
After a couple of years, I found other preoccupations and stopped going to the track. But in the mid-1980s, when I was working for as a coordinator in a shelter clinic, I learned that Healthcare for the Homeless was sending nurses to help provide assessments and referrals to track workers. I wanted to know about this group of disenfranchised folks, a step-up from homelessness since they worked so hard, but who still lived outside the social service network. I could find no excuse to go along.
In 2004, a friend, Jenifer Vickery, claimed a Thoroughbred racehorse, Beautiful Lassie, and asked me to take some pictures of her in the barn, which gave me a glimpse of the backside. I never wanted to leave. My interest was not in the horses, although I love the smell of them, the sound of their hooves. I am fascinated by the people who work at such demanding and often hard-scrabble jobs – the trainers, grooms, hot walkers, exercise riders, jockeys and their agents, vets, horseshoers and dentists, feed, hay, and icemen. Hopefully, bits of the amazing stories I’ve heard over five years are in these poems from a larger collection in My Suffolk Downs, published by Pressed Wafer and Kat Ran Press in 2012.
Another book, He Says, She Says, I Say, and Nobody Tells the Truth, Whatever That Is, on the Backside of Suffolk Downs, A narrative by Melissa Shook was published by Turning Point in 2014.
“Shoemaker lost the Derby when ‘e pull up at th’ wire,” Joe said
last week, “Goes ta show
you can be great and ‘ave a bad day.” I nodded as if I understood.
Today I ask Paul just what Shoemaker did.
“Acarro, too, at Belmont,” he says, “stood up at the wire, thought it was
over, 30-40 yards to go.” “What is a wire?” I ask.
Arms on the table, hands spread wide, he draws out Belmont Park,
a mile and a half,
two times wider than the track we overlook. “There’s an inside/outside
track, a bull’s eye on a hinge,
sometimes they took it down, sometimes they didn’t. Now I think
it’s mandatory to take it down.
Acarro sees the inside bull’s eye, thinks he’s home.”
Nobody who’s hung
around a track for forty years would say: He reined in his horse, threw
up his arms in victory,
because he thought that the turf bull’s eye, (clearly visibleand 30-40
yards in front
of the dirt bull’s eye) was the finish line. And it wasn’t.
Handsome and dignified George Heath
leans against the glass over the paddock, chatting with his usual guys.
I’ve been looking out for him all week
since he flew down to a horse fair in Florida. “Mr. Heath,” I interrupt,
“Get any babies?”
Looking down, he laughs, “Oh, yes, mam, babies, yeah,
I got babies, two….”
Staring into the distance, he talks about the one he got that he knew
he wanted, one of five
he’d picked from the stats, a baby out of blah and blah and blah,
and another he hadn’t expected to get,
hadn’t read about, a baby out of blah and blah and blah and blah.
I can’t even distinguish the names he’s dropping, the sires and dams,
the lineage, much less remember
a single name. It’s not his sweet loping West Indian accent that gives me
trouble, but my inability to catch hold of
a single word he’s said. I can’t stop the basics of this horse business
from falling out of my brain
if I turn my head quickly, this crucial history of who begot whom –
but he doesn’t notice, no one ever notices, as these names float over
my head – names precious to rider, trainers, owners,
the bettors and handicappers who can’t imagine I don’t relish them, too.
Are you from Jamaica? “Yes,
mam. My grandfather, he was a white man, that’s when the Queen oversaw
all her colonies. Managed
a sugar plantation. He stayed. Married a black woman, started gettin’ my father,
my uncles. Blonde hair, blue eyes. He
was a beautiful man.” Did you know him? “Certainly. He died when I was round
eight. A blessed man.
I used to drink a little of his brandy, smoke his pipe, lovely. I carry his name. George.
My father, he like black woman,
like black women. If he didn’t, I’d have white skin, look just like you.” He laughs
at Cuban Joe who’s going on about the old days, the fifties, when he started
at the track. George says, “I was a kid then,
listenin’ to my music, I love music, want to come to America for the music.
My father, he had one of those big –
what you call ‘em? Record players, used to play them big, big records,
you know what I mean?
Diana Ross and the Supremes, Dinah Washington, somebody Russell.
He wants me to be a lawyer. Can’t
be a lawyer when I don’t go to school, I tell him. Hired somebody to pull
me back off the track.
My mother says, ‘He’ll be a scruff.’ That means a no-good. If he’d let me buy
a horse, I’d be a top trainer in Jamaica, not standin’ here.”
“Castro’s sick, ya know. You can go back home soon.”
“I don’ wanna go there, those little
islands, bad. That guy in Venezuela’s 10 times th’ prick
Castro is. Right now in Miami
all these guys makin’ plans, who’s gonna be in power.
Came here in ’50, a airplane, a kid. You never seen poor,
my town, 1 shower, 21 families,
you hadda fist fight to get a shower, my mother had a basin.
Never seen toilet paper ‘til I got here.
Some guy tole me about a good job, nice place, city,
Everythin’ there, Coral Gables.
I get there, nothin’, nothin’, hadda walk inta town,
a latta red necks,
see me, ‘Spic,’ ‘Spic,’ I’m a kid, could see I was gonna
get inta a lotta trouble.
Saw a wood cabin across th’ field, a black man, a lotta
kids, eight, nine, big
family, I wen’ ta ‘im, said, ‘Can you feed me? I need
food. Keep me outta
a lot a trouble. Pay ya 7 dollars a week.’ ‘e usta make
5 a week. ‘That’s too much,’ ‘e says.
‘No, 7,’ I says.
‘is wife cooks – green beans, fresh, everything fresh,
never had sweet potato pie before,
biscuits, thick bacon. I couldn’ wait for breakfast.
One day ‘e says, ‘I don’
know if you’re gonna like what we’re havin’.’
I don’ know a raccoon
from a rat, I did’n go ta school ‘ere. Yeah, it was good,
everythin’ she cook was good.”
“That guy? Clemente. Know ‘im alotta years. Use ta
be a jockey.
One day, ‘e’s on a white horse, perfect, you know,
white-white, real white,
‘e rides by and says, ‘Look. A black man on a white
horse,’ and I says, ‘Looks like a fly in a glass of milk.’
The owner, she was there,
couldn’ stop laughin’.” Clemente’s ridden by
6, 8, 10 times, straight back, black autumn jacket.
black dressage helmet
like nothing other exercise riders wear, delicate face
a fine dark brown,
voice high pitched. And he sings. He sings riding
slowly up the outside rail,
sings galloping on the inside rail. He sings as he walks
one horse back to the barn
and when he gets on the next. He sings, he says,
because he’s happy, he sings, he says, to Jesus.
Watching the outside heat from the inside heat, at the window over the paddock,
I see Eddie, dark glasses, the #2
vest flapping against his shirt, running a horse. As soon as he’s half-way round
the oval, he hoses his horse down,
nice spray of cool water, all over, across the high-held head, the open mouth. Slowly,
slowly they walk beneath us in the shade
of the bleacher roof, small circles. The other runners take their horses around
the oval. In the sun.
Eddie’s horse moves nicely into the saddling stall, turns and stands patiently
while the owner and valet saddle
him up. Eddie leans into the horse’s nose, talking, scratching his flat forehead.
After the jockey mounts and Eddie delivers
his reins to the pony rider, he disappears into the club house to lay a bet, probably.
But the horse and jockey, the pony rider,
an outrider, too, come back into the paddock. “He’s lame, that horse is lame,”
the guy standing next to me mutters.
But it’s the stirrup – the jockey bends to strap it on, and they’re off again,
trailing all the others to the gate.
The race is, as everybody says, the fastest minute-something in the world. All that
flesh and speed and color and training,
maneuvering and danger, over almost before it begins. And #2’s come in first.
Eddie dashes, fists in the air,
into the winner’s circle. After the official photo’s taken, and Eddie’s leading
the horse back to the test barn,
I congratulate Bramante, the owner. “Thanks. Nice old horse. 113 starts.”
Seemslikeyesterday in the 7th.
Eddie squats in shavings at the front of the stall, bony knees at his shoulders,
head down, as he unfolds a roll
of fleece around the horse’s ankle, winds the blue wrap, fastens the Velcro.
“’e didn’t let me near ‘em. Tried to bite. Push me against th’ wall. Now…”
he stands, catches the huge
head with a muscular arm, nuzzling him. “’e’s bery, bery nice. Good baby.”
Once I asked how he’d learned English and he said, “Sesame Street,” an answer so surprising that I couldn’t interpret the words.
“Show for kids, simple words, little-by-little, it made sense.”
Sometimes I misunderstand him, but by now I know enough to know that baby,
usually said in a crooning voice
by the groom or trainer, is a two-year-old, a huge creature needing to be taught.
“Tomorrow ‘e gets th’ bell.” What the hell does he mean by that, I wonder, until
Eddie drops enough words –
starting gate, gate open, ‘e starts, with a rider, no bell. ‘e did bery, bery, good.
Today th’ bell. Then th’ gate closed and th’ bell, ‘e gets ‘is diploma.” “Diploma?”
“Certificate that ‘e came outta
th’ gate. Every horse, changes track, comes ‘ere, goes there, gotta take another test.
Get it written up that ‘e go outta th’ gate good. Sometimes a trainer forgets, gets
to th’ race, Stewards check all ‘is papers. No certificate. No race.”
“Couple of people at MIT want to write a book about me. Writers are know-nothings. Nothing beats age.
You know parchment, it’s old, the ink never fades. There’s a good Korean restaurant
in Orient Point. I like sushi.
In the Philippines, 5 years, hunting Huns, I ate fruit bat. Monkey. Grubs. Snake
has the consistency of chicken.
You eat anything if you’re hungry. I used to own horses when you could make money
at the track. Rigaterri. Yeah, that’s him.
Known him thirty years. Takes good care of his horses. Father was a trainer, give him
a couple, does well with them in New York
and from there here and there, now here, best horses. San Salvadorians, hard working, honest. Guatemalans, Columbians, too.
Puerto Ricans are the worst. Eleanor Roosevelt fixed that when she said they don’t
have to learn English,
could keep their indigenous language and they’re all living in an American
protectorate. Why not let Samoans speak Samoan?
Them were the days when it was ‘Think Pink.’ Said it was socialism, but it was
communism. Know who started socialism?
Ever read Plato? Know the difference between Roosevelt and Clinton?
Roosevelt’s wife pretended
to let him run the country. At the U of Wyoming, I took a psychology class with a German queer, Professor Featherstone.
He said, ‘You wanna Master’s? Study Freud. Otherwise use common sense.’
Never argue with the professor when he’s wrong.
In the fifties, I wrote a paper he failed, predicted socialized medicine. He taught us
the answer to why.
What is the answer? Just extend your previous question and you look like a genius.”
“In 1948, I was 14, 4 feet, 11 inches, when Vanderbilt took my contract. I got 300
winners in the bushes. Went into the army
at 5 foot,1 inch, 101 pounds, came out 105, I got my height there. Never broke 115
until I was 35.
My son just called. His wife had a miscarriage, her second. I told him, ‘Don’t
worry. Your mother had three before
she had you.’ Used to get nervous traveling. I tell her, ‘Stay at home.’ She was fine.
His wife lost the baby when
he was deployed. I think she’s afraid he’s going to be deployed again. I would a
stayed in the service if they hadn’t wanted
to put me in the Secret Service, have me guard Jacqueline Kennedy. I says, ‘No
thanks.’ And quit.
You know what I got for my 12th birthday? A punch in the jaw and a
shove down the stairs. He was a
alcoholic whoring son-of-a-bitch. My mother worked 2 jobs to support seven kids.
I have a older
brother, but I was her boy. I was the one who sat up with her at night. I broke
a chair over my father’s head
when he hit her. I was 14. She couldn’t help it. She was 14 when they met. He swept
her off her feet. She didn’t know
what she was getting into. Seventy years ago. What else was there for a woman?
Getting married or maybe working for the phone company.”
“What happened was this girl’s boyfriend got caught with cocaine and she made a deal
with the cops to keep him out of jail, wear a wire, turn the race, bring everybody
down. Asked me to make this horse sore. It was so obvious,
brought in a horse from Canada, a horse from Pennsylvania. You could see it a mile away. For a moment, I thought of jumping over the gate, running to the windows
to put in a bet, but I saw all these guys around, the kind that couldn’t find
an elephant with diarrhea in a snowstorm, I knew a lot of them cause I used to tattoo horses for the Racing Federation. I stayed right where I was.
It went down, a lot of people got put away. They came to me, “I gotta ask you.
Did anyone say anything to you about this horse?” “A lot of people say a lot of things about a lot of horses. I don’t pay any attention,” I says.
‘Well, listen to this,’ he says, and plays the tape. ‘Hey, when you shoe him,
will you make this horse sore?’ this dumb broad is asking. ‘Are you out of your
fucking mind?’ I’m answering.”
Somebody my age, my height, no flab, closed face, clipped white hair, clean
and pressed, talks to me. I am surprised since
only guys who would talk to a doorknob talk to me. Not white men.
He says, “Stay here long enough,
you could write a book. I got into it in ’84, so I’m a newcomer. I’m not a backside person. When I started,
a friend said, ‘You think you’re streetwise now. Wait. They’ll take candy out of
your pocket’ and he was right.
I’ve toughened up, but everybody has a hand out. Why are you here?”
“I’ve got a quarter of a horse in Leona’s barn.”
“I had a friend with a quarter-horse. They don’t race them here.” We laugh.
His name is Archie
and he’s someone who uses verbs, prepositions and the past tense, someone
who made money somewhere else first.
Six weeks later, I find myself talking
to hefty Monica, 25,
newly minted trainer, Archie’s horses in her barn. She tells me, “He’s in cement.”
“Take it easy. Be cool.
That’s what I’m going to do from now on in. Started here in ’70.
Worked 37 years. It was grand then.
Big crowds, big money, good horses. Now I’m going to take it
easy, be cool,” He shoves his big
sweaty self over so I can have a spot on the bench. He starts pulling
the leg of an old short guy, spade face,
a lovely shade of beige, front tooth gone missing, “You played
the part. Don’t tell me any different.”
The old jockey flicks his lead across the old groom’s knee,
“What daya mean? I won
three, four times a day.” They laugh. “Seen the van?” the big guy,
bulk and grizzle and black
and blue jeans, asks. And I ask, “Healthcare for the Homeless?”
And he says and I says and he asks and
all of a sudden we are talking about my friend Barb, his friend,
too, friend of anybody homeless
or broken or lost, her tough-self barely able to get around, but
“She got around,”
he says, “She got where she had to go.” And we’re telling stories
and he’s asking if I drove the car the drunk
hit and I say, “No, that was her friend, Cathy,” and we’re talking
about the doctor she called
that night she was dying who he knows and I know and he’s telling
me about being on a Board
and how they just bought a building, 27 million, the old morgue,
across from Boston Medical
(that I still call Boston City) on Albany Street, how the respite unit
named for Barb long before
she died, she was that important, is moving in there along with
other agencies he names.
And he tells me his name and I tell him mine, and we shake hands,
and say, “Glad to meet you” and don’t say
small world. And I think of Barb as I drive out past the security gate
and a Vivaldi Concerto is playing
on the car radio and I’m near to crying. Small world, John Griffin,
Take it easy. Keep cool.
Pam says, “Horse went over the rail in Tampa, remembers it, so they fit ‘im
with a blinder goes way over
the outside eye and a special bit on the left so if the jockey feels ‘im goin to the rail,
he has some control.
Don’t know why the trainer ran ‘im. Winston Thomson, he comes outta the jockey
room, into the paddock, sees
the gear on that horse and refuses to ride ‘im. The vet – love him dearly,
a good friend of mine –
but why he didn’t scratch that horse when a professional jockey refused to ride ‘im
is beyond me.
The bug boy says, ‘I’ll ride ‘em.’ Wants to get in with that owner, big owner,
a lot of horses.
But he’s just a bug boy, not an experienced rider, doesn’t know what he’s doing.
Goes flat out around the bend, horse breaks
two front legs, three other horses go down, pile up. Tammy, she got
the wind knocked outta her, somebody
got hurt, another guy’s injured, hand hurt, but he walks away, they can’t find
the bug boy, the vet sees his hand stickin’ out
from under the horse, he got a broken leg. They shoulda never let a bug boy ride ’im,
he’s too new,
an experienced jockey would never let ‘im full out, wuddaheld ‘im back at the turn, know he’d break a leg at that speed.
And another horse died in the paddock that day, reared over, hit the cement by the grass.
They hit the top of the head, between the ears,
they’re done. And the track was good, can’t say nothing about it, it was real good.
Nothing wrong with the track, can’t fault the surface.
Pam’s gone to Philly, shipped her horses out. The fancy Angevine Stable sign
that hung on the shed by the shavings bin
is gone, too. Gregory is raking dirt by three of the stalls she had a week ago.
I’m glad to see his old self, soft tan, soft skin, soft eyes.
“Where your friend?” he asks, He means Jenifer who has pleasing flesh that every
guy at the track notices.
“How your horse?” he asks and then something else and another thing and I end up telling him about the mess he’ll never understand –
“So last spring Jenifer and I bought a two-year-old, Black Bandit, from Joe Hennessey, you know, the Irishman from Ocala,
then overnight her business changed. She couldn’t be here every morning caring
for her horse and ours. After the first race, Bandit got
a bone chip, a pricey trip to the hospital, long recovery. She couldn’t manage that.
We had to give him away.
Couldn’t find anyone to take him until Doc Sheehan told us about Leona who said
yes and let me have a quarter of him.”
I don’t say – I had so much hope, joy, buying this Thoroughbred with Jenifer
while money was flying from my pockets –
the condo I bought hoping to keep the man – lost him and his kids and ten years.
I’m losing still.
A Thoroughbred is a horse, a pricy athlete,
a thousand pounds of crystal,
except if you get technical about it, then a horse
is a five-year old intact male.
He’s a colt until then, just the way she’s a filly
‘til she becomes a mare at five.
All horses get a year older on January 1st, even
if they’re born in April.
And a gelding was once a colt, but won’t ever
be a horse.