It was damp, it was foggy, it was chilly, it was perfect. My wife and I crunched our way across the parking lot of the Jock’s kitchen heading for the racetrack. It was barely dawn, and we’d just had breakfast with LaVette Drummond, a forty-year old Louisianan who looked sixty, and trained racehorses. We were at a track just outside St. Louis. Sitting in the dining area of the Jock’s kitchen was a trip back to the 1940’s. The room was festooned with chrome plated, steel topped tables, metal chairs with cracked plastic seats, linoleum peeling from the floor, a black cat clock rolling his eyes and swinging his tail by the second, and amazingly low prices for bacon and eggs swimming in grease.
The area was peopled by trainers in snap-brimmed fedoras, yawning exercise kids in helmets, and jockeys in everything from riding clothes to fifteen hundred dollar suits. The tiny men collected their food from immense lumbering kitchen women more than twice their size, and bantered with one another ceaselessly, back and forth across the room.
“Hey, Louie, I thought that four horse was gonna hitchhike when you went to the whip in seven yesterday!”
“What a dog. He started scotchin’ at the three-quarter stick. Did the thing in sixty-one and three pieces. On the way to the spit barn, he run off from the groom and tried to get on a bus!”
“That’s the bus you shoulda been on.”
When we finished eating, Drummond shifted his plum-sized chaw of Red Man to his other cheek, and said he’d meet us by the rail in the forth turn.
A racetrack early morning is the busiest time of the day. Horses are everywhere, and they have the right-of-way. Walking to the track, we dodged dozens, being led by grooms and hot walkers, clinking with tack, blowing and breathing, grunting and clomping, the air alive with their sound, the earth awash in their mass. On the track by the rail, casually holding the reins of a large bay gelding, stood Joe.
Joe was an outrider, one of those people who lead the horses to the post, who assist the hands in placing the horses in the gate for the start of a race. More than just an outrider though, Joe was the head outrider, the one who leads the procession to the gate. The horses, once they were on the track, were his responsibility.
Joe began his life among horses when just a kid, cleaning stalls, hot-walking, grooming. He graduated to exercise boy in his early teens, and when he kept his size and didn’t grow, eventually made it to jockey, twice riding the great Whirlaway, among others. Now, old and bent, he resembled a wizened, bowlegged Leprechaun, wearing jodhpurs and boots sized for a ten-year old.
“Mornin’ folks,” he said, pointing to his horse. “This here’s Mitglick.” The bay towered above him, the stirrup about chest high. The horse stood, ears back, head down, barely awake, totally disinterested in everything, including his rider. “This ol’ man an’me been together for near fifteen year,” Joe went on, and Mitglick gave a deep sigh. “He doan git excited about much.”
We talked for a while and the sun finished rising behind us, driving most of the fog from the track. Joe tossed the reins over his horse’s head across Mitglick’s withers, and the horse dropped his muzzle even farther, until his chin nearly touched the ground. The old man leaned over the extended neck, and Mitglick raised his head. Joe slid down the neck, tossing a leg over the withers, and settled back onto the thick sheepskin pad the covered his tiny English saddle. He slipped his feet into the irons and grinned.
“Neither one of us likes to work too hard,” he said.
He backed up a bit so we could see the track as the sound of a running horse reached our ears. The workouts had started, Joe and Mitglick, contrary to their appearance, were on duty.
We watched as a gray horse appeared on the backstretch through the light fog, stretched out, running for all he was worth, as an exercise rider, hunched low over his neck and standing in the irons, brought him into the third turn. It’s a beautiful thing to see, a horse leaning into the push of centrifugal force, rounding a turn at speed. We watched silently and, as the animal was midway through the fourth turn, almost head-on to us, the rider came off. Loose horse! The potential for tragedy is immense. I turned to Joe, but he and Mitglick were gone.
The loose horse, hard on the inside rail, trailing broken reins, passed our position with Joe in hot pursuit. From a standing start, sleepy and bored Mitglick caught the fleeing thoroughbred halfway down the stretch, and Joe, hanging impossibly off the saddle, grabbed the trailing reins in his left hand and had the runaway under control well short of the first turn. It was impossible for he and Mitglick to do what they had done, and they had done it anyway. A few moments later, Joe was back, perched like a wizened bird, one leg crossed over the withers atop the thick sheepskin pad, Mitglick standing rock-still, head down, ears back, eyes nearly closed beside the rail. Joe slipped off his helmet, and ran a hand through his thinning white hair.
“Ol’ Mitglick ain’t as young as he usta be,” he said. “But he ain’t lost a step.”
“You either,” I replied.
“Well, I doan know,” Joe grinned. “Forty year ago, I wouldn’t a needed my horse.”