In the summer of 1959, not far from that old wooden bandbox known as Arlington Park, I awoke early one morning in my bunk in Barn 4A, descended the rickety staircase from my room, and there at once found myself living out the oldest and fondest of my youthful dreams. Arlington was a prosperous gambling hell northwest of Chicago, and I had already misspent a good deal of my boyhood prowling its grounds, first as a young horseplayer, later as a track photographer, and in the last few weeks as a stablehand working for the powerful Kerr Stables, cooling down the horses by walking them in circles after their morning workouts. Now it was the final week of July, and just the night before, in an unexpected turn of events, I had been promoted from hotwalker to groom—a change that instantly threw me into the job of feeding, grazing, rubbing, and otherwise doting on four Thoroughbred racehorses.
There were no Swapsian luminaries in this quartet. One, named Vienna Doll, was a doe-eyed filly with long lashes who had yet to show much interest in her work. Another, a once brilliantly fast sprinter, was convalescing from a bowed tendon and suffering a kind of long-faced melancholy brought on by his idleness. The third, an English bred, as I recall, has long since vanished traceless in the moors of memory. But then, of course, there was the fourth halter hanging on my little string—that princess of the blood, that mystery in fur, that elegant zephyr of my summer known as Queen of Turf. Queenie, as I called her then, was a leggy chestnut filly with a white blaze down her tapered nose, a pedigree that waved the flags of three Triple Crown winners, and a gusting turn of foot that gave me hope that one day, perhaps, she might take me to that one place I’d always wanted to go, to that charmed circle reserved for all who came home winners at Arlington Park.
All that said, though, there was one disturbing thing: Queenie had what old Doc Peters, the stable vet, once called “a troublesome left knee.” It was a flat but knobby gourd of bone and gristle that had kept her in the barn through all of her two-year-old year and was threatening now, as the end of her third summer drew near, to keep her unraced and untested to the end, a maiden forever in waiting. Everybody who worked in that shed knew she was among the favorites of her owner, Oklahoma oilman Travis M. Kerr, who was always dropping by Queenie’s stall whenever he came to town to watch his horses run. At age fifty-seven, he was a droll, avuncular chap with noticeable jowls and eyes that twinkled when he laughed. So far as I know, he had never missed a performance by the unrivaled pride of his racing life, the center of his string of well-bred Thoroughbreds—that smallish, homely, hickory-boned bay who swept tirelessly around the courses in a low, smooth, rhythmic stride that had become his hallmark as a racehorse, thrumming out a pace as neat and steady as the tick-tock needle on a metronome.
He was Round Table, the undisputed king of the Kerr Stables, Travis’s simple nom de course, and by then a racing immortal heading for the sport’s Hall of Fame.
We hired hands all called him RT. The horse’s groom was a dark-skinned Argentine who looked like one of those wavy-haired Spanish dancers who kept time with castanets. Juan Alaniz barely spoke English and muttered oaths in Spanish while he worked, stomping around the dirt ring of the shed in front of the horse’s stall and pausing only now and then to smoke a cigarette. He drank beer by the quart at night but he was up by five a.m. sharp and never missed a day at work. He would later become even better known as the groom of the 1978 Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, but Round Table was his first great horse, a monster already known by then as the best grass horse ever bred in America, the nation’s Horse of the Year in 1958 and, through the summer of ’59, the winner of a world-record $1.7 million in purses … and climbing; Juan was his corner man, his head cheerleader and caretaker, his feed man, his scold. The dark bay used to stand in his stall with his head out the door and sway back and forth like a zoo elephant, shifting his weight from the left leg to the right and back again, his neck and head swinging to and fro, until Juan would growl, in his fractured Pampas accent, “Stop eet, Roun’ Tale!” The horse would freeze and almost sneer at Juan through bared teeth, thrust from his mouth the thick, pink sausage of his tongue—here we hotwalkers would all stop and laugh—and then draw slowly back into the lampless cool of his stall.
It was a bright and colorful world that encircled him with outstretched hands. Travis liked the racing and the roars of crowds but clearly he loved, too, the intoxicating smells of the linaments and lotions that wafted of a morning through the barns.
Kerr usually showed up on mornings of the days that RT raced. Leaning slightly forward as he walked, his hands joined behind his back, he greeted trainer Bill Molter and the stable help with a nod and a merry smile; he gave the appearance of a shy Midwestern gentleman who liked nothing more than to trundle behind his lathered steeds as they swirled and snorted into winner’s circles from California to Chicago, floating in their wakes and handing out, one by one, $50 tickets to win on his victorious charges. He doled them out by the fistful to all who happened to be around—to the ushers and grooms, to the hotwalkers and clerks, to the agents and their winning jocks, who wore like ancient heraldry his dirt-spattered silks. It was a bright and colorful world that encircled him with outstretched hands. Travis liked the racing and the roars of crowds but clearly he loved, too, the intoxicating smells of the linaments and lotions that wafted of a morning through the barns. He liked the reassuring sight of men at work—his men working on his horses. Loved watching the grooms on bended knees as they swabbed the healing unguents on his horses’ legs. Liked it too when his little army of grays and bays and chestnuts and roans, all standing at attention at the doors of their stalls and waiting for him like a troop of cavalry, pricked their ears and stretched their necks and tried to hustle him for one more slice of apple. We hired help stepped out of his way when he came by. He was the reason that we all had work. So of course the whole shed folded into a burlap silence one morning in early August when Ray Diaz, the stable’s tough Hispanic exercise rider and jockey, called out to him: “Hey, Mr. Kerr! If I had your money, I’d be in bed with a two-hundred-dollar hooker every night!”
The old man turned away, red-faced as he pivoted, harrumphing as he stepped into the feed room across from the rows of stalls. Molter, as proper and reserved as Kerr, barely managed to mount that half-crooked smile of his, finally looking up and shaking his head at Diaz, who was dancing by on a gifted, floppy-eared bay mare named Milly K.
“Enough of that, Ray,” Molter said quietly. “Just watch what you’re doin’ with her.”
All along the shed the grooms and hotwalkers slipped into their stalls to laugh at what Ray had said to Travis. “What the fuck is wrong with Diaz?” groom Paul Parker said up around the corner of the shed. “Is he nuts talkin’ like that to the old man?” He swung the muck sack over his shoulders and carried it, wavering, to the manure bin out back. Jockey Bill Shoemaker sometimes came by, usually to ride a horse or visit with Molter, and always stopped long enough to slip a sugar cube to Round Table. That summer, as usual, he was the nation’s leading rider in races and money won and he was riding RT in the Equipoise Mile a few days later.
The Shoe was nearing the milestone mark of 3,500 wins and there had been a flurry of notes about it in the papers. “When are you gettin’ to that mark?” Paul Parker asked. “I’m gettin’ tired of readin’ about it.”
“Not long now,” said the Shoe. “Next week maybe.”
Many jocks came by the Kerr Stables that year, hustling mounts from Molter. His barn was filled with fast horses, Round Table and Milly K aside, with flyers named Top Charger and Grey Eagle, Prince Blessed and Fightin’ Indian and Tall Chief II, a gangly gray router who had a displaced cowboy as a groom. We swipes and hotwalkers used to head to the races together in the afternoons and then return after the ninth to gather at twilight outside the shed and graze the horses on the patches of grass between barns. And at night we’d sit in those little rooms above the shed, sprawling on cots and chairs, and drink beer and smoke our Viceroys and brag about our charges.
It was the greatest of all summers, by far, though touched as it was by the darksome passage of the times, by the evanescence of that familiar ghost called youth. I was spending it where I’d decided to spend it months before—around the most generous and seductive of all the planet’s horses. I had grown up around saddlebreds at a riding stable in a little town called Morton Grove, fifteen miles southeast of Arlington, and had passed my teens in the company of many of the world’s flashiest show horses, at venues from northern Indiana to Kansas City to Chicago’s South Side; in fact, I can say in truth that I witnessed the final triumphant performance of the undefeated Wing Commander, the greatest of all five-gaited saddle horses, in the Chicago Amphitheatre, December of 1955—the night he stormed past Bo Jangles and Tommy Moore in front of a packed house that howled them round and round again.
Those echoes linger yet today. As stunningly beautiful as Wing Commander was, though, with his luminous dark coat supplely shifting over great packs of muscle, he and his kind had already become by then a thing of memory for me: Just that summer past I had seen the chestnut beast that truly kindled dreams. Sitting in the stands at old Washington Park, I had watched Kentucky Derby winner Swaps hang it on Traffic Judge in the ’55 American Derby, and the surpassing finality of that performance—with Swaps plunging home in the late-afternoon gloaming, his ears pricked forward and the sunlight playing off his golden coat, galloping on to a new course record—had won me to the sport forever.
My parents used to drive out to Arlington every weekend to play the horses and sit on wooden benches in the sun. She sat and knitted Christmas sweaters. Or read Agatha Christie. He hung on paddock fences and chewed the ends of half-smoked cigars.
Now here I was, four years later, out of the grandstand and in the show. I had toiled the first six weeks walking hots for Molter, cooling them out in the wake of their morning works and gallops, and ended up grooming a set of four only after the stable had lost one of its most prized grooms, Rafael de Coco Cortes, one morning in late July, when a squad of zealous federal agents swept through the racetrack grounds and carried off all unpapered aliens. Among them was the artful Rafael, Queenie’s groom, a sad-eyed mejicano who left the shed in cuffs and tears, glancing back at her and his three other charges as he climbed into the government car, his rub rags dangling from his pocket and his pitchfork still leaning against the green-and-yellow webbing of Queenie’s stall.
The stable foreman, a Luxembourgian immigrant known to all as Mr. Hack, approached me at once. “You want dem four horses?” he asked. “Better get over dere now. Two hundred and fifty dollars a month. Gotta be down here by five thirty. Muck dem stalls and work dem rags. I want dem slick as seals when dey go to the track. Now get to work dere, son.”
So that is how, on a summer morning in 1959, I came to take over the care and feeding of Queen of Turf and three of her closest friends, none as remotely promising as she. I had already been accepted as a freshman at the University of Illinois, but now I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do or where I wanted to go. My father sensed that I was wavering. He knew I loved the races and the horses and the footloose way of life. He and my mother used to drive out to Arlington every weekend to play the horses and sit on wooden benches in the sun. She sat and knitted Christmas sweaters. Or read Agatha Christie. He hung on paddock fences and chewed the ends of half-smoked cigars. I joined them one afternoon. It was already early August and growing late. I told them I was thinking of taking off a year, of heading east with the outfit to New Jersey and New York.
“Round Table is going to Atlantic City for the United Nations Handicap and then to Aqueduct,” I told them. “They’re talking about running him in the Woodward again. Maybe the Manhattan Handicap. I was thinking I might tag along.”
My mother set down her needles and closed her eyes. She pursed her lips and sighed heavily, arranging all the familiar wrinkles of her discontent. She had been a professional dancer and a ballet teacher when she was young and she had traveled east, too, and I reminded her of that: “Didn’t you go to New York when you were young and dance in vaudeville with Pat Rooney? How old were you?”
“Don’t give me that,” she said. “My situation was very different from yours. My father died in that fire when I was thirteen and Nonnie never remarried. You know the story.” I’d been hearing it for years. How he was run over by horses fleeing in a panic from a fire. How his body was laid out in the living room of their small, wood-framed house on Orchard Street in Chicago. How all the firemen in his engine company showed up in uniform to pay their respects. Joe Feeney left his widow and four kids to live on a fireman’s pension. Ten dollars a month. Nonnie went to work packing dried fruit in a factory off Halsted Street. My mother, the oldest of the four, went to New York to dance for a living. She was billed as the Atlantic City Peach.
“I was making sixty bucks a week dancing with Rooney in that troupe,” she said. “I was living off Times Square with a girlfriend and sending most of it home. That was big dough in those days.”
My father listened in silence. They were Chicago born. Dollars were bucks and money was dough. She was Irish and quick to fire, a wizard in the kitchen making stroganoff and pies, a gardener of clinging roses and clematis vines. He was German and Alsatian, by nature generous and kind, an electrical engineer who had learned to make and read blueprints by age eighteen. He was spare with words, never veering far from the point. “Why don’t you just join the circus and get it over with?” he said.
“Can we talk about this?” I said. “I thought we were,” she said. “I mean later….” “So what’s this new job you have?” he asked. “You say you’re a groom?” The change of subject came as a relief.
“Yeah. I got four horses now,” I said. “I don’t just walk ’em anymore. Now I’ve got four of my own. I clean ’em and feed ’em and put the bandages on ’em.”
He lit his cigar. “Got anything good coming up?” he said.
I smiled at my feet. My father never learned to read the Daily Racing Form. The numbers were as arcane to him as the stone drawings in a cave, a mystery of swirls and glyphs. He divined his choices by the music of their names and by how strapping they looked in the paddock and the post parade. He devoutly admired all tip sheets and touts. He knew them all by name. He used to stop and cadge tips from an old blind man named Peaches who sat by the back entrance at Arlington and passed out the overnights to the horsemen scurrying to and from the barns and the paddock. Since June, through roaming the sheds and befriending stable boys, I’d already plugged my father into a few hot and buzzing wires of my own.
One night, a week after Round Table won the Citation Handicap at old Washington Park, Arlington’s sister track south of Chicago, Juan Alaniz got into the beer with us and we drank late. Juan started talking about this filly that he rubbed, Our Special Jet, a daughter of the 1947 Kentucky Derby winner, Jet Pilot. She had won going three furlongs at Santa Anita in March but had twice run so poorly going five- eighths in May at Washington Park, fading both times after flashing early speed, that she looked hopeless going any distance beyond that. It was the night of Sunday, June 21, and she had been entered to run in the fourth race the next day, a five-and-a-half-furlong pop for three-year-olds.
Wrapped around yet another bottle of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Juan announced that she had lost eighty pounds since coming to Chicago, that the baby fat was gone and now she was fit. She had just worked five-eighths in a blistering fifty-eight seconds, Juan said quietly, and the clockers had missed it. “A good feely!” he said. “She ween!”
Every boy should be his father’s hero at least once, and that day belonged to me.
I was on the phone with my father early the next morning. He listened as I rhapsodized. “What’s her name again?” he asked.
“Our Special Jet. Now don’t go nuts betting on her. She’s not a young Round Table.”
“Thanks, kid,” he said.
Of course he unloaded on her, at least for him, betting $50 to win across the board, and told his favorite bookie—a bartender named Vinnie who worked at the Metropole Hotel— that the little bay was a very good thing.
“My kid works in the Molter barn at Arlington,” he recalled telling the bookie. “He said the same guy who takes care of Round Table also takes care of this filly. My kid and this guy Juan, they work together. Juan tells my kid that she’s lost eighty pounds since coming from California and she’ll run good today. She’s worked a lot faster than the tab shows. He says she’ll win.”
Every boy should be his father’s hero at least once, and that day belonged to me. The Calumet Farm entry of Desert Dream and Dasheen were odds-on, and the Jet got away at almost fifteen to one. What a race it was! Under Cowboy Jimmy Nichols, Our Special Jet was off slowly and bounding along in seventh around the far turn, six lengths off the lead, when Nichols cracked her hard and she took off. She was racing to the eighth pole when a hole on the rail began to close in front of her. For an instant she seemed to hesitate. I was hanging on the fence and gasped as her head came up. “Noooo!” I yelled. As though hearing my bellow, Nichols raised his whip and popped her once between the ears. Startled, she dropped her chocolate nose and thrust it flat into the breach. Nichols rode the hide off her the final two hundred yards. She wore down Miss Frio and Johnny Rotz in the closing yards and drew off to win it by a half length.
My mother and brother had come to the races together, just to watch her run, and as the filly hit the line we all clasped arms and danced along the grandstand apron to the winner’s circle. Moments later, the lights on the tote board shouted their glorious message: $31 to win, $12.40 to place, $7.60 to show.
And then, glancing furtively about, Vinnie said, “Does he like anything out there today?”
Next day, Vinnie greeted my father with a ten-pound ham, a quart of Wild Turkey, and a Metropole envelope filled with $1,125 in cash, the biggest score of his life. And with words that my father, filled with pride, repeated for a week: “That’s a heck of a kid you got out there, Gordon. He pays attention. Tell him thanks from me. I was down for two bills. Your kid got me even for the year.”
And then, glancing furtively about, Vinnie said, “Does he like anything out there today?”
Now, nearly two months later, we were straddling a bench in the grandstand and it was starting to rain again and he was asking about the horses I was rubbing.
I got up to leave. “I think I’ve got one that can run,” I said.
“Well, Dad, she’s never started, so you never know. But the word around the barn is she can run. She also has a problem. But I’ll let you know.”
“What’s her name?” he asked.
“I’ll call you when she’s in.”
“What’s her problem?” he said.
“Minor, I think … I’ll call you.” Over the next few days, the world around Queenie’s stall grew busier. Mr. Hack, tugging on a pipe, seemed to drift past by the hour, like a watchman with a key, looking in on us as I dosed her with linaments and fussed around her feet and legs. Molter seemed to come by more frequently, too, running his hands up and down her knees and legs.
Even Diaz hung around her cubicle one morning, watching me paint her shins and fluff her tail. Word around the barn was that Molter thought he’d found a spot for her a few days later, a tough six-furlong sprint for maiden colts and fillies, but he never said anything to me. I left Barn 4A only to sit in the stands and watch the races by myself, or eat alone at the backstretch kitchen—a sad flourescence of scrambled eggs and hominy grits afloat on plastic trays and coffee dark as Oklahoma crude. Mostly, though, I rubbed and curried and shined my horses’ coats, changed their buckets of water and beds of straw, lifted and picked their sixteen feet with a steel-pointed hook, wrapped their legs in bolts of protective cotton and elastic Ace bandages—and finally, as the late-afternoon sun fell in yellow curtains on the shed-row eaves, I took them from their stalls and marched them, one by one, to the lusher ribbons of grass outside the shed and grazed them there, thirty minutes each, tethered to them only by a shank of chain and leather clipped to the rings on their halters.
One morning, as the work wound down, I was gathering a pile of wet straw and droppings on a rug of burlap in front of Queenie’s stall when I saw them at the end of the shed, in front of Round Table’s place, the big three—Molter, Shoemaker, and Kerr. Juan led the big horse out of the barn and they all followed him into the sun. It was Sunday, August 8, and the barn was in what can only be described as a state of mourning. Round Table had just suffered one of the most shocking losses of his career—a listless third-place finish in Saturday’s Equipoise Mile, five lengths astern of a workaday animal named Better Bee. As important as the Equipoise Mile was, though, that race was but a prelude to the two big hundred granders, the Arlington and Washington Park handicaps, that loomed for RT over the next four weeks.
Things had not been going well in Barn 4A. A week earlier, the stable’s two most promising two-year-olds, Prince Blessed and Gray Eagle, had finished fifteenth and nineteenth, with tongues hanging out, in the $100,000 Arlington Futurity, far behind thirty-three-to-one shot T. V. Lark’s hysterical neck victory over favored Bally Ache. But it was Round Table’s crushing defeat in the Equipoise that troubled Kerr. And now the three men were walking up the shed toward my four charges, and Molter was telling Kerr and the Shoe what he had just told the Morning Telegraph’s estimable Chicago correspondent, Joe Hirsch. I could hear them speaking in hushed tones.
“Travis, I just can’t say the way he ran was totally unexpected,” Molter said. “He needed the race. I’ve got to get him ready for those two big handicaps coming up here, and I had to run him somewhere.”
I began moving around her too fast and I could feel her stiffen as she raised her head and threw a cow kick at me.
“He got off sluggish and never really got into it,” said the Shoe.
Kerr listened and walked on, silent and leaning like a tower, his fingers twined behind his back. I slipped inside Queenie’s stall and drew a rub rag down her neck and shoulders. She was a twitchy bitch when you rubbed her, and she started fidgeting and she stepped left and tried to push me into the wooden wall until I growled at her. I could hear the three men coming closer. The cloth was damp. I wanted her to shine. I began moving around her too fast and I could feel her stiffen as she raised her head and threw a cow kick at me. I saw it coming and slipped it like a fighter and ran the rub rag from her stifle to her hock.
“Be careful of her,” a voice said. “She’ll kick hell out of you.” It was Molter at the door, his arms over the webbing, Kerr and the Shoe standing next to him.
“Who is this?” asked the Shoe.
“Queen of Turf,” said Kerr. “My baby. I bought her to breed to Round Table.”
I had been studying Throughbred history and bloodlines since I was a kid, as a kind of hobby, and I fairly jumped at what he said. “She’s sure got the pedigree,” I said. “With those three Triple Crown winners hanging in her tree.”
Kerr looked at me curiously. “Three?” he said. “I was looking at her papers just last week and I saw only one. She’s out of a Count Fleet mare….”
I could feel the line tighten and I loved playing it. “Yes, sir, three,” I said. “Count Fleet won the American Triple Crown in 1943, and don’t forget her sire, Alibhai, descends from two English Triple Crown winners. One, Gainsborough, won the English Triple in 1918. Rock Sand, a great-grandsire, won it back in 1903.”
The silence was delicious. “Young man, how do you happen to know that?” Kerr asked.
“I been studying it since I was a kid.”
“What are you now?”
“Are you going to college?”
“I think so, sir. This fall … unless I head east with the outfit.”
Molter was not listening. “How’s she doing?” he said.
“She’s okay,” I said. “A little nervous but she eats up every day and I graze her in the afternooons. That seems to settle her a little.”
“Good,” said Molter. “Hold her a minute.” Ducking into the stall, the trainer dropped to his knees and ran a hand down her left front leg, starting along the forearm and then down over the knee, slowly, then back up to the forearm and over the knee again, feeling for any telltale signs of heat.
“The knee’s been cool every morning,” I said. “Can she run?” said Shoemaker. Molter nodded.
“She’s got speed but she’s always had a knee, and I can’t do much with her. Went three-quarters in eighteen and two out of the gate the other day. But a nice filly.” “I’d like to get her maiden broke before she kisses the groom,” Kerr said. Molter grinned and ducked out of the stall. He slapped hishands together.
“I’ve got her in day after tomorrow,” he said. Stunned, I thought I may not have heard him right.
“She’s in? Tuesday?” Molter was silent.
“Am I ridin’ her?” asked Shoemaker.
The Shoe had no clue. His agent, Harry Silbert, made all his bookings.
“Harry says you’re riding some Dixiana colt. Spy something? She just got beat here a head with Brooks on her.You’ll be the favorite. Ray Diaz is on this filly.”
The three men had started toward Round Table’s corner when Molter turned around and came back.
“Where are you from, son?”
“Not far from here. A place called Skokie … I was around show horses most of my life. I groomed them and rode them too….”
The whole gang, the hotwalkers and grooms, all went to the Loop on Monday night to see a movie, but I did not want to leave the filly and stayed close to the barn.
The trainer said nothing and I went on: “And by the way, sir, while I’m at it, I’m supposed to go to school this fall, but now I’m actually thinking of heading east with the outfit … if that’s all right with you.”
Queen of Turf was listening at her door. Molter reached over and picked a hay briar from her whiskers. “We can talk about that later,” Molter said. “Keep an eye on this filly. Watch that knee. Be careful when you wrap her bandages. The vet will come by to see her on Tuesday morning.”
The whole gang, the hotwalkers and grooms, all went to the Loop on Monday night to see a movie, but I did not want to leave the filly and stayed close to the barn. I sat on a bale of straw in front of Queenie’s stall and read the Daily Racing Form. I studied her race, the sixth, a competitive sprint over the dirt. Some of the pedigrees leaped off the page. Cuzin’ Leslie Combs owned one filly, named Spinosa, who was by Count Fleet out of Crepe Myrtle, a daughter of the immortal Equipose and one of history’s greatest broodmares, Myrtlewood. Another filly, named Swooner, was out of Swoon, the dam of Swoon’s Son, the most brilliant racehorse of all the Thoroughbreds born in ’53. And then there was Shoemaker’s horse, Spy Hope, a son of the nimble-footed Spy Song and heavily favored to win it. By nine p.m. I had moved to my room and was still reading when the Molter gang came home from the Loop. They rapped boozily on my door.
“You missed a great movie, man!” Jimmy Cooper cried. “North by Northwest. Cary Grant and … who was that blonde? Oh, yeah. Eva Marie Saint. They ended up climbin’ all over Mount Rushmore! Damn, she’s fuckin’ gorgeous!”
Juan poked his head in the door. I had not spoken to him since Round Table had lost the Equipoise.
“Is RT okay?” I asked.
“Verry good!” he said. “He ween next time.”
I told him I was running Queen of Turf tomorrow and asked him if he knew anything about her, if Molter had told him anything, if there was any scuttlebutt I didn’t know. “Feely have a knee! Knee not good. She need more work. Maybe ween … maybe lose!”
Paul Parker knew nothing. He was a burly former airline mechanic who had migrated to the racetrack with aspirations to train his own string one day. He knew the filly had had her problems.
“She’s a three-year-old and has never started!” he said that night. “What the hell does that tell ya? Anyway, this outfit wouldn’t tell ya a fuckin’ thing anyway. She could be Count Fleet and you’d never know it. Ya look up at the end of the day and they’ll all be cashin’ bets.”
A young veterinarian came by on Tuesday morning and went over her, one hock and knee at a time, but left before I had a chance to talk to him. She was cool all over. I called my father at ten a.m.
“Remember that filly I told you about? Well, she’s in the sixth today. Her name is Queen of Turf.”
“She any good?” he said.
“I told you she can run. And she seems fit. But the Tribune has her at six to one and she’s in against colts. The thing also is that she has—”
He cut me off and I could hear the excitement in his voice. “I’m coming out there! I’ll meet you where Peaches sits by the paddock gate.”
I had never taken a horse to the paddock before, and Mr. Hack hovered over me from the moment I started to get her ready for the races. I took from the tack trunk my set of brushes and combs and picks and methodically, moving deliberately, I cleaned her from forehead to fetlocks, carefully removing all strands of straw from her mane and tail. She hardly turned a hair. She took the bit quite easily, and I slipped the bridle over the head and fastened the leather straps. I wet her forelock and her mane.
Queenie was a princess walking over there, at least until she entered the paddock gate and saw the hundreds of people milling at the fence.
“Take her dere for a walk,” Mr. Hack said. I unfastened the webbing on the door of her stall and led her into the aisle of the shed.
“Keep movin’ dere,” he said. I had barely finished one circuit of the barn when the announcement boomed over the loudspeaker: “Horsemen! Bring your horses to the paddock for the sixth race! The sixth race!”
The rest of that fateful hour has since graded into a kind of vaporous blur. Queenie was a princess walking over there, at least until she entered the paddock gate and saw the hundreds of people milling at the fence. She spun in circles and scattered the crowds. I spotted my father standing next to Peaches, the blind tout who had just tilted back his head and was blinking furiously at the black sky as my father whispered the good and welcome news to him. In the reverse order of things, my father had become like him, a guy on the inside, in the know. He loved getting the skinny and he loved giving it away. Glancing up now, he waved and smiled at me. In the paddock, under the elms, I walked my filly in a tight circle around a tree while Molter huddled with Diaz. Molter was a recovering jockey and he was mimicking a rider’s hands as he gave Diaz instructions. He boosted the rider aboard and they were gone—out through the tunnel to the track.
My father had already had himself a day. He had bet $5 on a daily double that had paid off at the rate of $45 for $2— he fancied the winners’ names, Leap Year Maid and Rash Statement—so he came to the sixth with more than $100 charring a hole in his baggy brown pants. I do not know the moment that it happened, the transfixing instant in space and time, but somewhere between the barn and the paddock—was it the fear of being wrong, the phantom clicking I heard in the knee, the surreal sense that I was only living a dream?—I was seized by a sudden loss of faith, by doubts that the filly had any chance at all.
“How much should I go for?” my father asked me.
“Don’t bet her!” I said. “She won’t win. She can’t win!”
“But Bill, I—”
“Dad, she’s got a bum knee. What can I tell ya? That’s why she hasn’t had a single start. The problem is, he can’t train her hard enough to get her ready. Her last work—look at it here—was six furlongs in one eighteen and two. That’s trot- ting horse time….”
His eyes widened. “I wish the hell you’d have told me!”
“I just did!”
“I mean this morning! Damn it, I called Vinnie and told him that you were her groom and you said she could run.”
I was beginning to feel a bit light-headed.
“Dad, who’s this guy Vinnie?” “The bartender at the place where I have lunch every day.
He gave me the ham for giving him Our Special Jet. He makes book on the side.”
“Is Vinnie connected to….?”
He did not answer.
“Christ!” I said. “I gotta go.”
It was three minutes to post. I left my father by the paddock fence and dashed out to the track. I could see the horses moving in file to the three-quarters pole on the backstretch. It was five thirty-four p.m. I slung the lead shank over my shoulder and stubbed out a smoke as they stepped into the gate. I looked over my left shoulder and saw hundreds of people standing at the grandstand rail with their arms draped over the fence. I was scanning the faces looking for my father’s when the doors banged open and I dropped my head. I heard like a bark of thunder the caller’s rising voice: “And they’re off! Swooner is going to the front….Queen of Turf is moving quickly into second!”
Good God! She’s running! I thought.
I clambered to the top of the outside fence along the finish line and stared across the infield toward the backstretch. It was a blur of light. Swooner was leading by a length and a half as they raced for the turn. Diaz had Queenie under a snugging hold. She was bounding like a doe across an open field. And then, as they neared the far turn, Diaz clucked to her and struck her once with the whip. Queen of Turf charged forward in a rush and swept past Swooner easily. She quickly opened a daylight lead—one-two-three lengths. I held a pole with my left hand and punched the air with my right fist. Diaz glanced back and took another hold of her, steadying her around the turn and waiting for the straight. I could see the other jockeys in a panic, moving their hands and arms and asking their mounts for speed.
She was bounding along on her own, her motion clean and fluid as she skipped along. Nothing could get near her. Swooner could not keep up. Spy Hope and the Shoe were going nowhere. Crepe Myrtle’s daughter Spinosa drifted rearward. Only Queenie was running now as they spun the turn. She turned for home in front by three. She picked up the beat again, extending the lead to four as they neared the eighth pole in midstretch. I leaped down from the fence as Diaz, crouched and pumping his hands, drove her through the straight.
She swept under the wire in front by three and a half lengths. In 1:11 flat for six furlongs. Easily.
“Won in hand,” said the chart.
Head down, listening for my father’s voice, hoping he had ignored my pleas and bet her anyway, I strode quickly to the center of the racetrack, near the mouth of the winner’s circle, and waited for her return. Moments later she came bouncing home to me. A beaming Diaz, breathing hard, pulled her up.
He waved his whip in the air, the high sign for the stewards, and then that unforgettable roar went up among the crowds, ringing up and down the grandstand.
The tote board was flashing her message to the winning $2 players: $27.40 to win, $14.40 to place, $7.80 to show.
There I am, at the filly’s head, mouth dropped open and gaping at the camera like a dumb man, in a state akin to shock.
I was beginning to feel vaguely wiggy. I heard the crowds shouting and the late-afternoon sun was beating down, and so I leaned on a fence by the gap of the tunnel leading back to the paddock and I heard a voice. It was Bill Shoemaker. He stopped next to me. A ring of dirt encrusted his mouth. He was only one shy of that thirty-five hundredth victory and going winless the rest of the day. He looked at Queen of Turf as she pulled up. “That’s a nice filly,” he said. “Is Molter around?”
“I haven’t seen him,” I said.
Diaz turned and stared at the board and slapped the filly on the neck. “Attagirl!” he said.
I led them into the circle to have our pictures taken. Almost fifty years have passed since that day, but I still have that winning photo—a frayed, fading black-and-white that shows an earnest-looking Diaz astride the horse and the assistant trainer, Larry Larkin, holding a half-smoked cigarette and smiling thinly for the camera. And there I am, at the filly’s head, mouth dropped open and gaping at the camera like a dumb man, in a state akin to shock. You look more closely and right over there, barely visible beyond my shoulder, is my father, standing by himself in the distant crowd, wearing his flat-brimmed straw hat and looking at all the commotion surrounding a filly I’d just assured him could not win. After the winner’s circle ceremonies had ended, I tried to lead her straight on home, but she was so hot and on the muscle that I had to keep stopping and turning her in small circles to rest my arms. We had just passed through the tunnel and we were spinning in circles through the paddock when I heard my father’s voice. I glanced over. He was in a crowd, his angry pumpkin face aglow on the paddock fence, looking as hot and nearly on the muscle as Queenie herself. It was too late to take evasive action. Naturally, he came straight to the point.
“Thanks a hell of a lot, Bill! I think you better go to college. You’ll go broke in this game!”
Back at the shed, Parker was madder than two hornets. Figuring he’d been frozen out of a nifty betting coup, he lumbered around the barn kicking buckets and bellowing in a rage that was almost comic: “What kind of a fuckin’ outfit is this?! We’re all left to eat that crap in the kitchen and they’re toddlin’ around Rush Street eatin’ lobster fuckin’ Newburg! Goddamn cheap, thieving bastards! You’d think they’d throw us a bone every once in a while.” Paul got to cursing and yelling so loud that poor Mr. Hack hid in his room, Juan put on a white shirt and evaporated into the night, and Molter, well … he didn’t come around until late the next morning.
Paul even figured I was in on it. I was doing her up in the stall that evening and he looked in.
“Did you know about her?” he asked.
“No more than you knew. You said yourself she had problems. Hell, I even touted my father off her. He was yellin’ at me to go to college when I was walkin’ her back through the paddock. We all knew she had a knee! Molter was feeling it every day.”
“Knee my ass,” he said. “She run like fuckin’ Count Fleet today.”
He started to leave but then turned back. “Why the hell do you think they had Diaz on her instead of Shoemaker? Compared to Shoemaker, who the fuck is Diaz, anyway? Does that tell ya anything?”
“I heard Molter tell Shoemaker one day, they were standing right here, that he wasn’t riding my filly because he had a call on that Dixiana filly.”
“Bullshit! They wanted a price on her, and you don’t put Shoemaker on a horse if you want a price on her. Don’t you see that? They pulled a fast one today.”
No one ever fessed up about any betting coup that afternoon, but it didn’t matter in the end. Juan had it right. Round Table came back to win three big hundred granders that summer, the two handicaps at Arlington and the United Nations in Atlantic City, and two months later he was off to the breeding grounds of central Kentucky, retiring as the richest racehorse in history. Queen of Turf remains today the only horse I ever took to the races, and I never lost track of most of the characters who roamed that landscape in ’59. Nineteen years later, as a racing writer, I shook Juan’s hand just minutes after Affirmed won the Triple Crown at Belmont Park. Shoemaker finally did scale 3,500 wins that August; actually, he kept on riding for thirty-one more years, until 1990, finally riding to a record 8,833 victories.
Parker also got what he came looking for. When Molter died of a massive heart attack in 1960, a few months after taking over the training of T. V. Lark—that long shot who had whipped Bally Ache in the ’59 Arlington Futurity—the colt’s handlers passed him right on to Parker, the Lark’s groom. So Paul got his chance to train at last. He quietly turned the Lark into a grass runner extraordinaire—into America’s 1961 turf champion, winning the title on the day he outran the mighty Kelso in the $100,000 Washington, D.C., International. Travis Kerr eventually did breed Queen of Turf to Round Table, and from that union came two colts, Turf Table and Turfland, but neither ever amounted to much.
That very night my father called to pass along a message. I could hear my mother laughing in the background.
Travis died on June 8, 1970, of a cerebral hemmorhage, in Beverly Hills, and I always thought of him as having written much of the epitaph for that glorious summer.
A few days after Queenie broke her maiden, Mr. Hack came by my stalls and handed me a blank envelope. Inside was a $50 win ticket on Queen of Turf, worth $685. It was wrapped in a note that read, in longhand: “Three Triple Crown winners indeed! Keep up the good work and thanks for taking care of her. T. M. Kerr.”
That very night my father called to pass along a message. I could hear my mother laughing in the background. “Vinnie says he made the score of his life and wants to thank you,” my father said. “Then he gives me another ham and this time a case of booze. He buys me a drink. Then he calls a hack to drive me home. The driver gets out and helps me carry the case to the door. Then he hands me an envelope and says, ‘From Vinnie.’ I open it up. Two hundred bucks in there!”
“So you had her after all and didn’t know it,” I said.
“Yeah, I had her after all,” he said. “Sorry I got so hot out there. I saw that big payoff and, you know….”
“How do you think I felt?” I said. I told him about my envelope from Kerr.
“I’ll need that for school,” I said. “I’m enrolling this fall.…”
“That’s good to hear,” he said. “It’s the smart move. Your mother’ll be happy to hear that.”
“Sunday is my last day,” I said. “I better go. Gotta graze that filly.”
“Hey, Bill,” he said.
“Yeah, Dad,” I said.
“Got anything good this week?”
This story is collected in Bloodlines.
[Photo Credit: AB]