pickled boiled eggs
Turned eighteen, finished school, got my diploma. Went full-time at the racetrack. Instead of working one racetrack I traveled the circuit with my racetrack family. There was grooms, jockeys, trainers, racing secretaries, stewards, pony people, hotwalkers, everybody. When one meet ended we’d all go down the road together, bumper-to-bumper. We’d go to the same grocery stores, the same laundromats.
We’d go to a bar after the races and it’d be a racetrack bar – the locals would leave. We didn’t want anyone else around. Sometimes it ended in a brawl, but usually we landed on our feet. We even had our own band – The Bug Boys. The singer was a jockey, the drummer was a trainer, the bass player was a groom.
Not everybody drank – some just liked to mingle and talk. We’d gather at long tables and watch replays of the races, the whole card on loop. Oh, see – right there! What did I tell him? I told him not to go to the outside, and what’d he do? See his head bobble?
One night an exercise rider brought his bulldog to the bar. The dog jumped into our booth and people started buying it pickled boiled eggs from a big jar. The dog loved them and everyone liked this dog, so everyone bought the dog a pickled boiled egg, but there are only so many pickled boiled eggs a dog can eat before there are consequences to clean up.
People didn’t want to rent to us because we’d be in town only a few months and because racetrackers tend to be wild and destroy apartments. I’d stay in a trailer, a motel room, a stall at the track. Sometimes I lived out of my truck. I didn’t have a tv for years and years. I didn’t have time to watch tv, nor did I really want to. Never did cook much because I didn’t have a home.
For breakfast, everyone heads to the track kitchen – you don’t travel to town to eat. Each track kitchen was known for a special dish. One had homemade donuts. There’d be scrambled eggs, bacon. For dinner you might order a hamburger at the bar – whatever they have.
A track in Nebraska sold Polish dogs to spectators on race days. Weekends it was all you could smell – the strong dogs with onions and sauerkraut. The meat was kept in unlocked coolers in the grandstand, and one night a bunch of racetrackers ransacked them. When the weekend came, there was no Polish dogs to sell because the racetrackers stole every one. They’d soaked them in beer and put them on the grill and had a big party.
At Park Jackson, there were four jockeys who lived together in a trailer. They got a deer out of season once and butchered it in their bathtub. They made venison jerky and shared it.
For a few months I was renting a room at the El Rancho Motel for $211 a week, and on Thanksgiving the creep I lived with cooked a turkey in an electric roaster in the bathroom. He propped the roaster on the sink next to the high-voltage outlet. It was the moistest turkey I’ve ever eaten.
The backside is a little city. You flash your track license at the guard shack to get in. There’s an ambulance on the grounds during training hours because people are always getting hurt. Feed dealers sell sawdust, straw, oats, beet pulp, bran, good hay. Tack wagons stock bandages, saddles, medication, leg paints, sweats, freezes, bowie clay, sheet cotton, vet wrap. You live at the track, your life is full. You don’t have time to go shopping at the mall. You lose touch with the outside. Things change. You don’t hear about world news unless something major happens, because you’re in your own world and you have enough news.
call your owners, call home
No cell phones then – had to use payphones. Had to have bags of change handy always. I’d plug it in and dial and wait. Call your owners, call home, it was hard – after your horse ran you’d call your owner if your owner hadn’t shown up for the race.
Stupid pay booth, phone booth. We’d be at a restaurant and all the other trainers would be trying to call their owners, too. Finally it’s your turn and it feels like you’re dialing and talking forever. You want to get to bed because you’ve got to get up at four to feed. Here it is eight-thirty and you can’t get through – nobody’s answering, there’s a busy signal – and you still have to water off and get something to eat and do laundry.
When I went full-time at the track, I always had that on my shoulders – you’re not there to help your sister, you’re not there for your folks, you’re not there for holidays, birthdays, weddings, doctor’s appointments, funerals. I paid Keith Baxter to take care of Rowdy for me. I saw him once a year, at Christmas.
A jockey took me out to a movie once, but I fell asleep in the first ten minutes. Jockeys get their naps in – they’re galloping and working the horses at five o’clock in the morning, but after that they can leave, do what they want. The rest of us – a lot of us – were there twelve, fourteen, sixteen hours a day.
Last dash of a night race ends around 7:30, but you don’t just feed the horse and throw him in a stall – you’ve got to cool him out, walk him, water him off, do up his legs, put him in ice or in a tub. By the time you’re done, it’s midnight, 12:30.
One night after last dash I went home, didn’t even eat – I was exhausted and had to be up again at four. I was renting a room from an old lady who knew the people I worked for. I lay down, slept, got up, got dressed, went back to the track. No one else was there except for a guy grilling hamburgers near my barn. What time is it? I asked him. It’s 2:30, he said.
Sometimes my folks would come to the races and we’d go out to eat afterwards. It’d be eight o’clock at night and I couldn’t even talk. I’d be falling asleep on the table.
our personal attitudes
You get hit. I got kicked in the head. The horse was kicking at a fly and my head got in the way. Riders would go down. They’d get steel rods put up their spine. You were on top of the world or the bottom. You’d get hurt and be laid up with no money coming in, but there’d be other weeks where you made real good.
It’s a sport, you’re competitive – you want to be tops, you want to win, you want your name on the program, in the standings. A trainer’ll try to swipe an owner from another trainer. A jockey’ll say to another jockey – What the fuck are you doing, sniffing around my stable? Bad feelings, hard feelings, friction – nobody loves everybody. But if someone gets hurt, laid up, down on their luck, loses a loved one – even if their truck breaks down on the way to the next track – we’d work together to help. We’d have a big benefit.
I’d pull manes – ten mane jobs, ten sheath cleanings – and the money that would’ve been my fee would go into the pot. When I got hurt, people covered for me. They fed my horses and got them out to exercise. We stuck together.
The racetrack chaplain, he’d make rounds. Everything going okay? He was concerned about the backside, our personal attitudes, problems, hard times we were having, good times. If we wanted to talk, he was available. The chaplain’d say, We’re having a service tonight, seven o’clock under the grandstands. We’d be dirty in our work clothes but the chaplain’d say, Just come as you are, we’d love to have you. And he’d make sure the service was held after our chores were done. It wouldn’t be on a Sunday because there was races on Sundays. It’d be on a dark day in the middle of the week.
Before a race card started, the chaplain would hold a prayer service in the jockeys’ room. A lot of the jocks joined. Most of them – I think all of them – would sit and say a prayer together. It didn’t matter what they believed.
This is an excerpt from Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan, which will be published by Daunt Books in January 2023.