a front-side world

The first time I heard anybody speak with a certain glow about horse 
racing was on a troop ship heading for the Philippine Islands in 1945. I 
could recognize a certain wonder in the attitude of one of my fellow 
passengers who made playing horses sound as good as sex.

When I got out of the navy and settled in Chicago to attend the 
Conservatory of Music on the GI Bill I had an opportunity to go to my 
first horse races. I didn't know the old horse players' axiom "don't 
make mind bets. You can afford to lose your money." I didn't have any 
money but my mind bets were so conservative that I managed to retain a 
modicum of sanity.

My experiences were with people who bet on races but never got to smell 
any horse shit. Much later I met Gary Ward who trained and loved horses; 
he introduced me to the backstretch, where the magic lies. We often went 
to Bay Meadows on the San Francisco peninsula. One day we saw a 
three-year-old gelding named Coyotero who blew away a rather mediocre 
field. It was love at first sight. We had to have that horse.

Ward was working as a dealer at a local card room and among all his 
fellow employees we couldn't come close to getting the money to buy the 
horse. A player in the club, steel company executive Bob Krauss heard of 
our dilemma and made a deal to get Coyotero and we were off to Hollywood 
Park to spring our secret monster on the unsuspecting people at one of 
the premiere tracks in the world.

I spent a year with Gary and Coyotero putting in days on the backstretch 
as a hot walker and nights in the apartment as a computer programmer, at 
first applying statistics to picking horses for Bob and later creating a 
system for managing the world's entire steel supply.

Coyotero won some races but our biggest score came when Gary got a horse 
to train named Major Bill (which is what everybody called my father!) 
who was really a secret weapon. This time when we had a table full of 
cash there was no hint of the hostility I had observed at the winning of 
a gamecock derby in Phoenix. We later sold Coyotero and I went back into 
the World of Science.

The backstretch is a self-contained universe in which almost all 
conversation is about horses. The real caretakers are the grooms, each 
of whom rubs as many as four horses. A licensed trainer has a stable of 
from 1 to 20 horses and tolerates his owners on the backside only on 
race days - occasionally at other times if they aren't too intrusive. 
The exercise riders and jockeys (usually referred to as "pinheads") take 
out several horses a day for a morning exercise period after which the 
horse is walked either by a hot walker or at the lesser tracks on a 
machine that is like a carousel. They are washed down, rubbed and 
returned to a small stall (a "box" in England) where they spend over 20 
hours a day.

When horses are too ill or injured for the track's resident 
veterinarians to certify them fit to race they are "turned out" to horse 
farms where they eat and frolic outdoors until recovered sufficiently to 
return to the track.

Some of the handlers think that training involves beatings and many of 
the trainers are sort of butchers to the carriage trade. The racing life 
of a thoroughbred averages about 3 years during which it will run about 
fifty races. Only a few of the thousands foaled each year show enough 
promise to get to the track and of those, very few ever win a race. The 
stakes are high, the percentages miniscule, yet every person back there 
holds the constant dream that this one is the longed-for champion.

In this culture there is complete indifference to certain status 
symbols. The most financially successful trainer of all time was not 
beloved on the backstretch while I was there. He had an undefeated filly 
who died when he ignored her fever and kept her in training. When he 
appeared on TV his mourning was over the "hours we put in on her." The 
backside conversation was "Two things are for sure, it'll never rain in 
July at Santa Anita and D. Wayne Lucas will never have a live four-year 
old." The reply: "That's not true, it might rain in July."

That trainer was full of his own importance, a frequent accompanist to 
people who violate third form of truth statements with lies. Marguerite, 
who took the name Maya Angelou when she married Tosh Angelos, has become 
so convinced of her superiority that, like Wayne, unlike Charlie 
Whittingham, qualifies for an old put down: "She thinks her shit don't 
stink but her farts give her away."