BACKSTRETCH...in 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."