I cleaned my office this last weekend and as I straightened the bookshelves, J Edward Chamberlain’s, Horse (Blue Ridge, New York, NY), fell on the floor. Horse is a narrative that laymen can read about how mankind and the horse have developed a somewhat unique, symbiotic relationship.
As I hefted the book, an image of the racetrack vaulted into my mind. Not just any racetrack, but the racetrack at Ruidoso, New Mexico where they specialize in American Quarter Horse racing with the distance being a quarter of a mile, the money pot being in the millions.
Ruidoso crouches beneath the shoulders of Sierra Blanca, a twelve-thousand-foot peak in the southern part of the state. A lot of big Texas “awl bidness” money hangs around the restaurants, boutiques and honky tonks. There is a ski area and more important to horse folk, a racetrack.
One of my father’s younger brothers, Hugh, and his wife Lona Beth, owned a house on the Rio Ruidoso in the older part of town. They had box seats at the race track, too. Betty and I, for a time, lived thirty miles south in the more modest village of Cloudcroft. But we got invited to the track and we sat and watched the races and we bet from the sheet and lost money until Aunt Lona Beth pointed out that one shouldn’t bet the horses. They should bet the trainers and the jockeys and the owners. I thought, but geez, that means you have to know them. She read my mind and smiled as she went back to her racing notes, and then to the window to get her winnings.
The rest of the day I imagined I witnessed(or maybe I really did see it) the jockeys on the favorite horses in particular races pulling back on the reins so that one of the other horse owners could win some money and pay a feed bill, pay the veterinarian, pay for his daughter’s wedding in Telluride or Steamboat Springs.
Right then, I understood what was meant years earlier in the palaver I heard in Prescott, AZ about jockeys holding the horses back. That was in1976 when I summer-long hung out at Bruno’s Buffet just across the main drag from the racetrack. Bruno’s was chock full of horse owners and trainers and jockeys, not to mention the other gambler denizens. I was more interested in the vintage pinball machines against the back wall and the homemade tamales and burritos and of course the Coors and the schnapps and the Dewars and water. But I do recall the men sitting at the bar winking and giggling about shenanigans at the track. Drugs to speed up a steed or slow him down, or her if she was a filly. They fought, too, bringing their competitive natures from the track into the bar where the liquor started doing the talking and then fists started cracking faces and the pointed toes of ostrich skin cowboy boots bomb-shelled into opponents’ soft groins. Humans are a competitive bunch and they sling their drive to win onto the shoulders of all kinds of things: their hands, their feet, their fellow man, their brains tied to poker hands of aces and queens, the back of a horse, a pinball machine.
Back in the early 1970s I used to hang out on Sunday afternoons outside of Casa Grande, Arizona at the weekly races sponsored by the Los Conquistadores, a local Hispanic caballero club. Cars would line up along a makeshift track, their trunks open and loaded with Corona and Dos Equis and Coca Cola and orange sodas from Fanta de Mexico, or Jarritos, and better yet, fresh tamales and burritos, lots of jalapeño and Serrano chile slices laced among the beans and meat. The kind of food that made your mouth burn and your nose run and your head sweat and goosed you so you felt like you might just get out there and run beside those elegant caballos whose owners let them strut and kick up puffs of dust to whet betting appetites. A lot of cash changed hands out there one race after another, the green hundred-dollar notes flapping in the breeze as one man agonized and another rejoiced. Sometimes the tempers flared and men threatened others, but then one of the gentes managing the race stepped in and refereed, negotiated.
Back then I used to work at a large agricultural concern out west of town in the flat Sonoran desert plain below Dick Nixon Mountain and Table Top. One of the owners’ sons, whom I will call Butch, loved racing horses and bought a fancy prancing young dun stud he hoped would win him money and fame. He didn’t ride it himself; he hired one of the hostlers who worked for the company instead. That man was a slight Vietnam Vet whose seamed and ruddy face told stories he would never relate. He sat a horse like he was part of the animal; they reminded me of a centaur. The dun stud and the hostler would lope across the flat, greasewood-pocked ground leaving their caliche clay signature on the wisps of the wind. That dun was a moody, cranky thing and the only man who could handle him was the hostler.
Late one Saturday evening a strange pickup truck and horse trailer pulled up outside the office and some Chicanos I had seen all my life, but did not know, unloaded a big dapple gray gelding who stood around and sniffed with suspicion the eighty-two-thousand head of Hereford, Brahma, and angus cross-bred cattle in the feed pens.
I asked a cowpoke what was up and he told me there was a match race for big money. Of a sudden, cars and pickups began to arrive and the hostler brought the dun out and it snorted and cavorted sideways as the hostler talked soft words of comfort in its ears that reminded me of radio antennae the way they checked out the hubbub building with the powdered dust of the parking lot.
All of a sudden too, big white Panama-hatted cowboys and long-haired hippies and Chicano dudes arrived in large groups, drinking Dos Equis and speaking Español; also a couple of Yaqui Indians who hung back, leaning against some sucker rod fence as they laughed at all the proceedings. And yes, the greenbacks started to flash and a lot of harsh talk, as if words of intimidation from one man to the next would make a difference in how a horse would run. One man had a .357 Magnum six-shooter sticking barrel first in his left rear pants pocket. I hoped it wouldn’t fall out, go off and hit me.
The jockeys jockeyed their horses to the line. A cotton farmer with a long-barreled .22 Magnum said something about the race, although I was more interested in the array of weapons I saw sticking out of boots, hanging on belts. I wondered when the war might start. Was this a horse race or were we going to invade Baja California? All the Chicanos and most of the hippies sided with the owner of the dappled gray. Most of the cowboys and some of the hippies sided with Butch, the hostler and the young dun stud.
A stocky man stomped back and forth between each group, swearing in English and Spanish as the horses snorted and jumped around as if infected with the sense of competition. The bets continued. I kept my wallet in my pocket.
The stocky man flexed his fists like he wanted to hit someone and I heard talk that he liked to drive sixteen-penny nails into railroad ties with those fists. I doubted he could do that and smiled, but only on the inside, as I thought how that might feel, to pound a nail with the fist. Why in the hell would someone want to do that unless to show somebody else up, I reckoned as I inched my way to the back of the cowboy crowd.
While I was watching the hammer-fisted dude slinging his vernacular of violence around, the .22 Magnum reported and as I stood on the toes of my boots I saw those two horses, the muscled dapple gray and the young dun stud, erupt like funny cars at the drag races. They were gone and each of the jockeys, especially the hostler, leaned off his ride, slapping at the other jockey with his quirt. A lot of the men in each crowd were busy hurling epithets at counterparts on the other side and missed Butch’s dun win the race by better than two lengths. An anti-climax, for sure.
I moved back and stood next to the Yaquis, anticipating the fireworks to come. My heart sped up with the thought of some fist fights, a knifing, a shooting; but while the winner’s crowd ganged around Butch, the hostler and the dun, the loser’s crowd quickly sneaked off, leaving a lot of hot-tempered talk about welching on bets and the like.
It’s amazing, I think, how a man and an animal can symbiotically interact and create an entire industry—horse racing—that so perfectly corrals some of the essential best, and worst, of human emotions. The horse usually being the one that does most of the heavy work. The humans creating the rest—the hubbub, the competition, the hate, and yes, the love.