Jockey – A Short Story
I was the jockey in the family.
Oh, how I rode.
I rode ‘em all.
I rode cheap claimers and I rode some nice allowance horses. I rode stakes winners – black type and Graded. I can’t recall a Grade I in which my picture wasn’t taken.
For years I was Saratoga’s leading rider. Won a few titles at Belmont too. I didn’t ride Aqueduct. Too cold there. Besides, I had to concentrate on my studies. My interest would peak again in spring.
Sprints or routes, turf or dirt. It didn’t matter. I won.
I’d skim the rail and coming back to the room with white chalk dust on my boots was commonplace.
I learned that from Manny Ycaza. He was fearless.
I’d brush the bushes of the inner turf. For sport I would dare others to knock me over the hedge.
Some called me aggressive.
Some said I have no business riding.
Well, I was a race rider and to be a race rider you need guts.
And I had ‘em.
I’d thread my way through horses. “If there’s room for the head, there’s room for the rest of ‘em” I’d say. And there was.
If there wasn’t I’d make the space. If the others didn’t let me through, I’d deal with them in the room later. They would give way for me next time.
My horses never took a bad step. They, nor I, ever fell.
I always broke clean.
My clock kept perfect time.
I was smarter than trainers. I knew how to ride horses better than they conditioned them. That’s not arrogance. They told me so.
Chest to saddle, I rode with perfect form.
I was smoother than silk when changing sticks.
Horses responded to the movement of my hands. I learned that from The Shoe.
Necks and noses, or by the length of the stretch. My victories varied.
Victory and I met often and she was always glad to see me.
So were my horses.
They wanted to win for me and no one else.
I won whenever I chose to ride and I rode because I loved it.
There is no metaphor for doing what I did.
Race riding and riders are used as one for other sports, but nothing can compare to its true experience.
There’s nothing else like it.
Height and weight were never a problem for me.
I ate candy and drank soda when I pleased.
Pizza was a daily luncheon routine.
I never flipped.
These were my glory days.
When I was invincible.
When I feared nothing.
That was what I worked for.
To ride well.
To win races.
To be the single most talented jock in the room.
“Patrick!” I heard the voice bellow from the other room.
“What?” I hollered in return.
“Cut that out and get to the table. Dinner’s ready” Mom said.
I should have known. The smoke alarm routinely beat her by three minutes.
Two belts strapped together formed my stirrups. A throw pillow between them for a saddle. A gift shop whip and goggles thrown by the pros at meet’s end for souvenirs. A sturdy couch. A very sturdy couch. A rope wrapped around the far leg pulled over the back of the couch for reins. A mother, ignoring me and most patient when out of sight and sound of what I was doing. A father, researching or writing tomorrows column, locked away in his den.
This was my home, my living room and my racetrack.
In my minds eye I saw only the magnificent grandstand in Saratoga, the wide sweeping turns of Belmont Park and both had, at times, a splash of Keeneland. The splash, as anticlimactic as it is, was simply not having a race announcer. They didn’t have one there when I was a kid. There wasn’t much of one in my living room either.
Sometimes my brother would want to ride. I called the races off an old program.
He hated when I called the races.
Owners would have loved me.
First, twelfth or anywhere in between, your horse got a call at every pole.
Six furlong races may have lasted more than a minute and ten seconds when I called. But that’s not why he hated me calling them.
My brother Greg is four and a half years older than me. Like most big brothers he made my life hell. Picking on me, tormenting me, beating me up, teasing me, blaming me for trouble he’d get himself into and making fun of me at every opportunity.
He’d get tired after I called a race.
He’d yell at me for taking too long. But that’s not why he hated me calling the races.
He had beads of sweat pouring from under his makeshift helmet.
But that wasn’t why.
His palms would get sweaty and he feared he’d lose his stick. Sometimes he did and broke his athletic flow…as if he had one.
That wasn’t why either.
Sometimes at the head of the stretch I’d make a call where his horse charged gamely from far back, passing foes as if they stood still. He’d pick them off one by one. I could see him smiling when he rode. He loved this too. He loved to “ride” and win. He grew confident. He felt proud. Then, perhaps callously, I would scream in desperation how his horse took a bad step, stumbled and went to the ground, taking its jockey with it.
But even that wasn’t why.
Hell, the crazy bugger liked jumping or falling off the couch and rolling on the ground when I did that.
What Greg seemed to forget was that it is his little brother that is the jockey in the family.
In every race I’d call, he and a “rival” would drive to the finish like Affirmed and Alydar.
Again he’d stay far back at first. Greg loved to ride the closers. “A quarter mile to the finish” was when he’d put it in another gear. Calling the race as he would like it, having him ride, weave and cajole his way through horses.
I made him ride and ride hard.
I made work, whip and drive to the wire in every race.
Without fail I’d look up from my program during my race call when they hit the sixteenth marker and I could see him fighting back the smile.
He felt confident.
Poised to tuck the whip and prepare for his photo.
God he loved that.
Well, I loved it too.
I loved it because for every time he’d hit, tease, torment, blame or poke fun at me I would happily see to it that that sonofayouknowwhat got clipped by a neck, a head or a nose in every race he rode.
It was a 10-year-old’s sweetest revenge.
Because I was the Jockey.