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Character Comedy in the Backstretch

Goofy Gamble, Old Tom and other racetrack eccentrics flourish in a closed and unpredictable society

A lot they care around a racetrack if, in the outside world, principalities totter or nuclear holocaust threatens. The grooms, exercise boys and others who inhabit the backstretch hardly know an outside world exists; they are monkishly devoted to their own chicken-today-and-feathers-tomorrow milieu.

A case in point is Goofy Gamble, an exercise boy I once knew on the New England racing circuit. Goofy's nickname was a tribute to the fact that he would ride anything with hair on it. It was generally felt that his willingness to do this passed all reasonable bounds. It got him a lot of work, though.

We were all at Rockingham Park when a trainer came up from the South with a string that included a horse whose reputation had preceded him. This horse had a record for dismembering lead ponies and crippling exercise boys, so Goofy Gamble was sent for. Goofy was grandly casual about the whole thing and agreed to report in the morning to gallop the outlaw.

At the appointed hour the rail was lined with trainers, exercise boys and stable hands who were out to watch the blood flow. It was a raw, rain-washed New Hampshire morning, with the track more of a marsh than a speedway. The trainer of the carnivorous horse led him down to the gap along the backstretch, Goofy strolling unconcernedly along. Then Goofy was hoisted aboard.

"Just gallop him once around easy at about a two-minute lick," the trainer said, and he might well have added, "May God have mercy on your soul."

Goofy turned the horse and jogged away toward the far turn. Without a sign of trouble he broke him off in a long, smooth gallop, splashing his way down the center of the track, where the going presumably was best. The onlookers watched in disbelief as the horse lengthened his stride and swept gracefully out of the turn and into the homestretch, well behaved as could be.

The pair was galloping past the grand-stand when the horse veered sharply toward the inside railing. So violent was the motion that Goofy lurched far out of the saddle. Three strides later his mount left the ground with the zest and form of a steeplechaser. Goofy's head snapped back, popping like the lash of a coachman's whip, but he was still in the saddle when they landed.

Across the infield of the track the horse flew, now his evil self again and enjoying every minute of it. Goofy stood straight in the stirrups and sawed at the horse's mouth. This made him run faster. The inside rail along the backstretch loomed ahead. Goofy sat down and clutched a double handful of mane. Standing well off from the rail, the horse jumped again in one of his incredible arcs, landing well out in the middle of the track. When his feet hit the mud he slid across the greasy track as though on skates, then crashed into the outside fence. The impact bounced horse and rider back 10 feet—and there they stood for a moment.

Then Goofy calmly wheeled the horse and jogged him quietly down the backstretch toward the gap, where the bug-eyed trainer was folded helplessly over the rail. Goofy pulled the horse up and slid to the ground. He was loosening the girth when the trainer somehow managed to haul himself upright and croak, "How did he go?"

Goofy glanced at him over his shoulder, idly.

"Not too bad," he said. "Only you gotta watch him—he lugs in a little."

That is what I call real racetrack detachment, the kind that puts the outside world in its place. You see it manifested in many ways. Take geography, for instance. The usual kind of map is useless around a racetrack because its reference points are state capitals or populous cities unrecognized along the backstretch.

One warm sunny morning at Sunshine Park in Florida, I was leaning lazily against my car, which was parked near a barn on the backstretch. Under the shed a tall Negro hot-walker was slowly cooling out a horse. Each time they came past me, the groom's eyes would stray to my license plate, and he would read aloud, "Vermont."

Finally on one trip around he gave a small tug on the halter shank, stopped the horse and spoke directly to me.

"Just whereabouts is this here Vermont?" he inquired.

We stared at each other blankly for a moment. I was not at all sure I could explain where Vermont was.

"Were you ever at Rockingham?" I asked.

"Yeah. I worked there for Mr. Don McCoy one time," he said.

"Were you ever at Saratoga?" I continued.

"Was there lots of times when I worked for Dixiana," he told me.

"Well, Vermont's sort of in between the two of them," I said.

"Man, I know exactly where you mean," he said triumphantly, starting the horse up again and turning the corner once more.

Still and all, I guess if I had to cast a ballot for the racetracker who most perfectly exemplifies the backstretch penchant for keeping everything in perspective, I would have to vote for Old Tom.

He was a wisp of a man, about 70 years old, with snow-white hair and a waspish disposition. He was retired and lived on his social security in a small bungalow outside Coral Gables, Fla. But every year he came out of retirement for the Tropical Park meeting and went to work as a groom for his old employer, Cy Butler. I worked for Cy one winter and made Old Tom's acquaintance. He was hardly a sociable soul as he tottered about his duties in the shed row, and the rest of us gave him a reasonably wide berth. One day, apropos of nothing in particular, Cy mentioned to me that Old Tom had been present at the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. This intrigued me, since I had never talked with anyone who was an eyewitness to this particular bit of Americana. I resolved to ask Old Tom about it when his mood was right.

My chance came not long afterward. Old Tom and I were alone under the shed one afternoon, the rest of the help having gone over to the grandstand to do a little betting or a little touting, depending on their finances. He seemed in fairly good spirits (for him), so I asked him if he had been around for the San Francisco debacle.

"Yep, seen 'er with my own eyes," he said. He hitched the bucket on which he was sitting forward. "I was working at the track outside of town for Old Man Smathers. I recall we were runnin' a chestnut filly that day, a little washy thing that we hadn't done no good with all year. But the old man figured he had her ready now, and we were all going to bet our money. I was rubbing the filly and we didn't send her to the track—just walked her under the shed for an hour or so first thing in the morning.

"Old Man Smathers came along and asked me, 'How's she look to you, Tom?' Always put a lot of stock in what I told him, the old man did. Told him she looked O.K. to me, and he says, 'We'll all get well today if this cloth-headed boy I got riding her does like I tell him.' "

Old Tom paused to spit, and I realized that we might be quite awhile getting to the earthquake, since he was obviously blessed—or cursed—with total recall. He wasn't much for pauses either, so I had no chance for polite interruption.

Well, Tom went through the morning routine around Old Man Smathers' barn in stupefying detail, then covered what he had for lunch that day and marched vocally and unstoppably into the afternoon. The heat and his reedy voice were getting to me as he spoke of taking the filly to the paddock, of what the old man said to the cloth-headed boy and what that young snot said back. By the time Tom had made a bet and had the filly at the post I was ready to fall off the bucket or scream—I wasn't sure which. Nor did Tom slight the running of the race. He recalled all the bad racing luck the filly had, the incredible blunders by the jockey, who apparently topped his almost criminal performance by dropping his whip at the eighth pole shortly after he took the lead. Now Tom's voice rose in excited rage.

"He just sat there like the mucksack he was while a big common bay horse, runnin" all by hisself out in the middle of the track, come on and nipped the filly right at the wire."

Old Tom stared angrily at me, holding his hands out about four inches apart to indicate the extent of the dirty nose by which the filly was beaten. Suddenly he dropped his hands and ended his half-hour narrative.

"Well, sir," he said, "that night the earthquake come and knocked the hull darn town flat."

I still don't know much about the San Francisco earthquake, but I should have known better than to ask a racetracker. It's easier to look in a book.