It is an unseasonably hot, dry Sunday morning at Cajun Downs in Abbeville, La. The horses are on the track for the fourth race, scheduled to go off at 10:30. The crowd, gathered along the rail or perched on the roofs of pickup trucks, looks like something Central Casting sent over to use in a scene for Tobacco Road. Beer can tops are popping and bets are being made in two languages, possibly three. It's hard for an outsider to distinguish between the French patois and the southwestern Louisiana American. Some of the bettors seem to be speaking a lingua franca made up of both dialects.
The jockeys are tough, although many are young—very young. Fifteen-year-old Tracey Herbert, who's been riding for four years, has some mean-looking scars on his chest and side, the result of an unfortunate meeting between him and some barbed wire. "I'd just crossed the finish line," he says, "when my horse threw me into the rail." He points toward the far end of the track. "There's barbed wire along the rail down there. After my horse threw me, he fell on top of me. That's how I got these scars." He looks down at his old injuries with indifference. His father, Trainer Leroy Herbert, nods as Tracey recounts the incident and says, "Yeah, the barbed wire's still there, you can't see it from here." That was then. This is now. Tracey gets on a bay named Palomino Joe. "This horse is crazy," he says.
A lot of jockeys who made it to the big time started at tracks like these: Eddie Delahoussaye, Eric Guerin (who rode Native Dancer), Ray Sibille and Ron Hirdes, one of last year's top apprentices, to name a few. Because most of the races at Cajun Downs are short sprints on a straightaway, a jockey has to learn to get out of the gate fast. Everything depends on getting that little extra jump at the start. After that it's just plain old-fashioned hell-for-leather speed. If a rider wants to learn the fine art of rating a horse or jockeying for position, he's going to have to go to a track with corners to it. Fifteen-year-old jockey Kim Frederick intends to do just that.
"I've been riding six years," he says. "I guess I've been in about 1,000 races." The 95-pound kid exudes confidence. "First, I'm going to Evangeline Downs and get a job as an exercise rider. Then I'm going to be a jockey. I'm going to ride there and at Delta Downs. And then," he pauses dramatically, the gleam of a visionary in his eyes, "I'm going to ride at Aqueduct."
Meanwhile, Frederick, Herbert and the other weanling jockeys (like 13-year-old, 72-pound Troy LeMaire, who has been race riding for two years) continue to risk their necks for glory and 10% of the purses. It costs about $25 to enter a horse at Cajun Downs. A two-horse race means a purse of $50, so the winning jock is picking up about $5 a race, plus "tips." Expansive bettors will often tip a winning jockey a couple of bucks here and there. Kim Frederick says you can make $20 to $25 a day in tips. They race on Saturday and Sunday, so if a kid can get on enough winners, he probably can accumulate a tidy nest egg.
Things are a bit primitive at Cajun Downs and the other bush tracks. For example, anyone wanting to know the entries for a race must consult the blackboard in the ramshackle building that serves as restaurant, information center and pool hall. The board might list a match race between Palomino Joe and Apple Gray at five arpents. An arpent is a French measure of 192 feet. All the races are measured either by arpents or yards. Forget furlongs. Forget past performances, too. There aren't any. You don't see anybody around Cajun Downs handicapping his brains out. The regulars seem to know by some telepathic means just who the favorite is. In fact, you can forget all the rules of racing as practiced at "organized" tracks. There are no patrol films, no stewards, no totalisator board and no timing mechanisms. They don't even have outriders. In what passes for the post parade, the jockeys simply walk their mounts down the track a way and back to limber them up. It's horse racing at its most primitive: I'll bet my horse can beat your horse.
At Cajun Downs, the six-chute starting gate stands at the head of a half-mile straightaway, and they're having trouble loading Palomino Joe into the chute. He's so fired up one wonders if he's been given a dose of Cajun running juice. This consists of equal parts of corn whiskey and strong black coffee. The locals say this was used as a stimulant in the old days and that it was not unusual to see a horse still being cooled out at 2 a.m. As it turns out, Palomino Joe is positively docile compared to Apple Gray. Although two assistant starters are holding on to him, he still manages to break through the front of the gate. He takes a sharp left turn, crashing through a metal bar, bending it in the process, and takes off up the two-lane dirt road that leads to the "clubhouse." Loose horses are not unusual around Cajun Downs.
While everybody is scrambling to catch Apple Gray, the race starter picks up the bent metal bar and tries unsuccessfully to fit it into its slot. Ten minutes later both horses are back in the gate. The jockeys stand on the side of the chutes, hovering over their mounts like rodeo cowboys getting ready to jump on the back of a bronco. The starter stands behind the gate holding on to a long piece of yellow rope. When he yanks the rope, it releases the linchpins that hold the doors closed and the race is on.
It's a little crowded in the chutes. One assistant starter holds the horse's bridle. The other straddles the chute, the horse's tail held firmly in both hands. The rope is yanked, the race goes off and Palomino Joe wins by daylight.
A serious bettor can thrive at the bush tracks. He can take in the nine-race card at Cajun Downs (the last race goes off at 1 p.m.), jump in a car and make it over to Carencro Race Way in Carencro, La., 25 miles away, in time to catch the sixth race on the 15-race card. Carencro has the same tumbledown, nailed-together look that Cajun Downs has. But Carencro is a little bigger and a touch more sophisticated. It has a genuine mile oval track as well as a straightaway track. Almost all the races are run on the oval, or at least on one section of it. The longest race on the card one recent day was ‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àöœÄths of a mile. And there are races with as many as six horses in them, which means a jockey can get some serious experience going around corners and fighting for position.
In the pasture that passes for infield, paddock and winner's circle, 12-year-old Joey Dore watches sadly as the jockeys weigh out for the next race. At Carencro, the weighing of the jockeys is done on a standard bathroom scale and, mysteriously, they weigh out before a race, but they don't weigh in afterward. The 70-pound Dore has not been named on any mounts today, despite the fact that his father, Trainer Jimmy Dore, has a horse called Oil Barge in the fourth.
"I've been riding since I was eight," Joey says. "I guess I've ridden around 300 races. I've been thrown about seven times. And I got the wind knocked out of me once in the starting gate, when my horse acted up."
He's hanging around today, hoping someone will ask him to ride. The threat of injury, or worse, doesn't seem to disturb him. If you want to be a race rider, danger has to be the last thing on your mind. "One time, my horse tripped at the finish line," he says. "He fell on me and I was blanked out for at least an hour. They took me to General Hospital, but I don't remember going." He smiles as he recounts this near disaster. "I came to when they were taking X rays of me, and it made me jump. I didn't know where I was. But my daddy, he told me it was O.K., they were just taking X rays."
The 10th race is a match between Little Man and Ladigo Ray at five arpents "in the rails." This refers to the straightaway track, which has three rails: outside, inside and one running down the middle. This discourages either horse from coming over on the other. It's also the only kind of race that is judged by eye rather than by photo finish.
Mrs. James Domingue stands by the outside rail and looks anxiously at Ladigo Ray as he's led, prancing and full of himself, toward the starting gate. Her 14-year-old son is named to ride him. She calls out to the man leading the horse. "You mean Johnny's got to get on that horse? Tell him I said to hold tight." She turns to a bystander and says, "I don't approve of his riding at all, but what can I do? He loves horses. I just never thought it would be like this. But I can't deny him this. Do you know that he slept in the barn last night? He said he was worried somebody might get to the horse. Now that's love."
The starting gate clangs open and the two horses come barreling down the straightaway. Unless you're standing right at the finish line, there's no telling who the winner is, because the horses kick up enormous balloons of dust as they race by. In this race the judges' decision is instant: three feet for Little Man. Mrs. Domingue calls out to her son, "Good try, baby. Next time you'll get it." Johnny looks stonily ahead, ignoring his mother. "He's so sensitive," she murmurs.
By the time the last race is run, the sun is sliding out of sight behind the old oaks on the far side of the track, giving the place a dreamy, unreal look. It must have looked like this when the first Cajuns settled here back in 1755. Joey Dore sits on a ripped-up old couch outside the "clubhouse" and talks of the future. He never did get a mount, but there's always next weekend. He says his favorite jockey, the one he admires the most, is 16-year-old apprentice Brian Theriot, who's made it to the big time. He rides at Delta and Jefferson Downs. But he still rides the bushes on weekends.
Joey's dreams have not yet reached beyond Louisiana. Like most of the very young jockeys, he thinks mostly of riding at Evangeline. When asked about Steve Cauthen, a faraway look appears in his eyes and he smiles. The dreams of all the young jockeys who want to be race riders are in his voice as he says, simply, "Ahhhh, Stevie."
Joey Dore (left) and Troy LeMaire are 12 and 13, respectively, but they're veterans of the five-arpent sprint races at Cajun Downs and Carencro.
The gang at the left rides at Carencro, which, unlike Cajun Downs, is a track with corners. At 15, Tracey Herbert is already a scarred veteran.
The spelling is a little desperate and there are no past performances to help a bettor, but big money can pass from calloused hand to calloused hand when a not-so-thoroughbred is a winner.