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Original Issue

The Old Man and the Track

Willie Clark once had a lot to live for. Now he lives for the singular distinction of being the oldest active jockey

The gate in front of the 68-year-old man is locked. The gate behind him is locked. There is nowhere to go now. No one to talk to. The audience is hushed. He licks his lips and stares down the backstretch. It's 9:26 p.m. on Dec. 1, 1990. Time stops.

The old man is sitting on the number 2 horse at the Charles Town Races in West Virginia. Beside and behind him, the 3 horse won't enter the gate. The old man's doctor stands in front of the grandstands and stares at the gate, waiting for the bell, waiting for the bell. "I'll never forgive myself," the doctor murmurs.

The 3 horse rears. The old man takes a deep breath. The 2-year-old filly beneath him has never raced before. The old man has raced 10,612 times. Six hours ago he arrived in the jockeys' room and began smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee and playing cards and listening to the young punks go on about the cobwebs in his saddle and the wrinkles on his body. Then the first race started and the punks all went off to ride, leaving him alone at a round table with seven empty chairs, playing hand after hand of solitaire. Waiting for his race, the seventh.

The old man's doctor peers across the infield and shakes his head. "What's the delay for?" he asks. "My god, I had no idea he was coming back on a first-time starter—anything can happen with a first-time starter."

At least when the old man was in the jockeys' room, time was still moving, still moving as he pushed aside the deck of cards and pulled on his silks and spat into his hands and walked to the paddock and climbed onto the number 2 horse and headed down the chute as the railbirds shouted encouragement and ridicule at him. Still moving as he warmed the filly up around the turn where the world had gone dark the last time he raced, more than five months ago. But now time is stuck at 9:26 p.m. and the crowd's silent and his saliva's gone and they're still pushing and pulling on the 3 horse.

The doctor cups his eyes and squints. "But he was determined to do this," he says. "Oh, I'll never forgive myself . . . ."

It was dark when Willie Clark awoke. A morning in October, just a couple of months before time stopped. For a moment he lay still and waited to feel if the headache had started again. Then he rose and turned on the television to hear the price of gold.

He began to dress. In one drawer were his false teeth, which he never wore or even looked at. In another drawer was a silver belt buckle with a gold colt on it. Once upon a time his daughter had worn it as she flew around the field upon a white pony, and 50,000 people in Memorial Stadium roared her on, celebrating each Baltimore Colt touchdown. Sometimes the old man was strong enough to look at that.

He had not ridden in a race in 3½ months. The last few times he had raced, he had gone blind coming down the stretch. Willie Clark was no longer the oldest active jockey in the world. Something had to be done.

Willie went to the kitchen, sliced a piece of bran bread and ate it with his gums. He was married, but he and his second wife, Maxine, ate meals at different times and watched TV on different sets. He grabbed his sleeveless jacket. In the closet were 40 Christmas presents he had already bought for his wife's grandson.

He stepped outside his trailer, high on the flank of the Blue Ridge Mountains. A DO NOT DISTURB sign hung on the gate. "People are a pain in the ass," he said. Behind him the sun was climbing, glinting off a rectangle of glass in the Shenandoah Valley six miles away. That was the clubhouse window of the racetrack in Charles Town, where Willie Clark had to find a way to ride again.

You needed to go outside the old man to beat him—that was his reputation. He cut off anyone or anything that tried to come inside. He picked a flower from his wife's garden and walked toward a maroon 1978 Monte Carlo covered with barn dust, rust pocks and the footprints of a cat. He drove into the valley. The cornstalks in the valley below him all were dead, but none of them had yet fallen.

The sun made everything brilliant—the rows of pumpkins and cider jugs at the roadside stands, the burnt yellows and oranges of the trees. But Willie preferred rain. When the horses kicked up mud, the timid jockeys tightened and the old man, loose as wind, went howling by.

There was another reason he preferred dark skies . . . something odd about light. It was trying to steal from him the thing he had done longer than any man. Ever since the previous January, when a horse had flung him against the paddock wall, chipping five vertebrae and knocking him unconscious, any strong light—from the lamps during the evening races or from the sun during programs in the afternoon—made everything before his eyes glare, then darken and fade away.

He looked up and saw himself in the rearview mirror. Some faces sag with age, but his kept drawing tighter against his skull, deepening every hollow around his eyes and cheeks and the little gray half-moon of mustache. His hair, 15 years white, was turning yellow. His flesh had no color. "Willie Clark? Looks like he's been rode hard and put away wet too many times," people at the racetrack said.

He parked his car in front of the Turf Motel in Charles Town and gave the woman who worked the front desk the flower he had picked. The pockets of his vest and pants bulged with jewelry he hoped to sell. He walked into the Turf's diner, as he had every morning at this time for the last 25 years.

Pain was starting to spread across the back of his head. The Tylenol was out in the car, but he wasn't going to take it until the headache got really bad.

"Hey, Ol' Grouch," Willie called out.

"Hey, Ol' Mucker," the waitress said with a sigh.

Willie walked right past her into the kitchen and poured his own coffee. None of the horsemen made room for him to sit; he made his own room at the round table. He was a legend in this little town, but legends should be silent. Willie talked too much, he got on people's nerves. A few months earlier, a trainer had reached across a table and smacked him. But it was hard to stay mad at him for long.

"You ridin'?" someone asked.

"Soon as Doc gives me the go-ahead," the old man said. His voice was high and nasal and cut right through you. "A jockey that don't have a headache's a liar," he added. He lighted a cigarette. Willie emptied a pack of unfiltered Camels and eight cups of black coffee a day.

He opened the newspaper to the classifieds. Out loud he read the price of a bale of hay, a diamond ring, a Cadillac, a horse. "I know the price of everything," he said. "Read this sonofabitch end to end. I don't need these glasses. I can read the eye chart bottom to top."

Abruptly he walked to the cash register, pocketed two packs of crackers, three packs of matches and a handful of mints, and headed out the door. "I'll ride again if I have to cut off my legs," he said.

The oldest jockey in history, some sticklers insist, was Levi Barlingame, who rode at the age of 80 at a track in Stafford, Kans., in 1932. But Kansas didn't even legalize pari-mutuel betting until a few years ago, and Willie would get cranky whenever anybody brought up Levi Barlingame. "Nobody could do what I do," he said. "Nobody."

He glanced at his watch and grimaced. "I've got so much to do today. I've got to get to the barns right now. They'll be wondering what happened to me."

He climbed into his car. Ten rubber bands hung from the stick shift. A gauge to measure ring sizes dangled from the cigarette lighter. A decaying 30-year-old riding crop lay on the dashboard. Jammed beneath the radio buttons, stuffed above the visors, heaped on the seat, crammed into Styrofoam cups and Scotch-taped to the dashboard were coupons, receipts, notes to himself, old racing programs and more packets of rings, necklaces and bracelets. On the floor and in the console were a screwdriver, a knife, a tape measure, a calculator, a lens to examine diamonds, pliers and baling string. In the backseat, piled as high as his head, were pants, shirts, hats, shoes and belts. Sometimes, when he hit the brakes, everything spilled over him.

"See these pants?" he said. "I'll sell 'em to you for seven bucks. Only make 10 percent, but it keeps me going. Everybody knows me or owes me. I'll always make a living. And I won't kiss anybody's ass."

Sometimes, to make sure he wouldn't be robbed, the old man galloped horses in the morning with a bag full of jewelry stuffed down his pants. In the barns they remembered the day a horse hurled him onto the track. An ambulance was summoned and a trainer named Dennis Jackson rushed out to find him groaning in the dirt. "Are you all right, Willie?" Jackson asked. The old man ignored the question, yanked the sack out of his pants and thrust it into Jackson's hands. Last time Willie had been hurt, the bag of gold had ruined the X-rays.

He had ridden since 1945, in six different decades, on practically every dirt oval from Florida to Maine. "If it's been done," he said, "I done it." He had been kicked in the head by a horse and kicked in the ass by a trainer who didn't much care for his riding. He had ridden against Eddie Arcaro and Bill Hartack and Bill Shoemaker, he had won a race on a horse that paid $508.80. Mostly he had raced at half-mile and three-quarter-mile tracks—bullrings with sharp turns and dirt-kicking cavalry charges out of the gate—at tracks with personalities just like his own, tracks like Charles Town's. "Never liked mile tracks," the old man said. "Too sissified." He was racing only once or twice a week just before the blindness, but over his career he had won 1,141 times and earned a little more than $1.8 million in purses for the owners of his mounts. The big jockeys at the big tracks earned that in three months. But none of them was the oldest active jockey in the world.

A horse named Dinner Bell stepped on Willie's head at Charles Town in 1948. Blood ran out of his eyes and ears and nose as they rushed him to the hospital. A few years later, at Timonium, a horse broke Willie's hip with a kick in the paddock. He waved off the trainer, clenched his teeth, mounted the horse and finished second. A horse he had in front by 10 lengths broke its leg at the quarter pole one night in 1978. Willie picked up its head, went to the stick and got it to the wire, still in first place . . . then tumbled beneath it as it collapsed and crushed his left shoulder and arm so badly that the doctor considered amputation. Over the years Willie had fractured his skull, spine, ankles, feet, hands and collarbone, the last so badly and so often that it had to be held together by a rod, six screws and a plate. There was so much metal in him, people at the track joked, he was worth more dead than alive.

But this time the old man wore no cast or bandages. This was more frightening than pain. On Feb. 11 of last year Willie had come out of the far turn second and pounded straight into the sunset. For an instant all he saw was glare, then a veil came down. At the eighth pole, as he moved at 40 miles an hour on a 1,200-pound animal, everything around him was hoofbeats and shadow. He hung on to the reins and to second place. Then he called from his darkness to a pony girl to pull up his horse and lead it back.

It didn't stop him. He tried riding at night, but when he came off the far turn and into the grandstand lights, it happened again. "Picture yourself riding at 60 miles an hour on the highway," the old man said, "and suddenly all the lights go out." Now he was seeing neurosurgeons, getting magnetic resonance studies and CAT scans, but the headaches and the haze remained a mystery.

He walked into one of the barns and yawned. The headaches were keeping him up at night. He slipped the crackers from the diner into the hand of a three-year-old girl, the daughter of a groom. "Gonna give me a hug?" he asked.

In the window of a Charles Town pet shop, a white rabbit huddled in the straw. It made the old man think of Carolyn, his only child, and of Maryland, and of his old life on the farm in the Green Spring Valley. "She used to fill a big bowl with spaghetti and put her rabbit in the middle of it," he said. "By the time it was done eating, that white rabbit was red."

His gaunt face pinched. He didn't want to talk about Carolyn anymore. He began fumbling through all his pockets, looking for reminders he had jotted to himself. "You just don't realize how many things I've got to do today," he said.

He drove to the track, parked his car in front and entered the jockeys' room. He was the first jockey there every day, even now, when he couldn't race. "You won't ride again," shouted his valet, Chuck Johnson, "will you, you antique old fart?"

"World's oldest moving fossil," another valet chimed in.

"Feel how cold Willie's hands are."

"Colder'n a well-digger's ass."

"I heard he's got Anheuser's Disease."

"I'll be riding when you're six feet under," the old man growled. "Just wait . . . ."

In the jocks' room before the races, as the other riders sat in rubber clothes in the sweatbox or leaned over toilets with fingers down their throats, he would hop off the scales at 98 pounds, licking crumbs off his lips, brandishing the bag of cookies and asking, "Anybody want one?" In the starting gates he would look around and remark, "I feel like dying here today. Who wants to go with me? C'mon, you punks, try and come inside me. I'll put you through the goddam rail."

The other jockeys had to consider this. He was just unpredictable enough, he might do it. Back in the '50s he once peeled seven panels off the inside rail during a drunken midnight match race against another jockey—in a pickup truck. One morning at Cumberland, Md., the horse Willie was galloping bolted straight for the starting gates, which had been stored on the outer edge of the track. Another jockey would have jumped from the saddle for sure, but Willie just hollered, "Ring the bells, ring the bells!", made himself small and shot through.

The cockeyed way he rode—his head tilted down and over to the right, as if examining his armpit—did nothing to ease the younger jockeys' fears. "It's real scary riding against him," said Todd Dupuis. "All you can do is try to get away from him as quick as you can and stay away—he'll hammer you on the turns. He'll ride any horse, he doesn't have any fear. So they put him on flipping idiots, and you don't know what he or his horse is going to do. I've wanted to grab him by the neck and wring him after a race, but you can't do that. He's a public fixture here. My god, I can't imagine riding as long as he has. I'm 26 and I feel like crap already. Shoot me if I'm that old."

There was one thing they couldn't deny. Horses that couldn't stand to have anyone else on their backs seemed to have a rapport with the old man. "Ones they couldn't tie these sonofabitches on—I ride them," Willie said. His reins were the slackest on the track, his hands were still soft. He would sit quietly in the gate, clutching his horse's mane and listening, for he had learned to hear the click a millisecond before the gates opened, to shift his weight and burst out.

He was known to cut across the entire field to get to the rail, cackling as he went. He would sometimes leave a hole on the inside, luring jocks behind him to take the bait. The moment they did—whomp!—the old man would shut it down. "I don't care if it's my brother," he said. "I'll shut his ass off. You never let anything through on the inside."

He looked up. The other jocks were scurrying off to get ready for the first race, leaving him alone at the card table. His flannel shirt hung out. The furrows of his corduroy pants were bare with age. "Goddam it," he mumbled, laying down his cards. The red suits had swum on him just a moment ago; he had confused a diamond with a heart and had blown a $50 pot. "The back of my head," he said, "hurts so goddam bad . . . ."

He talked of how much better all things used to be—racetracks, horses, jockeys, trainers, people, life. He talked of the days when jockeys piled into their cars at the close of a meet and raced one another to the next, flying down country roads with pints of whiskey by their thighs, leaning into turns so sharply that the front ends of their cars damn near touched the tail ends, burying the speedometer for nothing more than the right to look into the rearview mirror and laugh at the rest of them. He looked up as he remembered, and noticed a man he knew. He reached into his pocket and put one of the mints from the diner into the man's hand.

The third race ended. He stood abruptly. "That's all," he said. "I get too disgusted. My daughter could outride these jockeys riding backward."

We lived in the country," said the old man. "There weren't other kids around to come to Carolyn's birthday parties. So I'd bring three ponies into the house, right up to the table and put birthday hats on them and they'd eat cake and ice cream from a dish, right beside her."

He was driving to the doctor's office. He was giving up on neurosurgeons and their fancy scans, going back to the man who had patched him up a few dozen limes before, hoping that Doc Sperow would make the darkness go away and sign a release that would permit him to ride. Willie chuckled. "I remember one time," he said, "one of the ponies at Carolyn's party ate the whole damn chocolate cake." He looked out the car window. "I don't want to think about it," he said.

But looking out the window didn't help, because the hills were soft and green and they rolled beneath the white horse fence the way the ones on his farm in Maryland once had. And they made him see her, blonde and freckled, riding bareback over the crossbars of the course he had helped her build, over the stream that cut through their farm, leading her stallion around the galloping ring in the big barn he had built. "Damn . . . " he murmured.

All of his life he had talked big. Ever since he was that little boy with the eyeglasses and the bad asthma and the squeaky voice and the body far too small for his age, the young child who was led into the room to say goodbye to his dying mom. Big talk, ever since those days in Philadelphia when his father was gone from 3:30 each afternoon until dawn the next morning, operating nightclubs. Willie had wandered over to a horse farm just outside the city, and had started to muck stalls and clean tack at age eight. He dropped out of school in 10th grade. "They didn't teach you nothin' about horses there," he said. He married a woman named Dorothy McLaughlin Rogers, who loved horses as he did. He got a job in 1943 as a groom at Laurel Race Course. Nearly two years later, he persuaded them to let him ride a race.

It took another 10 years, and a gypsy's life of packing and running from one state fair to the next, but the money finally started rolling in. In 1948 he won 28 races in Cumberland's 10-day meet, a track record. Awhile later, he won 151 races in 45 days at Maryland and Ohio tracks.

And finally, at age 40, there it was, right in front of him: something of his that needed no big talk, something of his that was big. He had a daughter who could guide a half-ton of horse with just her knees and her voice and had a hundred blue ribbons on her bedroom wall to prove it. He had an 18-acre piece of land just a gallop from the Vanderbilt estate, and 28 horses, and a barn with 54 windows that the sun streamed through in the morning, and an old frame house encircled by trees, and an oak so grand 30 people could picnic under it, and a stream where the geese laid their eggs on spring mornings and the honeysuckle burst and the little girl built dams so she could swim on summer afternoons. People pulled off the road just to look at it. "A showplace," the old man said. "I had a showplace."

He fell silent. Then he yawned, spat out of the car window and squinted. The light was getting to his eyes now. He reached back and grabbed a rumpled straw hat from beneath a heap of clothes in the backseat and put it on. But the band increased the pain in the back of his head, so he flung it back. He began talking about some no-account trainer he had ridden for at Delaware Park, back when it was a good track. But then, as abruptly as he had left the farm in the Green Spring Valley, he was back there again, remembering Sunday mornings when the Colts played at home and Carolyn would shampoo Dixie's tail, braid the white pony's mane and decorate it with pom-poms so it would sparkle in the afternoon sun, then put on her ten-gallon hat and tasseled cowgirl outfit so she would sparkle too. A friend would remove the backseat from his convertible, and they would bed it with straw, and Dixie and Carolyn and her dog, Inky Dink, would climb in, and head down the road, waving to the kids who came to see them off to the stadium. And each time Johnny Unitas found Raymond Berry in the end zone or Alan Ameche ran up the middle and scored, Carolyn would gallop Dixie around the cinder track as the marching band played and the people hollered, and she would sign as many autographs as the players before the day was through . . . .

The old man shook his head and took a long swallow of air. One day in 1965, when Carolyn was 16, his wife Dorothy decided to take her and an apprentice jockey to visit relatives on the New Jersey shore. "I told them not to go," said Willie. "I told them." They were driving back to Maryland after midnight. Dorothy's head kept sagging. She let the young man take the wheel. He fell asleep and slammed into a viaduct. Only Dorothy lived. They wouldn't even let Willie look at his daughter.

"I'd still have it all if she hadn't . . . . I mean, the farm, everything. It was all for her. Everything was for her." His blue eyes glazed. "She was twice as good on a horse as me," he said.

He stopped riding horses for two years. His whole life became a spinning darkness, lights out on a highway at 60 miles an hour. He couldn't stand to see the barn, the meadow, the house, the horses, the stream. He sold the farm for next to nothing, moved to West Virginia. He drank and cried and drove fast and fumbled after women. His wife had him committed to an asylum for a month, to dry out. He and his wife couldn't talk about the accident. Three years after it, they divorced. Finally, on a day in 1967 at Charles Town, Willie rode in a race again. He felt something odd, a painful relief. The thing that made him think of Carolyn most was the thing that made him forget her most: horses. "When the bell rings," he said, "there's no pain. No aches. No nothing. I'm in a world by myself."

Doc Sperow put the old man's X-rays on the glass and lighted the bulb behind it. "These make me sick," he said.

He pointed to an X-ray of a healthy neck. There was black between each of the seven cervical vertebrae, showing where the disks are. He pointed to Willie's X-ray. There was no black. The seven bones were fused.

The doctor began talking about occipital nerves in the back of the head. The old man sat. For the first time all day, his hands did nothing, he was silent. He remembered having worked with a horse that used to go blind in the sunlight, years ago at Hialeah Park. For months he and the trainer had experimented with different blinkers and colored shades. Finally, Willie took the horse to the starting gate, at odds of 99 to 1. The bell rang. The horse turned into the sun, veered, and bolted into the rain gutter on the edge of the track. They led it away and put a .22 between its eyes.

The doctor clipped another X-ray to the glass and winced. All at once Willie stood, walked a circle around the office and walked out. It was happening again, he was turning woozy. The only way to make it go away was to keep moving.

Doc Sperow watched him go out the door. "He's like an old fighter who's been hit too many times," he said. "I can't let him ride again unless we solve this. It's just too dangerous."

The old man came back in. He tried to sit again, but he couldn't. The room was going dark on him. No one could tell by looking at him, but it was coming again. Coming on the inside.

Doc Sperow watched him walk out of the room once more. "He never complained about his other injuries," he said. "This time he's scared." He shook his head. "I'll be honest. I don't think he'll ever ride again."

The old man walked outside and got into his car. He pulled out the straw hat, tugged it on and drove toward the sunset. "I'll ride again," he said. "If I have to hold my breath and close my eyes . . . ."

The bell rings. Time starts. At 9:27 p.m. on Dec. 1, 10 horses, at last, flash out of the gate. The old man's filly takes just one jump, hears the hoof-thunder and gets crazy. She ducks her head and plows into the flanks of the number 1 horse, and all at once the old man can feel it all getting away from him. He jerks on the bit, straightens up his filly. The young punks fly off. He's in last place. He leans forward and starts riding.

Four-and-a-half furlongs, no time for patience. He works his way between horses, blows by five of them, then around one more at the quarter pole. He's riding fourth as they round the turn into the glare on the stretch. He has had just two headaches in the last three weeks, and no trouble with his vision, but now's when he finds out if Doc Sperow's shot in the dark—an injection of a steroid and an anesthetic around the occipital nerve in the back of his head—really works.

"He looks strong!" cries Doc Sperow. "Looks strong!" The filly's legs begin to feel the long sprint from last place; she begins to fade, but the old man doesn't. He works her to the finish line, places fifth and hops off the horse.

"No pain, no blindness, no nothing," he tells the doctor. He's grinning, he can't help it. He skips up the steps, opens the door. The jocks' room explodes.

"Goddam it, Willie, you got Palmer at the gate, you got Todd on the turn, you got Winnie right after the wire!"

"What do you expect? His last race was 1775. He rode with Paul Revere!"

"Retire, you old goat!"

"Hang it up, you fossil!

"Stay out of my way!" shouts the old man. "Stay out of my way!"

He changes his clothes. He buttons his jacket. He walks out the door, catcalls ringing in his ears, steps into his rust-eaten car and heads for his trailer in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The oldest active jockey in the world.