Monday, April 28, 2008

Frankie





It's Derby time again and my thoughts go to Frank.  I'll get all wrapped up in the race, the tradition, and my own memories of being at Churchill Downs on Derby day, but I'll also carry something of Frank with me.  Time to tell the story again.





I love how shoes retain the personality of the person they belong to; just lying around, or sitting neatly on a shelf, or even abandoned, lost, or separated, as they sometimes get, they continue to reflect the identity and appearance of their owner.

I saved my shoes for last, like a special dessert. They were the last things to get packed, the last bit of jagged grain to finger, the last sorting out to do.

In the corner of the closet, on the floor, coiled, like a pair of sleeping lovers, were my black leather cowboy boots. Small wonder I hadn’t worn them for a while, my days around horses had ended half a dozen years before and they weren’t particularly kind to my aging feet.

Yet, they made me smile and would obviously require a place of distinction for my upcoming migration. I paused, uncoiled them, dusted them off with a convenient jean cuff, and thought of Frank. Or rather, Frankie, as his associates called him.

Frank came into my life quite unassumingly one day as I began the morning in my local coffee shop. Taking a break from paper grading, I was reading a copy of The Blood-Horse magazine at the bar and noticed one of the locals sit down behind me. He must have spotted one of those glossy full color stallion shots on the cover or on the back page because the moment I laid the magazine down, he approached.

“Would you mind if I took a look at your magazine for minute,” he softly inquired. The voice was incongruous with the image. Frank was in construction, often drove an old pick-up with a large toolbox in the bed, and seemed like he’d be a good fit on the set of the Sopranos. Rather than De Niro, De Vito, or Pesci, out came the tone of Robert Redford. But Frank was irrefutably Italian, New Jersey born, in fact. Imagine an aging Sal Mineo, whose wavy hair turned silver and set off the most brilliant sky blue eyes I’ve ever seen. If the eyes stopped me cold, I can only imagine what they did to others.

“Sure, take a look, and take your time,” I replied. I was delighted that someone actually knew the magazine. Frank turned out to be someone I didn’t need to enlighten about The Blood-Horse. He even subscribed to it, and when I told him I moonlighted as their Northern California correspondent, we became fast friends. The rest of that morning we shared ideas about everything from turf breeding to sire lines. Frank seemed to have particular knowledge of the Eastern tracks and it was clear from the excitement in his voice that he was somebody that appreciated the aesthetics of the sport. He knew about the big Lexington, Kentucky breeding farms, and spoke lovingly of misty Saratoga mornings.

Saturday mornings now included running into Frank at the coffee shop. We traded stories, shared bits about our 9 to 5 working lives, then gradually worked our way into the subject of thoroughbred horse racing.

When I appeared a bit earlier than usual and dressed in tie and jacket one Saturday, Frank inquired about the look.

“I’m covering the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows today,” I informed him.

“Would you mind if I rode along with you,” he boldly asked. “I’d really like to see that race because I think a couple of those horses have a chance to get to the Triple Crown races this year,” he added.

“ If you meet me here at 11:00,” I said, “I’ll pick you up right on the corner and we’ll get there by noon. I have to check in with the press box and see if there is anything newsworthy or which owners and trainers will be available after the race. Then I usually go check in with Bill, the photographer, because I often have to get a photo on a plane to Kentucky within 24 hours. I hope you don’t mind getting there a little early.”

Frank didn’t mind. He was standing on the corner in front of the coffee shop dressed in a beautifully tailored suit, striking Italian silk tie, and a broad smile on his face. This was the first of many trips together over the next few years. It was great to have company for the long ride home at the end of a working day. Driving through rain at night after a long day at the track, knowing I had an article to write all that evening, sending it by fax to Lexington early the next morning so it could go to press right about the time I began my first class on Monday morning. A less than restful weekend, but I loved every agonizing moment, from hoping the editor would like my piece to wondering if anything was unclear or misspelled to hoping I got that last quote right and didn’t forget to mention the owner of the winning horse’s name. Having Frank along helped.

After a while, I got to know Frank fairly well. Men disclose their personal lives slowly and Frank was no exception. I learned about his family ties to the thoroughbred industry. He had uncles in L.A. and New York and usually referred to them as “they.”

“They like Alyshiba in the Derby,” he’d say, or “They gimme a horse in the fifth at Belmont today.”

Often “they” were right. But after his reports from the uncles, Frank began to fill in some gaps in his life, especially his demons. As a recovering alcoholic, he told me about AA groups and the many people who supported him in difficult times and how it was his turn to be there for people now. I noticed how going to the races dressed well was his own way of staying centered, focused, and sober. As I wandered the perfect societal metaphor that is a racetrack, from the inaccessibility of the barns to the exclusivity of the Turf Club, I would occasionally run into Frank, ever the gentleman, sipping coffee at the bar, or quietly reading his Racing Form in one of the many restaurants. If we were an unlikely pair, this teacher/writer and this contractor/recovering alcoholic, we were also good friends who began to know and trust each other.

On the morning of the 1993 Kentucky Derby, Frank called me at home and told me that he would be unable to go to the track to watch the race. He went on to say that he’d be grateful if I could place a small wager for him, and that he’d meet me at the coffee shop in an hour. I didn’t mind, but I usually made it a point never to mix other people’s money with anything to do with wagering. I knew better. Too many things could go wrong. But this was Frank, and I had a hunch he was sacrificing the Derby for helping someone on this day of all days. We met and he carefully scrawled out some words and numbers on a scrap of paper. He liked Sea Hero to win the Derby and gave me $30.00 for a win bet, and an additional $70.00 for some exacta combinations. (Exacta is a more “exotic” bet, which predicts the first two finishers in exact order)

“Yeah I really like Sea Hero,” he revealed. It's Mista Mellon's horse, Paul Mellon, he’s 85 now, a class act, really deserves to win a Derby. Sea Hero's really bred for the mile and a quarter distance."

Dutifully noted. I went about my day, carefully placed Frank's wager well before post time, and added a couple of bucks of my own on Sea Hero. Off to the press box I scrambled to watch the race with the local band of newspaper reporters and turf writers. I can’t tell you that when the dust settled Sea Hero was in front because there was no dust that day. The Churchill Downs track was very sandy; “cuppy” the race trackers call it. But Sea Hero liked it all right, because he found the lead in deep stretch and kept going at 13-1 to win the 119th running of the classic. On my way to the cashing window, I realized that Frank had not only won his win bet but also had the generous Exacta a few times. I never really became nervous until the last bill of the $3,000. and change was counted out. Placing it in the inside pocket of my jacket, I went about my business.

Frank called that night, as I knew he would. When I met him at the coffee shop the next morning, I felt more like a drug dealer, counting out his winnings. As is the custom, he thanked me and carefully peeled off 3 One Hundred dollar bills.

“Ten percent is for you," he whispered, "and thank you very much.”

“Frankie,” I retorted, “thank you, it’s been a real pleasure.” Within the week I had my black leather cowboy boots. They took nearly all of my 10%, but that’s to be expected; they’re the real deal. They served me well over the next few years, from horse auctions, to blues festivals. I wore them to interviews in the stables and to dark jazz clubs. My feet even obliged after a bit.

When I moved a little farther away from the coffee shop, I saw Frankie less and less. Slowly over the next few years his appearance changed and I couldn’t help but think that some of his demons had returned. He looked thinner, and grayer, and those magnificent eyes had lost a little luster. But when we did speak, he was always cordial, if not brief.

One afternoon, at the coffee shop, I chanced to meet one of Frank’s friends, a fellow contractor he once introduced me to a few years back. When I inquired about Frank, he told me that as far as he knew he’d been diagnosed with Leukemia. About a month later, this same friend mentioned that Frank had gone back to New Jersey, presumably to spend time with his family. I never saw him again. That he is gone, I have no doubt.

I'm in Oregon now. I love the seasons of Portland, with blazing red and gold leaves on the trees, freezing rain, and, of course, long afternoons in Powell’s Books. The Internet brought about the end of my turf correspondent days. Pictures are sent instantly and cell phones make talking to anyone anywhere a simple matter. There is Portland Meadows, a small track whose entire advertising budget consists of a newspaper add, three times a week with a picture of a photo finish. One of the horses in the picture is rider-less; having lost his jockey sometime after the starting gate sprang open. The text of the add reads, “Something’s missing, is it you?”

Now and then I see one of Sea Hero’s offspring running. It’s an automatic $2.00 bet. I spruced up my black leather cowboy boots the other day and thought of Frankie. I saw his smile, heard his muffled laughter, marveled at the hue of his eyes, and wished, for an instant, that there had been one last trip to the track together. But like the add says, “Something’s Missing.”


©Bruce Greene, 2007

Friday, April 25, 2008

BURCE Almighty


Like many of you, I have a few credit cards and a couple of those grocery store "club" memberships.  I never have enough points for anything, but the ones that offer some sort of sale price or instant savings seem to work best for me.  There is one particular store in my neck of the woods that likes to personalize each transaction.  I'm sure you have had this experience a few times.  The clerk takes a quick peek at your name on the receipt and then, as natural as rain in Portland, says, "Thank you very much Mr. (or Ms.) Smith..."
     Sure it's amusing, but they are trying to be friendly.  If you are used to being called Mr. it can be a bit deceptive.  My students have always called me Mr. G.  Even when I run into a former student, it's the same.  When the grocery clerk spouts that familiar greeting, I often feel I have known them for years.  For me, it seems very natural and probably makes me comfortable with people who really don't know me at all.  But here's the part I really like.  On my Safeway card, my first name is misspelled.  It reads BURCE not Bruce.  I love it!  
I love it because it keeps people guessing; maybe that really is his name.  I love it because it's flawed.  It is quite comforting to know that these technological advances are hardly perfect.  That the human element is always present. 
I worry too about the information we put out there and the consumer profile that must accompany all our transactions.  But I know too that mine is a bit deceptive because the pattern that exists is highly irregular.  Seems I have to go to three or four stores to get the things I want.  The stores with the "clubs" are usually a last resort.  What can they do with information like I buy organic popcorn, sugarless bubble gum or frozen yogurt?
      I wonder if any grocery clerk will ever ask me about my first name?  Probably not.  They barely have enough time to glance at the last name.  And what do they do with the names they can't pronounce?  I guess those folks go without the friendly greeting.  Maybe not.  Maybe there is a concerted effort to teach the clerks the names of the store's customers.  Maybe not.  The best we can hope for in this speeded up experience of consumer exchange is a fleeting glance at our names.  And even then, it's not an exact science.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The Ash Grove



Last weekend marked the 50th anniversary of The Ash Grove. The legendary folk and blues club on Melrose in Los Angeles was a Mecca for all types of musicians and progressive causes from the late 50s until the early 70s. Not surprisingly, it's heyday was in the late 60s. It was the quintessential music club. Let me take you there for just a minute. Please indulge me because I want to share with you the closest thing to Nirvana I have found.
After a quick drive through Laurel Canyon, it takes only about 10 minutes to cross Santa Monica Blvd; go up Fairfax till Melrose and park in the closed gas station across the street from the club. It's 7:45 now so get out your student discount card because you can get in for $3.00 and have a couple of bucks left for a drink or two. If we hurry, we might find two seats at the bar up front of the stage. Check out the people here; lots of students, but many more musicians, all ages. Leftover beatniks, purists, Socialists, all ethnicities. The lights dim and the buzz stops. A deep, rich, textured voice begins, "Ladies and Gentlemen, The Ash Grove is proud to present..." It could be Howlin' Wolf or Taj Mahal, Big Mama Thornton or Big Boy Crudup. The Chambers Brothers, Lightnin' Hopkins, Bukka White, Jessie Fuller or Spider John Koerner. Sometimes we'd see bands like Spirit or Canned Heat. Occasionally the Firesign Theater or the Angry Arts Festival. Everyone in traditional, blues, folk, folk-rock, bluegrass, and anything remotely close played The Ash Grove.
On Sunday afternoons, after a few solid hours of study in the UCLA research library, I'd go home by way of The Ash Grove. Often, Taj Mahal was teaching someone guitar and I'd slip in quietly going past the small record store up front and sit in the back row while the sunlight filtered in through a fan in the roof. Taj often demonstrated a particular riff and then went off himself. Later on he'd answer the questions of a budding harp player. "Hey Taj, what do you think about soaking harps, ever do that?" "Oh I've heard about all that, soak 'em in beer, in water. I don't know if it does any good. You ever do it?"
Occasionally you could catch Big Mama Thornton who'd stop by to sign a contract or pick up a check.
So many memorable nights. Sleepy John Estes, Yank Rachael, Brownie and Sonny, J. B. Hutto and the incomparable Son House.
More to follow.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Faith, Love, and Salmon















It was the kind of day that held promise.  The temperature moved past 70 for the first time in six months, and robins were hanging out in groups of three plucking out morsels from the soft earth. 
Renewal was palpable.  Hope was suddenly more than a sound byte.  I found myself being kinder than usual; less cynical, more enchanted with my motivation.
When the media got finished with it's latest spin about "bitter, gun loving, disillusioned" Americans I could still cope.  It doesn't take a genius to see through half the crap that passes for news these days.  I'm particularly fond of how the story shifts from the real news to those who cover the news.  By the time the local Oregon news was presenting the defense of the couple whose religion prevented them from getting adequate medical for their child suffering from pneumonia, the cloud cover changed.  What happens when you put the life of a child in the hands of your faith is that your child can die.  It happened.  What's to defend?  That kid never had a chance, did she?
I had hardly recovered from March Madness to learn that Kevin Love is leaving UCLA after one year to play in the NBA.  May he mature with his millions.  I really had thought that his education was worth more than an NBA contract.  Oh I know how it is.  I know that the money is available now, that he could get injured, that it could all vanish in an instant.  It's difficult for someone who has seen what I've seen, especially during my years at UCLA, to get my head around the idea that kids play only one year.  I never expected more from Jason Kidd, he never wanted a degree; I just thought Love might be different.  But why should I expect more when even amateur sports really aren't anymore.  
OK, more clouds but no rain yet.  
That evening I went to my monthly Trout Unlimited meeting and learned that salmon, as we know them and where we know them will soon be extinct. In the next century, many of the rivers needed to maintain salmon will be warming. In fact, according to the speaker, Jim Martin, the water temperatures necessary to maintain the salmon population won't be cold enough. As the earth warms, snow is less frequent and rivers warm. The young fish will be easy prey for the warm water species of fish that will thrive. Unless we maintain the headwaters, and reconnect the major rivers like the Columbia as a free-flowing river to the ocean, we'll find ourselves without salmon. Yes, there are things we can do now, but we may not.  Yes, they may survive in a few places in the world, but given climate change, global warming, power dams, no political will, lots of government bureaucracy, and uncontrollable population increase... we're fucked.
Here's the thing.  Later on that same evening was uncomfortably warm.  I kept thinking about how to trumpet the urgency I felt.  Then, in a moment of clarity I realized that all these issues are connected.  They really are the same issue because it all comes down to quality of life. How much is worth fighting for. Continuity is important. 

Monday, April 14, 2008

My Uncle's Gift




The envelopes were unmistakable.
They'd arrive in no particular order, at no particular time. Brown manilla envelopes, usually scarred from rips, tears, creases, despite the printed words "photos, handle with care."  Most were addressed directly to me. They were from my Uncle Murray, a reporter for the King Features Syndicate.
A lifetime New Yorker, I met him only once when he appeared one night in a taxi and whisked my folks off for a dinner in Long Beach. He wore a hat. Men in the 1950s always wore hats. Uncle Murray was the source of those wonderful envelopes. He'd walk through the news service dark room and pick up what would have been tossed. Photos, mostly from baseball games, usually with wire service captions were jammed into the envelopes and sent to me. Maybe it was because he had a daughter and a wife who were not interested in baseball? Probably it was because like his wife and daughter, he was a generous, warm, caring soul. He wanted his California nephew to have something other kids didn't, and he took the time to deliver the goods.
Uncle Murray knew my dad and I were Giants fans. He knew, too, that after 1958, it was increasingly difficult to be a Giants fan growing up in Los Angeles. Many of the photos of Giants players my father culled for safekeeping. I had plenty of others, however, including many featuring Dodgers and Yankees. New York had three teams in those days. Lots of action shots of Mantle, Berra, Maris, and Whitey Ford. Many of Jackie Robinson, Duke, Pee Wee, Gil Hodges, and Jr. Gilliam.  Many from a World Series.
If the address scrawled on the envelop was almost illegible, Uncle Murray's notes on newsprint inside the packages of photos were completely indecipherable. But I knew the drill. They simply said, Bruce, these are for you. Please do not sell, give away, or trade them with your friends. I knew that there were copyright laws; I understood photo credit. After my father died, I assembled all the photos we had and realized that to preserve some, they needed to be scanned or otherwise duplicated now. Some were turning deep sepia, others soon would. After about a year, I tracked down the organization that seems to retain copyright. While some photos have captions that give photo credit, many others do not. Since the photos were taken between 45 and 60 years ago, most, if not all of the photographers are gone. The company said that I could scan them for my own use only. They didn't exactly say I couldn't sell them. It's a murky area. A few I have given copies of to friends. I suspect some of these little treasures will make my blog from time to time. If anyone needs to own one, they know how to reach me. Uncle Murray gave me quite a gift.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

You Could Look It Up



Yesterday, while reading an Education blog sponsored by a progressive political action group, I was reminded how people perceive what they want to believe. I had contributed a post about how NCLB has as one of it's unwritten intentions the de-skilling of teachers. It's important to remember that one of the tenets of the law is directed at the manipulation and control of what passes as "enriched" curriculum.
These scripted elementary programs as well as computerized, anthologized, approaches to Language Arts and Humanities take all the joy out of teaching. Further, they severely limit the depth and breadth of what is covered or uncovered.
So here I am happily blogging along, making this point and inviting others to respond. By the end of the day I see another post under the heading of de-skilling teachers and students. The writer is making a case for rote memorization, harking back to the good old days, and even going so far as to include a 5 hour exam given in the 1880's in the state of Kansas. Students were tested on a variety of subjects including English usage and grammar, geography, U.S. History, Science. Apparently it was an 8th grade test. The guy's point being that the phrase "only an 8th grade education" really meant something then.
Now I'll concede a point or two about the value of memorizing a poem, and the importance of knowing Latin and Greek roots, and even the importance of explicit teaching when it comes to the structure of an essay or the "rules" of writing. I even enjoy diagramming a sentence when nobody's looking. But please. Most of the research about the teaching of grammar as drill/exercise is very conclusive. Like all quantifiable learning objectives it comes in one window and out the door.
As poet Barry Lopez recently told a group from the Oregon Writing Project, "YOU own the punctuation, the punctuation doesn't own you."
I also reminded this "good ol' days" advocate that the history questions he cited from that Kansas exam included the phrase "Columbus discovered America," conveniently left out anything about slavery or the genocide directed against Native Americans. Actually there was no sense that critical thought was any part of that curriculum.
I still have on my bookshelf a small collection of early U.S. Histories. In one of my favorite little public school volumes, after a discussion of the Battle of Little Big Horn, the text states that the victorious Indians, "returned to their tents to smoke their fifthly pipes." I kid you not.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Like Desensitized




Another troubling story about animalistic human behavior has surfaced. This one combines an adolescent crisis that began on My Space or Facebook and then had it's ugly conclusion videotaped for the purpose of You Tube. The holy trifecta of teen cyberspace here. It's another example of group pathology wherein one person gets pummeled by a horde of violent, self-righteous, voyeuristic, cold-blooded peers. Do they really think that taping this sociopathic scenario will bring them their 15 minutes of fame?





True the adolescent brain is a work in progress, but what's so troubling here is that this desensitization to violence and the accompanying lack of moral emotions is on the rise. It could be the quadrangle of video games, TV, movies and music, but does it really matter which affords the most long lasting influence. The result all comes to the same.
If you are interested, the studies are all there. Going back over the years, from the one at UCLA where two groups of kids were shown two different TV programs, one with and one without violence. Then, when sent in identical rooms to play for half an hour, the kids who watched calmer programming sat and played a board game. The kids who saw a violet program were all over the room. Their attention span was nil and they found particular enjoyment in pounding one of those inflatable pop right back up clowns. They were like boxers training. Is this all that surprising?
With this much exposure to violent role models, just factor in a few variables like diet and the nightly news from Iraq. The moral emotions, as psychologist Jerome Kagan refers to them, cease to exist.
What do organizations like the AMA, the American Psychological Association, American Academy of Pediatrics and The Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychology say:
The four health professional groups left no doubt about their feelings in the statement:
"Children who see a lot of violence are more likely to view violence as an effective way of settling conflicts. Children exposed to violence are more likely to assume that acts of violence are acceptable behavior," it said.
"Viewing violence can lead to emotional desensitization toward violence in real life. It can decrease the likelihood that one will take action on behalf of a victim when violence occurs."
"Viewing violence may lead to real-life violence. Children exposed to violent programming at a young age have a higher tendency for violent and aggressive behavior later in life than children who are not so exposed."

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Stay or Go?



My writing group is trying to self-destruct. What started as a comment of nebulous intent has become a grenade. The shrapnel has already picked off two people, but I fear that more have been wounded. Some, in fact, may already be dead. As for myself, I'm dazed at the moment. Dazed and confused.
We were so seemingly close, reveling in our ability to support each other's endeavors like a rider. (writer/rider, isn't that wonderful?) Firm but gentle. Firm so we know who is in the saddle; gentle so that we don't rip the horse's mouth jerking on the bit.
In a nutshell, here's the deal. Like a good friend of mine says when describing his wife, "She's a sheep dog, but she doesn't know that I'm not a sheep." We're suffering from micromanagement of the top down variety.
The best writing groups I've ever been in were all leaderless. Or, they passed the leadership chores around the circle so that a different person was responsible for all the organizational duties each time we met. That's another thing. We've been meeting, for the most part, every week for a year and a half. That, too takes a toll.
So here I am sitting on this fence. I know if we part, there will be an honest effort for people to keep in touch. But I'm too wise to expect that that will last for any significant length of time. The odds are steep. Think I'll just step back and let things happen. Like working with horses, sometimes animals or in this case entities can tell you things without the power to speak. My group will tell me what to do. I simply need to listen.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Is It Soup Yet?



They call it the soup. It can be thick or thin, grainy as sandpaper or soft and slushy as a snow cone. You wouldn’t want to eat this soup; though some of the jockeys I know have certainly swallowed a good deal of it. It is, quite simply, mud: thick, oozy, viscous mud.
When the racetrack turns to soup an entire range of possibilities rains down. Of course, some horses run well in the mud, and some don’t handle it at all. Most traditional dirt racing surfaces have a strong, solid cushion underneath, so running on a sloppy track is fairly safe. If the track is “sealed,” that is, compressed the night before an expected storm, then the water sits on the surface. That’s how it becomes soup.
Some horses love the soup. It really is in the blood. That’s why pedigree researchers know the good mud runners. A few trainers will tell you it has to do with the size of the individual’s feet. The bigger the feet, the better they come splashing home. Most students of horse breeding get a rush of adrenaline on rainy days. They crack open the Daily Racing Form and look for those pedigrees with off track sires and dams. (Moms and dads) If you can find one with “top and bottom” (mother’s and father’s pedigree) the heart beats a little faster. A few sires worthy of mention would be Staff Writer, Temperance Hill, and Silver Buck. If I see those names in the pedigree, it’s a slam-dunk.
When Jumron won the 1995 edition of the El Camino Real Derby, a major Kentucky Derby prep race, at Bay Meadows, his pedigree said it all. His sire and grandsire traced to Bold Ruler, a classic off track runner. The mud-stained goggles worn by jockey Goncalino Almeida are among my fondest turf writer’s mementos. Sitting on my bookshelf, the mud has turned to a dusty crust. Like any good soup though, just add water; instant soup.
If you want to get all mystical, however, go to the racetrack on a rainy day. Some of these mud lovers will come out of the clouds to win races at very long odds. In the soup, they seem to find new life. They glide over the gooey surface like speed skaters. Still, as in any horse race, wet or dry, there is danger and a horse or human life can change in a heartbeat. Given the right combination of variables, a run in the soup can produce once in a lifetime experiences.
When apprentice jockey Nate Hubbard climbed aboard a filly named Sweetwater Oak at Golden Gate Fields on February 3, 1989, I’m sure trainer Lavar Larsen wished him luck. For most people, that would mean, I hope you win. For thoroughbred trainers, it means have a safe trip. Racing luck to those who ride or train is always about welfare. Come back safe and sound. Sometimes they say, “get the money,” but that always follows “good luck.” Sweetwater Oak was doing fine in the 6 furlong dash and was actually in a position to win in the final eighth of a mile. When Current Lady took the lead in deep stretch, it looked as if Hubbard’s filly would at least run second. Then destiny struck. Sweetwater Oak momentarily stumbled when another filly, slipping a bit in the slop, bumped into her. Just as jockey Hubbard was about to go head over riding boots, his instincts kicked in. He lunged back toward the stumbling filly and grabbed on to her neck. There he dangled like a Christmas ornament on a tree for the last hundred yards of the race. I remember jockey Ron Warren, on fifth place finisher Lystra easing his mount after the finish and turning around to see Hubbard’s display of strength and balance. Being the excellent horseman that he is, Warren helped slow Sweetwater Oak down so that Hubbard could let go and land safely in the comfort of the soft mud. “I pulled my filly up in front to try and help him,” said Warren, “ I galloped by and then back ed up to make her pull up.” Sweetwater Oak was unhurt, if not a little bemused by her jockey’s lengthy hug. “I’ve never seen anything like that,” said veteran jockey Tom Chapman, who rode the winner. “I stood up and looked back and there he was hanging on. Most of us would just try and fall off if that happened.”
Nate Hubbard saw it a little differently. “When she fell, I grabbed a handful of mane and held on. I was afraid I would get run over.”
Immediately the INQUIRY light flashed red. When jockeys are unseated during a race, the horse is still declared an official starter and everyone connected to that horse from owner to bettor is out of luck. This was different. Hubbard never came all the way off until the race was over. Consulting the exact language in the rulebook, the three Golden Gate Fields stewards, after viewing he head-on replay of the race and much deliberation, declared Sweetwater Oak the second place finisher in the race. Track announcer Larry Collmus explained the ruling. “Sweetwater Oak carried her assigned weight across the finish line and is therefore legally the second place finisher.” Nate Hubbard’s feet never touched the ground. Nowhere in the rules does it say the jockey must be seated at all times.
I could go to every racetrack in the country or watch hundreds of races televised daily for the rest of my life and never see a ride like Nate Hubbard’s cling on again. Most race trackers know that. In fact, it was just that knowledge that put a young photographer, Peg Gruenberg, in the right place to capture that improbable finish. Peg had learned from Golden Gate Fields photographer Steve de Vol, who learned from his father that track photographers must always carry two cameras. If one should run out of film or fail, another must be instantly ready. Peg was prepared and the image of Nate Hubbard’s wild ride circled the globe that night. The photo that resulted was the kind that wins awards. I’m sure it was runner-up for something that year.
Every thoroughbred gets a bath after every race. Unlike the jockeys, if they run in the soup, they get washed and walked and dried off and fed when the race is over. The riders usually have three to six mounts on a racing day. Their baths must wait until the day ends. On a stormy day they go through scores of goggles and maybe even a few pair of riding pants. Their silks change with each new mount, but each multicolored shirt will need a thorough washing before it returns to competition. When the sky opens on a race day, the jocks are thinking soup. They may not always eat it, but they certainly will wear it.
c2008 Bruce Greene