The racetrack is a world within a world. It can be a dangerous place, injuries and death happen all too frequently, but you can make dear friends at the track; especially, if you work on the backside where the horses are stabled. Everyone on the backside can be divided into three groups: those who are addicted to gambling, those who are in love with the equine beast and those for whom the equine is merely a means to provide a job or for a few to make a fortune.
The gamblers are lost souls to be sure and only one out of 500 or maybe a thousand ever builds an estate with winnings; most gamblers funnel the memorable wins they score right back through the betting windows, but those wins become memories enshrined as gambling mythology and the efforts to duplicate those legendary wins become mystical like the search for the Holy Grail. Thus the gambler becomes one of many lost legions of forgotten people who exist solely to keep racing alive.
The horse lovers are in a precarious position; for they know deep inside that racing is one of the hardest sports of all for the equine and that injuries happen all to frequently and death is always waiting. They often choose to ignore the obvious contradictions and spend their time caring for the horses and giving them comfort during their often all too short lives. Like concubines for gladiators, they willingly give their love to these superb athletes and move on when necessary. Sadly, these most dedicated of care givers end up hollow shells within a couple of decades, they are often bitter people who are dedicated cynics and view almost all other humans as lesser beings.
Of the people for whom the horse provides an income, a group that includes me, there are those who are born under the right star and make a fortune, but even these with luck and skill must be wary, for even the greatest can stumble and end up ruined and destroyed financially. For every successful jockey, vet, trainer, farrier; there are at least twelve or twenty more that are standing around hoping to get that one big break that will launch their career. Most of them will never get that break and of those that do, a large percentage will let that measure of success destroy them as surely as the moth flies into the flame. The temptations are never in short supply for those who enjoy a measure of success and the giving in to temptation helps to soothe the pain from years of rejection.
One of my favorites from the group for whom the racetrack provides a job was T Red Booker. He was an old man when I met him, a Black Cajun with a bright yellow color to his eyes. We hit it off immediately, I suspect it was because of his rural upbringing in the woods of Louisiana and his interest in healing remedies and cooking. He was a groom for one of my big outfits from New Orleans. We talked for hours on cures for hoof rot, puncture wounds, poultices, shivers, fever fighters and then we would talk about our favorite cooking techniques. He liked to hear about my experiments smoking bacon and hams, my recipes for moose nose, elk liver, grizzly heart, and he told me about stuffed quail wrapped in bacon, snapping turtle fries, smoked alligator, and 20 varieties of poke salad.
Like me, he wasn’t interested in gambling, and he knew he was at the terminal position in his station in life, so he was above all the desperate struggling of the average race tracker. T Red was content to watch the others struggle for their goals; consequently, he was an excellent mentor for me at this stage of my life.
I once asked him if the name T Red meant anything in Cajun or Coonasse as he would say. He said that as a lad that no one could outrun him for any distance between a quarter mile and a mile. He had once raced a famous stakes horse at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans for a quarter mile, even though the jockey was running too close to him in an effort to scare him. In their language the name meant Fast Red. In his younger days, his hair was a reddish color before turning gray, the name stuck. So he had been T Red Booker ever since, one of the few men that could outrun a horse.
Booker and I were like a lot of people I’ve met in the horse world; they were just born in the wrong period of history. They were much more comfortable with horses and all things associated with an earlier time of civilization than they were with mechanical and electronic things of more recent times. We are often left with the feelings that are probably accurate, that we just don’t really fit in with modern society, thus we congregate on racetracks, ranches, and farms. We ride, drive teams, pack, and work on horses to keep a dying culture alive for a few more generations, mainly because there really isn’t anything else that holds our interest. Oh, we are a varied bunch, every shape, size, and color; usually, we are a bit rough around the edges for sophisticated types; some are educated and others have never been to school; there are friends and there are enemies, but the best among us can size up a horse or a rider within two strides and we all respect a gifted horseman for what he can do.
For several years, I looked for T Red’s outfit to pull into Chicago or Kentucky; we always had a homecoming of sorts and a period to catch up on the news of mutual acquaintances. On one of these occasions, I was sorry to see T Red was on light duty with a terrible limp. I asked him what was wrong and he said he had an ingrown toe nail that was giving him problems.
The next day, I had to shoe a gelding for T Red’s outfit and T Red was going to hold the horse. I was there about 10 AM and most of the track work was over for the day until the races started after lunch. T Red brought out a comfortable folding lawn chair and sat down while holding the horse. Between the relaxed nature of the two of us, the horse was very cooperative.
T Red had an old shoe on his right foot and had cut out the leather around the area of his big toe, the toe was about three times bigger than normal and looked like it was ready to explode. T Red fell asleep with legs out in front of him, so I was real careful not to step on his sore foot while clinching the front shoes.
I was working away and noticed that T Red had dropped the leather lead shank on the ground. The horse was really easy to work with, but he was still a race horse and if he took off it would be trouble for T Red, so I wrapped the leather lead shank around the arm of the lawn chair, just in case, and went back to work.
I couldn’t help myself, I kept looking at that infected big toe; suddenly, just as I was finishing the hind shoes, I had a brilliant idea to help T Red. I lifted one of the horse’s front legs and brought it out in front of him with his knee locked straight. I aimed the hoof and brand new aluminum shoe with its steel toe grab right over that ingrown toenail that needed to come off of that toe, in the worst way. I lifted the foot up and down several times to be sure of my aim and let it go. The steel toe grab was right on target with a couple of hundred pounds of force as it landed on the base of that toenail. Immediately the corruption exploded out of that toe and T Red woke up emitting a horrible scream that scared the horse and caused him to lean back without picking up his hoof. This action ripped the ingrown toenail from the big toe and it was draining well at this point and triggered more screaming from T Red.
There was another problem; I had forgotten I had wrapped the lead shank around the chair arm earlier. The horse pulled back until the lead shank tightened, which took all of a millisecond, when he felt the weight of T Red in the chair, he spun around to the right until T Red was behind him; now, T Red was making the situation considerably worse by screaming blood curdling screams while reaching for his foot and throwing his hands in the air. I was at a loss to do something useful, but I just stood there watching the drama unfold all too quickly. All of this strange behavior by T Red caused the poor horse to become scared; suddenly, the horse decided to leave this loony bin and he took off at a dead run. Thankfully, this made T Red quit screaming and he looked at me with a a blank expression, but what could I do, I could never run that fast. As the horse gained speed with the lawn chair and with T Red bouncing along beside him. It was amazing how long the chair stayed in the upright position, because that horse was gaining speed with every stride, but when the chair started to tip over backwards, the lead shank came undone and the horse lost his curious load.
No one really understood how the accident happened and I didn’t want to tell them about T Red falling asleep on the job or how I wrapped the lead shank to the arm of the lawn chair: everyone figured it was just one of those unusual race track accidents that are bound to happen now and then. T Red’s big toe healed up in a few days and he felt better almost immediately. He received a few bumps and bruises when his lawn chair flipped over, but all things considered, he did pretty well.
I’ve always maintained, you need a little luck when you play this game called life and I’ll admit, I’ve had my share of luck. The country has absorbed some bumps and bruises the past few years, but I think we will emerge stronger and smarter. Sometimes, we just need that horse hoof with the brand new shoe to drop on our sore toe, to wake up and get better.