By Greg Clark, June 13, 1936
“With your luck,” said Jimmie Frise, “and my brains we could clean up a fortune at race-tracks.”
“I think racing,” I declared, “is the dizziest pastime in the world. I wouldn’t give you five cents for the races. I would rather stay at the office and work any day.”
“Come this afternoon,” begged Jimmie. “Just to change my luck, see? I’ll buy you a good mystery novel. You can sit in the grand-stand and read it. You don’t even have to look up when the horses come down the stretch. Honest, I have a hunch. Do me the favor of coming to the track. For luck.”
“There is no such thing as luck,” I stated. “There is a co-ordination of circumstances. There is a series of facts, always shifting, always varying in force and value. But there is no luck.”
“You said it,” agreed Jim. “Get all the facts and you get all the luck. But just the same, I have a hunch that if you would come to the races with me I’d make money.”
“How silly,” I submitted.
“Put it this way,” said Jim. “You’re sort of simple. You see things that most other people don’t see, just because you are simple. You could come to a race-track where there are fifteen thousand people and, because you are the only one that never looked at a race-horse before, you could see that race-horse the way nobody else could see it. We would be looking at its legs. You would be looking at the expression in its eyes or something.”
“Offhand,” I admitted, “I would suggest you could tell a lot more about a race-horse by looking at the expression in its eyes than by looking at its form in a chart.”
“There you are,” cried Jim. “It is that instinct you have that I want to work for me. Just come to the races once. Come this afternoon.”
“I would rather go this morning.” I pointed out, casting an eye out the window at a very bright and cheerful day, “if it is to look over the horses you want my particular gifts.”
“There’s an idea,” confessed Jim.
So after a little business of confusing the editors with a few imaginary phone calls and busy dashing out into the corridor and back, which is the way Jim and I create the impression there is a big story about to break and we have it exclusively, we slipped out the back door and into the parking lot and in no time at all, through a shining morning. we arrived out at the race-track. If I were ever to become interested in racetracks it would be only in the middle of the mornings. There is something so old-world, so Kentucky, so lazy and roostery crowing, so stable boys sleeping in the sun about a race-track in the middle of the morning that I wonder anybody can be bothered crowding into the enclosures in the afternoon just to watch a pack of skins go panting around the ring.
“Now There’s a Horse”
“Jim,” I said, as we started to stroll down the first aisle of stables, “do they mind us walking in here?”
“We’re newspapermen,” pointed out Jim.
We nodded smilingly and wisely to little groups of stable boys sitting and lying about, looking up at us from under the peaks of caps. We paused and watched men binding horses’ legs, brushing, petting. We stood and gazed at the splendid beasts, brown and lean and with that curious quality of specialness that you feel in actresses and beauties and all people who do something very extra particular. To me, at least, there is no feeling of communion with a race-horse, such as I can feel with a common horse. It is like looking at a china horse or a picture of a horse. They have developed rice-horses so fine and far they have pushed them almost over the distant edge of plain, hearty, common life.
“What a beauty,” breathed Jim, as we came to a stall where a horse looked with wild bright eye out of the upper half-door. “Did you ever see such spirit?”
“Yes,” I said, “in a maiden lady rowing a boat in a gale of wind. I wouldn’t bet five cents on that horse. It has the jitters. Any horse that can look like that on a lazy morning like this is in need of a couple of months at a sanatorium.”
“All race-horses are like that,” explained Jim. “They wouldn’t be race-horses unless they had spirit.”
“In that case,” I informed him, “the highest form of track athletics ought to be the St. Vitus dance.”
Down near the end of the second aisle of stables we came to a deserted set of stalls where one horse stood looking sleepily out.
“Ah, now there’s a horse,” I said, “There is a happy horse.”
It twitched one eyelid at us. It wobbled its upper lip.
“A healthy horse,” I declared, “A horse without a care in the world.”
Jim stepped up and spoke tenderly to it and caressed its silky nose.
“Hello, baby,” said Jim, running his hand up the horse’s flat face bone and slapping its neck.
The horse opened one eye and looked sleepily at Jim.
“If this horse is running to-day, Jim,” I said, “bet him.”
The horse, with a heavy sigh, woke up and lifted its head and tenderly nibbled Jim’s arm. Its eyes were dark and gentle. Its expression was benign. It stretched out its neck and rested its long chin on Jim’s shoulder.
“It likes us,” I cried.
And while Jim and I admired the great creature with the heavy chin it closed its eyes and kept shifting its chin from Jim’s shoulder to mine and back again, and continued to emit large, lazy sighs.
“I love the smell of stables,” said Jim, stroking the horse’s neck and scratching its ear. “I sometimes think I might have been a great horseman. I get queer feelings when I am around racing stables, as if I had been on earth before. As if something were trying to call me, to tell me, to waken me.”
“I kind of like it myself,” I admitted, taking the other side of the horse’s neck. “The laziness. The color. The interesting people.”
“If we ever make any money,” said Jim, dreamily stroking the horse’s nose, “there is nothing I’d like better than owning a little string of race horses.”
Getting Into the Game
“I could wear the kind of clothes I like, then,” I agreed.
“The Frise-Clark stables,” said Jim.
“I would wear a yellow vest,” I said.
“The King’s Plate,” said Jim. “Mr. Frise and Mr. Clark, from left to right, receiving the King’s Plate from His Excellency.”
I heard footsteps and turned to behold an interesting looking gentleman smiling cheerfully at us. He was tall and had bushy black eyebrows. On his chest dangled a pair of binoculars. He was smoking a big cigar.
“Like her?” he asked proudly.
“It’s a her, is it?” I said.
“That’s Cleopatra,” said the stranger, in a moving voice. “One of the grandest horses running to-day.”
“Are you connected with this stable?” asked Jim politely.
“Connected with it?” smiled the stranger, “I’m the owner of it.”
Jim and I showed we were duly honored. We praised Cleopatra.
“Could you take her out and let us have a look at her?” asked Jim.
“Excuse me, boys,” said the owner. “I never break routine. Cleopatra is resting. She done a grand workout this morning. She’s just cooled out. I would rather not disturb her. She’s got a race this afternoon. And she’s going to win.”
He said this in a whisper and looked around carefully as he said it.
“It must be great,” said Jim, stroking Cleopatra’s cheek, “to be an owner. But I suppose you have your worries.”
“It ain’t the worries,” said the owner confidentially, “It’s the lone responsibility that gets me. I got six horses. I’ve owned hundreds. But I got it down to six of the best. Six of the best anywhere from Tia Juana to Montreal. But sometimes I wonder what would happen if anything ever happened to me.”
He removed the cigar from his mouth and coughed deeply and sepulchrally.
“You should get some partners,” said Jim.
“Never,” said the owner, firmly. “Never. I’ve had partners in my time. But they’re ruin, that’s what they are. Sheer ruin. Never no more partners for me, brother.”
“They gypped you?” asked Jim.
“Gyp isn’t the word,” said the owner sadly. “Not only can’t you trust them, but they are always trying to run the stable. I bet you Cleopatra there would be fit for the boneyard if I ever had partners. You don’t find men with a love of horses every day. No, nor every year.”
“Why,” asked Jim, stepping on my foot quietly, “don’t you take on some ordinary business men as partners? I don’t mean professional horsemen, but sportsmen?”
“Ah,” sighed the tall man, sadly, “but how often do you meet sportsmen?”
“They’re some,” said Jim. “There’s some. Now you take us. We’re ordinary business men. But we love horses. We love the sport of racing. We were just saying a moment ago, as we chatted here with Cleopatra, that if we ever got any money, we’d love to own a little string of race horses. Not to make money, you understand. But just to have something to think about. A hobby. Something we could quit work and go out into the country to see. Imagine us having a horse like Cleopatra here we could come and see every day or so. See her training. See her getting into shape. And imagine the thrill of being on the lawn when she races?”
“You must be sportsmen,” said the owner, sincerely. “You’ve got it. I wish I could find a couple of gents like you to come into the game with me. Not nosey. Not trying to tell me how to train horses. But just to share with me the interest and joy and thrill of it all. Ahhhhh!”
“I wish we had the money,” I said devoutly, for the gentleman was exactly the kind I would like to stand on the lawn with, and me in a gray derby.
“Money,” he laughed bitterly. “Money. It isn’t money you need. It’s the heart. The right spirit. The sporting blood.”
“Money counts,” I pointed out.
“Listen,” said the owner. “I would be glad to sell a half interest in that beautiful mare there, Cleopatra, one of the finest horses running to-day, for one grand. One grand! Can you imagine?”
“A thousand,” Jim explained to me. “One grand is a thousand bucks.”
“That’s it,” I said, dismally. “Where would we ever get a thousand bucks?”
Sportsman At Last
The owner looked at us for a long moment with an expression of mingled tenderness and contempt. Suddenly he laughed and snapped his fingers at us.
“Boys,” he said, half bitterly. “I’ve been a fool before and I suppose I will be again. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do. I’ll give you a half interest in Cleopatra for one grand. I’ll do more than that. I’ll take whatever cash you’ve got in your jeans right now — right now — whether it be a hundred dollars or fifty dollars — I’ll take it as the down payment. And … listen … and … you can pay the balance of the grand out of her winnings!”
“But,” I gasped, “you don’t even know our names.”
“I know a lot of guys’ names,” said the owner grimly.
He held out his hand, cupped.
I had only $3.65. All my life, when opportunity knocked at my door, I have always had about $3.65, Jim had seven dollars in ones.
”Ten-sixty-five,” said the owner. “Good enough. It seals the deal.”
He pocketed the money. He stood looking at us fondly.
“Boys,” he said, “I have a feeling you are going to bring me luck.”
“This morning,” said Jim to me, “you said there was no such thing as luck.”
“When certain of my relatives and friends hear of this,” I chuckled, hardly grasping the splendor of the situation. I reached up and patted Cleopatra’s nose. Jim seized her affectionately and wth a proprietorial air by the neck. She sighed heavily.
Along the long aisle of stables a man in a wide hat was walking slowly. The owner said sharply:
“Well, boys, take care of her. I’ve got a busy morning. See you later.”
And he walked briskly around the corner.
The man in the broad hat strode towards us, head forward, his eyes searching us keenly.
“What do you want?” he asked in a bass voice.
“Where?” I asked.
“How?” asked Jim.
“I say, what do you want?” repeated the man in the wide hat. “I don’t like birds hanging around my horses.”
“We’re not around your horses,” I said. “This is our horse.”
Jimmie took a few fast steps to the corner of the stable and looked in all directions.
“Come on,” said Jim to me. “He’s gone but maybe we can catch him.”
“Who?” I asked, “What are you talking about? This is half our horse.”
“Get going palooka,” said the man with the bass voice. “And don’t let me see you hanging around my stables any time, any where.”
He sort of tightened himself up as if he were going to either kick or punch. I stepped after Jimmie.
As we hurried out past the stables, to look for the man with our $10.65, we heard Cleopatra whinny loudly.
“That’s the horse laugh,” explained Jimmie.
But he had to listen to me all the way home to the city as I chatted about horse racing.
Editor’s Notes: St Vitus’ dance is a term used to describe Sydenham’s chorea. It is characterized by rapid, uncoordinated jerking movements.
The King’s Plate is oldest and most distinguished horse race in Canada. It refers to the reigning monarch, and so was changed to the Queen’s Plate in 1952.
Palooka was a slang term used to refer to stupid, clumsy, oafs, and was particularly used to describe boxers. It was popularized by the comic strip Joe Palooka which began in 1930.