By Gregory Clark, Illustrated by James Frise, May 27, 1939
“I’d like you to meet a friend of mine,” said Jimmie Frise, “Mr. Charlie Spavin.”
I shook hands with the gent, who rose jointedly from beside Jim’s drawing-board.
“Mr. Spavin,” said Jim amiably, to cover my frosty manner, which I could not conceal, “is a well-known sportsman.”
Mr. Spavin collapsed into the chair again. He was a very tall, loose-jointed person, extremely thin, with the look of a starved hound. His facial bones seemed to shine through his skin. His hair was frizzled and wispy. And his eyes, close-set like buttonholes on either side of a big, boney nose, were colorless.
“What sport do you follow?” I inquired, as I hung up my hat.
“The horses,” said Mr. Spavin in a voice such as an Egyptian mummy would use if he could speak.
“Mmmff,” said I, sitting down and immersing myself in the letters on my desk.
“You might be interested in Mr. Spavin’s proposition,” said Jim earnestly. “Charlie, tell Mr. Clark your idea.”
“It’s this way,” said Mr. Spavin huskily, despite me rattling the papers on my desk. “I’ve got the horse Flying Beetle, a nine-year-old maiden. She’s et me to the bone. I’ve owned her two years now. I’ve wasted every cent I own, lost my house, sold my car, all my furniture has been reclaimed, my radio was picked up only this morning, I’ve separated from my wife and borrowed myself off the track with all my friends and even borrowed 50 cents from the very last of my acquaintances, all on account of this here horse I own called Flying Beetle.”
“See?” said Jim. “You always claimed there wasn’t an honest horseman in the world. Mr. Spavin is one.”
“If I never told the truth before,” said Mr. Spavin, with an air of amazement, “I’m telling it now.”
“Tell Mr. Clark why,” prompted Jimmie.
“It’s this way,” said Mr. Spavin. “I claimed this horse two years ago for $200 when I was in the money. She’s a swell big filly. Light bay. Full of life. Raced all over America. Never won a race. Never even showed. Some of the best trainers in the world have had her. She does trials that make your hair stand on end. But in races she just lays back. She’s run sixth in over 75 per cent of her races.”
“Why don’t you get some bets she’ll run sixth?” interrupted Jimmie. “Maybe she’s a trick horse.”
“She’s a trick,” sighed Mr. Spavin. “But she’s got me ruined. And she’s the only horse I own. She’s my last possession on earth. I’ve fed her and pastured her; I’ve made a bum of myself paying her feed bills and stabling. I’ve shipped her all over the country and borrowed money from the jockeys to pay the jockey fee. And now here I am so broke I ain’t had any breakfast yet. There’s a race at four-forty this afternoon, and by all the hokey pokey I think this is the race she’ll win.”
Having a Horse Fit
“A nine-year maiden?” I inquired drily. “Haven’t you thought she’d win several times before this in the past few years?”
“Look,” said Mr. Spavin, sitting upright with an effort, “she never had a horse fit before.”
“A horse fit?” I exclaimed.
“You’ve heard of a cat fit, haven’t you?” said Mr. Spavin excitedly. “Well, a horse fit is something the same. It’s a sign of a great change in a horse. This morning, down at the track, when we took her out of the stable for her exercise, she was all of a tremble. She was sweating even before we got the boy up. She acted crazy. Her eyes glared, she breathed heavy, she seemed to be laboring under some deep emotion.”
“Maybe it’s just old age creeping over her,” I submitted.
“O.K.,” said Mr. Spavin shortly. “If you don’t believe in miracles.”
“I never saw a race-horse that wasn’t crazy,” I retorted.
“Look,” said Mr. Spavin. “We got the boy on her and she started to rear and buck and squeal. She suddenly started to run in little circles, and the boy couldn’t do nothing with her. She ran circles smaller and smaller and I knew she was having a horse fit. I yelled to the boy to jump. He did. And just in time, too. Because she suddenly whirled end for end, fell on the ground and lay there dying, as I thought, her eyes sticking out, breathing like the heaves and, all of a sudden, she grew quiet, got up, shook herself and walked quietly over to us and stood waiting for the boy to mount.”
“Doesn’t that sound curious?” interrupted Jim.
“It sounds a little veterinary to me,” I stated.
“Wait,” said Mr. Spavin tensely. “The boy mounted. She was as cool as a cucumber. She seemed to have grown bigger, stronger. She seemed to exude power. She was lithe.”
“Mmmm,” said I, interested.
“Like a panther,” said Mr. Spavin, “she went to the track. I was nearly nuts. I’d heard of these horse fits. I knew they came only once in a lifetime. But when a horse has a horse fit it is born again, you might say.”
“So?” I encouraged.
“She ran,” said Mr. Spavin in an awed voice, “a mile in one second less than the track record.”
“Whew,” I admitted,
“And she came off that track,” cried Mr. Spavin, “as quiet and easy as if she had cantered.”
“Mmm, mm.” I admired, though I know nothing of horses and care much less.
“And I think she’s going to start running,” said Mr. Spavin, “at last. I think she’s thrown off some trouble that’s been in her all her life. I think that horse fit has made her another horse. I think she’s going to be as good as she’s looked all these years. And, by the hokey old pokey, here I am without the price of the jockey fee.”
“And the purse,” said Jim, “is $500.”
Mr. Spavin collapsed back into the chair.
“Well, Mr. Spavin,” I stated, “only six weeks ago Mr. Frise swore off all horses for a period of two years.”
“Just betting,” put in Jim.
“Don’t quibble,” I said.
A Powerful Hunch
“I swore off betting,” said Jim. “But I didn’t swear off being interested in horses. Can’t I look at a horse’s picture in the paper? Can’t I sit and think about horses?”
“Think all you like,” I said, as one of the custodians of Jim’s mighty oath. “But don’t spend a dime on a horse.”
“Just listen to Charlie’s proposal,” said Jim quietly.
“My proposition is,” said Mr. Spavin, “if you will put up the 10 bucks for the jockey fee I’ll give you a half interest in the horse.”
“And a half interest in her feed bills, et cetera,” I smiled.
“This half interest,” said Mr. Spavin, “to take effect only if she wins today. If she wins you got a half interest in her. If she loses I just owe two more guys another 10 bucks.”
“I never heard of such a proposition,” I declared.
“It’s common enough in the sporting world,” said Mr. Spavin. “Isn’t it, Jimmie?”
“Look,” said Jim, “here the races have been on for weeks, and I haven’t even seen one and I haven’t wagered a cent. Along comes this chance in a million. If you come in for five bucks so will l.”
“You promised you wouldn’t make a bet,” I reminded him, “unless I bet, too.”
“That horse fit,” pleaded Jim, “is famous among horsemen. It’s as old as history. When a horse has a fit, strange and mighty things happen. I’ve got a powerful hunch.”
“You’ve had hunches all your life,” I recalled to him,
“Look,” said Jim. “You’re a sportsman. You fish and shoot. You are an outdoor sportsman. What a lovely day. Let’s go and kill something. But you’ve reached the time of life when more constructive sports should begin to interest you in place of killing things. How about interesting yourself in the breeding of horses, in the improvement of a noble creature, in the sport of kings?”
“I like shooting things,” I informed him; “not running them to death.”
“You’ve come to the end of fishing and shooting,” pleaded Jim. “What more is there for you to learn? Why not take up, for the remainder of your life, something that will give you as much pleasure learning all about it as learning about fishing and shooting has given you in the more active years of your life? Do you realize that by tonight you may be part owner of a thoroughbred?”
“For five dollars?” urged Mr. Spavin. “The cheapest I ever heard of, even in Kentucky.”
“If the horse wins,” said Jim, “you’re a horse owner. If it loses you aren’t stuck in for any bills and only out $5.”
“We put nothing on paper?” I demanded. “This is purely a gentleman’s agreement. If it wins, we’re in. If it loses, we’re out.”
“Exactly,” said Mr. Spavin as if the deal were closed.
As in fact it was. Because lately I have been finding that to get any fishing I have to go farther and farther and all the time I am getting older and older; and I have been looking around for some solution of the problem that sooner or later confronts all who follow any sport other than stamp collecting and who do not die young.
“It’s a waste of money,” I said. But when Mr. Spavin left, all legs and arms, he had $5 each from Jim and me. And Jim and I went down to the sporting editor and borrowed a couple of members’ passes for the afternoon, it being one of those days the sporting editor has figured there will be no race, so he sends his third deputy assistant to cover the meet. And therefore all his friends’ passes are in his pocket.
“Jim,” I said, when we settled down to work, “there is something spooky about these horse fanciers. They have some kind of mesmerism. I never fell so easy in my life. Why, a campaigner for a new wing on a hospital couldn’t get $5 out of me as easy as that.”
“Deep in every man, even in you,” said Jim, “is a love of the horse.”
“I don’t think I’ll even go to the races,” I said bitterly.
“Aw, come,” said Jim, “if only to confirm your low opinion of race track enthusiasts.”
And it being a fine day, I went for that purpose. And I sat in the grand stand and didn’t even look at a program or pay any attention to the prices they put up. In fact, I didn’t even stand up when the races finished and didn’t even look at the silly little squads of horses bobbing around the track; but devoted my whole time to studying the people, the men and women who thronged about, their faces so set, their expressions so greedy, their eyes so narrow, all for the love of a horse. And when Jim came up the steps and said the 4.40 race was next, and wouldn’t I come down and at least see Flying Beetle in the paddock, I got up reluctantly.
In the paddock nine horses were getting ready for the parade, and I must say Flying Beetle was the best of them. But my chief interest was on the melancholy jockey who sat on top of her, by grace of $5 of my hard-earned money. I spent my time figuring which of his colors I preferred, the red or the yellow, for my dough.
They went out on the track. The bugle blew. The crowds swarmed down on the lawns and climbed eagerly into the stands. Jim led me along to a place near the winning post.
“I have a hunch,” he said, rather breathlessly.
There was the roar, “They’re off.” The crowd began, in that curious way, to stir and pop. It is like putting popcorn in the pan and slowly, little by little, the racket grows, until the whole pan is popped. With a wild yell the race ended, and Jimmie was hugging me and dragging me after him and yelling like a maniac, with people bumping into us and everybody gone nuts.
“She wins, she wins,” he explained to me, leaning down to scream in my face.
“She’ll pay nearly $200 for a $2 ticket,” shouted a stranger madly into Jim’s face.
“Jim, you didn’t bet?” I shouted.
“We split the purse,” cried Jim.
He had dragged me through the crowd to the paddock by the judges’ stand.
“Make way for the owners,” Jim roared, shouldering into the mob. And a lane opened amid aisles of respectful people and we got slaps on the back.
Mr. Spavin was not in the paddock and the jockey, very astonished, was sitting on Flying Beetle, while a steward held the horse’s head.
“We’re half owners,” Jim told the gateman, who opened the wicket and let us in.
“Hello,” said the steward, who knew Jimmie through long and mischievous years. “I didn’t know this was your horse? I thought Spavin had her.”
Jim, with the quiet air of the sportsman simply walked up and took Flying Beetle’s bridle and beckoned me to stand forth. The crowd cheered. The photographers knelt and banged their cameras at us. It was all very sudden and tumultuous and I was just realizing hazily that I was launched upon a new chapter of my life when Spavin came bursting through the wicket shouting–
“Get away from the head of that filly!”
I looked around, but there was nobody else but us.
He snatched the bridle and with his elbows bunted Jimmie to one side and me to the other. It was very humiliating.
“What are you lugs trying to pull?” Mr. Spavin demanded furiously.
“Well, we have a half interest, haven’t we?” I demanded, and Jim was trying to get hold of Spavin’s sleeve to catch his attention, but Spavin was striking a pose and having the photographers to do their stuff over again.
“How about the half interest, Charlie?” asked Jim.
“What are you bums trying to pull!” shouted Spavin hotly.
“You said…” I began.
“Do you want me to call the stewards and have you bounced by a cop?” hissed Spavin. “Get away. Let the photographers have a chance.”
“We’ve got…” said Jim.
“Look here,” roared Spavin, and already stewards and judges were coming down the ladder, “what are you bums up to? Have you got any papers? Have you got any I.O.U.’s? Have you got anything? Get out of here.”
“We’ve got a gentleman’s agreement,” I shouted.
“Who with?” shouted Spavin, giving me look so full of meaning that I realized it was no agreement at all.
“Besides,” said Jim, when we got out behind the grandstand where nobody could see us and we could recover from our confusion, “after all, why should we try to horn in, for a measly five bucks, on what must be the greatest moment in the life of Charlie Spavin?”
“The purse was $500,” I insisted.
“If I’d only had 10 bucks on that horse,” groaned Jim.
“There you go,” I scorned, “Why not insist on our rights? Let’s sue him for half the purse.”
“What a swell pair of sportsmen we’d be,” retorted Jim, “suing on the strength of $5 apiece.”
“A gentleman’s agreement,” I sneered. “No gentleman should ever mix up with horses.”
“No,” agreed Jim, “horses are for bums or millionaires. They can’t hurt either.”
So having no further interest in the meet, we went and got in the car and drove back down to lock the office.
Editor’s Note: $5 in 1939 would be $91 in 2021.