In the dressing-room of the Jockey House

By Gregory Clark, June 5, 1926

At one o’clock the jockeys weigh in.

They are then confined to the jockey house until their engagements for the day are over.

Strictly confined. The jockey house is guarded very jealously by an official. Only the jockeys, the valets and the man charge of the colors are admitted.

The jockeys are not permitted to speak to anyone but their valets and officials of the track who have admittance. Owners’ trainers are barred. A jockey, once he has “made his weight” at one o’clock, is forbidden to speak to or be spoken to by anyone.

You see the jockeys, as they dismount after the race, met by their valets in grey uniforms. The valets take the saddles and whips. The jockeys walk in silence, by a guarded entrance, direct to the jockey house.

This is the ancient etiquette of the race track.

The jockey house is at the far end of the track, next to the paddock. You will see the brightly colored little figures watching from the sunroom windows above. You will see them trooping out, a minute before the bugle to mount is sounded, to the weigh scales where they “make their weight” for the last time just before the race. Their valets saddle up. In the guarded paddock, they mount and parade out before the grandstand. Then, jauntily or dejectedly, you see them filing back into their sanctuary.

In a very special abrogation of the rule, The Star Weekly was permitted to enter the guarded jockey house to report its mystery and its color.

In all that great arena of excitement which is a race course, you would expect the focus, the hot-point of excitement to be concentrated in the quarters of the jockeys, who are the final, ultimate and sole human factor in the actual consummation of the race. Instead, it is a little nest of peace.

The very air above the race track quivers with the eagerness and thrill of the multitude of spectators. The jockey house is so still and serene, some of the boys lie asleep in it.

The mob buses with talk, exclamation, shouts. But in the sanctum of the riders, the little men converse in quiet undertones.

At one end of the scene are the betting machines, and at the other, the jockey house. There perhaps, is the most unfriendly concrete criticism of the sport of kings. The aura of excitement in a race course is deepest in color around the automatic bookmakers. It shades away across the grandstand, becoming a polite pale color within the self-conscious members’ enclosure. It flares up again at the paddock, where the prancing horses are standing by for the race. Then it disappears almost entirely at the jockey house.

The first room within the jockey house is a cross between a Varsity gym locker room and the property of a theatre. It is strange room, like no other in the world. It walls are entirely filled with clothes lockers. Benches for the dressers take up all the floor. Aloft, on rails, completely circling the room, are the colors. Silk, every one, little jackets of red, white, blue, green, yellow, and every combination of them; stripes, part color, motley, white discs on red jackets, yellow discs on white jackets, half one color, half another -these jackets are the color of all the different racing stables of America, ready to be donned by the jockeys when they ride the horse of a particular stable. Beneath the flaming colors, silks, hang tiny riding boots, flimsy little flat racing saddles, frail girths, bridles, everything on the small side, everything on the dainty, delicate side. Here amidst the colorful gloom of the dressing room of the jockey house sit the little men who ride, some dressing, some idling and chatting, waiting for their next mount, resting from a race that made fifteen thousand throats sore. Underneath these silk garments, the boys wear nothing but cotton undersuits. They shiver in the wind. Others are sweating from a race and the silks are dark with wet.

But not voice is raised. Here come six of them, fresh from a race. The first to come in are the also rans. They are smiling or looking downcast, according to their natures. There is no chatting.

“Dog gone!” cries one tiny little fellow with a Kentucky drawl. “‘At horse just bucked like a wil’ horse and when the barrier comes up, none of his feet is on the groun’.”

The last to trail in are the winners, who have been held up at the judges’ stand to be weighed in again in the interminable round of declaring one’s honest weight which is part of the ritual of racing.

“Good ride, boy! More money for the old hip pocket!”

Nine out of ten jockeys appear to be about fifteen or sixteen years of age, and probably are. It is hard to tell with this class of human that is naturally built on miniature lines. About one out of ten is a man undoubtedly in his thirties, little, dark, lean men, with the slim limbs and narrow features of a hawk. But the rowdy, happy-go-lucky spirit which one expects in boys of middle teen age is utterly lacking. There is an occasional swear word spoken with an accustomed and final manner that is startling and causes you to look twice at what appeared to be a quiet boy of high school age, you become aware of a certain assurance veiled behind these reserved lads. For not a living one of them but is brave as a lion. Riding race horses in a man’s job for which mighty few boys are fit. The Arab on his steed wins instant respect as a tamer of wild nature. The little jockey up on his horse is entitled to the same flood of respect, for race horses are wild nature, pure. And the jockey has not the advantage the picturesque Arab has, who sits in a great cradle of saddle, with both legs forking his beast, his feet gripped in deep irons.

Wise Lads and Quiet

If there is one thing that strikes the attention immediately on entering the jockey house, it is the subdued manner of these boys. And the very next fact is the heart stirring assurance of the eyes, that you are looking upon a collection of courageous and fine-spirited human creatures. For courage needs so much room in the human heart, it leaves very little room for lesser gifts. One reason why lifelong followers of the racing game, in Toronto, officials of the courses, have nothing but praise for the little men who ride is that being of proven courage to begin with, there are few bad qualities left to disturb or distress the gentlemanly and sportsmanlike conduct of the finest aspect of the race track – the jockey house.

Upstairs in the house are two rooms, a work room, where the valets keep boots and saddles in spotless trim, and a sun-porch where the riders sit to watch the races and rest between rides.

On the low work-tables where the valets do their spit-and-polish, three or four little figures, in bright and gala costumes, lie carefully covered with greatcoats, sleeping – sleeping within sound of that vast hum and murmur, rising now and then to a roar, of the crowd of those who regard themselves as sportsmen because they stand or sit and look upon the exploits of sportsmen. The horror of a jockey’s life is flesh. The addition of a pound of weight is a grave piece of news in a little fellow. What a jockey knows about reducing would startle the ladies of fashion if they enquired. The reason these little figures are laid out so uncomfortably upon the bare table is no doubt that they are exhausted by their training down to make weight. In the early hours of the morning you can always see these small men on the run in the neighborhood of the tracks, like prize-fighters, loaded down with sweaters, chasing along as hard as they can go, to reduce one pound in order to make their scheduled weight.

In the sun-porch a blaze of color fills all one side, where the little riders are leaning out watching a race. Far beyond them is the background of the excited mob, the murmur rising every instant. The dark mass of them is agitated. The color-clad riders in the foreground are still and unperturbed.

“Eddie’s in the lead. I knew he would be.”

“Poor Sam has got a three-footed horse. Look at him at the turn!”

We stood right behind the watchers at the sun-room windows and these were the quiet, casual comments. It seems as if you took a boy and made a man of him too soon, you are likely to get a gentleman out of him.

“Do you ever have any fights in the jockey, house?” we asked one of the older valets who looked as if he had a good many years of jockeys back of him.

“Only enough to prove the rule,” he said. “Now and again a fellow goes sour under the strain. His nerve wasn’t of the lasting sort. When you get a rough rider, sooner or later he tries his stuff on one of the bigger boys and then there is bound to be a punch or two. Remember, jockeys as a class are sportsmen of the finest type, and it is little enough recognized. There is little rough stuff amongst them for two reasons – one, that it isn’t in them, and two, that they are afraid of nobody and will stand no dirty work from their inferiors.”

Why Jockey House is Guarded

“Do you recall any incidents?”

“Yes, but no names. I remember the time one of the foremost riders in America threw his horse against another jockey, who has since become the greatest rider in Germany, in a deliberate effort to drive him through the fence. He was set down for the offense and fined $200 by the stewards. In the jockey house after the race there was a good deal of silence when the two came in. It was an unforgivable offense, and something was bound to happen.

“‘Well,’ said the offender. ‘you nearly got me last year in California and I said I’d get you some day.’

“This showing that the attempt to drive the other through the fence was really deliberate and planned, the other stepped up and whacked him on the jaw, knocked him into a pail of water and into complete and eternal disgrace in the jockey house.”

Like the theatrical profession, jockeys are always on tour. They are far from home and mother, despite their tender years in most cases. They are under contract to certain stables, travel with the personnel and horses and live with the trainers. But as you see them in the jockey house there are plenty evidences of a mother’s care. One wears a home-made dressing gown. Another has his initials painstakingly worked in silk on his cap.

As they turned away from the sunroom window after a race, without a single trace of excitement, we asked them if they got no kick out of seeing a race.

“When you ride a couple of races a day, just seeing one,” said a slim-legged sportsman, “doesn’t create much kick.”

“I don’t see anybody nervous before the race. Are you ever nervous?”

“Before a big race, with big stakes, or with a lot of good horses over which there is jealousy, we get a bit jumpy. Then there are the two-year-olds and a certain proportion of bad horses that no amount of riding can handle. Going out on them always causes a little nervousness. But, of course, riding year after year, day in and day out, soon hardens a fellow.”

He motioned secretly for us to look at one of the boys in green. This was one of the season’s star riders. He was sitting on a chair staring out the window. His hands were drumming on the sill. He was whistling. Then he jumped up and walked a couple of turns around the sunroom, stopped and stared absently out of the window, his fingers plucking nervously at his waist band.

“He’s got a big bad horse in the last race that he wants very much to ride to a win,” whispered the other boy. “He’s riding him right now, in anticipation and worry.”

The rider in green continued his restless prowl around the sunroom, in his eyes the look of an anxious boy waiting in the principal’s office for an interview. Half an hour later, be rode his big, bad horse to victory and came back to the jockey house all ease and smiles and his nervous hands quiet and controlled.

Jockeys taste some of the most romantic joys of earth – of the circus trouper, of the stage, not to mention the elements that belong exclusively to racing. But on top of all these is sportsmanship, in an old tradition, which the trouper and the actor never experience.

The jockey house, if we get the right perspective on a race track, from the betting machines to the paddock, is guarded for still another reason. It houses the gentlemen in the game.

Editor’s Note: Jim illustrated this early collaboration on a news story with Greg. Based on what we know about them later, Jim was likely much more interested in this story than Greg.