Between the ages of 6 and 16, life for the WiseGuy during the hot summers in Arizona meant living on a farm outside Boy’s Town, Nebraska while Dad hustled book for a variety of big name jockeys at AK-SAR-BEN racetrack. Sometimes one is astonished by the childhood memories that appear with such clarity and come at such odd times. Last night was just one of those moments. . .
Back then, as a family, we lived in a trailer; it’s as simple as that. My Dad was part owner of the land we lived on where there was a main farmhouse out about as far as you could see on the horizon. There were never-ending cornfields surrounded by even more cornfields. There was wild rhubarb along with every berry in the world and whole lot of marijuana growing anywhere the sunflowers grew. On a corner of the land bordering Dodge Street was a small trailer park capable of accommodating no more than 30 trailers. No doublewides in those days as all were either actual truck campers or full size home-style trailers. The trailer court was brimming with Trackers who worked at AK-SAR-BEN racetrack until the meet’s end on July fourth and then would head to Centennial racetrack in Littleton, Colorado for the remainder of the summer.
Out by the entrance on Dodge was a small cafe called inventively, Dodge Street Cafe. Inside was a very tilt-sensitive pinball machine, four or five small tables, six stools at the counter and the only phone for a mile. It was the kind you had to talk to the operator first before putting in a dime. Past the cafe and a little down the road to the trailers sat a five-room motel. The weekly housing faced east and at its end was the turn to the road with the first row of trailers. The first row and the motel backed up to the base of a small tree covered hill where the tornado/bomb shelter was entombed.
Atop the hill was the house we kids called Norman. The house was named that because it and the small motel reminded everyone in the park of the movie Psycho. The Mexican farm boss lived in the house with his wife and sometime or another they must have had kids because about midway down the hill there was a two-swing, swing set which had with it a rusty glider and a short and very warped butt-bruising shiny metal slide. I can still feel the sting of the blood blisters we’d get when holding on to the support arm and not the handles of the glider while trying to make the other kid fall off. One slip of the hand down onto the joint where the handles were and the tears would flow. Below the swing set at the bottom of the hill was the bunker door. We only had to go inside once when the Deputy told us while we were all watching Johnny Carson that there was a tornado approaching from the other side of Papio creek. We heard but never saw it and the most it did that night was to damage a few trailers by tipping them over.
Nights were muggy and filled with sounds of frogs and lit by thousands of fireflies darting above the cornfield and grassy areas surrounding the park. On the other side of the corn was a dirt road leading to a golf course lined by some very large trees. Past the road a bit was the only inanimate object I ever actually fell in love with. The Golden Spike Drive-in was my first love’s name and I actually believe to this day we as kids spent each and every night either laying out on blankets on the grassy edge or up in our tree house on the dirt road watching movies over and over again.
Of course not every time did us kids stay put. Once in awhile George would talk us all in to sneaking in to the theatre by crawling under the plywood canopy the screen sat on. Once in, we would hang out inside white picket fence of the Kiddies Park that was directly below the giant screen. We’d spend the entire night there sitting on the saddles of the dozen or so spring ponies rocking back and forth with our necks craned as far back as they could go just to be able to watch the movie. There were some nights every Tracker in the court would have a blanket spread out on the grass. There were sandwiches and candy, cokes and beers in coolers, kids running around with sparklers left over from last Fourth of July all in preparation of the movie of the night. The men where all together and talking of the track while the women would play Pinochle until it was too dark. The huge screen was cocked just enough so the park had one of the best views. I knew then and there that all Trackers loved going to the Drive-in. Somewhere in the bloodline I suspect.
Those young years in Nebraska really were the Golden years I suppose. Dad was making money like a rock star hustling book for three riders, consisting of two Jockeys and an apprentice or Bug. Being able to handle that many Jockeys is rare. Two things are a factor in the amount of representation. State Racing Commission’s mandates or whether or not you are good enough to do each rider justice. I only know of a handful of states which allow this amount and I didn’t think Arizona was one of them at that time. In Nebraska you needed the approval of the Stewards.
He had so many friends who were trainers so he would constantly get ride requests in other states for Jockeys who were willing to travel for a lucrative ride. I faintly remember him telling my Mom he was picking up 90k a year just on the Bugs. He was very savvy and knowledgable about the game. Some considered him as the veteran Jockey agent of the country.
It was common for a small weekly and a large local newspapers to run an article where they would quote him saying either a negative or positive comment about the track, a jockey or the people who worked the oval. The Daily Racing Form, especially when we were in Nebraska or Colorado, would have an article every week mentioning his name in both features and fillers for that day’s printing. After he picked up the book for Turcotte in Illinois and D. E. Whited became leading Jockey of the year in the late 60’s and into the early 70’s riding on the east coast, Dad’s insatiable appetite for laying a bet down really took off mindlessly.
I looked up to my Dad in those days and worshipped the ground he stood on. He was a very quiet man of humor and Jerry Bailey told my Son and I just last year that he was one of the most honest men he ever met. Together we would drive out to the track every morning as he would silently grind his teeth. I would look over slowly, not trying to be noticed, and stare. I could see the muscle by his ear on the side of his jaw tense with each habitual bite. An hour would pass and we would sit there silent with no radio or talk and fly through the dust in the Newport down the road to Turf. Come to think of it now, but my Dad never laid a hand or yelled at me ever. His stare or a small comment was enough. The silence of my Dad is still what I remember the most.
In our house in Phoenix I can remember standing eye level to the stacks of hundred dollar bills on the dresser in my parent’s bedroom and touching the wrinkled paper tied tightly with rubber bands in amazment. We had a new Chrysler every 6 months, owned many very nice homes in a handful of states and had everything we needed yet here we were living in Phoenix during the meet in a four hundred and fifty square foot home near Camelback Road and the I-17. Today I wonder if all that was cannon fodder for the IRS.
Dad was really good at the teller’s window although he never was seen placing a bet. As I grew older, maybe thirteen or so, Dad and I would go together after I was done grooming, to the Grandstand to watch the races. I liked standing on the inside of the paddock as bait. Eventually some wanna-be wise guy would stand near the railing and offer a few bucks for a tip. The two was my pat answer. If I or Mudbug, my black Cajun buddy who groomed next to me, had a horse in a race that day, Dad would go alone or with Mom. I’m not sure how many times a race day it was but if Mom wasn’t there, he would walk up to me and hand me a sealed white letter envelope filled with cash with the word ‘Mugs’ penciled on it and tell me to run it to her.
Mugs and Willy were very close family friends for as long as I can remember. Saturday nights were one thing. Canasta with them at either house and Sandy, their daughter, and me sitting around talking about boring school topics. Mugs worked as a teller and Willy a Jockey Valet and as far as I can remember were at every meet we were at during the year. More times than not, Mugs would hand me another envelope to take back to Dad. Questions today I have is how did he do this and never signed an IRS form. I seen the cash. Split tickets or something other than what it appeared to me to be or was it something else. All I know is there was a lot of money going back and forth. Dad never did figure out that no matter how much money he had, he’d never be able to buy what was more valuable to him as time would be.
One jock I remember in particular during those years was L.J. Durousseau who set record after record in 1969. The young black jockey made a name for himself by having 6 winners in three consecutive days at the AK-SAR-BEN meet. To me there were a three-way tie between Durousseau, Whited and Bob Yeager for being my favorite Jockey. You have to remember this as it’s a big thing because I’m throwing out Jerry Bailey and Rudy, but that’s another story.
I’m not one hundred percent sure but my Dad and I called him Leo. “This kid can ride. He’s golden,” Dad would say. In his carrer, Dad had lost several good Jockeys, like Bailey, Yeager and Turcotte. He really liked having L.J in his book especially when records like 4 consecutive Cornhuskers, 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1970 happened and were big money makers for the old man. I liked L.J. too as he was always friendly and took the time just to talk to me and called me Little Shu one day in the kitchen. For some reason I will never forget him calling me that way.
The trips out to Lasma Arabians on the weekends after hotwalking were some of my favorite memories. I could sit and watch the horses do their hydrotherapy in the pool all day long while L.J. and Dad would talk about the track. All was perfect I thought. Good cash for a teenager and I was finally taken in by the track. Then things changed in one night, on one street, during one monsson in North Phoenix. The paper the next day printed what I already knew.
Phoenix, Ariz, (AP)
‘A collision with a horse as drove home from Turf Paradise race track left L.J Durousseau, the nation’s leading jockey, in critical condition today. Deputies said the horse bolted into the path of Duroussear’s car during a rain storm. He swerved sharply, according to authorities, but was unable to miss the animal.’
L.J. was hurt bad, real bad, in fact, Dad told Mom it was his neck, his back, and all kinds of other career-enders plus he said he might die. I clearly remember Dad talking about L.J. running that “piece of shit Corvette” through the fence out by Lasma while trying to miss a horse. Like I said, Dad loved Chryslers and now the car was the fault his Jock was driving so fast. Luck had left the building and Durrouseau now faced a ride of his life and a race he might not win alone. Things never got back to normal for him or my Dad it seemed. Years passed for both of them and thunderous clouds hung low over my Dad’s and his Jockey’s life from then on. Legal actions against L.J. wore him down as Leo continually faced charges for using the short stick, aka, buzzer on his rides to the big one where he was accused of taking bribes and fixing races in Louisana. He was to lose his license later and then there was the infamous murder.
Although to this day, I still don’t know exactly why we were visited so frequently by the FBI or some other authority while in the trailer park on Dodge. One time I walked into the trailer and there standing over my Dad sitting on the couch in the front of the trailer were the suits. My Dad was shirtless and instantly glared that glare as if to say simply, “Leave.” Shirtless never happened in our house, especially if someone was visiting. Dad later told my Mom, ‘They were looking for a tatoo.” He never mentioned it to me.
So when I look back at the times at the Golden Spike and the Golden Jockey and the few times I really thought I knew him, a couple of things I’ve learned comes to mind. First and this is actually a good one so be quiet and listen up. Dad would say that not me. You can’t buy time or memories so don’t waste them trying to make money. Second, and this is purely personal. Silence is not always golden.
Sometimes its only an idyllic yet tarnished yellow. . .
“The best part of life starts at the top of the stretch.”
Click here to read more stories in The WiseGuy Diaries