Are you for reeeeel? asks Bill, a big brawny guy who was probably gay. Well, I don’t know, I tell him as we sit around after work. Not that I pay much attention to him. More theatrical than reeel, Bill doesn’t spare anyone his question. Don’t know if anyone ever really answers him, or even thinks about it that much.
What’s for real here on the backstretch anyway, amongst the horse shit and the straw? Maybe what’s real is getting kicked in the stomach or bitten as you’re walking a ‘hot’ because nobody warned you that that horse, the one that just got a hold of your shoulder and shook you around a little bit, is a bit of rogue, a bit nasty.
Maybe it’s just getting up, day after day, at five or so, feeding the horses, working off the litres of beer that you drank the night before, smelling the shit. Not that the smell is bad. In fact you sort of get to like it after a while, let’s say a year or so. But then you probably don’t even notice it after a while, let say a year or so. The others, the ones that don’t work back here, probably do though, judging by their faces.
On the backstretch. Cleaning out the stalls, eating doughnuts by the dozen and drinking coffee by the jug when it’s bitterly cold outside. February in Toronto, in the open, when the water freezes on your hands. Your hands break open, but gloves don’t work, you can’t feel through gloves. The horses breathe steam and everyone stays out of doors only as long as they need to. Head to the tack room, or your room, which is the same but different, full of saddles. Your room has no saddles, no tack, just an iron bed, the smell of liniment, the smell of your boots and heat that would cure tobacco in two hours.
A while back I lived in the room next to old Jack, or Mr Meoff as we used to call him when he wasn’t around. He had worked with the horses for years, liked to talk about the good ones. Couldn’t get the names right most of the time, but we knew what he meant. We found him dead one morning. Got a bit too drunk and choked on his own vomit. Not that it was that unusual, dead that is. There were others, jockeys like Avelino Gomez who went down when his hose fell in a race. And then there were those that didn’t hit the headlines, the ones who died from injuries on the backstretch or the living dead, the kids who did too much stuff, the would-be jockeys who wanted to go faster than their horses, the kids who liked the wind in their face.
Avelino’s nephew, Victor, was a would be jockey, a would be champion like his uncle, or if that wasn’t possible, just a jockey. He was friend of mine, a lanky kid from Mexico, well sort of from Mexico, he may have been born just down the street from the race track for all I know, but that didn’t seem to matter much at the time. Victor had the blood and that was what counted. Avelino was a hero, the champ, the best. Victor wasn’t the best, he was just too big, to lanky and heavy, a sort of Mexican Lester Piggot but without the drive to win. Victor wanted to win in order to drive; life was to be enjoyed on the way to stardom, just in case you didn’t make it. He didn’t.
Victor had a pal, Rubén. Rubén was Mexican too, a real Mexican, from Mexico. We used to hang out together, Victor Ruben and I. Ruben taught me to swear in Mexican: Chinga a su puta madre cabron!!!!!. I didn’t really know what it meant, but I guessed it wasn’t something to say to your girl friend. Ruben was a good guy, and one day he told me he was going to Mexico and was going to bring back hand made riding boots. Did I want a pair? I wasn’t really interested in riding boots. I didn’t see myself as a cowboy, they didn’t have them where I came from and I couldn’t ride. Shit sack was what we called the bad jockeys. Most likely they called me plain dangerous.
But to get back to Ruben. He asked a lot of people, people who were riders or thought of themselves as cowboys. He collected a lot of money. Of course, we never saw him again. I liked him though; he was always smiling.