You may remember the definition of mixed emotions that the television comedians made popular a few years ago: watching your mother-in-law drive off a cliff in your new Cadillac. This is nonsense. If you really want to experience mixed emotions, buy yourself a horse, send him off to make his fame and fortune, suffer through his failures—and then pick up the paper some day to read that he has finally won a race and paid, say, $164.40 to win, $87.40 to place and $30.20 to show.
I know, because it happened to me. On New Year's Day a handsome but previously undistinguished chestnut gelding named Dr. Dubious—my bright hope and bitter disappointment all through 1959—turned over a new leaf and won the second race at Florida's Tropical Park, paying those very prices. As his owner I suppose I should have been deliriously happy, and I guess I really was. The only trouble—
Let's start at the beginning.
Dr. Dubious was my own personal prize selection at a Keeneland fall yearling sale—a young son of the great Australian distance horse Bern-borough, out of a mare named Jinxy, who was the winning daughter of the winning daughter of a stakes-winning great-grandmother. He had first-class bloodlines, perfect conformation, sturdy legs and that look of champions in his eye—and he went cheap, which happens to be a requisite for my modest little stable.
January 11, 1960
Dr. Dubious was named by my son, in honor of the old Smith and Dale vaudeville skit. In return I promised my son to bet $5 for him every time Dr. Dubious ran, the proceeds to go to his college fund.
I had several other supposed pensioners of Dr. Dubious. For my favorite aunt, who continues to make a keen study of the race results at the age of 80, I always bet $2 across every time one of my horses goes to the post. I always bet five on the nose for my wife. There is a widow next door who had my firm promise to let her know every time I thought one of my horses had any kind of chance at all. At the New York office building on which I depend for most of my living, my stable has a small but devoted group of followers—junior writers, secretaries and office boys—who express their faith by betting on every horse I send to the post.
Alas, 1959 was a sad year for Dr. Dubious, the rest of my horses, my fan club, my aunt, my wife, my son and me. I started the year with nine horses in training, all of which should, in theory, have won frequently but in practice won very rarely. They acquired ailments which baffled the best brains of veterinary science. They went lame. One of them—this is ridiculous but true—got pregnant.
When the 1959 season ended in Ohio, where my stable had gradually been drowning in red ink all summer and fall, I had just one horse left in training: Dr. Dubious. What suffering he represented!
Early in 1959, while a groom was walking him around the barn in one of the first stages of training, the Doc got rambunctious, reared and fell backward on his rump. This taught him a useful lesson but left him scarcely able to stand.
It was October before the trainer finally got him over the injury and ready for his debut. It was humiliating. Our prospective Kentucky Derby winner was beaten 18 lengths by a field of the slowest 2-year-olds in Ohio.
Track conditions can make a horse look bad; so can the wrong post position; so can the wrong kind of ride. Dr. Dubious ran three times at Cleveland, over a fast track, a slow track and a heavy track; from inside, middle and outside post positions; under different jockeys trying all the different skills they knew to get a horse moving. He was three times seventh.
Common sense told us that he was a bum, a dog, a beetle, a pig. But he kept looking at us with those resolute eyes. The hope that springs eternal in the horseman's breast told us that he was simply unable to get himself un-tracked in the deep cushion at ThistleDown. He just needed a hard race track like the one at Tropical Park.
Tropical is 1,250 miles from ThistleDown, and a race horse cannot travel parcel post. Oats, hay and straw, all of which Dr. Dubious requires in large quantities, cost more in Florida than anywhere else in the world. Anybody who ships a horse to Tropical had better win himself some purses or be prepared to hock the family jewels.
The Doc looked good in his morning workouts at Tropical; that fast track really did seem to help him a lot. We got him into a six-furlong race against the cheapest 2-year-olds on the grounds and told the jockey to ride him with confidence. He ran eighth. The only encouraging thing was that he made up 10 lengths on the winner down the stretch. Though I had lost my customary bets, though I had let all my friends and followers down again, I was elated. True to his breeding, the Doc had proved himself a distance horse.
On December 21 we finally sent him out against the cheapest 2-year-olds at Tropical who could even dare hope to stagger as far as a mile and 70 yards. No race was ever to be a softer touch. "What I hate about this," I told the trainer, "is that even after the Doc wins it we won't know whether he's any good or not." I sent a nice bet to the track and sat back to wait the happy news. The Doc could have made a lot of us rich that afternoon.
He was a little closer than usual during the first quarter of the race, promptly dropped back, engaged in a stirring battle for last place and finally finished 11th out of 12, beaten 19 lengths.
Beaten, nothing. He was disgraced. The jockey, dismounting in disgust, said flatly, "This horse isn't worth a quarter." When the remark was transmitted to me by long distance phone, I said amen. Even the most optimistic owner has to quit dreaming eventually. The Doc didn't have any early foot—and he couldn't go a distance, either.
I decided to give him one more chance, and one only. In the meantime I made arrangements with another writer I know, a young woman who has a farm and some riding horses down in Maryland, to give him a home. She said she was willing to pay the Doc's van bill back from Florida and keep him in oats the rest of his life in the hopes that he might be taught to ride to the hounds. She said this, frankly, only after numerous Martinis, and later I felt guilty for having taken her in. Any hound in Maryland, in my opinion, as of that moment, could have outrun the Doc by 20 lengths to the mile.
In the elevator at the office building I met one of my faithful betting followers. "How's everything with the horses?" he asked, and I admitted that things were terrible. The elevator boy misunderstood and asked me in conspiratorial tones, once we were alone on an upper floor, "So you own a horse named Dr. Dubious? Shall I bet him?" I said loud and clear, "Heaven forbid."
I got home that evening and found a card showing that I had a gift subscription for 1960 to that fine breeding publication called The Thoroughbred Record. The donor was, of course, my wife, but she had listed the gift, in some long-gone day of frivolous hope, in the name of Dr. Dubious. I said, "If my young lady friend changes her mind when those Martinis wear off and welshes on her promise to give the Doc a home, this will turn out to be the first Christmas present I ever got from somebody I shot."
You know the rest. The Doc ran against the same kind of horses at the same distance on New Year's Day. As young horses sometimes do, he suddenly found himself. And he proved to be the long shot of long shots at the Tropical meet. He started my stable off for the New Year with a bang. Or did he?
I didn't have a penny bet on him for myself, or for my wife, or for my son, or for my aunt. I didn't alert the widow next door. I scared off all my faithful followers at the office and even the elevator operator and all his friends. My young friend was probably down at her farm that very day getting a stall ready for the vanquished warrior.
The winning horse's share of the purse was $1,350. That will buy a lot of oats. I'm back in business. I've got a horse that has now run a real good race and can be expected to win again. Since I love the horse business, I should be shouting hallelujah.
The trouble is that nobody is speaking to me—not my wife, not my son, not the neighbor lady, not the people at the office, not the elevator operator, probably not my friend either when she finds she cleaned that stall for naught.
I can't blame them. All we had to do was bet $2 to collect $164.40, or $20 to collect $1,644, or—Well, you figure it. I hurt too much from kicking myself.