Even before Billy the fawn and Joe the myna bird and Lucy the sunburned Appaloosa mare got out of bed and made up their faces in the chill autumn morning, horse vans and trailers and trucks were converging on the little racetrack. They came up from Hutchinson, the big town to the south, and down from McPherson, the small town to the north, from Cimarron and Dodge City and Liberal to the west, from Emporia and Chanute and Parsons to the east, from any place in Kansas where men owned horses that they reckoned were faster than their neighbors'. The vans hauled elderly well-traveled Thoroughbreds and spritely naive young Thoroughbreds, palominos and paints, plow horses and quarter horses and show horses and Heinz-57-variety horses, any horses that could earn a buck under their own names or certain aliases. An occasional one would show up in drag, dyed or disguised or wearing a new hairdo so he would not be recognized as a previous winner on the track.
The setting was Hidden Valley Downs, a typical "bush track" out in the middle of Nowhere, Kansas. If you really want to know how to get there—well, you go north from Hutchinson on Route 61 for about nine miles till you come to a crossroads called Medora ("crow-shootin' capital of the Yew-nited States"), where you will spot a blacktop county road leading eastward. You follow this road past a herd of black cows and a field of bursting sorghum, and then you turn south on a sandy road where the signs say "Horse Racing, Horseback Riding, Stables, Trail Rides Every Day" and "Riley's Auto Salvage, We Buy Autos in Any Condition, Used Parts Sold and Installed," and you follow this road across a bumpy spur of the Frisco R.R., past several hundred automobile cadavers rusting in peace, down a lane of sunflowers and into a vaulted copse of Cottonwood and mulberry and elm trees, and there it is, as conspicuous as a still in Harlan County Ky.: Hidden Valley Downs, home of a half-mile racetrack, Billy the fawn, Joe the myna bird and assorted specimens of Kansas wildlife. A sign advises you to "Ring Buzer for Service," and another gives notice that anybody galloping the saddle horses will be charged double. Consider yourself warned.
Hidden Valley Downs is unauthorized, unsanctioned and unknown except to devotees of the bush circuit, which is made up of half-mile tracks in towns like Eureka, Concordia, Emporia and Garden City in Kansas; Woodward, Arnett, Newkirk and Laverne in Oklahoma; Pueblo and Deer Trail in Colorado; Duncan and Douglas in Arizona; and dozens of others, with new ones springing up every year. Bush tracks are places where horsemen race free from the constricting influence of state commissions. Many bush tracks are so relaxed and informal that they will alternate horse races on an outer track with dog races on an inner track, plus an occasional unscheduled match race between horses whose owners have grown sick and tired of each other's bragging, plus a crap game among the exercise boys back at the stable. The main rule at bush tracks is that there are no rules. "That's one of the nice things about it," says Bill Rowland, owner of Hidden Valley Downs. "Our racing isn't cluttered up by a lotta regulations about the fouls and registration and stuff like 'at. It's strictly homemade racing, catch weight and no holds barred. If a man can find hisself a 85-pound jockey, why, power to him! We don't frown on much of anything. What you see here is horse racing in its purest form. At those big regulated tracks, the horses are incidental. Here on the bush tracks, the horses are everything, and the people are incidental."
Bill Rowland is a real estate man by trade, but he bears no more resemblance to your typical junior-chamber-of-commerce, hail-fellow, booster type of real estate man than he does to Hecuba. He was brought up on a Kansas farm. He does not say, "By cracky," and, "Aw, shucks," but you halfway expect him to. His voice has a high, reedy quality to it, a sort of agricultural tenor, and although he has done his fair share of wheeling and dealing, he still manages to project the innocent image of a man who believes that the game with the 15 numbered balls is the devil's tool, not to mention such sinful pastimes as horse racing.
October 31, 1966
"It's really hard to figure how I even started this track," Rowland tried to explain not long ago. "But after a whole lot of negotiating and problems and confusions I woke up one morning and found out that the bank and I were owners of 320 acres of undeveloped ranchland out here in the country, and then one day I was out looking over the place with my brother-in-law and we were standing on a little shaded hillock overlooking a big flat area and all of a sudden I turned to my brother-in-law and I said, 'Pork, I can see it right before my eyes. Here's the bleachers right where we're standing, and out there's the racetrack.'
"And he says, 'Boy, that's sumpin!'
"It just hit me, and I don't know why, me not particularly liking horses. And I had an old road grader, and I hired a man and he bulldozed me out a track in two months. We were lucky, because the sandy soil was just perfect. It's so sandy that this track is fast when it's wet and slow when it's dry; we never have a muddy or sloppy track. After it was finished we had a few races with horses from out around this neighborhood, and we started 'em with a flag, and it was a lotta fun. Then we found out about this eight-horse starting gale that was for sale down below Oklahoma City, and we bought it and towed the thing up here behind a pickup truck. That was a lotta iron to pull, let me tell you! We hauled it down to Main Street in Hutchinson and we put up a sign, 'Horseracing Sunday 2 p.m.," and we been goin' ever since."
Slowly Hidden Valley Downs shaped up in the vision of Bill Rowland. Unlike other bush tracks, which tend to be drab and colorless, this one became a watering place, an Aix-les-Bains on the arid prairie. Rowland dug six ponds and stocked them with 4,000 bass and channel catfish. He laid out riding trails and bought 15 saddle horses, including Lucy, a white Appaloosa mare who has to take sick leave now and then because she sunburns around the eyes. To amuse the children who would be attracted to the place, Rowland acquired a sort of homemade zoo consisting of the horses, Joe the myna bird, a goose, two ducks, a flock of pigeons, three peacocks, Billy the deer, a German shepherd, a Schnauzer, two Herefords and a black cow, and he took steps to protect the natives already in residence: badgers, horned toads, deer, hawks, turtles and a couple of dozen other species. Instead of erecting tasteless boarded grandstands, he laid out 24 long whitewashed benches on the hill overlooking the track, under the shade of a tall stand of elms and cottonwoods. The total effect is of a country track in the East Riding of Yorkshire instead of a bush track in dry and dusty central Kansas.
But the city slicker who stumbles into this pastoral setting of sweetness and simplicity on race day had better keep a firm grasp on his wallet, the rustic atmosphere notwithstanding. All the pet deer and mulberry trees and riding trails in the world cannot obscure the fact that Hidden Valley Downs, like Aqueduct and Epsom and Longchamp, is a place where people go to bet the horses. Pari-mutuel betting is illegal in Kansas, but head-to-head, horse-for-horse betting is so hard to police that it is all but ignored by the authorities in bush-track country. There are certain individuals who have carved out successful financial careers betting on horses in the boondocks, all against a backdrop reminiscent of National Velvet. Look at that dear little boy over there, standing next to his pet palomino, both boy and horse all curried and combed and entered in the 220-yard race for nonwinners on the track. But right behind them is a narrow-eyed fellow in a blue-jean suit and cowboy boots who goes from track to track picking people up by their pockets. He calls a mare a marr, and he likes the horses of a paller-meener keller and he will sit down and viz't with you by the arr, and when you get up you will discover that he has taken your shirt and your vest without disturbing your coat. Until you learn the ropes at the bush tracks, Hidden Valley Downs included, you would be wise to fade no bets. You might think that you're betting against a farm hoss named Old Yaller—that's how he's listed on the program—but after he beats your personal selection by six lengths you find out he is really a registered racehorse on French leave from the big show at Ruidoso (SI, Sept. 26), traveling under a pen name, picking up some loose change for his owner.
On the morning of a recent race day at Hidden Valley, the boys were entering their horses and jawing away in the little office presided over by Joe the myna bird and Ron Stull, who functions as race secretary and announcer on Sundays, Hutchinson stockbroker on weekdays and horse fanatic on anyday. "Whatever I say, that bird contradicts me," Stull complained to Bill Rowland.
"No! No!" the bird squawked. "I don't think so!"
"What d'ya want me to do?" Rowland asked.
"Oh, nothing much. Just cut off his head or something."
"I can't," said Rowland. "He always talks me out of it."
The room was crammed with horse owners in the uniform of the day: jeans, top and bottom, with straw cowboy hats flared straight up above the ears so as to present the least wind resistance in front, and cowboy boots in black or brown. A few wore riding helmets, and one man had on traditional farm-gray pinstripe overalls hanging long and floppy over his high-top work shoes, perhaps to convey a false impression of rusticity. Here in the race office the name of the game was to outwait the other owners, make them show their hands, so you could enter your horse in the most advantageous race. And yet you could not wait too long, else you would be shut out. Owners eyed owners warily and made cautious conversation.
"Whatcha got up at your place? Anything?"
"Yeh, I got a coupla dinks."
"Hey, Ron, you got any slow horse races?"
"Sure. All of 'em."
A young man presented himself at the cluttered desk, and Stull said, "Are you prepared to pay your share of the entry fee for this horse?"
"How much?" the young man asked.
"Two dollars and 15 cents."
"Yeh, Ah guess so."
One voice was dominant in the overstuffed room. Marvin (Gabby) Scott, a traveling hoss-race man from Cimarron, Kans., was living up to his nickname. "Well, they wouldn't tie his tongue, that's why he lost," Gabby was saying. "Any time I run a hoss over a half mile I tie his tongue so he won't swaller it. So this one swallered it and lost the race.... Yeh, I know that old mare of mine needs shoes, but she's going out to pasture tonight and I ain't putting no new shoes on her today!" Gabby, a stubby, friendly man on his way toward rotundity, with a fringe of black hair covering the rear half of his scalp and nothing at all covering the front, had an answer for every question, a counterexperience for every anecdote, and advice for one and all. "Yes, sir," he said by way of showing his credentials, "I rode a Thoroughbred racehorse to school the first three years I went. I didn't have no damn pony. I was 9 before I learned there was any other kind of horse besides Thoroughbreds. You mentioned a quarter horse and my grandpa'd knock you down."
A small commotion preceded the arrival of another delegation of owners into the office. "Well, well," Gabby said in his droning voice, "if it ain't the tall Texan."
A newcomer's face reddened, and he said, "Yeh, I been hearing about this tall Texan stuff, and I'm a-gonna put a end to it right now." He opened a long-bladed clasp knife, clamped his thumb about two inches from the point and waved it toward Gabby's ample stomach. Both men smiled slightly, but there was an undertone of clear and present danger that made onlookers drift back toward the walls.
"Go get the gun!" Gabby said. "We'll shoot him and tell God he died!"
The man pressed the knife against Gabby's midsection, and the smiles grew more forced all around, and the man said, "I'm a-gonna gut the next one calls me a Texan."
Gabby laughed. "Well, you are a Texan," he said.
"Yeh? Go out there and look at the license plates on my car. I'm a Arizonian." Then the man stomped out of the office and said loudly to a companion, "I ain't kiddin'. I'm a-gonna geld one a them bastarts they keep callin' me a tall Texan!"
After the man had left, Gabby said, "He runs a good bluff."
Underneath an elm tree a skinny sorrel Thoroughbred named Little Bopper was tied to the back of his van by a short rope, and he was showing his annoyance by trying to paw a hole through to China. "If they's one thing a Thoroughbred can't stand to do, it's be still," a man said. Little Bopper snorted loudly and rolled his eyes as though he could not wait for the race to start. "Lookee him," said the man. "He thinks he's Whirlaway."
Off to one side casting admiring glances at the animal was Stan Goble, a 235-pound stock clerk at a Hutchinson aircraft plant and the prime mover in an eight-man syndicate that had bought Little Bopper three weeks before for $200, or $25 apiece. For seven years the handsome horse had been knocking around the country, racing here and there, getting retired to pasture, trying again and failing again, and now Stan Goble and his fellow pump assemblers and clerks and welders and office workers were going to make something out of him. "He's a lot better horse'n what everybody thinks he is," said Stan, a balding man with a smile that makes the lilacs want to grow and a tendency to make jokes at his own expense. "He just hasn't been trained right. He's not wild, but he's what you'd call an untrained horse. The first day I run him I had to put the saddle on backward so I could breathe, he was running so fast. He was nearly starved when we bought him, ribs stickin' out something pathetic. We've put a little weight on him, feedin' him four gallon of grain a day. He's got the speed, but he needs to learn how to behave. Last guy that owned him, he took him down to Newkirk and he run pretty good for 350 yards, and then he came to the curve and he just didn't know what to do. Turned out he'd always been trained on a straight road. See, a lot of guys in this part of the country haven't got any place to train a horse on a curve. They just train 'em beside their car.
"First time he raced here at Hidden Valley, him and another horse both broke on the same turn and threw their jocks, one over the rail and one under. But he's got the pure speed. Soon's we can train him to run around curves, he'll start makin' us some money. The idea is to build him up with a lot of wins and then sell him at a good price. If he can win at Hidden Valley, he can win at just about any bush track, and then maybe we'd take him to Ak-Sar-Ben in Nebraska or Centennial in Denver, some of those big-time Thoroughbred tracks. Why, I know one old boy that comes out here, he took his horse to Nebraska and won himself $700 in one race! Seven hundred dollars!" Stan and his seven associates permit themselves an occasional dream.
Ron Stull and Bill Rowland and the rest of the bush-trackers talk about their horses the way baseball fans talk about Joe DiMaggio and Ducky Medwick. "Oh, there's been some scorpions around here on these tracks!" Stull said. "Famous horses, too, horses that could have made a fortune on the big tracks, and some of them did, in their spare time. There was one called Black Gold, raised by an Indian down by Pawhuska. He outrun everything on the bush tracks and then won the Kentucky Derby. Horses like Tonto Sam, he's still going, beating everybody, and Shue Fly, out in New Mexico, she ran on bush tracks from Dodge to California and down into Texas and even Old Mexico, and she never won a race by more'n a neck, and she hardly ever got outrun, either. Just enough to keep the bets coming in. They used to call her the Queen of the Straightaways.
"There was another famous horse, a stud named Plowshare, owned by the Wheatcroft family of Kansas, and people said you could breed Plowshare to a boxcar and get a racehorse. He was a sprinting Thoroughbred, and he sired a lot of great bush-track horses out of just any kind of mare. And there was Clabber, they called him the iron horse. They'd race him three times a week, breed 10 mares to him and use him on the ranch to work cattle. And Gabby Scott had himself a mare called Cimarron Miss, a registered Thoroughbred that run everywhere, from 220 yards to a mile, and outrun everything in sight, and he'd run her at the regular track in Denver all summer and then all winter long on the bush tracks. She was probably the greatest Thoroughbred bush-track mare in this country. And there's the big quarter horse that's racing here today, The Martian. His owner bought him at a sale, dying of distemper, paid $135 for him. And the horse barely had the strength to walk home. Now he's a healthy 4-year-old and won seven races already this year. He's a big sorrel quarter horse, and he's helping put somebody through college. What a scorpion!
"We get a lot of old horses that come off the regular tracks, especially geldings that won't be any good for breeding stock, 8 or 9 years old, and they make more money on the bush tracks than they can on the others because of the added gambling on the side and because they don't have to be kept in as good shape as they would at a big track. And we also get some very fast horses that can't run on quarter-horse tracks or at Thoroughbred tracks because (heir breeding is mixed up and they can't be registered as either one or the other. All they are is fast."
"I happen to know," said Gabby Scott, who happens to know an encyclopedia of information about bush-tracking, having devoted his life to the art, "that horses are all the time being sneaked in here from the big tracks, dropped down and given a new name, and they pick up $500, $600 in these races and then go right back up to the big tracks again. They'll show up and win some county-fair derby by eight lengths, and then you'll never see them again. Why, the other day when I win the derby at Deer Trail, Colo, with my horse, Beauty's Watch, there was three horses they hauled down from the track at Denver, and none of 'em under their real names. But I fooled 'em. I beat 'em all."
"A lot of times they'll use different names when they're trying out young Thoroughbreds on our tracks," Bill Rowland put in. "So if the horse does real well and they decide to take him to Raton or to Denver they'll get a lot better odds out there. If the horse is run at Hidden Valley as Old Yaller and he wins a lot of races and all of a sudden he goes out to Raton and really does something under the name of Yellow Goldie, well, he does it with good odds. The owner can bet $5,000 on his own horse and get a price, because nobody knows he's been running on the bush tracks and beating everything around. On the big track he's just another first-time starter."
As the announcer and resident horse expert, Stockbroker Stull is seldom fooled by a ringer, but his policy is to call a horse by whatever name the owner has selected for the occasion. "I go along with 'em," Stull says, "but if anybody's standing around and asks me if I know the horse, of course, I'll always tell 'em the true facts. But if somebody wants to bring the Kentucky Derby winner here and race him as Old Yaller, I won't announce it to the crowd. On the bush tracks it's the owner's business, whatever he wants to do."
Every now and then Stull will forget to call a horse by his stage name, and the error is just as embarrassing to him as it is to the owner. "About two months ago we had two ringers in one race, and it was a hell of a good race," Stull recalled, "and toward the finish I got excited and I was thinking about the horses under their real names and I announced, Tonto Sam's out in front!' and Tonto Sam wasn't even supposed to be in the race. They were calling him Sam II that day. And The Martian was in the race, too, but they were calling him Little Red. I knew who he was the minute I saw him, but The Martian's a kind of nondescript horse you wouldn't remember from one race to the next, so he fooled a lot of people. After the race I got kidded something awful.
"It's tougher to fake a horse's name if he's a standout-looking horse. That's why your ideal bush-track horse is ugly and spindly and has poor conformation and runs like hell. Then you can get bets on him, and as soon as he gets a reputation you can change his name and do the same thing all over again. It's not so easy with a horse like, say, Kansas Badger. He was an old gray, one of the greatest bush-track horses, but he was a striking-looking horse and everybody that ever saw him remembered him. His owner tried running him under assumed names a couple of times, but it never really worked. Nobody would bet against him."
"Hell, the last day of the meeting at Anthony this year," Gabby Scott said, "somebody tried to enter a 7-year-old stud horse in a race for 3-year-old fillies. They put blinkers and a shadow roll on him to fool people, but somebody happened to notice that his plumbing was a little obsolete for what he pretended to be. Hell, they got him to the gate, and then they had to back him out. They had a $100 bet with the book, but they got their money back."
"Yeh," said Stull. "I heard about that. They tell me it was a plan conceived over a tub of Old Charter."
"Hell, they even dye 'em once in a while," Gabby went on. "A little shoe polish here and there is O.K. if they don't start sniffing around your horse. Or you can use dye. No, I ain't never seen a whole horse dyed, but I have seen it done to a good percentage of a horse."
"How about our Appaloosa race this year?" Rowland was reminded. Several weeks before, Ron Stull had entered his own Appaloosa, Weigh Behind, once a world-record holder for a half mile and 70 yards, in a special race for Appaloosas only at Hidden Valley Downs. Just before the race began, one owner got permission to withdraw his Appaloosa and substitute another. "I was up at the announcer's stand getting ready to call the race," Stull said, "and I knew I couldn't lose. There wasn't an Appaloosa in this part of the country that could outrun mine. Then all of a sudden I saw somebody leading a horse into the gate, and it wasn't an Appaloosa. I'd seen the horse before. It was a registered Thoroughbred, a son of Hannibal, and Hannibal was one of the great broodmare sires of Kentucky for Thoroughbreds. The horse was black, only now he had about 15 perfect-circle spots on him, remotely like an Appaloosa. Only the spots were red on black, and there never was an Appaloosa looked like that.
"So I hollered to my wife to go tell the race director there was a ringer in the race—you know, it's one thing to put a horse in under a phony name, but it's another thing to stick a Thoroughbred in an Appaloosa race—but there was some confusion and the horses got off, and of course this big colt beat everything easily."
The measure of the bush-track attitude of laissez-faire is that no one was incensed at the man who entered the ringer, at least at the outset. "We all thought it was kinda funny," Bill Rowland said, "and we wouldn't have done anything drastic if the owner'd just admitted after the race that it was all a joke and told us to give the money to the second-place horse. But he just lied and lied continually and got mad at us for accusing him and lost his temper and never admitted a thing. Hasn't yet! We barred him indefinitely. Later on I made a little investigation, and I talked to the beauty operator that told him what to use to spot the horse, and then I found out where he got the stuff. It wasn't peroxide; it was something even better."
"I'll tell you how good the stuff was," said Gabby. "I seen that horse since then and they still haven't been able to wash them spots out. They've tried everything. But, personally, I can't get too mad about what he done. You got to do something to make it on these bush tracks. Hell, it costs quite a bit to take a bunch of horses out on the road. It costs me $100 a month on the road to feed a horse and shoe 'im and doctor 'im, and you got to do something to come out ahead.
"Now, you take that big old bay horse I've got ready to run here. He's a registered Thoroughbred, name of Beauty's Watch, and he's 8 years old. I've run him under Big John, Clijah, Willie Make It, Little Brown, B. Watch, half a dozen other names. Some people recognize him as Beauty's Watch, and then they don't bet me, or they change their bets accordingly. When I run this horse at Anthony this year I called him Mr. Kingman, after my partner, and nobody knew him at all. They keep the bookie right by the paddock in Anthony, and I had this guy waiting in line as soon as the book opened. The bookie didn't know my horse by the name Mr. Kingman, but he knew all the other horses in the race, and there was some pretty good ones. So he opens my horse at 5 to 1 to win, 3 to 1 to place and even money to show. So my man bet $50 across the board. Soon as we made the bet the bookie dropped the price right away, and then when I came in leading the horse at the last minute he recognized that Mr. Kingman was Beauty's Watch, and he came running over to the officials and he says, 'That ain't Mr. Kingman, that's Beauty's Watch.' And I said, 'I just bought the horse, and I can call him anything I want to call him.' And when he won there wasn't nothin' for the bookie to do but pay up."
Bill Rowland suddenly leaned forward in his chair and laughed. "I was down at Anthony during the racing, and I remember Mr. Kingman now. Yes, sir, I sure do!" he said. "Why, you run him three, four days later as Mr. Kingman, and everybody came to me and said, 'Bet on that Mr. Kingman, he's some horse,' and I bet on him and he came in third!"
"Sure, he come in third," Gabby said between guffaws. "We was pulling him that time. See, we had two horses in that race, me and my cousin, only nobody knew we were working together. We bet on the other horse and held back Mr. Kingman, I mean Beauty's Watch. We beat the bookies, and we beat the crowd. My cousin went through the crowd, and here and there somebody'd say, 'I'll take Mr. Kingman and give you the field,' and he'd take some of that till he had a hundred or so bet through the crowd. We knew Mr. Kingman wasn't gonna win.
"Everybody pulls horses," Gabby went on in his customary nonstop manner. "I carry, say, four, five, six horses along, and I usually got one horse I'm cheatin' with all the time. I give $55 for Lon's Lad in California, and he had a bowed tendon and I turned him out to pasture for a year and a half. Then I brought him to Arizona and I worked him out in the river bottom, never took him near the racetrack for about 40 days. Then I pulled him four straight times in the races. The first time I let him win he paid $60, and I won $1,185 on him. I made my winter's wages right there. Why, here he paid $20 the second time I won with him. Everybody thought the first win was a fluke.
"I've always got one horse I'm cheat-in' with, one horse to gamble with. The next time I go I'll maybe use another horse, change horses at different meets. In Arizona that year I ended up winning nine races with Lon's Lad, and then they claimed him from me for $1,500. He made me about $6,000."
Lest anyone get the idea that Marvin Scott sees horses only as big meaty dollar signs, let it be understood that there is an emotional side to him as well. Gabby can talk for hours about his grandfather, Guy Scott of Cimarron, one of the famous bush-trackers of his day: "He probably win more races on the bush tracks than any man living. My grandfather raced Thoroughbred racehorses for 55 years before he passed away." Several years ago Gabby's father and two uncles put up a Guy Scott Memorial Award, a fancy blanket, for the derby at Dighton, Kans., where their father's horses had won dozens of times. "I was down in Tucson, Ariz. with some racehorses at the time," Gabby recalled, "and I hauled a racehorse named Little Heel 1,200 miles all the way to Dighton just to win that blanket, 'cause I wanted that blanket. I've got it at home now. It's got wrote on it, 'Guy Scott Memorial, Dighton, American Legion Race Meet, 1963,' on it. I wanted it for my own keepsake."
Gabby is a refreshingly untroubled person, but he does admit to one annoyance: the distrust and cynicism he finds in some racetrackers. "I'm truly surprised at the way people act sometimes. There was a man I'd raced against for years, and he had a real good 3-year-old colt and he entered him in a 2-year-old race this summer, down at Burden, Kansas. So I had a 3-year-old colt, too, and I put him in the same race. And when I outrun his horse, he went and turned me in! So they came over and mouthed my horse, and 'course he had a 3-year-old mouth, there wasn't no doubt about that. So I said, 'Being's we're gonna mouth mine, let's just mouth the rest of 'em.' So they found out his colt was a 3-year-old, and he got throwed out, too! Served him right. But I just get mad about things like that. Why, the other day this old boy that's done everything in racing, I mean he's dyed 'em, pulled 'em, doped 'em, everything they is, he come up to me and he said, 'That's gonna be the ruination of racing, the way you run your horses under different names.' He said, 'That's gonna ruin the future of pari-mutuel racing in Kansas.' I said, 'When I go to the big tracks I do what everybody else does. I register my horses, get 'em tested, everything else. But when I'm around the bush tracks I can do anything I want to.' And I can. That's what I like about the bush tracks. You don't have a whole bunch of formality."
What with all the owners trying to outwait each other for the privilege of entering their horses last, the first race at Hidden Valley Downs got off an hour and 15 minutes late, the usual delay. By the time Ron Stull announced the post parade for the first event, the horsemen's section of the track was littered with rolling stock from Cadillacs to old Ford pickups, from expensive horse-hauling rigs to others made of flatbed trucks and sheeting, with the south ends of horses peeking demurely out of them. "Sorrier looking the rig, the carefuller you better be about betting against the horse," said an oldtimer. "Wouldn't surprise me none to see Equipoise back outa one a them old rigs!"
A cold north wind, the first of the fall, blew down to chill the gray day. Dust and sand and icy little spits of rain filled the air, and tumbleweed blew down the track in long loops, going faster than the horses warming up, making some of them shy and falter. A tattooed man galloped a saddle horse up and down the roadway where the spectators could see him: he was the bush-track counterpart of the man who drives his Porsche 80 miles an hour en route to the Indianapolis 500. A small blonde woman with a rainbow-hued shiner led a horse toward the paddock. Seven people shivered on the white benches overlooking the finish line, and three dozen cars were lined up along the rail. "Cold today, hot yestiddy," a man said. "Y'either freeze or burn, one." Announcer Stull attempted to make a virtue of the weather. "It's a brisk, windy, racehorse kind of a day," he said by way of opening remarks on the P. A. system. Long after the scheduled time for the first race, horsemen were straggling down the track to take up their positions. "You can't hurry horsemen," Stull said cheerily. A horse galloped in front of the stand, and whirling flights of sand and dust were swept away on the wind with each footstep: cameos of Kansas history. "All right," Stull announced, "let's get started. We forgot the bugle, so there won't be any post calls today. You might see racing at Centennial, but you'll never see better-bred horses than right here today at Hidden Valley Downs." Three jockeys, the only ones who had shown up, mounted their horses for the opener. There were Frank Davis, who owns horses, trains them and rides them, and runs a gas station on the side; Ivan Cunningham, a professional jockey on the far side of his career, and Carl Terrell, a 120-pound sheet-metal worker from Wichita who picks up extra cash by racing on weekends ($5 for riding and $5 extra for winning, plus occasional tips from big winners).
For those customers accustomed to races of five furlongs and up, the quarter-mile scamper down the straightaway seemed to be over before it started. One horse cut off the others at the start, then squeezed through a needle-narrow opening halfway down the course and moved away to win easily. One of Bill Rowland's neighbors took a Polaroid picture of the finish, for the benefit of the three official judges, also neighbors, but there was no doubt of the finish, nor was there any doubt that an inquiry sign would have gone up immediately if there had been an inquiry sign, if there had been a film patrol, if the track enforced fouls, if.... "There isn't any way you can call fouls on the bush tracks," Stull explained. "If you call 'em, you just cause more trouble. Anyway, things run pretty much according to Hoyle here. The jockeys know that if they foul they're gonna be fouled right back in the next race. They enforce things themselves. We let "em get their justice on the track."
The second race was over five-eighths of a mile, or a little more than once around the track, and insiders knew that the best of the three entries was a bay gelding listed in the program as "B. Watch" and owned by one Marvin Scott of Cimarron. From the beginning, however, it was plain that, win or lose, this was not going to be Gabby's day. The night before the race, enjoying a session of rest and rehabilitation at the Brown Wheel spa in Hutchinson, Gabby had been taken with a small case of overindulgence, which ended only when he ran out of pocket money and returned to his camper for a few hours' sleep. Now Gabby led Beauty's Watch into the makeshift paddock in the infield, miscalculated the width of the opening and backed the horse into a sharp pole. Beauty's Watch reared, and Gabby had to take a firm hold on the horse's ear to control him. From then on, every step was a battle royal. Soon Gabby was holding the horse by the nostrils, whereupon the excited animal bit his tongue and, to Gabby's dismay, started to bleed from the mouth. "That horse can outrun anything if he gets saddled up O.K.," said one of the overalled derelicts standing next to the paddock, "but he's got his head blowed off now."
Finally the three horses, all of them acting a little rank, were crabbing sideways down the track toward the starting gate. Beauty's Watch, or "B. Watch," tried to unload Jockey Terrell just before going into the gate, and then broke cleanly and on top, like the old pro he was. Terrell dropped him off the pace, moved him back into the lead at the second turn, got squeezed tightly between two horses and dropped back again, and finally took off in the stretch to win by a length going away.
Gabby had an unhappy look as he walked out to retrieve his fractious winner. He explained that in all the excitement of saddling up, he had failed to get a bet. He took the reins and began righting the excited horse all over again. "Quiet, you bastard!" Gabby said. "I don't know what's making you so ornery today, you old son of a bitch!" Winning trainer and winning horse posed uncomfortably for pictures and then headed off into the distance in squirming concert, Gabby jerking and pulling at the horse, the horse rearing and fussing at Gabby. "Who's leading who?" a spectator cracked as Beauty's Watch took a three-foot lead on the struggling owner. "Man," said an exercise boy, "Gabby musta stuck the needle in too far today."
"Musta give him the whole drugstore," said someone else.
The precise nature of the betting at bush tracks was not manifest until several races had gone by. In the first place, Hidden Valley Downs is not one of the big-betting bush tracks. It is still in its first season, and Bill Rowland is a careful man, and all the big gamblers know that if any of them showed up with a chalked handbook alongside the paddock, the way they do at Burden and Anthony and Woodward, why, Bill Rowland would throw them out. The betting takes more subtle forms at Hidden Valley Downs. A man walks through the crowd muttering, "I'll take B. Watch and give the field," and somebody else will hold up five fingers, and the bet is on.
The old pros, the gamblers who follow the bush tracks and are loosely described as "the vultures," stood in a blue-jeaned knot behind the spectators and, because of the paucity of the crowd, spent most of the afternoon cutting themselves up financially. "When those guys hustle each other," said a local journalist, "only mankind can benefit." Everyone missed the presence of master bettors (and master horsemen) like the renowned Andy West, owner of Tonto Sam, the bush-track Citation. "If Andy was here, you'd see some action," said one of the racetrack habitués. "He goes through the crowd with a big roll of bills in his hand, and he's so clever that it's pret' near impossible to outcon him on a bet. He'll stand there and he'll say, 'I take Tonto Sam against the whole field,' and then he'll call out the names of the other horses one by one and maybe say a word or two about them, till somebody gets tempted, or he'll take Tonto Sam and give you daylight, meaning Tonto Sam has to open up daylight between himself and your horse or he'll offer that his horse'll be ahead by two lengths at the halfway mark, and stuff" like that. Dozens and dozens of different bets, and he's a pretty well-educated guy about horsemen as well as horses. I'll tell you, the people that follow the bush tracks, the real professional bettors, they very seldom go against Tonto Sam or Andy West unless he gives 'em at least daylight."
"This spring at Cimarron," Ron Stull said, "they were running some schooling races, and this stranger pulled in from Canadian, Texas with a little mare that none of them knew. Andy West was there with five horses, and this stranger started complaining about the gates and the track and everything else and bragging on his own horse and making himself pretty obnoxious. Finally he said, 'Hell, there isn't any use unloading my mare, there isn't anything around here that could give her a race.'
"And by this time Andy was tired of it, and he said, 'Listen here, I've taken about all of that Texas lip I'm gonna take. I'll tell you what we're gonna do. I'll run yeh any damn distance you want to run. You name it, and old Sam'll take you on.' And the Texan said, 'How much do we bet?' And Andy West said, 'A dollar a yard!' Soon after that the Texan left a lot quieter than he came. After he drove off Andy West said, 'Boy, I'm glad he didn't take me up on it, 'cause I looked at that mare of his and she looked like a scorpion!' "
Every now and then someone like the Texan will show up on race day, sometimes going to outlandish lengths to conceal his purpose, and make a killing at the expense of the locals. One of the most recent was a stranger who appeared pulling a battered old horse trailer with "Simon Rents" labeled on the side. "Here comes this guy with a one-horse rented trailer with dents all over it," said Ron Stull, "and he didn't even unload his horse. He pulled into the infield and then strutted around in his white shirt and oxfords and no hat, looking just like an amateur, and a little while later he unloaded his horse and won the race and left with all the money. His rig didn't look so amateur then."
For the most part, the professional gamblers of the bush-track circuit make their living by exploiting a few simple facts of human behavior. "There's a lot of people just can't resist taking the field against one horse," one observer explained, "and that's what you usually offer them, expecially if you know your horse has a lock on the race. They figure they've got six or seven horses to your one. That looks good to 'em. And if you've been around horse people you know there's a disease called "owner's blindness.' These men'll pretty nearly always bet on their own horses or their friends' horses, even though actually deep down they know they only have a ghost of a chance. And the pro gamblers skim that loyalty money right off the top when they're out getting bets. After they get all the loyalty money, they start trying to make goad bets, getting people sore enough to accept foolish bets. It's not a bit different than pool hustling. Matter of fact, you go around the pool halls in the dead of winter and you'll see a lot of these same guys. They'll hustle anything—pool, horses, even license numbers. Vultures, that's all they are."
By the fifth race of the blustery afternoon, Stan Goble was in a horseman's heaven of anticipation. Little Bopper was to go three-eighths of a mile against Ron Stull's Weigh Behind, a colt named Jay Bar Do and a mare owned by Gabby Scott and entered under the name Blondie. None of the horses was a winner over the distance at Hidden Valley, and Stan Goble figured that right here and now was the time to show that his training methods were going to pay off. What he did not know, as he saddled Little Bopper in the paddock and boosted the jockey up, was that Blondie was running under an alias, that her Christian name was Dee Van 2, that she had already won 10 or a dozen races during the season and that the distance was perfect for her.
The horses went out on the course, and for the first time that day at Hidden Valley spectators saw a touch of genuine class: one of the horses had an outrider! There he was, Stan Goble, all 235 pounds of him, giving last-minute instructions to the jockey and last-minute encouragement to the horse. Stan and his saddle horse led Little Bopper all the way to the starting gate and then backed off to watch.
"Blondie's in the gate," Ron Stull's amplified voice intoned across the meadow. "Weigh Behind's in. There's Little Bopper in the gate. Here's Jay Bar Do ready to come a-runnin'. Watch these horses break outa this gate like a bat outa Carlsbad.... And here they come! Blondie broke out on top, Jay Bar Do second on the inside, Little Bopper third. Weigh Behind last.... Here they come around the far turn, and it's Blondie on the inside, and here comes Jay Bar Do on the outside, Little Bopper in the middle and making a move! As they come down the stretch it's Blondie out in front by two lengths, and now Little Bopper's taking Jay Bar Do! Blondie is the winner in 33.8 seconds, and second is Little Bopper!
Stan Goble galloped down the track to retrieve his horse, glorious second-place finisher in a glorious race! The track broke precedent and allowed the place horse to stand in the winner's circle for an official Polaroid photo. Marvin Scott and first-place Dee Van 2, also doing business as Gabby and Blondie, were all but forgotten. Stan stood to one side for the ceremony and talked to his horse. "Hold your head up!" he instructed. "You're a celebrity now!" Stan said he was a little overexcited "because a lot of the guys at the plant want to get in on this horse, but they just wanted to wait to see how this race turned out." Stan said he didn't think he would quit his job yet, but that the horse business showed promise. Then he threw a fancy blanket over Little Bopper and remained conspicuously in the infield, hot-walking his horse, while other bush trackers shouted, "Nice race, Stan! Looked good, Stan! Gonna be a winner, Stan!" The world's happiest hot-walker, outrider, trainer, owner and stock clerk said he figured that Little Bopper had every opportunity to become a scorpion.
Later Ron Stull and Bill Rowland were putting together some figures in the tiny track office. The total receipts were $399, of which $218 was returned to the horsemen. They figured there were about 300 spectators in all, give or take a hundred or so, and the admission fee was $1, but most of the spectators were also horsemen and, for each horse brought into the track, two horsemen were allowed in free, so the gate receipts on this brisk fall day were not going to brighten Bill Rowland's retirement plans. The total gross profit, before paying the folks at the soft-drink stand and the ticket-takers at the entrance and various other employees, was $181.
As for Stan Goble and his syndicate, they had won $18 for placing in the fifth race, but their entry fee had been $17 and their jockey fee another $5; so each syndicate member wound up losing 50¢ on the day, or, as Stan Goble put it, "a lot less'n we'd a spent if we'd a gone bowling."
Just as the last glimmer of day disappeared behind the sorghum field to the west, Gabby Scott wobbled into the track office and informed the officials that he was awful tired of fighting his horse and his headache and wondered if he could get paid off. "I got a long way to drive tonight," he explained. He had won two first-place purses, plus a $10 side bet on Blondie, for a profit of $60, which he would have to split later with his partner. For that, he had driven 300 miles hauling two horses, slept two nights in his camper, spent all his pocket money in the Brown Wheel and almost got gutted by the tall Texan that is, the tall Arizonan. As he walked in his rolling gait back to his camper and his two-horse van, Gabby said he did not begrudge Hidden Valley Downs all his time and expense and trouble. Hidden Valley Downs needed him, he said, and he needed Hidden Valley Downs, and anything that he could do to help racing he would gladly do all over again. One of the horses whinnied from the van, and Gabby put the camper into gear for the long haul home to Cimarron.