In the Cadillac Jesse Davidson's pale face was indistinct, blurred by shadows from the late September dusk in West Virginia. His voice was animated, even exultant, as if he were revealing for the first time an ultimate truth of life. "In 40 mile of here, there ain't a place don't know me by my face," he said. "If I left my wallet home and didn't have a nickel in my pocket there ain't a place inside 40 mile that they wouldn't give me credit and trust me for it. I'm known. It's what I got here that I don't have anywhere else."
The Cadillac rolled along a twisting two-lane highway. Far off, the humped Blue Ridge Mountains turned black as the sun dropped behind them, and on nearby rolling pastures, cows grazed in the gloom. Weeds and bushes growing close along the roadside made a dark corridor for the Cadillac; the bushes shook violently in the windy wake of the car.
Jesse Davidson is a jockey, a good one, and he was going to the Charles Town races to ride six horses; he had already ridden three that afternoon at the Hagerstown (Md.) racetrack. At the wheel of the Cadillac, which belongs to Jesse Davidson, was a plump and jolly little man named Charley Baker; he used to be a jockey, too, but he had such trouble keeping his weight down that he became an agent. He now makes his living getting horses for Jesse Davidson to ride—"the greates' horses for the greates' jockey, by God," Charley Baker likes to say.
The Cadillac dropped into a sharp dip in the road, then fled around a curve. Charley Baker suddenly leaned forward, peering out the windshield, and said, "Hey, Jess, what that man sittin' there for?" The car approached a railroad crossing and, in the twilight, a figure could be seen slumped atop a fence at the edge of the tracks. A man, wearing overalls and very much at ease, was perched there—probably to gaze lazily at whatever cars came past that evening, or perhaps even to watch a train go by in the dark. Jesse Davidson said, "I dunno why he's settin' there, but someone always sets up there. They say if you ride by here and a colored boy raises his hand at you, then you win five races." Baker said, "He didn't raise no hand at you, Jess." Davidson replied, "It don't matter. He's a white boy."
December 4, 1967
As the headlights flashed across the man on the fence, Jesse Davidson looked closely at him; he was unshaven and his overalls were torn at one knee. The Cadillac bumped across the tracks and Davidson said, "People around here ain't got much for bettin'. Or for anything else either. It gets to be real thin pickin's. I ain't complainin' cuz it's been good to me. But it ain't for a lot of 'em." Charley Baker looked across the darkened front seat and shouted, "Hey, you ol' sonabitch, Jess! You know, your on'y trouble is you cain't ride. You jest cain't ride, boy." They chuckled and Baker whooped, "Man, you did good this afternoon, huh, Jess? Huh? You ride three and you win three. Hey, Jess, you cain't do no better'n that, huh, Jess?" Davidson said, "Yeah, I did good. Think I'll go six for six tonight?"
Jesse Davidson, 27, is a hard-scrabble rider with near-demonic dedication to working his trade. His face is wan and gaunt, although the features are clean and almost boyish; there are always purplish smudges beneath his eyes, and at times his eyes burn in a gaze that seems haunted by private horrors, although it is only fatigue. He puts himself through a wracking daily routine in which he rides all the mounts he can get at two tracks—Maryland in afternoons, the Charles Town Race Course or Shenandoah Downs (both in Charles Town, W. Va.) nights under the floodlights. In 1965 that combination of sunshine-moonlight riding made him the winningest jockey in America. Though his name did not become a byword along Broad-way, he is somewhat celebrated in his home territory. Indeed, he carries a loaded .38 pistol in his glove compartment because juiced-up hillbilly hoodlums have been known to recognize him driving late at night and try to ram his car off the road and rob him. As he said, "They all know me by my face."
Davidson rides a circuit in the dim nether leagues of horse racing—in a section of the U.S. rich in history but rather poor in productive prosperity. Not far from Davidson's home in Hagerstown lies the Antietam Battlefield where Union troops repelled Lee's first thrust into the North. And over South Mountain is Frederick, Md. where 90-year-old Barbara Frietchie poked an old gray head out an attic window and into Civil War legend.
But the stoop-shouldered look of the mountains in these parts is symbolic of the weary laboring life of many people who live there. This is that section of the middle-eastern U.S. where the Blue Ridge and Appalachian ranges intercept, where the points and corners of West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania jigsaw together. It is on the lip of Appalachia, the bleak region that has come to be a synonym for outland American poverty. And at the tracks Jesse Davidson rides—Hagerstown, Timonium, Marlboro in Maryland; Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs in West Virginia—it is not hard to see the marks of Appalachia on the crowds.
There seem to be more bib overalls and tattered sweaters than crackerjack plaid sportcoats lined up at the pari-mutuel windows. Li'l Abner grammar is rampant ("That hoss, he win wif his nose, wif his nose just he win!"). Again and again there is that rude surprise so common in deprived regions when a reasonably handsome woman suddenly smiles and displays an awful gap of black in her front teeth. There is an obvious irony, too, in the traditional regal trappings of racing set against such a background. It is all there, of course, the majestic stuff preferred by dukes and earls: brilliant jockey silks, trumpet call to the post, dignified paddock-to-track parade behind a scarlet-coated rider. But you watch it from beneath a grandstand roof that has the look of tin and you sit on a wooden folding chair stamped with something like "Property of the Hagerstown Fair Association," with a view of a smokestack just beyond the track billowing some kind of murky waste into the sky. And next to you, perhaps, is a whiskery mountain man who says that he will bet on a horse called Bus Driver because driving a bus is the job he'd want if he wanted a job.
Some of Jesse Davidson's tracks—Hagerstown and Marlboro, for example—are relatively seedy, with yawning grandstands built of bare girders, cement blocks and corrugated iron. In the infields there are neither great beds of flowers nor Hocks of flamingos; only a scruffy carpet of weeds. And the buildings along the way from the parking lot bear dim and weathered signs saying PRODUCE or LIVESTOCK, a mark of the days when a champion rutabaga or a blue-ribbon rooster was almost as big a draw as the freak show on a county fair midway. Some of the tracks in Davidson's world—Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs—are a bit glossier, with glassed-in stands and fresh paint on the walls.
All of the tracks on Jesse Davidson's circuit are "half-L milers" (actually they range from ‚Öù to ¾ of a mile around). Naturally, the turns are sharper and the stretches shorter, and they are generally narrower than the mile ovals that grace the classier layouts in the region—Laurel or Pimlico near Baltimore and Delaware Park in Wilmington. But the really significant difference between the half-milers and the milers is neither the length of the track nor the native tackiness of the environment.
It is the money. For the purses waiting at the end of Davidson's races are exceedingly puny, often no more than $1,000 (the average purse at Aqueduct is more than $7,000, at Laurel more than $5,000). The betting handle for a whole nine-race program at Hagerstown or Marlboro seldom totals as much as the big-league bettors put on a single race at Hialeah. When Davidson won the 1965 national title for winners (319), his purses totaled $465,959. Braulio Baeza, racing's No. 1 money winner (and Buckpasser's jockey) that year, earned more than $2,500,000 in purses, while riding 49 fewer winners.
Jesse Davidson's scene is bush, all right. People say that maybe one-third of the owners who enter mounts on the half-milers have a stable of one horse—no more. They say that a sizable percentage of the jockeys' agents consists of renegade bartenders, gas station attendants and truck drivers who get their agent's license largely because it guarantees a free pass to the track. And at least half of the jockeys are angry, hungry little men who barely manage to subsist by betting (or peddling) tips or by taking menial part-time work. People around the half-milers love to tell about two women who took a cab to one track, got a hot tip from their cabby and bet it in the second race. They watched gleefully as the horse won, then one turned, flabbergasted, to the other and said, "My God, Florence, our taxi driver just rode our winner!"
There is a lot of racing like that around the country—at places like Park Jefferson in South Dakota, Pikes Peak Meadows in Colorado, Yakima Meadows in Washington. Not all of these tracks have Appalachia over the hill beyond the parking lot, but generally they do feature poverty's purses, bargain horses and a whole tattered cavalry of jockeys who are odds-on to climb aboard a farm tractor or a forklift truck before they ever mount an entry in a classic race. For most riders these small-time circuits offer no more than a bitter hint of the "real" world of horse racing, where, at least, the silks are neither faded nor frayed, and where there is always hot water in the jockeys' room showers. The jet-set scene of the millionaires—Shoemaker, Baeza, Hartack—is the other side of the moon.
All riders in the bushes—even the thimbleful of them who have done well enough to afford a Cadillac like Jesse Davidson's—spend endless hours away from the track talking wistfully, almost painfully, about the day when they will "go to The Races." You hear them talk about The Races over a vodka and Coke in the morning at a sour-smelling bar near the track. Or while eating a soggy club sandwich next to the inevitable catsup-bottle-and-napkin-holder table decor of a roadside greasy spoon. Or sipping Scotch from a water tumbler at 1 a.m. in a nightclub built of concrete blocks. Always it is The Races. Always the words somehow come out capitalized; they have a hallowed sound. The Races doesn't necessarily mean the Kentucky Derby; any track that's better than the one a jockey's on means The Races.
In Jesse Davidson's Cadillac that night in September, Charley Baker suddenly said, "Hey, Jesse's goin' to The Races, ain'tcha Jess? You goin' up pretty soon now, huh, Jess?" Davidson sank into the black leather upholstery and said, "Nothin' I'd love better, if I was sure I could make it there. But I ain't goin' up unless I get a solid deal. Nothin' risky."
Around Davidson's circuit, people easily remember the jockeys who have gone to—and made it—at The Races. "They was two in the last 10, 15 years," said Charley Baker. "Last one was Howard Grant and before that Hartack in '56 or so. It don't happen often. This ain't like the baseball minor leagues where the boys git ready for the big time. Some big outfits might send their apprentice boys to the half-milers, but it ain't common for old riders like Jess to be brought out. It ain't easy. Me and Jess gonna do it though, ain't we, Jess?"
Davidson said, "I guess I'm gonna try it when Laurel opens end of October. If I git good mounts. On'y if I git good mounts." And Charley Baker said, "Don't you worry none, boy. That's my job; I git you the mounts, Jess." They stopped at a tiny gas station where a few men were spending the evening in social convention around a soft-drink machine; they all greeted Davidson as he went into the station. An attendant filled the Cadillac's tank, then refused Jesse Davidson's offer to pay. "Goddamn," said Davidson, "they do that ever' time I stop. I didn't need no gas." A few miles down the road Charley Baker swung the car up a curving driveway and parked outside a place called the Ferry Hill Inn; it was on a small knob of a hill with a view of the mountains and nearby Shepherds-town. The bartender, a middle-aged woman, said, "What do ya like, Jess?" He liked a screwdriver. Soon several people sidled over from tables about the room to say hello to Jesse Davidson at the bar. Someone started kidding about the young ladies from nearby Shepherd College, which is included in the view from Ferry Hill. "Hey, I see that one in the white sweater again and—hooooeeee! Hooooeeee!" Davidson grinned and said, "Hey, I been meanin' to ask—how's your wife?" They guffawed; Davidson had another screwdriver, and then he walked back to his Cadillac.
A few minutes later, as the car rolled into Charles Town, a sedate and snug-looking hamlet of 3,329 people, Davidson said, "You know, if I wasn't a jock, you know what I'd be doin'? Drivin' a truck. An' look at the way it is now. I ride a little in the afternoon, then we have some drinks and talk to people. They know me and I know them. Then maybe a couple more drinks and I drive a little and ride some more races. Then I stop off somewhere afterward and we talk some more, have a bite to eat and some more drinks. Man, where is it better'n that? It's like a party all the time. You gotta have a lot goin' for ya before you leave all that—even to go to The Races."
At the Charles Town Race Course that night Davidson rode two winners out of his six mounts, making a total of five for the day. As usual, the crowd bet him heavily on everything; when Davidson is on a mount that might go off at 20 to 1 with another jockey, the odds usually drop to maybe 8 to 1, and then, during the race, all along the rail, they stand and yell, "Hol' wif 'im, Jess! Hol' wif 'im, Jess!" It is like that all around the circuit—everywhere on the half-milers the cry is "Hol' wif 'im, Jess!"
It is a tin-plated, parochial fame, to be sure, but it was devilishly hard-earned nevertheless. Since 1957 Davidson has raced more than 9,000 times—in Ohio, and Canada, and New England, and a couple in Mexico and even two at Saratoga, besides the thousands of trips around the weedy infields in West Virginia and Maryland. He was a 16-year-old dropout in Manchester, Ky., when he answered a want ad for a stable cleaner in Mechanicsburg, Ohio and went to work for room, board, "two bottles of sody pop and a pack of cigarettes ever' day." The man he worked for made him an apprentice, and after riding only half a dozen of his 9,000-plus, Davidson got his first win on September 18, 1957 on a horse called Smoke Talk at a place called Cranwood in Ohio. He was off—but not to The Races.
One night in November 1958, when he had close to 100 wins and he thought the man was about to bring him out for some "real ridin'," Davidson's mount panicked in the gate, reared and flipped over backward. Davidson's leg was caught between the horse and the steel stall; the bone snapped. The next April he had just been riding again for a week when another horse, in Wheeling, W.Va., bucked him off at the start; the freshly mended bone broke again in the same place. And the man who had Davidson's apprentice-rider contract let him go.
In the winter of 1960 Davidson and his brother Sam, now 31, drifted to Charles Town to try and scrounge some mounts. "I didn't know nobody there. I didn't do no good," said Davidson. He lived in a tiny house trailer behind a gas station; he galloped horses in the frozen raw mornings, and he practically begged for someone to give him something to ride. "No, I didn't do no good at all; I wasn't gettin' 10 mounts a week. The ones I got was bad ones, too." The broken leg still pained him in the cold, the money he had saved from his promising apprenticeship had dwindled to $500—so Jesse Davidson got married. "In a way, that an' breakin' my leg was the two best things that happened to me," he said. "By God, I learned that no matter how much money I make I might not have none someday. Like Howard Grant. He musta made a million dollars, and they tell me now he's broke. Kids ridin', you know, come from nothin' and, if they're lucky, they make more money'n they ever seen. They don't know it's worth anything, so they blow it—woooooosh. I done plenty of blowin' it in my day, but breakin' my leg and get-tin' married cured me. My ol' lady ain't never had to work."
Jesse Davidson's ol' lady is a pretty Cuban-born brunette named Nancy; she is 25, daughter of a jockey-turned-trainer, Albert Martinez. "We never had but two dates," said Davidson, "and then we got married." They now have three children—Brigette Yvonne, 6, Yvette Yvonne, 3 (the middle names were picked because "they jest sound good," said Davidson), and Annette Cherie, born October 30. Since 1963 the family has lived in a big brick ranch house, with thick green carpets, a stone fireplace and a two-car garage (half for his 1967 Cadillac, half for her 1967 Mustang). The house is set high on a hill outside Hagerstown, and the first thing Davidson does when a visitor stops by is yank the cord on the drapes, unveiling a vista that reaches, as he puts it, "35 mile on a good day—clear to Hamilton."
But Jesse Davidson and his ol' lady got that view only after a bruising, sweltering summer riding with "them goddam factory workers" on the New England circuit in 1960 and another chilling winter-spring season at the Charles Town tracks in 1961. "It was real bad. I won on'y 12 races until summer. Then all of a sudden I got lucky or somethin'. All I did about ridin' was to raise my stirrups so I set down lower on the horse. I don't know what else happened, but, by God, I won 44 at the second Charles Town meet and more'n 90 at Shenandoah. Man, I was off!" He began to get mounts at other half-milers and, incredibly, wound up fourth in winners in the U.S. He was fourth again, in 1962, ninth the next year.
"See?" said Davidson. "That's how it works. You git lucky, win a couple in a row and all of a sudden they cain't wait to git you on their good mounts." In 1964 Davidson rode at Laurel, Bowie, Delaware Park and traveled to some of the classier tracks in Canada. He did well and even got two mounts at Saratoga that summer (one finished second in the $25,000-added Test Stakes—the richest race Davidson has ever ridden in). Then in September he tumbled into a lethal windmill of horses' hooves during a start in Canada, cut his face so badly that he was out for the rest of the year and went home to Hagerstown. "I never even called 'em in Canada th' next year," he says. "We was makin' more money there, but we spent so much livin' that it wasn't worth it."
In 1965 Davidson did not try to make it at major U.S. tracks. "I just decided to stay home and do my best," he said. Again he had some tough luck. In September he fell during a start at Charles Town and wound up with two black eyes, cuts all over his forehead and a bruised neck that pained him so much that, even after a two-week layoff, his valet had to lift him into the saddle before each race. Yet that's when he won the national championship.
No one from Aqueduct to Yakima Meadows had more winners than the 319 he rode. And no one had more mounts—1,582. To do it, Davidson undertook a commitment of almost round-the-clock toil. The Charles Town tracks operated 235 programs that year: Timonium, Hagerstown, Marlboro ran for seven weeks all together. Davidson picked up a few more mounts at Bowie, Laurel and Pimlico, but of his winners no more than a dozen came from the bigger tracks. Davidson's owners on the half-milers didn't insist that he work horses in the mornings, and that helped ease some of the strain. He had already done well enough to afford a Cadillac for his commuting, and his brother Sam, who was then working as his agent, helped Jesse with the driving. There was enough for two. During the meeting under the tin roof at Marlboro that year the Davidson Cadillac racked up more than 200 miles every day—95 miles from his home to Marlboro, 75 miles back to Charles Town, 35 miles home to Hagerstown. (For Timonium, the round trip was 190 miles, for Hagerstown, 75.) The days seldom ended until well after midnight, and there were times when Davidson rode nine races in the afternoon, then eight more at night. "Jesus, you can't believe the tension I had," he said. "It all but eats you up, knots up your stomach and you cain't shut your eyes when you git to bed. I'd be ridin' horses all night, hearin' jocks yellin', whippin' mounts, feelin' the reins cut my hand. I didn't drink nothin' 'til about that time; I just didn't care about booze. But if I didn't have a shot or two I couldn't ever shut my eyes. I don't drink all that much, but it relaxes me and I still got tension cuz I'm ridin' day and night most all the time still."
In his own day-night bailiwick, no one makes more money than Jesse Davidson. He grosses around $50,000 a year, and, after giving the usual 10% cut to his valet and 20% to his agent, he winds up with something over $30,000 before taxes. It's a long way from poverty, to be sure, but it's a far, far longer way from the affluence of Shoemakers and Baezas.
"Hell, I ain't all that fascinated with gettin' rich," said Davidson. "But if I was doin' good at The Races I know I'd make three times as much as I am here—without ridin' two tracks a day neither." Jockeys get from $17 to $25 for starting a race, from $37.50 to $50 for a winner. But the customary jockey's stake—10% of the purse from the owner, which is tantamount to unwritten law at the major tracks—is by no means a certainty on the half-milers. "A lot of owners just ain't got it to give," said Davidson.
There are 120 jockeys, more or less, riding on Davidson's circuit; they come from the hills of West Virginia, from cities like Baltimore and Washington, from farms in Kentucky or Ohio. Any dream of glamour or opulence they have concocted is soon erased by reality. "Hell, if a jock don't do good he don't make as much as a guy paintin' or diggin' a ditch," said Davidson. "Maybe they make two, three thousand a year. Half the guys tryin' to ride don't get but 50 horses a year to ride, but they hang around cuz they're too proud to go home. They're ashamed to go back broke." To be a jockey, a man pays a $5 fee in Maryland ($10 in West Virginia), rides a few races and gets track stewards' approval of his license.
Many would-be riders pick up a few dollars mornings working horses. Ironically, a full-time exercise boy gets $2 a mount, but a jockey gets nothing for the workout if he is scheduled to ride the horse in a race that day. "Some owners'll get some second-rate jockey who's willin' to ride mornings to save the two dollars," said Davidson, "then the boy'll lose a close race and the owner drops a $1,000 purse to save two bucks." Worse, some owners will get a mediocre rider for a morning workout by promising him the race that day, then secretly name a better rider for the race—leaving the workout jockey with nothing but a fine sunrise for his labors.
Obviously, given the caliber of some jockeys on the half-milers, some rides have a certain drunk-cowboy quality to them. But, generally, the riders are competent, if not particularly brilliant, to watch—like Jesse Davidson. He has the reflexes (and obviously the experience) to get out of the gate quickly, and he has a reasonably good sense of pace. His reputation among experts is as a sound, no-nonsense rider who gets a bit more out of a horse than other jockeys might.
Davidson stands 5 feet 4 inches—he is considered a "tall boy"—weighs 114 pounds and has one black hell of a time keeping himself light enough to ride. "I got to flip ever'thing I eat when I'm working" he said. "I got so I can do it jest with my stomach muscles now, and it's natural as breathin'. When I go off after the season I git up to 135 pounds and I got to start reducin' six weeks before my meets start. I use Spansules [capsules that depress the appetite] and, man, they make me real mean. I can be home, just watchin' television, and I'll jest feel like jumpin' up and whippin' the kids for nothin'. I git real weak, too, and sometimes I see flashes and stars. It's like dyin' and knowin' it."
Davidson is not, as Charley Baker shouts joyously after every win, "The Greates', positively The Greates'." But he is as good as many riders now coining it daily at The Races. Yet even in 1966, after his riding title, Davidson didn't attract enough top mounts to make it at Laurel or Bowie. "It's luck," he said. "You got to do it in the first three, four days or you might's well pack up your tack and go home."
This year jolly Charley Baker has added himself to whatever lucky charms Davidson may need. Until late this summer Davidson still had his brother as his agent; Sam quit, saying he thought he might try training. Enter Charley, who used to ride the half-milers himself not too many years ago. He is a genuinely pleasant glad-hander and as hard working a jockey's agent as there is on the half-milers. At any track, day or night, when Davidson is racing, it is hard to miss Charley (his mother calls him by his middle name, "Andrew"; his track pals call him "Snake"). After every race Jesse rides, Baker lopes to the paddock or the track bar or the dining room or into the men's room, if necessary, seeking out the mount's owner to shake hands. He takes on an undertaker's polish for a loser, a proud father's braggadocio about "The Greates' " for a winner. Charley is not even slightly hesitant to explain why he should be a better agent than Jesse's brother. "See, I got contacts all over Maryland—Laurel and all over. Now, Sam, he knew West Virginia real good, but he didn't have the contacts at The Races like me. My brother, George, he trains for Mrs. duPont at Bohemia Stable—where they got Kelso, you know?"
Go-getter that he is, Charley sometimes lines up as many as three mounts in a single race for Jesse, then selects the best one and spends the rest of his day either dodging irked trainers or, as he puts it, "coolin' 'em so they ain't mad." Things would, of course, be a bit different if he and Davidson went to The Races. "You cain't git away with multiple calls often at Laurel. They fine you for not keeping your obligations straight," said Baker. "But, man, I got to have strenf for my work."
Charley is up early each morning and at the track by 7 o'clock to participate in the daily scramble to put riders on the good mounts still open. This is an odd scene, unheard of at the bigger tracks. A dozen agents or so appear in the racing secretary's office at the track, and they bicker and bargain to put their jockey's name forward to the official who picks (usually by drawing a number) a rider for an open horse. It is at this time, too, that the day's scratches are announced, and, if one of Davidson's mounts is removed from a race, Baker is quick to shout out Jesse's name for any that are still open.
"You got to be forward, real forward. It don't do Jesse no good if I'm shy," he confided one morning this fall after such a scene at Marlboro. Satisfied that he had been as forward as the situation required, Baker then left the racing secretary's office and cruised, very slowly, through the stable area, waving and nodding to anyone he saw. "I got to do that. I din't have nothin' to say, but they got to see me and then they know I'm tryin'." He drove to the track, stopped and gazed at a handful of people standing there. "Nope," he said. "No one there now, but if I seen a trainer or someone like that, man, I be out of the car so fast and over to him to say somethin'. Maybe just a joke, I don't know. Anything so they know I'm tryin'."
That done, it was 9 a.m., and Baker adjourned to the bar of the Marlboro Hotel, a decrepit establishment, and sipped a gin and 7 Up ("for my nerves") with half a dozen other people. After a couple of nerve-soothers Charley Baker said, "You know, I got 20, 30 head for Jess up at Laurel. We gonna make The Races this time, I know it. I got him promised on Hansome Harve, too, and that horse won more'n $100,000 already. We gonna make The Races for sure."
Later that same afternoon, after riding five (one winner) at Marlboro, Davidson sipped a Scotch and water in a bright-lighted barroom booth next to a Budweiser neon sign. Charley was at the bar "coolin' out" a trainer, and Davidson said, "Yeah, Charley thinks I can make it, so I'm gonna give it a try. But I tol' him—two weeks. That's it. I ain't goin' to risk everything I got. I worked like a sonabitch. Now I don't hafta work horses in the mornin's no more, and I can take off in November to go huntin' deer and I don't hafta start ridin' again till maybe March. You cain't do that at Laurel." Jesse chain-lighted one Winston from another and said, "When I got to be a jock there was four things I always wanted: to get me a Cadillac, to be leadin' rider in th' country, to make the Hall of Fame and to ride in the Kentucky Derby. I already got two of 'em, and right now I got over 1,700 winners and all I need's 2,000 and I could make the Hall of Fame. Ain't but 30, 40 guys won that many in history. I can keep ridin' another 10 years, so I'm a cinch for it. If I get lucky, maybe I can git to the Derby. Maybe not." He gulped down the rest of his drink, stood up and said, "Where's Charley? I gotta ride six t'night at Charles Town. We gotta go."
The meet at Laurel began on October 27. Davidson rode 21 mounts in the first eight days. He won two races, one on a horse called Someday, owned by Bohemia Stable. Then, as has happened before, Davidson's luck went sour. He was hospitalized with a bladder infection that required surgery; it would keep him from riding the rest of the year. "Yeah, we was goin' good at Laurel, too," he said, lying in his hospital bed. But already he was thinking of next year. "I'm goin' to try it in New York, by God," he said, sounding just a little surprised himself. "It won't be all that much tougher than Laurel, and it looks like I'll be ridin' with Bohemia whenever they start up there in New York." It will be a long way from the familiar, friendly land of the half-milers. In New York, Davidson will be getting up at 5:30 in the morning to gallop horses. There will be no crowds at the rail yelling, "Hol wif 'im, Jess." Arid whenever he goes out to eat or drink he will have to be sure he has plenty of money in his pockets because no one will be giving credit on Jesse Davidson's face alone. Not at The Races. Not yet, anyway.