For more than a dozen years Fred Mundy has owned a run-down tavern on the outskirts of Stockbridge in western Massachusetts. The tavern used to share some of the drive-in traffic on Route 183 with Alice's Restaurant, the one that Alice Brock opened after Arlo Guthrie's song and the film with that title made her name famous. Alice closed it down in 1975. But before then, some tourists who wanted to say that they'd eaten at her restaurant would stop in at Mundy's to ask directions.
"Alice's?" Mundy would say with a southward wave of his right arm, if he happened to be behind the bar. "Down toward Housatonic, about seven furlongs from here."
It was evident from such remarks that Mundy's main interest was horses, and indeed from time to time he owned a string of racers as run-down as his tavern. "I own eight horses," he'd say. "Only three of them can stand up, but I own eight horses."
I used to stop in often at Mundy's place. One day, in early spring in the mid-'70s, just after I had come back from Florida, Mundy's eldest son, Chris, was behind the bar. The previous fall I had learned that Fred was planning to take his horses south for the winter.
"Where's your father these days?" I asked Chris.
"Tampa, last we heard. But he could be as far north as West Virginia by now."
"When do you expect him home?"
"Beats me," Chris said, shrugging.
"Late some night," I said, feeling like an ancient comforting the young, "you'll hear galloping hooves, and you'll know then that your father is back."
On a stool at a corner of the bar Alice Brock sat sipping Southern Comfort. "Yes," she said, "that'll be Fred Mundy. riding through the dark of night."
"Haven't you heard?" someone else said, further down the bar. "All his animals got claimed. He hasn't got horse one anymore."
"Which makes him the Horseless Headman of Sleepy Hollow," Alice said.
But they were wrong. When Mundy did come home that year—in broad daylight—he still had his horses. Maybe not the same ones he had taken south with him, but the same number. Never mind that his friends referred to Mundy's string as "Alpo Stables" and the races they ran in as "Dogfood Derbies." Fred still owned eight horses.
One Sunday morning, after months of hearing about them, I paid a visit to Mundy's horses. He had them stabled at a little track called Berkshire Downs, which was a few miles west of Pittsfield, Mass., and which has since closed. What I noticed first on that visit was that the letter N in the big BERKSHIRE DOWNS sign was hanging inverted from one nail.
I found Fred at Barn K, which looked like all the others—weathered, roof sagging, sad and seedy against the vivid early-fall foliage on the hills around the track. Berkshire Downs was part of what Mundy and other horsemen called the leaky-roof circuit; other tracks he went to included Northampton Fair, Marshfield Fair and Great Barrington Fair in Massachusetts, and Scarborough Downs, also known as Scabby Downs, in Portland, Maine. I noticed that almost everyone I saw wandering about carried a can of beer. At 11 o'clock on a Sunday morning. Sacramental beer, I thought.
Mundy was squatting outside the barn alongside a big chestnut horse. He had the horse's left front hoof in one hand and was squeezing the leg just above the hoof with the other. He moved the hoof slowly up and down. As I came close he nodded approvingly, put the hoof down and stood up.
"This is Otto Russell," he said, stroking the horse's nose. "Otto's all well again. You're looking at a winner."
I was dubious. Otto was a strong-looking horse, but his eyes had a sad, patient, middle-aged look and there were scars from a run-in with a fence on his neck and along one shoulder and flank.
"He looks old enough to vote," I said.
"He's only 10."
"Isn't that old for a racehorse?"
"Not around here. Twelve-year-olds win races around here."
"How do you get a mature horse like Otto in shape to race?"
"Well," Mundy said, "Otto's had his troubles, like every horse on the leaky-roof circuit." He led the horse toward an empty stall. "You have to be your own vet." He stopped and looked at me. "You want to buy a horse?"
"No," I said.
Later, we leaned against the inside rail, watching Mundy's horses roll in the infield like huge puppies. There were seven of them. Otto had been left in his stall, safe from any playful accident. It was one of those clear September days poets write about, and watching the clumsy puppies cavort in mindless exuberance, it was hard to picture any of them getting down to the business of running in a race for money.
"You don't see horses doing this at Belmont," Mundy said, looking benign and fatherly. "They're just plain happy. They run better when they're happy." He had a can of beer in each hand, one half empty, the other one full.
"I've never been to Belmont."
"You could buy a horse here for practically nothing, this time of year," Fred said. "The gypsy owners are mostly tapped out. Never mind those $1,500 claiming prices. You could buy a horse for practically whatever you've got in your pocket."
"I have to put gas in the Toyota."
"You don't think big."
"I think medium. Talking about being your own vet, would you say that the leaky-roof circuit is sort of a training ground for horse owners? Like minor league baseball is for ballplayers?"
"You might," Mundy said, "if you wanted to."
"Would you say that the horses are on their way down and the people, the owners, are on their way up?"
"No," Mundy said, "the people are on their way down, too."
"I'm being as kind as I can," he said.
"When are you running Otto?"
"Tuesday, at Barrington."
"I'll try to be there."
"Be there. Otto's a winner. And you ought to see Barrington anyway. Barring-ton is the Belmont of the Berkshires."
"I'll see you Tuesday."
"You do that. Otto wins Tuesday."
I was still dubious, but on Tuesday I drove over to the Great Barrington Fairgrounds. I found Mundy with Otto. The horse had a quilt over his withers and was standing with both front hooves in a large red plastic tub of ice water.
"Otto has tender feet and ankles," Mundy explained. "The ice treatment helps keep him from hurting during the race."
"What about Bute?" The painkilling drug, Butazolidin, is legal at racetracks in Massachusetts.
"Oh, he gets that, too," Mundy said. "Every horse in the race gets that."
I looked at the racing program I had bought on the way in. There was a (B) after every horse's name.
"He looks weary," I said, stroking Otto's nose, looking into those sad, tired old eyes.
"He worries me," Mundy said. "He doesn't look as alert as he should."
"You told me Sunday I was looking at a winner."
"Oh, he can do it all right," Mundy said. "He'll brighten up after he gets his medicine [adrenal cortex extract, a legal substance in Massachusetts]."
He gave me no more assurance than that, so I left, ducking under the rails and walking across the backstretch to the infield tote board and betting windows. I went to the $10 window and bought one win ticket on Otto. Not so much out of confidence in Mundy as out of respect for that nice scarred old horse.
Along toward post time the odds on the tote board showed Otto as an even-money favorite. I was mystified. I knew that Mundy's friends didn't have enough money to drive the odds down like that. (Later I learned that Otto had been winning regularly on the circuit.) Then came another shocker. Over the public address system a blurred and static-y voice announced that No. 3, Otto Russell, was carrying five pounds over his assigned weight.
Mundy, I thought—on top of everything else he hires a fat jockey.
When the gates banged open Otto appeared to be in no rush to get to the first turn. On the backstretch he was running fourth—a distant, casual fourth. Mundy and his fat jockey, I thought. At the far turn Otto was still fourth. Well, you've blown $10, I told myself. And it's your own damn fault giving any credence to Mundy's "You're looking at a winner."
I was watching with a sort of resigned curiosity as the horses rounded the final turn. Then, suddenly, I got interested again, because something strange was happening. The bunch of horses loping along in the lead swung wide as they entered the stretch, and Otto moved unhurriedly, but in a businesslike manner, through the wide-open space by the rail. As the horses straightened away in the stretch, Otto had the lead by half a length. Then a length. Two horses made a run at him but soon fell back. Otto went under the wire, still in no apparent hurry, a winner by two full lengths.
"I'll be an s.o.b," I said to no one in particular, although a blue-haired lady on my left looked at me.
By the time I got to the barns, after watching another race. Otto was in his stall, surrounded by well-wishers, mostly young, mostly female. He looked even sleepier than he had before the race. Mundy was off to one side.
"It takes a long time for me to get Otto back to the barns after he wins a race," Mundy said. "He refuses to urinate for the officials."
"You train him that way?"
Mundy didn't say anything. He just looked at me, like an Irish Buddha.
"I'd like to buy Otto a drink," I said. "Maybe I could buy him an oat instead."
"You could buy me a drink," Mundy said.
"In your own saloon?"
I walked off toward the parking lot, thinking of the money I had won. I had barely doubled my $10. I was thinking, too, of the TV commercial about the maxi-macho man who lives life to the hilt, doing everything with gusto, and drinking beer with gusto, too. But when I was buying, Mundy didn't drink beer. He drank Scotch.
And a little water.