It happened so fast that even today Robbie Davis has trouble sorting out the whole haunting nightmare: the terrible fall and the vision of the silks flashing beneath him, the sound like a water balloon bursting at his horse's feet, his own screaming voice, the sight of the dead jockey, and then his hiding like a child in the darkened broom closet in the first-aid room at Belmont Park.
On the afternoon of Oct. 13, 1988, in the fifth race at Belmont Park, Davis, atop Drums in the Night, was moving down the backstretch of the turf course and sensing in the hollow of his bones that he could not have been in a sweeter spot on this great green earth. "It was a beautiful, gorgeous, perfect day," Davis says. "There's nothing like a fall day in New York, you know, and I had won with my horse the time before and I had all sorts of horse under me."
Davis had never been riding better. With almost three months left in the year, his mounts had won 231 races and $7,154,435. He was the sixth-leading jockey in the nation in money won and was, at that moment, sitting just where he wanted to be. Drums in the Night was trailing the leaders but running strong against the bit in the 1[1/16]-mile allowance race. "I was next to last," says Davis. "I was staying down on the inside, saving ground and waiting for some running room. I was waiting for the real running to start. Then all of a sudden...."
Davis saw the horse directly in front of him—Mr. Walter K., with veteran jockey Mike Venezia up—stumble suddenly and veer to the right, out of Drums in the Night's path. Instinctively, Davis took hold of his horse, waiting to see what would happen in front of him. "All of a sudden I seen the jockey pop up right in front of me," he says, "and I took straight back to see which way he would go, so I could miss him. I didn't want to move until he committed himself in one direction or the other. All of a sudden he lost his balance—it happened so fast, I didn't know who it was—and he kicked off the left side of his horse, and he went under my horse. My horse tried to jump, but it was too late. He clipped him and stumbled. The jockey's head was right in the path of my horse, right underneath! I looked down and seen him under me, and my horse scissored his head with his back feet. Shattered his skull."
March 20, 1989
Davis screamed, "Oh, my God!" He looked back and saw the body lying on the grass, motionless in the sun. Caught in the hot whips of panic, Davis came undone. He looked over to his left and saw jockey Nick Santagata, and he hollered, "Nickie! Who was that? I just killed him! I just run over him. Who was that?"
Santagata glanced at Davis over his shoulder. "Venezia!" he shouted.
The two men raced together for the far turn. Davis screamed again to Santagata: "I killed him! I swear I killed him. What do I do? Do I ride? I can't believe it. Nickie! What do I do?"
Santagata never answered, and together the two men drove their horses home. Drums in the Night finished fourth, and as Davis pulled him up at the clubhouse turn, he looked over his left shoulder and saw the ambulance already out on the backstretch. Venezia had been killed instantly, the blow from Drums in the Night's hooves having struck his head so sharply that it dislodged his right eye. But as Davis slowly walked his horse back to the unsaddling area, he didn't know that. He prayed, "God, I know I busted something, but I just hope he's O.K."
Davis dismounted and took the saddle off Drums in the Night and studied the horse's feet. "They were beautiful horse feet, so dainty," says Davis, "and he stood there so kind, the horse did, and there were no marks on him, and he was just a beautiful black horse with nice perfect feet, and I'm looking down and saying, 'These are the feet. Why these feet? Why this horse? Why this?' "
Davis walked slowly back through the passage under the grandstand and down the stairs to the underground maze that leads to the jockeys' room. When he got below, he saw the ambulance sitting in the service tunnel, Pinkerton guards all around it, and he began hollering at the driver and the guards, "What the hell are you doing here? Get him to the hospital! What are you waiting for? Why are you leaving him here? Get him out of here! Out! Now!"
In a daze, Davis walked toward the ambulance, but someone stepped in front of him. "Don't look," the man told him. "Please, Robbie. Don't look."
Suddenly there was a commotion on the other side of the ambulance, and Davis saw jockey Angel Cordero Jr. arguing with the guards. Cordero's voice was resounding in the subterranean tombs of Belmont Park: "Hey! Mike was my friend. You can't tell me I can't look in there. You can't tell me what to do!" The guards let Cordero approach the vehicle. All his life Davis will remember the moment, that singular look on Cordero's face as he peered inside the ambulance. "He looked ghostly, pale and white, like he'd aged five years all at once," Davis says.
Davis had to see for himself. He pushed past the guards and looked in the back window of the ambulance. The horror was entire. "He's lying in there on a board," Davis says. "With his head turned away from me. I peeked in. All I could see was blood so thick on his face, and he was lying there motionless. I thought, Oh, no. It can't be!"
Davis bolted for the first-aid room, opened the door of the broom closet and closed it behind him, leaving himself alone in the sudden dark. He fell to his knees. His whole life flashed past him, as though it was he who was dying, and in a way he was. "It was flashing and flashing and flashing," Davis says. "If it wasn't one thing flashing, it was something else. All the violent things in my life came back to me. I was on my knees, and I was gripping my fists and saying, 'God, why me? Why does this happen to me all the time? Why do I have to take the pain all the time? Why so much pain?' My whole life was flashing."
Flashing back to those afternoons, so rich in an oily aroma that he can smell them now. Back to when he was four and was sitting on the gasoline tank of his Uncle Tim's dirt bike, holding on to the handlebars as he and his uncle roared along at 60 miles an hour among the rock-encrusted hills outside Pocatello, Idaho. Back to the day he got the call at Eddy's Bakery, where he was stacking bread, and found when he got home that Uncle Tim, who had been like a father to him, had died of carbon monoxide poisoning in a mining accident. Back to the night that his best friend plunged to his death when the friend's truck rolled off a 60-foot cliff into a cemetery on the east side of Pocatello. Back to his own aborted suicide attempt, when at three one morning he screeched his light-blue 1968 El Camino to a stop just shy of the tree he had been aiming for at the end of Kinghorn Road. Back to the fights at home between his mother and his stepfather Thomas William Darner, the sound of the ashtray smashing through the television screen, and the nights he hid in the closet or under the bed or covered his head with a pillow and screamed to muffle the noise of the violence. Back to his terrorized childhood and the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather. Back to all those years of biting anger, self-loathing and shame that had sprung from that abuse, the dark little secret of his life.
After Davis had spent a few agonizing minutes wrapped in the blanket of darkness within that closet, there was a knock on the door. Davis saw a man step forward in the ray of light. Davis was weeping. The voice said, "It's O.K., Robbie. It's O.K. There's nothing you could have done. We just watched the films. There's no way you could have avoided it."
Davis was inconsolable, and in a state nearing shock. "He was white," says his valet, John Mallano, who had opened the closet door. Almost immediately, Davis began to shear himself of his past. After undressing in the jockeys' room, he told Mallano, "Throw everything away. Throw my boots away, my pants, my T-shirt. Everything I was wearing. I don't want these clothes around me ever again."
The next day, after a memorial service for Venezia at Belmont Park—at which Davis fell sobbing to his knees—he quietly told his wife, Marguerite, "Let's go get my hair cut. Maybe I'll feel better." So he had the barber "cut all that old stuff off," he says. "And I cut all my nails down."
His moods swung between sorrow, depression and remorse, and at times he appeared as frail and helpless as one of his three children—Kristen, 3, Jacqueline, 2, and Robbie Jr., then an infant of two months. He refused to attend Venezia's wake—"I can't do it," he told Marguerite—and so she went in his place. "When I left the house, he was sitting in the rocking chair in the bedroom, clutching the baby's blanket," she says.
All that week Davis brushed off repeated entreaties that he ride again, refused to talk to most of those who called and at night swam in and out of turbulent sleep. One night Marguerite awoke to find him mumbling and sweating in his sleep. The nightmare played and replayed like an old black-and-white movie. "I kept seeing it over and over," Davis says. "Mike kept falling off in front of me. Then the other riders started falling off in front of me, and I started getting paranoid in my dreams."
After Venezia's funeral, in Westbury, N.Y., on Oct. 17, which Davis did attend, he finally settled on what he had to do. His former agent, Lenny Goodman, had been begging him to keep riding. "It's like falling off a horse," Goodman had told him. "You got to get back up and ride right away. You've got to put this behind you!" But Davis wasn't buying that. He had another agenda, the hidden one that had been haunting him. And so, a week after the accident, Marguerite found him frantically packing all their belongings—winter and summer clothes, books, tapes, pictures, VCRs, golf clubs, dirt bike. "I knew exactly what I wanted," Davis says. "But I was in a frenzy, I was hysterical."
"What are you doing?" Marguerite asked.
"I just want to get out of here!" Robbie said. "I want to escape for a while. Take a vacation. I want to go home. I want to get back to myself. To my roots."
So, at age 27, riding high in his prime as one of the leading jockeys in one of the richest venues of American racing, Davis packed his family and their belongings, aimed his Suburban truck west and hit the gas. Until last week, to the dismay and confusion of all his friends, Davis did not ride in another horse race. True to his word, too, he did go home again.
Pocatello lies in the fertile Snake River Valley in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southeastern Idaho, just above the western wing of the Caribou National Forest. It was there, in that one-time railroad tent town that's now a trade and industrial hub of 46,340 people, that Davis was born and raised. He barely knew his natural father, who left his family to get a job and never came back. "He hitchhiked and ended up in Oregon," says Jana McOsker, Robbie's mother. "He just left me there"—with Robbie, then 2, and his sister, Jodi, an infant.
Theirs was a hardscrabble existence. McOsker went on welfare and worked around town as a bartender, a waitress and a cook. The kids lived itinerant childhoods, moving from one place to another, and Robbie attended practically every grade school in Pocatello at least twice. "I'd show up, and they'd say, "Hey, he's back again!' " he says. McOsker says they usually packed up and moved when the rent came due. "I'd move in with my brother until I got another check, and then I'd move into an apartment," she says.
At an early age Robbie began making money. When Jodi lost two fingers in a washing machine wringer, Robbie went to work at a gasoline station next to their house, cleaning out the bathroom and putting the oil cans away at closing. He was five years old and earning 50 cents a night. "He earned 12 dollars and bought her a tricycle when she was in the hospital," McOsker says. At other times he sold Kool-Aid on street corners, and he spent his summers pushing a power lawn mower, the gasoline can swinging from the handlebars, around Pocatello. He washed dishes and bussed tables at a restaurant after school. He hawked the Idaho State Journal on the street. He gave his mother money for gas and groceries. "He once had a garage sale and sold all of his toys so we'd have money," she says. "You wouldn't believe this boy. He was special."
His teachers remember him as a sensitive, polite, hardworking lad who was particularly devoted to his sister. "A real likable kid, the kind you just like to be around," says Del Hildreth, Robbie's homeroom teacher at Irving Junior High School.
Hildreth had no idea what Robbie had endured: the unspeakable instances of sexual abuse he had suffered for four years in the 1970s at the hands of Darner. In 1976 Darner was convicted of sexual assault and served three years in the New Mexico State Penitentiary at Santa Fe. McOsker says today that she didn't know what had been going on in her house until she found photographic evidence of it and brought charges against Darner. Today, she lives with the remorse. "I am very ashamed and don't know what to say," she says. For years Davis told no one about the abuse and it became the central, gnawing secret of his life, until it ultimately surfaced as a primary force that drove him from New York.
By the time he reached the end of the 10th grade at Pocatello Senior High, Davis was entertaining thoughts of suicide. As with many abused children, his sense of self-worth had broken down, and with that came the onset of his chronic depression, his anger turned inside out. "You're made to feel like the lowest thing on earth," he says. "I've been so low at times that I've sat on a curb and felt that was where I belonged. I felt like a bad person. That's the way you feel." His best friend, Jeff Lindauer, had just died, when his truck dropped off that cliff. Davis was stung by guilt over that, too. "Just a month before, I had showed him how to get up there," he says.
He started drinking vodka and dropped out of school, in which he saw no future. "A kind of waste," he says. "I had already grown up a long time ago. I hated myself for whatever happened in the old time. I just didn't have no use in life anymore."
One evening, in aimless despair—"I was so depressed, you know," he says—he backed up the El Camino on Kinghorn Road, dropped it into gear and set sail for that big tree. Headlights on, he barreled toward it through the darkness. He doesn't know why he hit the brakes, but he did, locking the drums with a screech. "I slid to a stop about a foot away," he says. "Something touched me. I didn't want to die, and I hit the brakes and I set there, it was three o'clock in the morning, looking at the tree, just crying. I didn't have a dad...."
McOsker has known a lot of men in her life—she has been married eight times, twice to the same man—but none of the men she brought home became a father to the boy. Instead, Davis found his surrogate in Tim Lords, his mother's brother. Uncle Tim was his mentor, his teacher. "The father that I never had," Davis says. "He taught me everything."
Uncle Tim's death in a freak mining accident in 1979 left Davis grieving as he never had. "That was devastating," he says. "It was so unbelievable. I would throw rocks at trees for hours. I was crazed." But Uncle Tim had left him far more than grief and summer memories, as things turned out, and the most valuable gift of all was an abounding love of racing and speed—those hair-blowing, rock-climbing, wind-in-your-face ascents up mountain trails to a freedom Davis had never before known. He vividly remembers when he was four and Uncle Tim would take him riding on the dirt bike. "He went so fast I couldn't breathe," Davis says. "Took my breath away. Sixty miles an hour. We'd fly over jumps, climb mountains. We'd hit something and he'd hang on to me. I wasn't afraid of anything."
At 15 Davis got his first dirt bike—he had saved the money while working at a pizzeria—and he rode it every day. For the deeply scarred young man, that dirt bike meant escape, a way to get away. "I could ride up to 40, 50 miles a day," Davis says. "I loved it. It was my first love. The wind and the mountains and the freedom! I was so comfortable with it." He dreamed of one day being a professional dirt-bike racer, and he began entering small events in and around Pocatello. He won a few races, he says, just amateur stuff: "All I got was trophies."
The 5'1" Davis soon found that he could race for more than that at Pocatello Downs, the local racetrack that was part of a county fair circuit for quarter horses and thoroughbreds. He was almost 19, working at Eddy's Bakery, when a coworker and part-time horse trainer, John Dalkey, urged him to come out to the Downs and learn to be a rider.
"I thought, Hey, I can do that!" says Davis. Soon he had quit his $250-a-week bakery job and hired on as a groom at $65 a week, first with Dalkey and then with veteran trainer Marv Whitworth, who became the surrogate father he had been looking for since Lords had died. That summer, 1979, Davis mucked stalls and slipped into the game as easily as a pitchfork into a bed of straw. He quickly learned how to ride and then really went to the races in 1980, when he rode his first winner, in a 220-yard dash for Appaloosas at the fairgrounds in Burley, Idaho. He still gets a rush, recalling the race.
"Oh, god," Davis says. "Out of the gate it was like a dirt bike coming out of the hills off a jump—voom! Like a dragster coming off the line, with the front wheels coming off the ground. He was really a fast horse. God, what a blast!"
Davis loved his work and threw himself into it, wanting to be a jockey more than anything he had ever wanted in his life. "You'd tell him to be at the barn at four o'clock in the morning, and he was there at four, waiting for you," says trainer Lynn Bowman, who employed Davis then.
"You could set your watch by him," Whitworth says. "I never had a boy so dedicated or want anything as bad. He had ambition. You had to be around him to see the intensity. And what an athlete! A natural—his balance, his coordination on a horse, and real fine hands—and he never, never abused his mount in any way."
Whitworth and Davis grew so close that until very recently Whitworth was the only person with whom Davis had shared the secret of his past. "It makes your gut crawl," Whitworth says.
That fall Davis packed off to a quarter-horse and thoroughbred ranch in Southern California. He got his seasoning there, riding and exercising 22 horses a day all winter, but what he really learned was what he wanted to do with his life. The inspiration dawned on him the day he visited Santa Anita Park, the Taj Mahal of California racing. In the spring, with the Idaho racing season coming up, Davis announced he was going to ride in California. Whitworth told him to stay one more summer in Idaho. "You're not ready for California," Whitworth said.
Of course, Davis stayed in Idaho. He was the leading rider that summer on the fair circuit—at bullrings in such places as Idaho Falls and Blackfoot—but when the fall came, there was no keeping him in the bushes. In fact, he was gone for good, heading for the thoroughbreds, the big time. He tried his hand with a trainer at Turf Paradise in Phoenix and won four races there, and followed the trainer when he moved to Louisiana Downs. But he languished there for months, unable to get mounts. He had begun his one-year apprenticeship in May of '82, after he had won the fifth race of his career, but he went nowhere with the "bug"—the weight allowance granted to apprentices—in so provincial an outpost as Shreveport. One afternoon, jockey Sam Maple told him that he ought to go to New York. "They'll ride you with the bug in New York," Maple told him. "You might not stay when your bug is over, but you can make $100,000 there as an apprentice."
That's all Davis had to hear. A few days later he was edging his El Camino across the East River and onto Long Island. He hired himself a hustling agent, Steve Adika, and together they lit up the tote boards. The very sight of mammoth Belmont Park, with its sweeping grandstand and infield and its 1½-mile oval, left him in awe. He climbed on his first mount in New York, Commanche Brave, on Sept. 2, 1982. "I walked out of that paddock to the track and it took my breath away," Davis says. "I thought, I'm here. This is it."
Commanche Brave, a 20-1 shot, won that race, and it was not long before Davis was the hottest bug boy in New York. At Aqueduct that winter, he was the leading rider in races won, with 51. He won his first stakes race, the Lucky Draw, on Rock Lives, in February of 1983. He won some 170 races as a bug, all but 17 of them in New York and New Jersey, and made more money than he had ever dreamed of seeing. When he lost his bug on May 28, 1983, he found that Maple had been right. "I had $100,000 in the bank," Davis says. "Cash! I was ready to come right back to Pocatello. I was going to be the King of Pocatello! I was going to have the nice car and the boat and take all my friends fishing."
He did nothing of the sort. Instead, he went back to work. There was the inevitable lull in his action after he had lost his weight allowance, but Adika pestered trainers to give Davis a break. Six weeks later, sure enough, they started lifting his leg again. "Steve pushed and pushed us to ride him," says trainer H. Allen Jerkens. So, unlike most hot apprentices who lose their bugs and disappear, Davis stuck in New York. Of course, it was more than just Adika who did it. "Robbie learned as an apprentice how to rate horses," Jerkens says. "Through the years, guys who learn to rate horses keep going. Guys who don't learn, don't do anything after they lose the bug."
His early triumphs notwithstanding, Davis lived a difficult life in New York. He usually kept to himself. "God, it was lonely," he says. "I'd win a $75,000 stake and come home to an empty house. What a cold feeling. You tend to be a loner when you have such shame. There was so much shame there. When I skated, I always skated alone."
Davis roller-skated often in New York, as he had as a kid in Pocatello, and on one Friday night in the spring of 1984, at the Roller Castle in Elmont, N.Y., a pixieish blonde introduced herself to him. They skated couples. He had always been afraid to date, insecure and wary as he was, and there was an awkward moment when he took her hand and said, in his first words to her, "Boy, you got rough hands! Been digging ditches or something?" Marguerite Hoveling, who did a lot of yard work, liked him anyway. "He was shy and polite," she says. They have been together ever since. They got married the next February—they had their kids one-two-three—and shared the months during which Davis moved in among the leaders of his profession. He made money whip over stirrup in New York and earned the same kind of reputation among horsemen there as he had in Idaho—as a friendly, polite, personable young man with a quick, pearly smile and no apparent demons driving him. "I put on a good front," Davis says. "I didn't want anybody to see through me."
What they would have seen last summer, had they been able to see through him, was a man increasingly in turmoil. "I was like a time bomb," he says. "I was very, very depressed. I kept all my anger in. You build up a lot of anger. You can be in a great mood and all of a sudden you think of something that happened, and it just turns everything. Then you're mad at everything.... I hated myself. I could never do enough or accomplish what I wanted. I was always mad at myself and at other people. I used to build up a big hate for people, and it hurt inside."
And it was all a secret, down at the deep root of the rage, a secret unshared for years even with his wife. "It was always there," he says. "It was just grinding at me: 'You've got to tell her, you've got to tell her.' I'd say to myself. 'No, she doesn't have to know this. It'll hurt her too much.' " He envisioned her leaving him if he told her of his past, running to her mother's Long Island house with the kids, telling her mother, Hey, this guy was sexually abused, he's a complete wacko!
He didn't know how to handle his turbulent emotions. Last summer he felt them mounting. "It was getting worse and worse," he says. "I was getting meaner and meaner, angrier and angrier. For no reason whatsoever, I'd fly off the handle. I was a real crybaby in the jocks' room; things would happen to me in a race and I'd scream and holler at the other riders. I was getting scared of myself."
Davis was carrying all that unchecked baggage from his childhood when, on that fine October afternoon, Venezia fell in front of him, Davis peered into the ambulance and then ran off to hide. As his life flickered before him in that closet, the scenes of violence and abuse, something in him seemed to die. A kind of serenity came over him, as if the accident, in catharsis, had suddenly slain all the old torments in his life. "It pulled a trigger," he says. "It shot off inside me and went through me. I never loved people more in my life than that moment right there. All the hate I had for everybody, it just all went away."
With that began the craving to head home. Davis says, "It's hard to explain, but there was something pulling me back to Pocatello—to my values. I was packing too heavy a load. There was too much I had to get off my mind."
There was that delicate matter of unburdening himself to his wife. They drove to Edwardsville, Kans., and spent two months, off and on, with his mother and sister. They spent $85,000 on a huge motor home. They took a skiing trip to Colorado before Christmas, and then one night, after all those years of keeping it in, Davis finally let it out, first telling Marguerite of the deaths of Lindauer and Lords and how hard it had been growing up and how low he had been at times.
"I took a lot of abuse when I was young," he said.
"What kind?" she asked.
"Sexual. I was sexually abused by a man my mother was married to...."
It was easier than he had thought it would be. They talked about it into the night. "It just flowed out," Davis says. "We were both crying. She was so understanding. We tied the knot that much tighter. She held me all night and we went to sleep. It was such a relief. It was like a new beginning."
On Christmas Day, Davis talked to Lenny Goodman by telephone—he had taken over the rider's book early last year—and Goodman reminded him that Gulfstream Park was opening soon. Davis was not ready. "Only millionaires take off like this," Goodman said. "You're taking the longest vacation in history!"
Speaking to one of America's leading riders, a 27-year-old whose mounts had amassed lifetime earnings of $37,382,325, Goodman may have been right. But Davis was still too involved in sorting things out and looking for answers, unfolding his childhood bit by bit to his wife, and just being with his family and wheeling around the West. They finally came to Pocatello on Jan. 10, hooked up at Sullivan's motor park and lived there for nearly two months. They never connected their telephone—a blessing, what with all the people looking to talk to Davis—but you could reach them here and there if you tried. At the laundromat on Fifth Avenue. At the home of Bonnie Lords, Tim's widow. At the Whitworth home in Inkom. At the ski lodge at Pebble Creek. At the home of Buddy Jones, an old pal from the days when he and Davis worked at the bakery. At the skating rink. At the Downs for the races on weekends.
The Davises remained in Idaho until one snowy morning in early March, when he and Marguerite suddenly decided to leave. They drove west, through Las Vegas and into Southern California. Robbie was itching to ride again.
The old nightmares were gone. Davis still occasionally thought about Venezia, a gentle, soft-spoken man who, like Davis, had been an apprentice sensation in New York, in 1964. Davis recalls spending hours with Venezia after the races, talking about life and their kids. Venezia left a wife and two children when he died, at age 43—a son, Michael Edward, 15, and a daughter, Alison, 8. "I think about him, not every day, but every once in a while," Davis says. "I don't dwell on it. I still feel a little hurt over it, but there ain't nobody on earth who can change it. I think about his kids, his son and daughter, and I feel that they were lucky they got to know him."
Nor do the memories of the accident haunt Davis as they did immediately after the mishap, when he blamed himself "totally." Totally? Oh yes. After all, Davis says, Drums in the Night had natural early speed, but he had chosen to take him back, leaving him behind Venezia and Mr. Walter K. down the backstretch. If only he had sent Drums in the Night to the lead.... If only he hadn't shown Lindauer how to get to the top of the cliff.... And if only he had been bigger and stronger he might have been able to strike back at his stepfather....
Which is what he thinks he may have finally done, symbolically, on that day last October. "That makes sense to me," he says. And sense is what Davis is still trying to make of what happened to him five months ago. It was a confusing, chaotic, desperate time in his life, and he has not yet fitted all the pieces together. Clearly he had passed through a purging experience that frightened and humbled him, but ultimately lifted him.
And where he found himself on the hazy, sunny afternoon of March 8 was in the jockeys' quarters at Santa Anita racetrack. It was nearly three o'clock. He had just slipped into red-white-and-blue silks and was waiting for the fifth race. He would ride a 15-1 shot, Hickory Crest—his first mount since the accident and his first for his new agent, Jeff Franklin, whom he had hired only five hours earlier. (During Davis's months of inactivity, Goodman didn't take on a new client.) Davis had been touched by the warmth of his welcome in the jockeys' room at Santa Anita—the home of such riders as Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr. and fellow Idahoan Gary Stevens, who won the Kentucky Derby last year on Winning Colors. "They came over and shook my hand and gave me a hug. Chris was very comforting," said Davis as he sat and felt the anxiety mounting.
"Boy, I have butterflies like crazy, but it feels good to put the silks back on," he said. "It's like I've got the bug again, and this is my first mount."
He rode Hickory Crest like a jittery young apprentice too. Heading into the far turn, lying fourth, the filly suddenly kicked into gear and took off, nearly running up the heels of the horse in front of her. Davis, noted for his silky hands, snatched Hickory Crest back too hard, causing her to throw her head in the air. To make matters worse, just after they straightened out for home, he dropped his whip. They finished fourth. "Whew!" he said. "Old fumble-fingers. I'm a little embarrassed. My hands got all tangled up. I felt like a bug boy again. But everything will come back to me."
It began coming back in the next race, in which he finished a solid third aboard Swifterthanthewind, at 8-1, in his only other race of the day. "My hands were normal," he said. Davis appeared tired but relieved as he emerged from the jockeys' room at the end of that first day back, to find Marguerite and the kids waiting to greet him. Even the fans were glad to see him. "Welcome to Santa Anita," one horseplayer said, reaching to shake Davis's hand.
So it was here, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, that Robbie Davis ended up—after fleeing New York, after weeks of traveling the Northwest, after months of tortuous journeying through his conscience and his past. There he was after his two rides, standing near the paddock in blue jeans, as the bugle sounded the call to post for the eighth race and the horses strode through the sunshine onto the track. This was his world, a world of silks and starting gates and powerful thoroughbreds pounding for home.
"It's been a long, long road back," Davis said. "Longer than anyone can imagine."