ROUGH RIDERS DEEP IN CAJUN COUNTRY IS ONE OF THE LAST BUSH TRACKS IN AMERICA, WHERE THE RULES ARE FEW AND THE CHARACTERS MANY

October 19, 1997

You can see them coming across the Acadian prairie from a long
way off, men in battered pickup trucks hauling their horse
trailers past the corn and the soybeans, the rice and the
sugarcane. The temperature is already well into the 90s on this
steamy Louisiana morning, but the men are on a mission and don't
pay the heat any mind. They're weekend trainers from all over
the state--from Carencro and Lake Charles, Lafayette and
Abbeville--and they concentrate instead on the task ahead of
them, working out finely tuned mental strategies in hopes of
winning a few dollars in purse money at the Quarter Pole in
Rayne, the last bush track (unregulated and unpoliced) in
Louisiana and one of the last in the United States.

Once bush tracks could be found everywhere in Cajun country,
scattered throughout the swamps and the bayous. Such top riders
as Eddie Delahoussaye and Kent Desormeaux got their start on the
bush circuit when they were barely old enough to climb into the
saddle. Old-timers love to carry on about the epic match races
that pitted two speedy quarter horses against each other for
bragging rights and pots as high as $50,000. They tell stories
about larceny on a grand scale, too, about colts doped with
cocaine or morphine, owners who could be swayed by the tiniest
bribe, and betting coups that made wealthy men out of hay
balers, shrimpers and roustabouts.

Things have changed since the glory days back in the '30s and
'40s, of course, but the Quarter Pole still has the sort of
rakish atmosphere that would have pleased the old Kingfish, Huey
Long. Every aspect of the operation is fluid and open to
conjecture. No vets are on the premises, for instance, and no
stewards or officials from any racing commission. Horses don't
undergo urinalysis after they run, nor are they examined very
closely before a race. The only judge on the grounds sits in a
lawn chair near the finish line. The jockeys ride in their
street clothes, weigh in on a bathroom scale and often stroll
into the paddock smoking a cigarette and chugging a beer. The
track itself, a mile-long oval, looks as brittle as hardpan and
in need of a grooming it may never get.

But the weekend trainers keep coming anyway. The first to arrive
today is Donny Jones from Baton Rouge, who steers toward the
Quarter Pole's receiving barn, a tottery old wooden structure.
Jones wears a New York Yankees cap, has a gold front tooth and
might be mistaken for a rap star on the loose. With some
difficulty he coaxes a gelding down from his trailer, a
two-year-old maiden named Big Money who's entered in the fifth
race against two other horses. For the privilege of running,
Jones must shell out an entry fee of $15. If his horse wins,
he'll sweep the $45 pot, although he could earn considerably
more on side bets.

Big Money is very green and behaves so rankly, kicking up his
heels, that he spooks Jones's designated rider, a scrawny guy in
an undershirt and black trousers that are shiny in the seat.
"Say now!" the rider cries, jumping back. "Don't be doing that
to me!"

"Be nice to him," Jones sternly advises.

The rider frowns. He thinks it over for a minute, then rushes up
to give Big Money a kick in the flank, causing the horse to spin
about.

"There," the rider says, grinning. "Now we're even."

Joseph Abshire observes the action from a distance. Mr. Joe, as
he's known to everyone in Acadia Parish, has seen it all and
then some, so nothing surprises him anymore. He spent his youth
performing in Cajun juke joints as a fiddler in a band he formed
with four of his eight brothers, and he toiled in the rice
fields for $20 a month before becoming a successful building
contractor and a man of means. With his wife, Virginia, he
raised four children--including two daughters born in the same
year, one in January and the other in November--but it was his
son, Clifford, who talked him into buying the Quarter Pole for
$360,000 last year.

Cliff Abshire, at 45, doesn't resemble his 68-year-old father in
the least. While Mr. Joe is abrupt and literal, Cliff is a
honey-tongued, drowsy-eyed dreamer. He seems half asleep at
times, but he perks up if a pretty woman is around. Cliff is the
Casanova of the Quarter Pole and lives in a trailer on the
grounds, and even when the track is dark, which it is much more
often than not, he spends most of his waking hours in the dimly
lit, deserted bar there, sipping Cokes and shooting pool. He
used to run jumbo shrimp from New Iberia to Texas, where he
could get a high price for them, and he also worked at quarter
horse tracks around the South and enjoys reeling off all the
ways in which the races can be doctored. He owns four horses,
stables them on the property and likes to visit with them,
occasionally treating one, Mister Fugly (short for M------------
Ugly) to a friendly punch in the jaw.

There is racing at the Quarter Pole only on alternate Sundays,
so Cliff is pumped up this morning as he tours the premises.
"See that pond?" he asks, gesturing toward an algae-choked
puddle in the infield. "They's alligators in there, oh, yeah!
Anybody falls in, they gonna be eaten for sure." He marches
toward the receiving barn, a Marlboro cupped in his palm, and
heads down a dusty shedrow, where he soon bumps into a
sorry-looking fellow by the name of Ed, who's sponging off an
elderly and rickety thoroughbred. Ed says the horse recently
finished last in a race at Evangeline Downs, a track outside
Lafayette.

"He truly that bad, to be last?" Cliff wants to know. The poor
animal paws the ground and actually seems to be embarrassed.

"Yes, sir," Ed says. "But he had it in him to finish."

"Well, that's the main thing," Cliff mutters. He fires up
another Marlboro and begins to paint a rapturous picture of how
the Quarter Pole will look someday, after the plant is repaired,
renovated and modernized--a makeover that would cost about $1.5
million, according to a recent estimate. Where the money might
come from is anybody's guess, but Cliff believes that an
investor will eventually turn up, and when that happens, the
Abshires will have simulcast wagering in a fine new grandstand
and the Quarter Pole will be a tourist attraction as popular as
Bourbon Street in New Orleans.

By 11 a.m., the sun is fiery in a cloudless sky, and the
receiving barn is filling up with horses. While a scratchy radio
pours out country stomp, the assembled trainers wrap faulty legs
in bandages, administer medication, swallow aspirin, whisper
prayers and swap war stories. They come to the Quarter Pole for
the fun of it and also because they love horses, but that love
is tempered by the constant struggle of their hardscrabble
lives. Take William Duplichan, who drives an oil truck and is on
intimate terms with bad luck. He casts a baleful eye on Streakin
Chip Chip, his lone entry, who's padding about in a stall.

"That horse," Duplichan begins glumly, "he won the very first
time he run. He won at a recognized track, too, but he ain't won
since then, and he's had seven chances. Seven chances! Trouble
is, he's scared of everything. He don't break from the gate at
all. He's fast, though, I guar-ran-tee. I'm putting him up for
sale as a saddle horse. You think he might be worth $1,500?"

"Might could be," another trainer replies. "You never know."

"No, you don't know. He could be worth $1,500."

Duplichan glances around and counts heads. "Where are all the
jockeys?" he asks. Then he serves up a prophecy: "I'll tell you
what. Ain't going to be enough jockeys here today!"

A crowd of spectators is gathering at the track. The Cajun men
are tanned, wiry, and leathery, and they favor tractor caps or
straw Stetsons to protect them from the sun. They pay $3 to get
in, while the women pay $1 and the kids fend for themselves.
Everybody gets a free program. It's a single mimeographed sheet
that lists the horses running in all six races, as well as the
owner and trainer of each--often the same person--but not much
else. Handicapping is impossible. There is no Daily Racing Form,
tip sheet, tote board or pari-mutuel betting. Wagers are usually
made privately, one individual against another, with hunch bets,
weird theories and stabs in the dark prevailing.

Some fans drift toward the receiving barn to see what they can
learn. They're almost all clutching a can of beer, and they
will, by and large, keep drinking until no beer is left at the
bar or until they fall asleep. The trainers gossip freely, but
they tell different people different things.

"That horse you got in the fifth, he look pretty good?" a
customer asks.

"He looked good when he woke up, but he don't look so good now,"
the trainer says.

"Maybe he needs a nap."

"Well, he ain't gonna get one!"

Hovering close to the barn, too, are Joseph Meaux and Kevin
DeVille, a pair of tough-talking young men who gallop horses in
the morning for the sheer pleasure of it. Meaux and DeVille both
smoke cigars, dip snuff and spit with authority. They will do
almost anything to get up on a good strong colt, and their
fondest shared wish--other than the wish to have steady
girlfriends--is to be licensed jockeys, like Joseph's father,
Claude.

"I like this heat," DeVille says as the mercury soars past the
100[degree] mark. "My hands don't work right in the cold."

Brown spit drips from Meaux's mouth. "Cold don't bother me," he
brags. "I go on trail rides in the winter."

"So do I," DeVille counters quickly. "I go on trail rides all
the time! I ride through the lightning. I ride through the
thunderstorms. I ride to meet my mother!"

In a shack near the paddock, an undersized fellow grills pork
cutlets over a pecan-wood fire. "I'm a ladies' man," he says to
no one in particular. "Oh, yeah, I am a ladies' man for real."
He works the barbecue as a volunteer and a friend of the
Abshires; only friends and family work at the track. Virginia
Abshire presides over the kitchen behind the bar, where she's
putting the finishing touches on her jambalaya, which goes for
$2.50 a plate. She has had her hair done for the races, and she
pats it as she offers a customer her gumbo recipe.

Dianna Abshire, Cliff's 42-year-old sister, is the busiest
person around. She is the track's accountant, gardener, barmaid
and racing secretary. It's her job to draw up the card. Trainers
phone her with their entries on Saturday afternoon, and she has
the program typed and copied by the next morning. The trainers
can be finicky, she says. Some refuse to compete against each
other, citing blood feuds or terrible slights, while others want
an early race, knowing that by late afternoon the beer will
affect their judgment.

Ask Dianna what she likes best about her job and she'll tell you
it's the people. Her biggest problem? Crowd control. A sign
warns patrons that anyone caught fighting will be fined $250.

"All I knew about racing before this," says Dianna, "was to sit
down and enjoy it. Now I don't have a minute to myself." She
stares pointedly at Cliff. "But these races are something! We've
raced mules here and Shetland ponies. One time six men put up
$30 apiece, climbed into the starting gate and ran a footrace,
winner take all. Us women, we wanted to race, too--and we would
have!--but I realized that if we did, there wouldn't be anybody
left to do the work."

Cliff Abshire is speaking. As the track announcer, his only
formal job, he sits near the bar and holds a microphone while he
addresses the crowd, his feet propped up on a table. From his
command post he has a fine view of the spectators, and it isn't
beneath his dignity to direct a flirty remark at any woman who
strikes his fancy. He is dressed in a T-shirt and jeans, and his
voice is sly and seductive, even though the first bulletin he
delivers isn't what the fans want to hear.

"Well, folks, looks like we won't be startin' at one o'clock
after all," he says, checking his watch. "We're runnin' a little
behind. Seems this one jockey, his car broke down, but he fixed
it, and he's on his way comin' here now. Be about, oh, 20
minutes."

The fans standing by the empty paddock grumble and hoot. They
have been socking back beer for three hours or so, not counting
what they might have drunk with breakfast, and they kick at the
cans on the ground and study their programs out of pure boredom.
After 30 minutes the grumbling has turned into a roar, and an
uprising seems imminent, with Cliff being rousted from his regal
perch and fed to the alligators in the infield pond. He senses
this and pleads for a replacement rider--it could be anyone,
really--and soon trainers are leading three thoroughbreds out of
the receiving barn. The assembled fans squint and count the
horses' legs.

"I get the feeling!" a tattooed man with huge biceps shouts, as
if he were at a revival meeting. "I get the feeling on the 2 for
$20!"

Nobody responds. Shot Byruff, the 2 horse, looks much healthier
than his opponents, Beau Fly and Phar Lap, and is the clear
favorite. "I get the feeling!" the man shouts again, sounding
irritated. He spins on his heel to confront a fellow who's
carrying a cane and has a shaved head that glistens with sweat.
"Hey, you there! Why you don't bet with me and take the 3 or the
1?"

The fellow stops in disbelief. He's insulted. "What you think I
am, cher?" he asks grandly, playing to the crowd. "You think I
just fell off a banana boat? That I'm some type of fool? No, my
friend. I am an African-American gentleman!"

The tattooed man shrugs. "We all the same here," he says.

"No, we are not all the same!" Now the fellow is angry, and he
lunges forward with his cane and tries to hit the tattooed man
in the head. It isn't hard to imagine a trail of teeth and bones
around the paddock, but others in the crowd step in and pull the
two men apart. More cane waving follows, along with the repeated
cry "We are not all the same!" The odds on a race riot begin to
drop as time passes, going from even money to 10-1, and by late
afternoon the two adversaries are standing together and
comparing notes like the best of friends.

The jockeys finally stride into the paddock, put down their beer
cans, snuff out their cigarettes, then saddle up and urge their
mounts onto the track. After a short gallop they enter the
starting gate for a 4 1/2-furlong race, the longest on the card.
The horses look calm, but when the gate snaps open, Phar Lap
rears up and unseats his rider. (It's the scrawny guy who kicked
Big Money, an example of karma in action!) While the jock lies
in the dirt, Phar Lap turns tail and speeds off in the wrong
direction. He seems destined to collide with the other horses in
the homestretch until the tattooed man leaps over the rail,
plants himself in the path of the runaway and crisscrosses his
arms in a semaphore pattern, stopping Phar Lap.

By now the thrown rider has been stuffed into the front seat of
a pickup truck and driven to the paddock, where well-meaning
onlookers advise him to breathe deeply, loosen his trousers,
remove his shoes, drink some cold water, drink some hot water,
and rest in the shade. There's no doctor to separate the
potentially helpful suggestions from the possibly harmful ones,
so the rider's eyes twirl back, and he faints. In a couple of
minutes, though, he blinks twice and rises like Lazarus from the
dead, hobbling from the truck as he moans, "I got three more
horses to ride." Ride them he will. All three will be losers.

As the day progresses, the quarter horses take center stage for
a series of sprints. Before every race Cliff grabs his mike and
launches into his litany: "I've got $2.50 on the 1, $2.50 on the
1." He's putting together Calcutta pools: a customer for each
horse, then the pool is closed, and he begins again. The house
gets a small percentage for the service, but just now Cliff is
more interested in a slinky, blue-jeaned blonde at the rail. He
informs her over the mike that he actually owns the Quarter
Pole--part of it, anyhow--and isn't just a hired hand.

In the third race Streakin Chip Chip gets a chance to redeem
himself, but he performs just as William Duplichan predicted,
leaving the gate long after the other horses have departed. Soon
children may be riding him at carnivals and church bazaars. As
for Big Money, he goes off in the fifth, but can't keep up with
Cajun Jet, a local favorite. The gelding's only solace is that
his rider doesn't kick him again. At the rail Cowboy Meaux,
Joseph's grandfather, watches Big Money amble to the barn and
tells a security guard how he once gelded an overly frisky colt
by himself, discovered it had three testicles and celebrated
with a fifth of Jack Daniel's.

"He have three for real?" the guard asks.

"Damn straight," says Cowboy. "And he ran much better after he
lost 'em."

Some fans are desperate by the sixth race. At the Quarter Pole
you must rely on intuition and hot tips, and when the tips grow
cold and your intuition buckles under to paranoia, you're
finished for the day. Only luck matters in bush racing, and
every Cajun knows that luck can't be courted. Instead it gets
sprinkled randomly around the universe, landing on a rice farmer
one afternoon and on his bluetick hound the next. All you can do
in the face of such chaos is give in and throw a party--which
these Cajuns proceed to do, cranking up the jukebox and dancing
to Hank Williams.

The party is in full swing when the last race goes off. By now
scarcely anyone bothers to bet. A few trainers have already
loaded their trailers for the drive back to their drab everyday
lives--kids, wives, mortgages, even bosses--but others move
directly to the bar, where they will stay until closing time at
2 a.m. Cliff, too, is in his usual spot and knocking back a
Coke, his singular labor completed. Who's to say that the
Quarter Pole won't someday attract as many tourists as the
Atchafalaya swamp? A man's entitled to dream. Besides, the
lights are down low, Percy Sledge is wailing, and Cliff has a
new phone number in his back pocket, one that belongs to a
slinky, blue-jeaned blonde.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL [View of two jockeys on race horses at a bush track] TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL At the Quarter Pole, it isn't always easy to tell the paying customers (opposite page, making wagers among themselves) from the paid participants, such as jockey Claude Meaux. [Several people exchanging money; Claude Meaux] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL From his vantage point in the trackside bar, Cliff (with microphone) calls 'em as he sees 'em, from winners to women. [Cliff Abshire and others in bar] COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL Handicapping information is scarce at the Quarter Pole and picking winners a matter of luck, but victory is nonetheless sweet. [Spectators watching horses in race]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ANTONIN KRATOCHVIL A horse that does poorly at the Quarter Pole may soon find himself being ridden by kids at carnivals and church bazaars. [Horse looking out trailer window]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)