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.