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.