May 22, 1974—Belmont Park: Jacinto Vasquez laid out the cards for another round of solitaire. He barely glanced up at the TV monitor for the first race, a low-priced claimer distinguished only by the appearance of one of the sorriest-named horses in the history of the sport: a colt called Grundgy Twerp. As usual, Vasquez seemed relaxed, lounging in his terry cloth robe and flip-flops, occasionally trading bad jokes with the valets and the other riders, but for the most part keeping to himself. When the second race flashed on, he looked up long enough to watch the kid, Vince (Jimbo) Bracciale, trail in next to last on the 2 horse, more than 30 lengths behind the leader.
In a few minutes, Bracciale returned to the jockeys' room with the other riders.
"That horse was a piece of——," he muttered, tossing his number onto the table. He stomped back to his locker. "Aw, forget about him," Vasquez said, slipping off his robe. His valet was holding out the silks he needed for the third race. Without looking, Vasquez slid his arms into the sleeves and stuffed the billowing tail into his riding pants, inside his underwear to hold it down flat. White silks, cherry hoop, cherry sleeves. Of course, they don't use real silk anymore; almost everyone's colors were done in nylon. "You watch this race." He traded his flip-flops for riding boots. "It's that horse of Mr. Whiteley's I told you about."
"Oh yeah?" Bracciale's face brightened. He'd been waiting to see this filly run.
"Yeah. If she run like I think she can, she gonna be a racehorse." Vasquez fastened the snaps at his waist and stepped over to the scale to weigh out, carrying his saddle and saddle pads. The needle pointed to 116 pounds, of which 112 was the man himself. He stepped down and handed the tack to his valet, who went immediately out to the paddock. Vasquez walked back over to his locker and unwrapped a piece of gum. He always chewed gum during a race; it helped him concentrate. He still had time before he had to go up—Jack O'Hara, the clerk of scales, wouldn't give the jocks their first call for another five minutes—but Vasquez was a little restless. He wasn't worried exactly, and if he was more excited than usual he didn't show it. But he was eager to ride this filly. He'd only been on her that once, the morning he worked her out of the gate, but in 15 years of race riding he'd never felt anything move beneath him the way that filly did.
He checked himself in the mirror, smoothed down his hair, pulled on his helmet. O.K., he thought, let me go up see Mr. Whiteley.
The basement halls were empty as Vasquez climbed the two flights of worn stairs that led him out of the bowels of Belmont into the open-air tunnel that connected the paddock to the track. Eyes straight ahead, avoiding the fans scattered along both rails, he tapped his whip against the side of his boot as he sauntered into the emerald circle. Every jock had his own walk. If you watched them long enough, their strides became as familiar as their faces.
Nine times a day, six days a week, the riders took this route as they filed into the paddock, singly or in pairs, talking to each other—or not at all—not about their waiting mounts, but about their golf swings or their Cadillacs or the heavyweight title defense or the new blonde ponygirl. These were the professionals, the top of the line, riding on the toughest circuit in the country; if they were nervous, they kept it to themselves. Even the tight, drawn lines on their faces were misleading: It wasn't tension, but the hours in the hotbox trying to make weight that left them looking taut, exhausted.
Across the paddock, Minnor Massey, the groom, was walking the filly back and forth in front of the stalls. Her owners, Mr. and Mrs. Stuart Janney, who'd flown in from Maryland, and her trainer, Frank Whiteley, were watching in silence. As Vasquez headed over in their direction, he noticed that trainer Woody Stephens was also staring at their filly. Stephens had the favorite in the race, a bay named Suzest, going off at 1-2. "You better look now," Vasquez boasted good-naturedly as he passed Stephens. Then his cockiness got the better of him and he turned back. "Take a good look," he added, " 'cause all you gonna see in the race is my filly's black butt!"
The Janneys shook hands with their jockey, and while they all stood around, waiting, Vasquez stole a glance at the tote board. They had his filly at 9-2. Good. He was gonna make some money on this race. Earlier that morning at the barn, his agent, Fats Weissman, had asked him one last time, "You really think that filly's gonna win? You sure?" Jacinto answered the same way he'd been answering him all week: "I think that filly gonna be a racehorse." Fats would be watching now, over in the office with racing secretary Kenny Noe and his assistant, Charlie Sullivan, and a bunch of other jockey's agents. And he, too, would have put down a little something on the race.