"Come on, baby. Come on, little fat girl."
"Come on, sweetie. Come here before I slap you down."
"Come on, Mind your manners, young lady. Don't get smart. Put that foot down before I get mad and knock the ears off you."
"Come on. Stop being a donkey. Get over. Don't push me up against this thing. I ain't hurting you."
It is 6 in the morning at Barn 8B at Belmont Park, the racetrack situated in Elmont, N.Y. The grooms are in the stalls talking to the horses, shaking out straw. Spot, the old, subdued dog, sleeps on the dark, raked-earth floor. Toes and Calico and the other cats wait on Popeye to bring their breakfast of jelly doughnuts and chicken. A rooster crows, far off. Sparrows awake in the dim eaves. There is the fundamental sound of water slowly filling a pail.
"I had a good time way down in Georgia," sings January. Large safety pins that had done up leg bandages are fastened to his trouser leg.
Alston, a slender, amused man of some abandon whom they call January, is a groom. He does not know why he is called January. "They just call you anything when you come on the racetrack," he says. January, who is 43, came on the racetrack in 1934 and has been with the stable since 1946. He makes $350 a month, shipping money and, on occasion, stake money. (When a stable horse wins a stake race, a portion of its earnings is divided among the hands.) January, like other stable grooms, works a 41�-hour week caring for three horses and their stalls. He has four children. "That's why I ain't got no money," he says. "Only things I never had was no money and no car." January is leery of cars. Once, when he was 18, his employer sent him for the papers. He was reading the dope as he drove back. "I was sideswiped," he says, ruefully. "I was scared four or five days. I wasn't doing no betting then either. I was just getting ideas.
"This is a pretty good game," January says. "This one here. Nothing wrong with this job. If you get up out of bed there's nothing to it. Ain't nothing to it if you start on time. Everything all right. I've fooled around. Now this is a little easier job than fooling with polo ponies, which I did. War shot that polo racket around Rumson, N.J." January was born in Warren County, Va. "I don't know the town," he says. "They got counties there." He was raised in Red Bank, N.J. "I worked on all kinds of farms in Jersey to make a little spending money," he says. "I worked in a defense plant. This here job, there's more excitement. It's not deadening.
"Ninety-five percent of the races are won in that stall," January says. "You ain't got no horse, you ain't got no race. My favorite horse was Oligarchy, but I just like horses like a person like a dog or a cat. I had to say Oligarchy because he won the biggest race I ever won. He was the kind of a horse like that he knew your voice and smell. He was an easy horse to work with. He was the color chestnut and didn't sweat. He had no bad habits, and he's a big, old stud, too. Only way to get along with a horse is find out if they mean or just roguish. Otherwise you'll be on your back. That's the little secret. A horse like music, you know. Most generally a horse like a radio. This is a good game, a good game, real good game. A good game.
"Tell your ma, and tell your pa...," sings January.