"Well, Vermont's sort of in between the two of them," I said.
"Man, I know exactly where you mean," he said triumphantly, starting the horse up again and turning the corner once more.
Still and all, I guess if I had to cast a ballot for the racetracker who most perfectly exemplifies the backstretch penchant for keeping everything in perspective, I would have to vote for Old Tom.
He was a wisp of a man, about 70 years old, with snow-white hair and a waspish disposition. He was retired and lived on his social security in a small bungalow outside Coral Gables, Fla. But every year he came out of retirement for the Tropical Park meeting and went to work as a groom for his old employer, Cy Butler. I worked for Cy one winter and made Old Tom's acquaintance. He was hardly a sociable soul as he tottered about his duties in the shed row, and the rest of us gave him a reasonably wide berth. One day, apropos of nothing in particular, Cy mentioned to me that Old Tom had been present at the San Francisco earthquake in 1906. This intrigued me, since I had never talked with anyone who was an eyewitness to this particular bit of Americana. I resolved to ask Old Tom about it when his mood was right.
My chance came not long afterward. Old Tom and I were alone under the shed one afternoon, the rest of the help having gone over to the grandstand to do a little betting or a little touting, depending on their finances. He seemed in fairly good spirits (for him), so I asked him if he had been around for the San Francisco debacle.
"Yep, seen 'er with my own eyes," he said. He hitched the bucket on which he was sitting forward. "I was working at the track outside of town for Old Man Smathers. I recall we were runnin' a chestnut filly that day, a little washy thing that we hadn't done no good with all year. But the old man figured he had her ready now, and we were all going to bet our money. I was rubbing the filly and we didn't send her to the track—just walked her under the shed for an hour or so first thing in the morning.
"Old Man Smathers came along and asked me, 'How's she look to you, Tom?' Always put a lot of stock in what I told him, the old man did. Told him she looked O.K. to me, and he says, 'We'll all get well today if this cloth-headed boy I got riding her does like I tell him.' "
Old Tom paused to spit, and I realized that we might be quite awhile getting to the earthquake, since he was obviously blessed—or cursed—with total recall. He wasn't much for pauses either, so I had no chance for polite interruption.
Well, Tom went through the morning routine around Old Man Smathers' barn in stupefying detail, then covered what he had for lunch that day and marched vocally and unstoppably into the afternoon. The heat and his reedy voice were getting to me as he spoke of taking the filly to the paddock, of what the old man said to the cloth-headed boy and what that young snot said back. By the time Tom had made a bet and had the filly at the post I was ready to fall off the bucket or scream—I wasn't sure which. Nor did Tom slight the running of the race. He recalled all the bad racing luck the filly had, the incredible blunders by the jockey, who apparently topped his almost criminal performance by dropping his whip at the eighth pole shortly after he took the lead. Now Tom's voice rose in excited rage.
"He just sat there like the mucksack he was while a big common bay horse, runnin" all by hisself out in the middle of the track, come on and nipped the filly right at the wire."