A lot they care around a racetrack if, in the outside world, principalities totter or nuclear holocaust threatens. The grooms, exercise boys and others who inhabit the backstretch hardly know an outside world exists; they are monkishly devoted to their own chicken-today-and-feathers-tomorrow milieu.
A case in point is Goofy Gamble, an exercise boy I once knew on the New England racing circuit. Goofy's nickname was a tribute to the fact that he would ride anything with hair on it. It was generally felt that his willingness to do this passed all reasonable bounds. It got him a lot of work, though.
We were all at Rockingham Park when a trainer came up from the South with a string that included a horse whose reputation had preceded him. This horse had a record for dismembering lead ponies and crippling exercise boys, so Goofy Gamble was sent for. Goofy was grandly casual about the whole thing and agreed to report in the morning to gallop the outlaw.
At the appointed hour the rail was lined with trainers, exercise boys and stable hands who were out to watch the blood flow. It was a raw, rain-washed New Hampshire morning, with the track more of a marsh than a speedway. The trainer of the carnivorous horse led him down to the gap along the backstretch, Goofy strolling unconcernedly along. Then Goofy was hoisted aboard.
"Just gallop him once around easy at about a two-minute lick," the trainer said, and he might well have added, "May God have mercy on your soul."
Goofy turned the horse and jogged away toward the far turn. Without a sign of trouble he broke him off in a long, smooth gallop, splashing his way down the center of the track, where the going presumably was best. The onlookers watched in disbelief as the horse lengthened his stride and swept gracefully out of the turn and into the homestretch, well behaved as could be.
The pair was galloping past the grand-stand when the horse veered sharply toward the inside railing. So violent was the motion that Goofy lurched far out of the saddle. Three strides later his mount left the ground with the zest and form of a steeplechaser. Goofy's head snapped back, popping like the lash of a coachman's whip, but he was still in the saddle when they landed.
Across the infield of the track the horse flew, now his evil self again and enjoying every minute of it. Goofy stood straight in the stirrups and sawed at the horse's mouth. This made him run faster. The inside rail along the backstretch loomed ahead. Goofy sat down and clutched a double handful of mane. Standing well off from the rail, the horse jumped again in one of his incredible arcs, landing well out in the middle of the track. When his feet hit the mud he slid across the greasy track as though on skates, then crashed into the outside fence. The impact bounced horse and rider back 10 feet—and there they stood for a moment.
Then Goofy calmly wheeled the horse and jogged him quietly down the backstretch toward the gap, where the bug-eyed trainer was folded helplessly over the rail. Goofy pulled the horse up and slid to the ground. He was loosening the girth when the trainer somehow managed to haul himself upright and croak, "How did he go?"
Goofy glanced at him over his shoulder, idly.