SI Vault
Jack Olsen
October 31, 1966
Worlds away from the niceties of Saratoga or Santa Anita, Hidden Valley is one of many stops on the bush circuit, where no holds are barred and no rules are enforced, where ringers run regularly and suckers are fleeced unmercifully
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October 31, 1966

Anything Goes In The Bush

Worlds away from the niceties of Saratoga or Santa Anita, Hidden Valley is one of many stops on the bush circuit, where no holds are barred and no rules are enforced, where ringers run regularly and suckers are fleeced unmercifully

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Finally the three horses, all of them acting a little rank, were crabbing sideways down the track toward the starting gate. Beauty's Watch, or "B. Watch," tried to unload Jockey Terrell just before going into the gate, and then broke cleanly and on top, like the old pro he was. Terrell dropped him off the pace, moved him back into the lead at the second turn, got squeezed tightly between two horses and dropped back again, and finally took off in the stretch to win by a length going away.

Gabby had an unhappy look as he walked out to retrieve his fractious winner. He explained that in all the excitement of saddling up, he had failed to get a bet. He took the reins and began righting the excited horse all over again. "Quiet, you bastard!" Gabby said. "I don't know what's making you so ornery today, you old son of a bitch!" Winning trainer and winning horse posed uncomfortably for pictures and then headed off into the distance in squirming concert, Gabby jerking and pulling at the horse, the horse rearing and fussing at Gabby. "Who's leading who?" a spectator cracked as Beauty's Watch took a three-foot lead on the struggling owner. "Man," said an exercise boy, "Gabby musta stuck the needle in too far today."

"Musta give him the whole drugstore," said someone else.

The precise nature of the betting at bush tracks was not manifest until several races had gone by. In the first place, Hidden Valley Downs is not one of the big-betting bush tracks. It is still in its first season, and Bill Rowland is a careful man, and all the big gamblers know that if any of them showed up with a chalked handbook alongside the paddock, the way they do at Burden and Anthony and Woodward, why, Bill Rowland would throw them out. The betting takes more subtle forms at Hidden Valley Downs. A man walks through the crowd muttering, "I'll take B. Watch and give the field," and somebody else will hold up five fingers, and the bet is on.

The old pros, the gamblers who follow the bush tracks and are loosely described as "the vultures," stood in a blue-jeaned knot behind the spectators and, because of the paucity of the crowd, spent most of the afternoon cutting themselves up financially. "When those guys hustle each other," said a local journalist, "only mankind can benefit." Everyone missed the presence of master bettors (and master horsemen) like the renowned Andy West, owner of Tonto Sam, the bush-track Citation. "If Andy was here, you'd see some action," said one of the racetrack habitu�s. "He goes through the crowd with a big roll of bills in his hand, and he's so clever that it's pret' near impossible to outcon him on a bet. He'll stand there and he'll say, 'I take Tonto Sam against the whole field,' and then he'll call out the names of the other horses one by one and maybe say a word or two about them, till somebody gets tempted, or he'll take Tonto Sam and give you daylight, meaning Tonto Sam has to open up daylight between himself and your horse or he'll offer that his horse'll be ahead by two lengths at the halfway mark, and stuff" like that. Dozens and dozens of different bets, and he's a pretty well-educated guy about horsemen as well as horses. I'll tell you, the people that follow the bush tracks, the real professional bettors, they very seldom go against Tonto Sam or Andy West unless he gives 'em at least daylight."

"This spring at Cimarron," Ron Stull said, "they were running some schooling races, and this stranger pulled in from Canadian, Texas with a little mare that none of them knew. Andy West was there with five horses, and this stranger started complaining about the gates and the track and everything else and bragging on his own horse and making himself pretty obnoxious. Finally he said, 'Hell, there isn't any use unloading my mare, there isn't anything around here that could give her a race.'

"And by this time Andy was tired of it, and he said, 'Listen here, I've taken about all of that Texas lip I'm gonna take. I'll tell you what we're gonna do. I'll run yeh any damn distance you want to run. You name it, and old Sam'll take you on.' And the Texan said, 'How much do we bet?' And Andy West said, 'A dollar a yard!' Soon after that the Texan left a lot quieter than he came. After he drove off Andy West said, 'Boy, I'm glad he didn't take me up on it, 'cause I looked at that mare of his and she looked like a scorpion!' "

Every now and then someone like the Texan will show up on race day, sometimes going to outlandish lengths to conceal his purpose, and make a killing at the expense of the locals. One of the most recent was a stranger who appeared pulling a battered old horse trailer with "Simon Rents" labeled on the side. "Here comes this guy with a one-horse rented trailer with dents all over it," said Ron Stull, "and he didn't even unload his horse. He pulled into the infield and then strutted around in his white shirt and oxfords and no hat, looking just like an amateur, and a little while later he unloaded his horse and won the race and left with all the money. His rig didn't look so amateur then."

For the most part, the professional gamblers of the bush-track circuit make their living by exploiting a few simple facts of human behavior. "There's a lot of people just can't resist taking the field against one horse," one observer explained, "and that's what you usually offer them, expecially if you know your horse has a lock on the race. They figure they've got six or seven horses to your one. That looks good to 'em. And if you've been around horse people you know there's a disease called "owner's blindness.' These men'll pretty nearly always bet on their own horses or their friends' horses, even though actually deep down they know they only have a ghost of a chance. And the pro gamblers skim that loyalty money right off the top when they're out getting bets. After they get all the loyalty money, they start trying to make goad bets, getting people sore enough to accept foolish bets. It's not a bit different than pool hustling. Matter of fact, you go around the pool halls in the dead of winter and you'll see a lot of these same guys. They'll hustle anything—pool, horses, even license numbers. Vultures, that's all they are."

By the fifth race of the blustery afternoon, Stan Goble was in a horseman's heaven of anticipation. Little Bopper was to go three-eighths of a mile against Ron Stull's Weigh Behind, a colt named Jay Bar Do and a mare owned by Gabby Scott and entered under the name Blondie. None of the horses was a winner over the distance at Hidden Valley, and Stan Goble figured that right here and now was the time to show that his training methods were going to pay off. What he did not know, as he saddled Little Bopper in the paddock and boosted the jockey up, was that Blondie was running under an alias, that her Christian name was Dee Van 2, that she had already won 10 or a dozen races during the season and that the distance was perfect for her.

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