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Being in a coal mine section automatically makes everything kind of dingy and dirty. This isn't a reflection on Pennsylvania as a state, but I didn't lose anything there. Nothing good ever happened to me there, and I was thinking about graduating from high school and wanting to leave home. I had no really close friends in school, and aside from being close to my kid sister I was not even close friends with my own family. After I turned 16, my father gave me the car once or twice a week, which helped a bit. The last year I was in high school I had some freedom, because I was getting older and I could drive around. I respected my father because one thing he didn't want me to do was to wind up in the coal mines, where he knew there was no future for me. So the only thing that was in my mind the last year I was in high school was to just get away from home. College was out of the question, and there was just nothing around that area in Pennsylvania. So if I went from there and did nothing I'd be better off than staying home and doing nothing. I didn't know where I was going to go until the time came when I had a chance to go on the racetrack.
I definitely did not want to stay and become a farmer like my uncles. My grandfather had come to the United States from a country that was then Austria- Hungary, but which is now Czechoslovakia. So he was kind of Slavic, German—something of that nature. And my mother was English. My father came over here when he was 2 years old, and I think he only went to the fifth grade before he went to the coal mines. My grandfather was extremely old-fashioned. He didn't speak English too much—he still spoke Slavic—but he owned an exceptionally big piece of property, about 400 acres, and I think he had seven sons, and they all worked on the farm.
When I turned 18 in 1950 my father was still undecided whether he would permit me to leave home. The only way I could convince him was that it was a matter of logic. There was absolutely nothing I could do there. The man that first influenced me about going on the racetrack was a former coal-miner friend of my father's named Andrew Bruno. He had quit the mine and had gone to West Virginia and had become a jockey's agent. He came back to our town on a holiday and had a suggestion for me—why don't I try to be a jockey? So I thought, great, you know. I really didn't want to be a jock, and I didn't think I could be for one reason; it was something that had never entered my mind. In Pennsylvania nobody, when they see you and you're small, ever brings it up because very few people in Pennsylvania ever go to the racetracks, particularly in this area, because nobody can afford it.
Bruno was working that winter at the track in Charles Town, W. Va., and when he dropped me a line saying that he would see if he could land me a job—an opportunity to learn to be a jockey—my father said he wouldn't ask me to stay and help him on the farm anymore and that I was free to go. So I took this bus. Except when I was small, this was the first time I had ever been out of the state of Pennsylvania, and I was really petrified. But I was happy. I was petrified and glad at the same time. But, boy, I really felt lost. I finally got to Charles Town, and I got off the bus with just about everything I owned, I guess. I found this address, and I went to this rooming house and asked where Bruno was. And then I stayed there with him that night. The next day I started my career on the racetrack.
We got up real early in the morning and had breakfast, and he took me out to the racetrack of Charles Town. It was the first racetrack I had ever seen. I mean, I was green. I was just about as green as they come.
The first man that Bruno took me to see was a man named Norman Corbin. Everybody knew him as Junie Corbin. He was a trainer there, but I think today he is Clerk of the Scales at Charles Town. I didn't know what I was getting into. All the time I was going to Charles Town I was thinking—I had seen a few racetrack movies, of course—that I was going to go out on a farm and learn how to ride. Of course, I found out different when I got to Charles Town. I was under the impression that there was a school for jockeys, but everything was different.
It's possible to go to a farm and go to work, but around Charles Town, which is on the half-mile circuit—kind of a tin-roof circuit in those days—it's not the same. The track is smaller, the purses are smaller, the horses are cheaper. It's not the elaborate racetrack that you see at Hialeah. But I loved it. It was beautiful. When I went out to the racetrack that first day I fell in love with it immediately.
I think that the funniest thing that happened was when we first went out there in the car and parked outside. Bruno walked over to the barn, I guess to talk to Norman Corbin, and I saw these horses walking by underneath the shed. They'd go around and around, and I never saw so many horses in my life. Every one of them had blankets on, and I wondered where they were all coming from. I never realized that they were walking them around the shed, that they were going around in a circle, you know, and coming back. I thought they were all new horses. I didn't realize that they walk them for half an hour to an hour after the workout in the morning. I knew absolutely nothing about racehorses.
I've always been fond of animals. When my work doesn't depend upon it, animals to me are the greatest. When I was 15 or 16 my father bought a mare, and she had a foal. We raised him until he was a yearling, and then it was my job to break him, and I knew nothing, absolutely nothing, about horses. I knew you've got to put a saddle on him, you've got to get onto him and you've got to ride him—that's all I knew. My father wouldn't help me. He said, "That's your pony, and you break him."
It took me two days to get the saddle on. I had a helluva time putting the bridle on, and that took another four or five hours. So I said to myself, "Tomorrow I'm going to ride him." It rained all that night, and that was probably the best thing for me. I think to break a saddle horse the best thing you can do is wait until it's muddy. The horse is going to slip and slide and be at a complete disadvantage. Well, I got on this pony and, boy, I'm telling you, he didn't throw me but he did everything else. He finally fell down, and I broke him. That was absolutely the only connection I ever had with horses before I arrived at Charles Town. I can say the only good you can get from riding a pony is familiarity with the animal. It gets you over your fear of horses and things of that nature, but you can gain nothing by being a good rider on a saddle horse that will help you when it comes to racehorses, because you do everything exactly the opposite.