Well, after Bruno introduced us, Junie Corbin talked to me for a few minutes, and he said he would give me a try. The funny part about it was that actually I wasn't going to be a jockey. I was going to be an exercise boy, because Junie Corbin had never ever made a rider before. When I say "made a rider" that means there are certain trainers that will take a young boy and teach him how to be a jock, but Corbin had never done this before. All he was doing was giving me a job as an exercise boy. I didn't know this at the time. Of course, I was very happy, because I just liked being away from home. I thought it was going to be great—which it really was.
Junie Corbin talked to me awhile and then took me home to be introduced to his wife and three kids. I stayed at his house for a week until he found me a place to live. It was in a rooming house with his stable foreman, Charles Wright, and an exercise boy working for him, a kid by the name of L. T. McKnight. Charles Wright was the overseer of us two boys. He'd get up in the morning and take us to the track. But Junie Corbin absolutely treated me like a son, and I became extremely close to him and to his family. No reflection on my father—because I know he wasn't able to—but Corbin treated me more like a son, as far as the social end, than my father ever did.
That first day—it was about December 13—he took me to the racetrack because he had a horse called Winter Passes in the second race. It was really cold. So the first race went on, and there were 10 horses in the race and snow all over the ground, and the track was frozen. The horses went down the back side, and the next thing you knew, after they went about halfway around the turn, you never saw such a pileup in your life. Six horses of the 10 went down, and there were six jockeys and six horses sprawled all over the racetrack. I think two or three of the horses had to be destroyed, and I think every one of the jockeys was hurt. One of them had a brain concussion and had a silver plate put in his head. Nick Shuk was one of the first big-time jockeys I ever saw ride, and he was in that spill.
That was my first experience with racing, watching it on a track that was absolutely frozen solid. It was the first race I'd ever seen and the only thing I can remember saying to Junie after the race was over was, "Mr. Corbin, does this happen every day?" As soon as I had said it, I could see from the look on everybody else's face that, of course, it couldn't happen every day. The whole place was in an uproar, and the jocks were refusing to ride, and the rest of the card that day was called off. I started to work for Junie Corbin at the track the next morning.
There was no exact salary. He paid for my room, he bought me clothes and anything that I needed and he also made sure that I had spending money on me. This was very good for me, because up to now I had never had more than $2 in my pocket in my life. But now, by the end of the week, I had $10 or $20 and all my bills paid. I ran to him whenever I needed any help and, just like I said, I was more of an introvert than anything else and I depended upon him quite a bit. He started me out walking horses, and the phenomenal part about it was he evidently must have taken a liking to me, because I never had to do any of the dirty work. I was never a groom, which is a tough job. He asked me what I did in school and things like that, and after I talked to him for a while he just had me walk the horses. He said I walked horses better than I helped clean around the stable, so I never had to do any cleaning of stalls. And he said whenever he thought I was ready to start horse racing he'd start me off, but for the first couple of weeks he would just get me used to the racetrack, which was very good. I thoroughly enjoyed myself.
When they closed the track up, all we had to do, besides feeding the horses, was to walk them around the shed. Then, I guess a week or so before the horses went back in training for the next meeting, the horses would be ridden around the shed. I got to be very close with the foreman, Charlie Wright, and so I would ride the horses around the shed, and this didn't consist of anything, because you can't possibly get into any trouble doing that.
About a week before the track opened they would take all the old straw and everything and they'd make an area—oh, perhaps about half the size of a football field—and this is where they would leg the horses up before they'd put them on the track. It was extremely deep. It was knee-deep—heavy straw. This was my first real chance to get on a horse, taking them out on this straw ring. And I got on this one horse that Norman owned himself, and I really didn't know what I was doing. So I got in this ring, and somehow or other the horse got hung up in the straw and fell. And when she fell I fell on top of her, right on her head. I was absolutely afraid to get up. The horse was laying there, floundering, and I was laying on her head. The funny part about it is that when a horse falls, if you lay on her head she can't get up, and I did this by accident rather than on purpose. All I could do was holler for my boss, and he was four or five barns away. He finally came out and took me off the horse, and we got the horse up.
By now I guess I was bugging the foreman a bit about when I was going to be able to gallop a horse around the track. I thought it was easy. I didn't understand how tough it is. I soon found out. One morning we went out, and Charlie Wright told me I could gallop this particular mare. She was owned by Corbin himself, and she was very tough to gallop. It took a top exercise boy to gallop her, because she'd run off with everybody. "All you have to do is exactly what I say," said the foreman. "She's tough, but if you do what I say she'll be no problem at all. You just get on her, take a long hold of her, give her her head and just let her do whatever she wants to do. If she starts to run off, don't ever take a hold of her head—don't try to stop her. She'll run off for about a quarter of a mile, and when she sees you're not going to try to pull her up or fight her she'll gallop around the racetrack like a baby." I said O.K.
So I got on her back and went out to the racetrack and I started her off. She got off nice and easy but, boy, when I got to the wire she really took off. I wanted to pull her up so bad, but I was afraid to because I'm accustomed to taking orders. So I let her go. She must have been going at a full gallop around the turn, but after she'd gone about a quarter of a mile she just came right back to me. I was kind of proud of myself. Junie Corbin had stopped in his car on the way to the barn to see which of his horses were on the track. When he saw this mare starting to run off with me, he drove like a maniac to the barn to pan everybody out for having me on this horse. "Give me my pony," he shouted, and he came galloping to the track expecting to see the mare still running off with me. But by then she was just galloping like a baby.
"You think you're smart, don't you?" he said to me later. And I answered, "Yeah, that was fun."