All of the tracks on Jesse Davidson's circuit are "half-L milers" (actually they range from ? to � of a mile around). Naturally, the turns are sharper and the stretches shorter, and they are generally narrower than the mile ovals that grace the classier layouts in the region—Laurel or Pimlico near Baltimore and Delaware Park in Wilmington. But the really significant difference between the half-milers and the milers is neither the length of the track nor the native tackiness of the environment.
It is the money. For the purses waiting at the end of Davidson's races are exceedingly puny, often no more than $1,000 (the average purse at Aqueduct is more than $7,000, at Laurel more than $5,000). The betting handle for a whole nine-race program at Hagerstown or Marlboro seldom totals as much as the big-league bettors put on a single race at Hialeah. When Davidson won the 1965 national title for winners (319), his purses totaled $465,959. Braulio Baeza, racing's No. 1 money winner (and Buckpasser's jockey) that year, earned more than $2,500,000 in purses, while riding 49 fewer winners.
Jesse Davidson's scene is bush, all right. People say that maybe one-third of the owners who enter mounts on the half-milers have a stable of one horse—no more. They say that a sizable percentage of the jockeys' agents consists of renegade bartenders, gas station attendants and truck drivers who get their agent's license largely because it guarantees a free pass to the track. And at least half of the jockeys are angry, hungry little men who barely manage to subsist by betting (or peddling) tips or by taking menial part-time work. People around the half-milers love to tell about two women who took a cab to one track, got a hot tip from their cabby and bet it in the second race. They watched gleefully as the horse won, then one turned, flabbergasted, to the other and said, "My God, Florence, our taxi driver just rode our winner!"
There is a lot of racing like that around the country—at places like Park Jefferson in South Dakota, Pikes Peak Meadows in Colorado, Yakima Meadows in Washington. Not all of these tracks have Appalachia over the hill beyond the parking lot, but generally they do feature poverty's purses, bargain horses and a whole tattered cavalry of jockeys who are odds-on to climb aboard a farm tractor or a forklift truck before they ever mount an entry in a classic race. For most riders these small-time circuits offer no more than a bitter hint of the "real" world of horse racing, where, at least, the silks are neither faded nor frayed, and where there is always hot water in the jockeys' room showers. The jet-set scene of the millionaires—Shoemaker, Baeza, Hartack—is the other side of the moon.
All riders in the bushes—even the thimbleful of them who have done well enough to afford a Cadillac like Jesse Davidson's—spend endless hours away from the track talking wistfully, almost painfully, about the day when they will "go to The Races." You hear them talk about The Races over a vodka and Coke in the morning at a sour-smelling bar near the track. Or while eating a soggy club sandwich next to the inevitable catsup-bottle-and-napkin-holder table decor of a roadside greasy spoon. Or sipping Scotch from a water tumbler at 1 a.m. in a nightclub built of concrete blocks. Always it is The Races. Always the words somehow come out capitalized; they have a hallowed sound. The Races doesn't necessarily mean the Kentucky Derby; any track that's better than the one a jockey's on means The Races.
In Jesse Davidson's Cadillac that night in September, Charley Baker suddenly said, "Hey, Jesse's goin' to The Races, ain'tcha Jess? You goin' up pretty soon now, huh, Jess?" Davidson sank into the black leather upholstery and said, "Nothin' I'd love better, if I was sure I could make it there. But I ain't goin' up unless I get a solid deal. Nothin' risky."
Around Davidson's circuit, people easily remember the jockeys who have gone to—and made it—at The Races. "They was two in the last 10, 15 years," said Charley Baker. "Last one was Howard Grant and before that Hartack in '56 or so. It don't happen often. This ain't like the baseball minor leagues where the boys git ready for the big time. Some big outfits might send their apprentice boys to the half-milers, but it ain't common for old riders like Jess to be brought out. It ain't easy. Me and Jess gonna do it though, ain't we, Jess?"
Davidson said, "I guess I'm gonna try it when Laurel opens end of October. If I git good mounts. On'y if I git good mounts." And Charley Baker said, "Don't you worry none, boy. That's my job; I git you the mounts, Jess." They stopped at a tiny gas station where a few men were spending the evening in social convention around a soft-drink machine; they all greeted Davidson as he went into the station. An attendant filled the Cadillac's tank, then refused Jesse Davidson's offer to pay. "Goddamn," said Davidson, "they do that ever' time I stop. I didn't need no gas." A few miles down the road Charley Baker swung the car up a curving driveway and parked outside a place called the Ferry Hill Inn; it was on a small knob of a hill with a view of the mountains and nearby Shepherds-town. The bartender, a middle-aged woman, said, "What do ya like, Jess?" He liked a screwdriver. Soon several people sidled over from tables about the room to say hello to Jesse Davidson at the bar. Someone started kidding about the young ladies from nearby Shepherd College, which is included in the view from Ferry Hill. "Hey, I see that one in the white sweater again and—hooooeeee! Hooooeeee!" Davidson grinned and said, "Hey, I been meanin' to ask—how's your wife?" They guffawed; Davidson had another screwdriver, and then he walked back to his Cadillac.
A few minutes later, as the car rolled into Charles Town, a sedate and snug-looking hamlet of 3,329 people, Davidson said, "You know, if I wasn't a jock, you know what I'd be doin'? Drivin' a truck. An' look at the way it is now. I ride a little in the afternoon, then we have some drinks and talk to people. They know me and I know them. Then maybe a couple more drinks and I drive a little and ride some more races. Then I stop off somewhere afterward and we talk some more, have a bite to eat and some more drinks. Man, where is it better'n that? It's like a party all the time. You gotta have a lot goin' for ya before you leave all that—even to go to The Races."
At the Charles Town Race Course that night Davidson rode two winners out of his six mounts, making a total of five for the day. As usual, the crowd bet him heavily on everything; when Davidson is on a mount that might go off at 20 to 1 with another jockey, the odds usually drop to maybe 8 to 1, and then, during the race, all along the rail, they stand and yell, "Hol' wif 'im, Jess! Hol' wif 'im, Jess!" It is like that all around the circuit—everywhere on the half-milers the cry is "Hol' wif 'im, Jess!"