It is a tin-plated, parochial fame, to be sure, but it was devilishly hard-earned nevertheless. Since 1957 Davidson has raced more than 9,000 times—in Ohio, and Canada, and New England, and a couple in Mexico and even two at Saratoga, besides the thousands of trips around the weedy infields in West Virginia and Maryland. He was a 16-year-old dropout in Manchester, Ky., when he answered a want ad for a stable cleaner in Mechanicsburg, Ohio and went to work for room, board, "two bottles of sody pop and a pack of cigarettes ever' day." The man he worked for made him an apprentice, and after riding only half a dozen of his 9,000-plus, Davidson got his first win on September 18, 1957 on a horse called Smoke Talk at a place called Cranwood in Ohio. He was off—but not to The Races.
One night in November 1958, when he had close to 100 wins and he thought the man was about to bring him out for some "real ridin'," Davidson's mount panicked in the gate, reared and flipped over backward. Davidson's leg was caught between the horse and the steel stall; the bone snapped. The next April he had just been riding again for a week when another horse, in Wheeling, W.Va., bucked him off at the start; the freshly mended bone broke again in the same place. And the man who had Davidson's apprentice-rider contract let him go.
In the winter of 1960 Davidson and his brother Sam, now 31, drifted to Charles Town to try and scrounge some mounts. "I didn't know nobody there. I didn't do no good," said Davidson. He lived in a tiny house trailer behind a gas station; he galloped horses in the frozen raw mornings, and he practically begged for someone to give him something to ride. "No, I didn't do no good at all; I wasn't gettin' 10 mounts a week. The ones I got was bad ones, too." The broken leg still pained him in the cold, the money he had saved from his promising apprenticeship had dwindled to $500—so Jesse Davidson got married. "In a way, that an' breakin' my leg was the two best things that happened to me," he said. "By God, I learned that no matter how much money I make I might not have none someday. Like Howard Grant. He musta made a million dollars, and they tell me now he's broke. Kids ridin', you know, come from nothin' and, if they're lucky, they make more money'n they ever seen. They don't know it's worth anything, so they blow it—woooooosh. I done plenty of blowin' it in my day, but breakin' my leg and get-tin' married cured me. My ol' lady ain't never had to work."
Jesse Davidson's ol' lady is a pretty Cuban-born brunette named Nancy; she is 25, daughter of a jockey-turned-trainer, Albert Martinez. "We never had but two dates," said Davidson, "and then we got married." They now have three children—Brigette Yvonne, 6, Yvette Yvonne, 3 (the middle names were picked because "they jest sound good," said Davidson), and Annette Cherie, born October 30. Since 1963 the family has lived in a big brick ranch house, with thick green carpets, a stone fireplace and a two-car garage (half for his 1967 Cadillac, half for her 1967 Mustang). The house is set high on a hill outside Hagerstown, and the first thing Davidson does when a visitor stops by is yank the cord on the drapes, unveiling a vista that reaches, as he puts it, "35 mile on a good day—clear to Hamilton."
But Jesse Davidson and his ol' lady got that view only after a bruising, sweltering summer riding with "them goddam factory workers" on the New England circuit in 1960 and another chilling winter-spring season at the Charles Town tracks in 1961. "It was real bad. I won on'y 12 races until summer. Then all of a sudden I got lucky or somethin'. All I did about ridin' was to raise my stirrups so I set down lower on the horse. I don't know what else happened, but, by God, I won 44 at the second Charles Town meet and more'n 90 at Shenandoah. Man, I was off!" He began to get mounts at other half-milers and, incredibly, wound up fourth in winners in the U.S. He was fourth again, in 1962, ninth the next year.
"See?" said Davidson. "That's how it works. You git lucky, win a couple in a row and all of a sudden they cain't wait to git you on their good mounts." In 1964 Davidson rode at Laurel, Bowie, Delaware Park and traveled to some of the classier tracks in Canada. He did well and even got two mounts at Saratoga that summer (one finished second in the $25,000-added Test Stakes—the richest race Davidson has ever ridden in). Then in September he tumbled into a lethal windmill of horses' hooves during a start in Canada, cut his face so badly that he was out for the rest of the year and went home to Hagerstown. "I never even called 'em in Canada th' next year," he says. "We was makin' more money there, but we spent so much livin' that it wasn't worth it."
In 1965 Davidson did not try to make it at major U.S. tracks. "I just decided to stay home and do my best," he said. Again he had some tough luck. In September he fell during a start at Charles Town and wound up with two black eyes, cuts all over his forehead and a bruised neck that pained him so much that, even after a two-week layoff, his valet had to lift him into the saddle before each race. Yet that's when he won the national championship.
No one from Aqueduct to Yakima Meadows had more winners than the 319 he rode. And no one had more mounts—1,582. To do it, Davidson undertook a commitment of almost round-the-clock toil. The Charles Town tracks operated 235 programs that year: Timonium, Hagerstown, Marlboro ran for seven weeks all together. Davidson picked up a few more mounts at Bowie, Laurel and Pimlico, but of his winners no more than a dozen came from the bigger tracks. Davidson's owners on the half-milers didn't insist that he work horses in the mornings, and that helped ease some of the strain. He had already done well enough to afford a Cadillac for his commuting, and his brother Sam, who was then working as his agent, helped Jesse with the driving. There was enough for two. During the meeting under the tin roof at Marlboro that year the Davidson Cadillac racked up more than 200 miles every day—95 miles from his home to Marlboro, 75 miles back to Charles Town, 35 miles home to Hagerstown. (For Timonium, the round trip was 190 miles, for Hagerstown, 75.) The days seldom ended until well after midnight, and there were times when Davidson rode nine races in the afternoon, then eight more at night. "Jesus, you can't believe the tension I had," he said. "It all but eats you up, knots up your stomach and you cain't shut your eyes when you git to bed. I'd be ridin' horses all night, hearin' jocks yellin', whippin' mounts, feelin' the reins cut my hand. I didn't drink nothin' 'til about that time; I just didn't care about booze. But if I didn't have a shot or two I couldn't ever shut my eyes. I don't drink all that much, but it relaxes me and I still got tension cuz I'm ridin' day and night most all the time still."
In his own day-night bailiwick, no one makes more money than Jesse Davidson. He grosses around $50,000 a year, and, after giving the usual 10% cut to his valet and 20% to his agent, he winds up with something over $30,000 before taxes. It's a long way from poverty, to be sure, but it's a far, far longer way from the affluence of Shoemakers and Baezas.
"Hell, I ain't all that fascinated with gettin' rich," said Davidson. "But if I was doin' good at The Races I know I'd make three times as much as I am here—without ridin' two tracks a day neither." Jockeys get from $17 to $25 for starting a race, from $37.50 to $50 for a winner. But the customary jockey's stake—10% of the purse from the owner, which is tantamount to unwritten law at the major tracks—is by no means a certainty on the half-milers. "A lot of owners just ain't got it to give," said Davidson.