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William Johnson
December 04, 1967
Riding night and day at small tracks in Maryland and West Virginia (left and below), Jesse Davidson became the national champion, but he still dreams of the time when he will really GO TO THE RACES
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December 04, 1967

Go To The Races

Riding night and day at small tracks in Maryland and West Virginia (left and below), Jesse Davidson became the national champion, but he still dreams of the time when he will really GO TO THE RACES

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There are 120 jockeys, more or less, riding on Davidson's circuit; they come from the hills of West Virginia, from cities like Baltimore and Washington, from farms in Kentucky or Ohio. Any dream of glamour or opulence they have concocted is soon erased by reality. "Hell, if a jock don't do good he don't make as much as a guy paintin' or diggin' a ditch," said Davidson. "Maybe they make two, three thousand a year. Half the guys tryin' to ride don't get but 50 horses a year to ride, but they hang around cuz they're too proud to go home. They're ashamed to go back broke." To be a jockey, a man pays a $5 fee in Maryland ($10 in West Virginia), rides a few races and gets track stewards' approval of his license.

Many would-be riders pick up a few dollars mornings working horses. Ironically, a full-time exercise boy gets $2 a mount, but a jockey gets nothing for the workout if he is scheduled to ride the horse in a race that day. "Some owners'll get some second-rate jockey who's willin' to ride mornings to save the two dollars," said Davidson, "then the boy'll lose a close race and the owner drops a $1,000 purse to save two bucks." Worse, some owners will get a mediocre rider for a morning workout by promising him the race that day, then secretly name a better rider for the race—leaving the workout jockey with nothing but a fine sunrise for his labors.

Obviously, given the caliber of some jockeys on the half-milers, some rides have a certain drunk-cowboy quality to them. But, generally, the riders are competent, if not particularly brilliant, to watch—like Jesse Davidson. He has the reflexes (and obviously the experience) to get out of the gate quickly, and he has a reasonably good sense of pace. His reputation among experts is as a sound, no-nonsense rider who gets a bit more out of a horse than other jockeys might.

Davidson stands 5 feet 4 inches—he is considered a "tall boy"—weighs 114 pounds and has one black hell of a time keeping himself light enough to ride. "I got to flip ever'thing I eat when I'm working" he said. "I got so I can do it jest with my stomach muscles now, and it's natural as breathin'. When I go off after the season I git up to 135 pounds and I got to start reducin' six weeks before my meets start. I use Spansules [capsules that depress the appetite] and, man, they make me real mean. I can be home, just watchin' television, and I'll jest feel like jumpin' up and whippin' the kids for nothin'. I git real weak, too, and sometimes I see flashes and stars. It's like dyin' and knowin' it."

Davidson is not, as Charley Baker shouts joyously after every win, "The Greates', positively The Greates'." But he is as good as many riders now coining it daily at The Races. Yet even in 1966, after his riding title, Davidson didn't attract enough top mounts to make it at Laurel or Bowie. "It's luck," he said. "You got to do it in the first three, four days or you might's well pack up your tack and go home."

This year jolly Charley Baker has added himself to whatever lucky charms Davidson may need. Until late this summer Davidson still had his brother as his agent; Sam quit, saying he thought he might try training. Enter Charley, who used to ride the half-milers himself not too many years ago. He is a genuinely pleasant glad-hander and as hard working a jockey's agent as there is on the half-milers. At any track, day or night, when Davidson is racing, it is hard to miss Charley (his mother calls him by his middle name, "Andrew"; his track pals call him "Snake"). After every race Jesse rides, Baker lopes to the paddock or the track bar or the dining room or into the men's room, if necessary, seeking out the mount's owner to shake hands. He takes on an undertaker's polish for a loser, a proud father's braggadocio about "The Greates' " for a winner. Charley is not even slightly hesitant to explain why he should be a better agent than Jesse's brother. "See, I got contacts all over Maryland—Laurel and all over. Now, Sam, he knew West Virginia real good, but he didn't have the contacts at The Races like me. My brother, George, he trains for Mrs. duPont at Bohemia Stable—where they got Kelso, you know?"

Go-getter that he is, Charley sometimes lines up as many as three mounts in a single race for Jesse, then selects the best one and spends the rest of his day either dodging irked trainers or, as he puts it, "coolin' 'em so they ain't mad." Things would, of course, be a bit different if he and Davidson went to The Races. "You cain't git away with multiple calls often at Laurel. They fine you for not keeping your obligations straight," said Baker. "But, man, I got to have strenf for my work."

Charley is up early each morning and at the track by 7 o'clock to participate in the daily scramble to put riders on the good mounts still open. This is an odd scene, unheard of at the bigger tracks. A dozen agents or so appear in the racing secretary's office at the track, and they bicker and bargain to put their jockey's name forward to the official who picks (usually by drawing a number) a rider for an open horse. It is at this time, too, that the day's scratches are announced, and, if one of Davidson's mounts is removed from a race, Baker is quick to shout out Jesse's name for any that are still open.

"You got to be forward, real forward. It don't do Jesse no good if I'm shy," he confided one morning this fall after such a scene at Marlboro. Satisfied that he had been as forward as the situation required, Baker then left the racing secretary's office and cruised, very slowly, through the stable area, waving and nodding to anyone he saw. "I got to do that. I din't have nothin' to say, but they got to see me and then they know I'm tryin'." He drove to the track, stopped and gazed at a handful of people standing there. "Nope," he said. "No one there now, but if I seen a trainer or someone like that, man, I be out of the car so fast and over to him to say somethin'. Maybe just a joke, I don't know. Anything so they know I'm tryin'."

That done, it was 9 a.m., and Baker adjourned to the bar of the Marlboro Hotel, a decrepit establishment, and sipped a gin and 7 Up ("for my nerves") with half a dozen other people. After a couple of nerve-soothers Charley Baker said, "You know, I got 20, 30 head for Jess up at Laurel. We gonna make The Races this time, I know it. I got him promised on Hansome Harve, too, and that horse won more'n $100,000 already. We gonna make The Races for sure."

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