SI Vault
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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In the Cadillac Jesse Davidson's pale face was indistinct, blurred by shadows from the late September dusk in West Virginia. His voice was animated, even exultant, as if he were revealing for the first time an ultimate truth of life. "In 40 mile of here, there ain't a place don't know me by my face," he said. "If I left my wallet home and didn't have a nickel in my pocket there ain't a place inside 40 mile that they wouldn't give me credit and trust me for it. I'm known. It's what I got here that I don't have anywhere else."

The Cadillac rolled along a twisting two-lane highway. Far off, the humped Blue Ridge Mountains turned black as the sun dropped behind them, and on nearby rolling pastures, cows grazed in the gloom. Weeds and bushes growing close along the roadside made a dark corridor for the Cadillac; the bushes shook violently in the windy wake of the car.

Jesse Davidson is a jockey, a good one, and he was going to the Charles Town races to ride six horses; he had already ridden three that afternoon at the Hagerstown (Md.) racetrack. At the wheel of the Cadillac, which belongs to Jesse Davidson, was a plump and jolly little man named Charley Baker; he used to be a jockey, too, but he had such trouble keeping his weight down that he became an agent. He now makes his living getting horses for Jesse Davidson to ride—"the greates' horses for the greates' jockey, by God," Charley Baker likes to say.

The Cadillac dropped into a sharp dip in the road, then fled around a curve. Charley Baker suddenly leaned forward, peering out the windshield, and said, "Hey, Jess, what that man sittin' there for?" The car approached a railroad crossing and, in the twilight, a figure could be seen slumped atop a fence at the edge of the tracks. A man, wearing overalls and very much at ease, was perched there—probably to gaze lazily at whatever cars came past that evening, or perhaps even to watch a train go by in the dark. Jesse Davidson said, "I dunno why he's settin' there, but someone always sets up there. They say if you ride by here and a colored boy raises his hand at you, then you win five races." Baker said, "He didn't raise no hand at you, Jess." Davidson replied, "It don't matter. He's a white boy."

As the headlights flashed across the man on the fence, Jesse Davidson looked closely at him; he was unshaven and his overalls were torn at one knee. The Cadillac bumped across the tracks and Davidson said, "People around here ain't got much for bettin'. Or for anything else either. It gets to be real thin pickin's. I ain't complainin' cuz it's been good to me. But it ain't for a lot of 'em." Charley Baker looked across the darkened front seat and shouted, "Hey, you ol' sonabitch, Jess! You know, your on'y trouble is you cain't ride. You jest cain't ride, boy." They chuckled and Baker whooped, "Man, you did good this afternoon, huh, Jess? Huh? You ride three and you win three. Hey, Jess, you cain't do no better'n that, huh, Jess?" Davidson said, "Yeah, I did good. Think I'll go six for six tonight?"

Jesse Davidson, 27, is a hard-scrabble rider with near-demonic dedication to working his trade. His face is wan and gaunt, although the features are clean and almost boyish; there are always purplish smudges beneath his eyes, and at times his eyes burn in a gaze that seems haunted by private horrors, although it is only fatigue. He puts himself through a wracking daily routine in which he rides all the mounts he can get at two tracks—Maryland in afternoons, the Charles Town Race Course or Shenandoah Downs (both in Charles Town, W. Va.) nights under the floodlights. In 1965 that combination of sunshine-moonlight riding made him the winningest jockey in America. Though his name did not become a byword along Broad-way, he is somewhat celebrated in his home territory. Indeed, he carries a loaded .38 pistol in his glove compartment because juiced-up hillbilly hoodlums have been known to recognize him driving late at night and try to ram his car off the road and rob him. As he said, "They all know me by my face."

Davidson rides a circuit in the dim nether leagues of horse racing—in a section of the U.S. rich in history but rather poor in productive prosperity. Not far from Davidson's home in Hagerstown lies the Antietam Battlefield where Union troops repelled Lee's first thrust into the North. And over South Mountain is Frederick, Md. where 90-year-old Barbara Frietchie poked an old gray head out an attic window and into Civil War legend.

But the stoop-shouldered look of the mountains in these parts is symbolic of the weary laboring life of many people who live there. This is that section of the middle-eastern U.S. where the Blue Ridge and Appalachian ranges intercept, where the points and corners of West Virginia, Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania jigsaw together. It is on the lip of Appalachia, the bleak region that has come to be a synonym for outland American poverty. And at the tracks Jesse Davidson rides—Hagerstown, Timonium, Marlboro in Maryland; Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs in West Virginia—it is not hard to see the marks of Appalachia on the crowds.

There seem to be more bib overalls and tattered sweaters than crackerjack plaid sportcoats lined up at the pari-mutuel windows. Li'l Abner grammar is rampant ("That hoss, he win wif his nose, wif his nose just he win!"). Again and again there is that rude surprise so common in deprived regions when a reasonably handsome woman suddenly smiles and displays an awful gap of black in her front teeth. There is an obvious irony, too, in the traditional regal trappings of racing set against such a background. It is all there, of course, the majestic stuff preferred by dukes and earls: brilliant jockey silks, trumpet call to the post, dignified paddock-to-track parade behind a scarlet-coated rider. But you watch it from beneath a grandstand roof that has the look of tin and you sit on a wooden folding chair stamped with something like "Property of the Hagerstown Fair Association," with a view of a smokestack just beyond the track billowing some kind of murky waste into the sky. And next to you, perhaps, is a whiskery mountain man who says that he will bet on a horse called Bus Driver because driving a bus is the job he'd want if he wanted a job.

Some of Jesse Davidson's tracks—Hagerstown and Marlboro, for example—are relatively seedy, with yawning grandstands built of bare girders, cement blocks and corrugated iron. In the infields there are neither great beds of flowers nor Hocks of flamingos; only a scruffy carpet of weeds. And the buildings along the way from the parking lot bear dim and weathered signs saying PRODUCE or LIVESTOCK, a mark of the days when a champion rutabaga or a blue-ribbon rooster was almost as big a draw as the freak show on a county fair midway. Some of the tracks in Davidson's world—Charles Town and Shenandoah Downs—are a bit glossier, with glassed-in stands and fresh paint on the walls.

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