Beyond this close society of professionals, there is a pool of amateur, or "gentlemen," jockeys. A tradition centuries old is still upheld at hunt meets, and when an amateur rides against pros a "Mr." is always prefixed to his name in the program. (There is an old tale about the kid professional jockey who was looking for an opening in the stretch and screamed: "Let me through, you sons of bitches—and you too, Mr. Bostwick.") The amateur riders are often wealthy, often society types, often owners of the horses they ride. They are lawyers and brokers—or even more basically professional. John Fisher, who owned and rode the country's 1970 champion timber horse, Landing Party, is a veterinarian and is always referred to by the pros as " Dr. Fisher."
The two groups coexist comfortably and accept each other at face value. An amateur will occasionally leave his job in Baltimore and pop up to Belmont to ride—which is rather as if he would fly out to Detroit to pinch-hit for the Tigers every now and then—and the pros all learn to be comfortable performing at the hunt meets. These meets are a world apart from the shopping-center flat tracks; they are relics from a more titled time, places where men still wear cuffs on their pants and where the money—no less than the clothing—is substantial rather than loud. The meetings are called Rose Tree or Unionville, Far Hills or Fair Hill, Middleburg or Rolling Rock.
The hunts appeal to the pros if for no other reason than that they offer them more rides, up to a dozen in a two-day meet. Aitcheson once won five races one afternoon at Middleburg. The jump jockeys must pay their own way to these meetings, passing up their usual exercise and schooling fees for the chance at real competition, and if they do not get a mount or two in the money they might not break even.
There are no valets to attend them, or carpeted quarters or commodious dressing areas. At Rolling Rock, once a Mellon preserve about an hour southeast of Pittsburgh that has been described, and not facetiously, as a "rich man's Saratoga," the jocks must dress in a quaint little Hansel-and-Gretel hut. Aitcheson and several of the others will take their tack and toss it in a pile outside on the ground, lounging on it between races. It resembles, more than anything else, a National Guard weekend bivouac. Between races, the riders strip to the waist and change into new silks under the cool autumn sun.
The scene is gloriously pastoral, antiquated, even innocent, and most years it is ringed by a forest of leafy spangled hues, as if the Devil had set fire to the whole outside world and let only this green bowl stay untouched for the horses and the men who ride them.
Oh, there are some concessions to today. The local beauty queen, topped with her crown, is in honored attendance, and a high school band, scarlet pompons on the majorettes' boots, performs. Friendly bookmakers, chalking odds on their McGuffey's Reader blackboards, cluck a midway come-on. Up on the hill the tailgate set mixes gin and juice and eschews the bookies for more convivial betting pools and the comfort that somebody in their Country Squire thus will win every race. Like everyone else, the jockeys wear tweed coats, buttoning them over their silks when not riding. After the last race, they pile into their rented cars and rush to Pittsburgh for the flight back to New York so they can be up early the next morning to gallop flat horses in the mist. Some kid, sleeping in, who goes 112 pounds and makes $100,000 a year, will get these mounts a couple afternoons later and pick up another few grand.
"You get to know some of the flat boys pretty well," Doug Small says. "Anyway, you do if you are like I was, stuck in the sweatbox with them for hours. They feel sorry for us. They know what kind of money we're making. They don't understand why we do it."
Small is a 6-footer and was trying to weigh under 140. He would sweat out his hours, then endure an agonizing rub-down with regular table salt to force him to sweat some more. Jump jockeys get in automobiles, turn on the heat full blast, add the caldron of an auxiliary heater and drive that way for hours to the races, melting off pounds at 150�.
As soon as he quit, Small picked up 30 pounds and once again became a good-humored individual. "It's great," says his blonde wife Susan. "It's like having been married to two men without ever bothering to get a divorce." Their devotion to their craft, their indigence and their battles with weight do not make jump jockeys the most palatable of spouses. The wife of one, in exasperation, at last gave up and clouted her husband in the head with a golf club. "It was a nine-iron, I believe," says one rider. "No, she used the wedge," says another.
What possesses these men is a spirited kind of pride, even elitism. They can tolerate the second-class indignities, the ignorance of the betting public, the slights of purse and publicity, simply because they are convinced that they are the best riders. Horsemen is the word they fall back on sooner or later. They are proud to call themselves horsemen. Pressed, they flaunt it.