Vance has total recall when it comes to identifying horses. Working out in the morning, horses don't wear names and numbers. It helps if you can tell them apart. Lasater, who has to ask the grooms to identify his own horses in his own stable, is somewhat in awe of Vance's memory. "One time I was standing out on the track by him," Lasater says, "and this other trainer brings a horse out and David says, 'Well you finally got that horse back.' And the other guy couldn't believe it. Look, it was two years since that horse had bowed. He hadn't been on a track in two years, and David took one look and remembered that horse."
"David don't just attend to his own business," says an admiring crony.
It is in the solitude of the mornings that Vance mostly decides what to claim. He likes to find honest old horses he thinks can be brought back to form. "The best thing for me is, I have this man lets me do what I think's best," Vance says. "I don't get woke up nights asking me why I do things. I can just go out on the track and watch. You see a lot of things out there if you just look. You see a horse three, four days running, you can get familiar with him, and you think you can see how you can get him to win for you."
Claiming is the ultimate in brokering. The man who trades stocks buys individual issues, but his decisions are influenced by the whole market trend. The price of pork bellies and grain futures are likewise affected by such future variables as weather and union disputes, which simply cannot be factored into an equation. Real-estate speculators can look like geniuses because they know where the interchange will be built. Horses are something else again, no excuses. If you make a mistake and claim one who can't run as fast as you thought, then you have got yourself one slow horse is exactly what you've got. Down through American history, it became a badge of praise; the highest acclaim you could pay a clever man was to call him a horse trader. David Vance is a horse trader.
The rules of claiming are clear but subtle, and they must be played like tax loopholes. Mainly, if you take a horse, you cannot run him again at that same selling price, or lower, for 30 days. If, for example, you claim a horse for $10,000, you must run him in a race for more than that price—probably for $12,500—or you must give him the month off, just eating and sleeping. Since it costs about $1,000 to keep a horse for a month, it behooves you to claim one you feel pretty sure is underpriced. For $1,000 you could have some time in Puerto Rico for yourself.
Vance calls this month "jail," and the trick is to make money with the horse while he is still incarcerated. "All I'm interested in is getting one win," he says. "Some guys move a horse too far up the ladder when he's in jail. They'll run a $10,000 at 15, 16. By the time that horse gets out of jail, he's been beat so bad he's lost his confidence, and he can't even win at the 10 you bought him for. Now, on the other hand, if you claim a horse at 10, and he wins for you in jail at 12-five, then you have them. Hell, you can come back and run at seven-five. You'll probably lose him to somebody else there, but in the meantime you can't miss picking up the purse, so you're still ahead. Just give me the one win."
Of course, how Vance gets the one win is something else again. Darrell McHargue, the intelligent young man who rides Lasater's best animals, comes into the track kitchen at Monmouth—which everybody at the races always pronounces without the n—Mamuth—with his agent, Harry (The Hat) Hacek. They get some coffee. "David's pretty well within himself," McHargue says. "Sometimes he's just got me bewildered. There's a lot of trainers that just train physical. That's all they know. David works on a horse's head, too. He outsmarts him and gets him training right."
Lasater comes over with a cup of hot chocolate. It is just past dawn, and Vance is already up on his pony on the track, sitting and spitting for a few hours. Around the stables, at the kitchen, things are coming to life. People are congregating. Lasater says hello to a bunch of people. He is one of those who can stay out till four o'clock drinking Crown Royal whiskey, and then be there at the track at 6:30, quarter of seven, looking like he went to bed with a glass of hot milk and some cookies right after The Waltons went off. Lasater likes the morning at a track better than the afternoon, when the strangers, the tourists from outside the gates, come around and clutter up his place.
Of course, a racetrack is different from a small town in one important way. It is more throbbing, rawer. Because everybody is betting all the time, fortunes change and hopes are higher, whereas the poor people in the small towns are almost always poor, and their prospects are not especially keen. At a racetrack, no matter how tapped out you are, you believe you're always just one big tip away from a score. A lot of people on the backside shovel good money at the iron men every day, but at least some of it comes back occasionally, and that's reason enough to remain a citizen backside.
In the kitchen, over where Lasater got his hot chocolate, a big sign says: