It is an unseasonably hot, dry Sunday morning at Cajun Downs in Abbeville, La. The horses are on the track for the fourth race, scheduled to go off at 10:30. The crowd, gathered along the rail or perched on the roofs of pickup trucks, looks like something Central Casting sent over to use in a scene for Tobacco Road. Beer can tops are popping and bets are being made in two languages, possibly three. It's hard for an outsider to distinguish between the French patois and the southwestern Louisiana American. Some of the bettors seem to be speaking a lingua franca made up of both dialects.
The jockeys are tough, although many are young—very young. Fifteen-year-old Tracey Herbert, who's been riding for four years, has some mean-looking scars on his chest and side, the result of an unfortunate meeting between him and some barbed wire. "I'd just crossed the finish line," he says, "when my horse threw me into the rail." He points toward the far end of the track. "There's barbed wire along the rail down there. After my horse threw me, he fell on top of me. That's how I got these scars." He looks down at his old injuries with indifference. His father, Trainer Leroy Herbert, nods as Tracey recounts the incident and says, "Yeah, the barbed wire's still there, you can't see it from here." That was then. This is now. Tracey gets on a bay named Palomino Joe. "This horse is crazy," he says.
A lot of jockeys who made it to the big time started at tracks like these: Eddie Delahoussaye, Eric Guerin (who rode Native Dancer), Ray Sibille and Ron Hirdes, one of last year's top apprentices, to name a few. Because most of the races at Cajun Downs are short sprints on a straightaway, a jockey has to learn to get out of the gate fast. Everything depends on getting that little extra jump at the start. After that it's just plain old-fashioned hell-for-leather speed. If a rider wants to learn the fine art of rating a horse or jockeying for position, he's going to have to go to a track with corners to it. Fifteen-year-old jockey Kim Frederick intends to do just that.
"I've been riding six years," he says. "I guess I've been in about 1,000 races." The 95-pound kid exudes confidence. "First, I'm going to Evangeline Downs and get a job as an exercise rider. Then I'm going to be a jockey. I'm going to ride there and at Delta Downs. And then," he pauses dramatically, the gleam of a visionary in his eyes, "I'm going to ride at Aqueduct."
Meanwhile, Frederick, Herbert and the other weanling jockeys (like 13-year-old, 72-pound Troy LeMaire, who has been race riding for two years) continue to risk their necks for glory and 10% of the purses. It costs about $25 to enter a horse at Cajun Downs. A two-horse race means a purse of $50, so the winning jock is picking up about $5 a race, plus "tips." Expansive bettors will often tip a winning jockey a couple of bucks here and there. Kim Frederick says you can make $20 to $25 a day in tips. They race on Saturday and Sunday, so if a kid can get on enough winners, he probably can accumulate a tidy nest egg.
Things are a bit primitive at Cajun Downs and the other bush tracks. For example, anyone wanting to know the entries for a race must consult the blackboard in the ramshackle building that serves as restaurant, information center and pool hall. The board might list a match race between Palomino Joe and Apple Gray at five arpents. An arpent is a French measure of 192 feet. All the races are measured either by arpents or yards. Forget furlongs. Forget past performances, too. There aren't any. You don't see anybody around Cajun Downs handicapping his brains out. The regulars seem to know by some telepathic means just who the favorite is. In fact, you can forget all the rules of racing as practiced at "organized" tracks. There are no patrol films, no stewards, no totalisator board and no timing mechanisms. They don't even have outriders. In what passes for the post parade, the jockeys simply walk their mounts down the track a way and back to limber them up. It's horse racing at its most primitive: I'll bet my horse can beat your horse.
At Cajun Downs, the six-chute starting gate stands at the head of a half-mile straightaway, and they're having trouble loading Palomino Joe into the chute. He's so fired up one wonders if he's been given a dose of Cajun running juice. This consists of equal parts of corn whiskey and strong black coffee. The locals say this was used as a stimulant in the old days and that it was not unusual to see a horse still being cooled out at 2 a.m. As it turns out, Palomino Joe is positively docile compared to Apple Gray. Although two assistant starters are holding on to him, he still manages to break through the front of the gate. He takes a sharp left turn, crashing through a metal bar, bending it in the process, and takes off up the two-lane dirt road that leads to the "clubhouse." Loose horses are not unusual around Cajun Downs.
While everybody is scrambling to catch Apple Gray, the race starter picks up the bent metal bar and tries unsuccessfully to fit it into its slot. Ten minutes later both horses are back in the gate. The jockeys stand on the side of the chutes, hovering over their mounts like rodeo cowboys getting ready to jump on the back of a bronco. The starter stands behind the gate holding on to a long piece of yellow rope. When he yanks the rope, it releases the linchpins that hold the doors closed and the race is on.
It's a little crowded in the chutes. One assistant starter holds the horse's bridle. The other straddles the chute, the horse's tail held firmly in both hands. The rope is yanked, the race goes off and Palomino Joe wins by daylight.
A serious bettor can thrive at the bush tracks. He can take in the nine-race card at Cajun Downs (the last race goes off at 1 p.m.), jump in a car and make it over to Carencro Race Way in Carencro, La., 25 miles away, in time to catch the sixth race on the 15-race card. Carencro has the same tumbledown, nailed-together look that Cajun Downs has. But Carencro is a little bigger and a touch more sophisticated. It has a genuine mile oval track as well as a straightaway track. Almost all the races are run on the oval, or at least on one section of it. The longest race on the card one recent day was ?ths of a mile. And there are races with as many as six horses in them, which means a jockey can get some serious experience going around corners and fighting for position.