After Venezia's funeral, in Westbury, N.Y., on Oct. 17, which Davis did attend, he finally settled on what he had to do. His former agent, Lenny Goodman, had been begging him to keep riding. "It's like falling off a horse," Goodman had told him. "You got to get back up and ride right away. You've got to put this behind you!" But Davis wasn't buying that. He had another agenda, the hidden one that had been haunting him. And so, a week after the accident, Marguerite found him frantically packing all their belongings—winter and summer clothes, books, tapes, pictures, VCRs, golf clubs, dirt bike. "I knew exactly what I wanted," Davis says. "But I was in a frenzy, I was hysterical."
"What are you doing?" Marguerite asked.
"I just want to get out of here!" Robbie said. "I want to escape for a while. Take a vacation. I want to go home. I want to get back to myself. To my roots."
So, at age 27, riding high in his prime as one of the leading jockeys in one of the richest venues of American racing, Davis packed his family and their belongings, aimed his Suburban truck west and hit the gas. Until last week, to the dismay and confusion of all his friends, Davis did not ride in another horse race. True to his word, too, he did go home again.
Pocatello lies in the fertile Snake River Valley in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains in southeastern Idaho, just above the western wing of the Caribou National Forest. It was there, in that one-time railroad tent town that's now a trade and industrial hub of 46,340 people, that Davis was born and raised. He barely knew his natural father, who left his family to get a job and never came back. "He hitchhiked and ended up in Oregon," says Jana McOsker, Robbie's mother. "He just left me there"—with Robbie, then 2, and his sister, Jodi, an infant.
Theirs was a hardscrabble existence. McOsker went on welfare and worked around town as a bartender, a waitress and a cook. The kids lived itinerant childhoods, moving from one place to another, and Robbie attended practically every grade school in Pocatello at least twice. "I'd show up, and they'd say, "Hey, he's back again!' " he says. McOsker says they usually packed up and moved when the rent came due. "I'd move in with my brother until I got another check, and then I'd move into an apartment," she says.
At an early age Robbie began making money. When Jodi lost two fingers in a washing machine wringer, Robbie went to work at a gasoline station next to their house, cleaning out the bathroom and putting the oil cans away at closing. He was five years old and earning 50 cents a night. "He earned 12 dollars and bought her a tricycle when she was in the hospital," McOsker says. At other times he sold Kool-Aid on street corners, and he spent his summers pushing a power lawn mower, the gasoline can swinging from the handlebars, around Pocatello. He washed dishes and bussed tables at a restaurant after school. He hawked the Idaho State Journal on the street. He gave his mother money for gas and groceries. "He once had a garage sale and sold all of his toys so we'd have money," she says. "You wouldn't believe this boy. He was special."
His teachers remember him as a sensitive, polite, hardworking lad who was particularly devoted to his sister. "A real likable kid, the kind you just like to be around," says Del Hildreth, Robbie's homeroom teacher at Irving Junior High School.
Hildreth had no idea what Robbie had endured: the unspeakable instances of sexual abuse he had suffered for four years in the 1970s at the hands of Darner. In 1976 Darner was convicted of sexual assault and served three years in the New Mexico State Penitentiary at Santa Fe. McOsker says today that she didn't know what had been going on in her house until she found photographic evidence of it and brought charges against Darner. Today, she lives with the remorse. "I am very ashamed and don't know what to say," she says. For years Davis told no one about the abuse and it became the central, gnawing secret of his life, until it ultimately surfaced as a primary force that drove him from New York.
By the time he reached the end of the 10th grade at Pocatello Senior High, Davis was entertaining thoughts of suicide. As with many abused children, his sense of self-worth had broken down, and with that came the onset of his chronic depression, his anger turned inside out. "You're made to feel like the lowest thing on earth," he says. "I've been so low at times that I've sat on a curb and felt that was where I belonged. I felt like a bad person. That's the way you feel." His best friend, Jeff Lindauer, had just died, when his truck dropped off that cliff. Davis was stung by guilt over that, too. "Just a month before, I had showed him how to get up there," he says.