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He started drinking vodka and dropped out of school, in which he saw no future. "A kind of waste," he says. "I had already grown up a long time ago. I hated myself for whatever happened in the old time. I just didn't have no use in life anymore."
One evening, in aimless despair—"I was so depressed, you know," he says—he backed up the El Camino on Kinghorn Road, dropped it into gear and set sail for that big tree. Headlights on, he barreled toward it through the darkness. He doesn't know why he hit the brakes, but he did, locking the drums with a screech. "I slid to a stop about a foot away," he says. "Something touched me. I didn't want to die, and I hit the brakes and I set there, it was three o'clock in the morning, looking at the tree, just crying. I didn't have a dad...."
McOsker has known a lot of men in her life—she has been married eight times, twice to the same man—but none of the men she brought home became a father to the boy. Instead, Davis found his surrogate in Tim Lords, his mother's brother. Uncle Tim was his mentor, his teacher. "The father that I never had," Davis says. "He taught me everything."
Uncle Tim's death in a freak mining accident in 1979 left Davis grieving as he never had. "That was devastating," he says. "It was so unbelievable. I would throw rocks at trees for hours. I was crazed." But Uncle Tim had left him far more than grief and summer memories, as things turned out, and the most valuable gift of all was an abounding love of racing and speed—those hair-blowing, rock-climbing, wind-in-your-face ascents up mountain trails to a freedom Davis had never before known. He vividly remembers when he was four and Uncle Tim would take him riding on the dirt bike. "He went so fast I couldn't breathe," Davis says. "Took my breath away. Sixty miles an hour. We'd fly over jumps, climb mountains. We'd hit something and he'd hang on to me. I wasn't afraid of anything."
At 15 Davis got his first dirt bike—he had saved the money while working at a pizzeria—and he rode it every day. For the deeply scarred young man, that dirt bike meant escape, a way to get away. "I could ride up to 40, 50 miles a day," Davis says. "I loved it. It was my first love. The wind and the mountains and the freedom! I was so comfortable with it." He dreamed of one day being a professional dirt-bike racer, and he began entering small events in and around Pocatello. He won a few races, he says, just amateur stuff: "All I got was trophies."
The 5'1" Davis soon found that he could race for more than that at Pocatello Downs, the local racetrack that was part of a county fair circuit for quarter horses and thoroughbreds. He was almost 19, working at Eddy's Bakery, when a coworker and part-time horse trainer, John Dalkey, urged him to come out to the Downs and learn to be a rider.
"I thought, Hey, I can do that!" says Davis. Soon he had quit his $250-a-week bakery job and hired on as a groom at $65 a week, first with Dalkey and then with veteran trainer Marv Whitworth, who became the surrogate father he had been looking for since Lords had died. That summer, 1979, Davis mucked stalls and slipped into the game as easily as a pitchfork into a bed of straw. He quickly learned how to ride and then really went to the races in 1980, when he rode his first winner, in a 220-yard dash for Appaloosas at the fairgrounds in Burley, Idaho. He still gets a rush, recalling the race.
"Oh, god," Davis says. "Out of the gate it was like a dirt bike coming out of the hills off a jump—voom! Like a dragster coming off the line, with the front wheels coming off the ground. He was really a fast horse. God, what a blast!"
Davis loved his work and threw himself into it, wanting to be a jockey more than anything he had ever wanted in his life. "You'd tell him to be at the barn at four o'clock in the morning, and he was there at four, waiting for you," says trainer Lynn Bowman, who employed Davis then.
"You could set your watch by him," Whitworth says. "I never had a boy so dedicated or want anything as bad. He had ambition. You had to be around him to see the intensity. And what an athlete! A natural—his balance, his coordination on a horse, and real fine hands—and he never, never abused his mount in any way."