Whitworth and Davis grew so close that until very recently Whitworth was the only person with whom Davis had shared the secret of his past. "It makes your gut crawl," Whitworth says.
That fall Davis packed off to a quarter-horse and thoroughbred ranch in Southern California. He got his seasoning there, riding and exercising 22 horses a day all winter, but what he really learned was what he wanted to do with his life. The inspiration dawned on him the day he visited Santa Anita Park, the Taj Mahal of California racing. In the spring, with the Idaho racing season coming up, Davis announced he was going to ride in California. Whitworth told him to stay one more summer in Idaho. "You're not ready for California," Whitworth said.
Of course, Davis stayed in Idaho. He was the leading rider that summer on the fair circuit—at bullrings in such places as Idaho Falls and Blackfoot—but when the fall came, there was no keeping him in the bushes. In fact, he was gone for good, heading for the thoroughbreds, the big time. He tried his hand with a trainer at Turf Paradise in Phoenix and won four races there, and followed the trainer when he moved to Louisiana Downs. But he languished there for months, unable to get mounts. He had begun his one-year apprenticeship in May of '82, after he had won the fifth race of his career, but he went nowhere with the "bug"—the weight allowance granted to apprentices—in so provincial an outpost as Shreveport. One afternoon, jockey Sam Maple told him that he ought to go to New York. "They'll ride you with the bug in New York," Maple told him. "You might not stay when your bug is over, but you can make $100,000 there as an apprentice."
That's all Davis had to hear. A few days later he was edging his El Camino across the East River and onto Long Island. He hired himself a hustling agent, Steve Adika, and together they lit up the tote boards. The very sight of mammoth Belmont Park, with its sweeping grandstand and infield and its 1½-mile oval, left him in awe. He climbed on his first mount in New York, Commanche Brave, on Sept. 2, 1982. "I walked out of that paddock to the track and it took my breath away," Davis says. "I thought, I'm here. This is it."
Commanche Brave, a 20-1 shot, won that race, and it was not long before Davis was the hottest bug boy in New York. At Aqueduct that winter, he was the leading rider in races won, with 51. He won his first stakes race, the Lucky Draw, on Rock Lives, in February of 1983. He won some 170 races as a bug, all but 17 of them in New York and New Jersey, and made more money than he had ever dreamed of seeing. When he lost his bug on May 28, 1983, he found that Maple had been right. "I had $100,000 in the bank," Davis says. "Cash! I was ready to come right back to Pocatello. I was going to be the King of Pocatello! I was going to have the nice car and the boat and take all my friends fishing."
He did nothing of the sort. Instead, he went back to work. There was the inevitable lull in his action after he had lost his weight allowance, but Adika pestered trainers to give Davis a break. Six weeks later, sure enough, they started lifting his leg again. "Steve pushed and pushed us to ride him," says trainer H. Allen Jerkens. So, unlike most hot apprentices who lose their bugs and disappear, Davis stuck in New York. Of course, it was more than just Adika who did it. "Robbie learned as an apprentice how to rate horses," Jerkens says. "Through the years, guys who learn to rate horses keep going. Guys who don't learn, don't do anything after they lose the bug."
His early triumphs notwithstanding, Davis lived a difficult life in New York. He usually kept to himself. "God, it was lonely," he says. "I'd win a $75,000 stake and come home to an empty house. What a cold feeling. You tend to be a loner when you have such shame. There was so much shame there. When I skated, I always skated alone."
Davis roller-skated often in New York, as he had as a kid in Pocatello, and on one Friday night in the spring of 1984, at the Roller Castle in Elmont, N.Y., a pixieish blonde introduced herself to him. They skated couples. He had always been afraid to date, insecure and wary as he was, and there was an awkward moment when he took her hand and said, in his first words to her, "Boy, you got rough hands! Been digging ditches or something?" Marguerite Hoveling, who did a lot of yard work, liked him anyway. "He was shy and polite," she says. They have been together ever since. They got married the next February—they had their kids one-two-three—and shared the months during which Davis moved in among the leaders of his profession. He made money whip over stirrup in New York and earned the same kind of reputation among horsemen there as he had in Idaho—as a friendly, polite, personable young man with a quick, pearly smile and no apparent demons driving him. "I put on a good front," Davis says. "I didn't want anybody to see through me."
What they would have seen last summer, had they been able to see through him, was a man increasingly in turmoil. "I was like a time bomb," he says. "I was very, very depressed. I kept all my anger in. You build up a lot of anger. You can be in a great mood and all of a sudden you think of something that happened, and it just turns everything. Then you're mad at everything.... I hated myself. I could never do enough or accomplish what I wanted. I was always mad at myself and at other people. I used to build up a big hate for people, and it hurt inside."
And it was all a secret, down at the deep root of the rage, a secret unshared for years even with his wife. "It was always there," he says. "It was just grinding at me: 'You've got to tell her, you've got to tell her.' I'd say to myself. 'No, she doesn't have to know this. It'll hurt her too much.' " He envisioned her leaving him if he told her of his past, running to her mother's Long Island house with the kids, telling her mother, Hey, this guy was sexually abused, he's a complete wacko!