The Davises remained in Idaho until one snowy morning in early March, when he and Marguerite suddenly decided to leave. They drove west, through Las Vegas and into Southern California. Robbie was itching to ride again.
The old nightmares were gone. Davis still occasionally thought about Venezia, a gentle, soft-spoken man who, like Davis, had been an apprentice sensation in New York, in 1964. Davis recalls spending hours with Venezia after the races, talking about life and their kids. Venezia left a wife and two children when he died, at age 43—a son, Michael Edward, 15, and a daughter, Alison, 8. "I think about him, not every day, but every once in a while," Davis says. "I don't dwell on it. I still feel a little hurt over it, but there ain't nobody on earth who can change it. I think about his kids, his son and daughter, and I feel that they were lucky they got to know him."
Nor do the memories of the accident haunt Davis as they did immediately after the mishap, when he blamed himself "totally." Totally? Oh yes. After all, Davis says, Drums in the Night had natural early speed, but he had chosen to take him back, leaving him behind Venezia and Mr. Walter K. down the backstretch. If only he had sent Drums in the Night to the lead.... If only he hadn't shown Lindauer how to get to the top of the cliff.... And if only he had been bigger and stronger he might have been able to strike back at his stepfather....
Which is what he thinks he may have finally done, symbolically, on that day last October. "That makes sense to me," he says. And sense is what Davis is still trying to make of what happened to him five months ago. It was a confusing, chaotic, desperate time in his life, and he has not yet fitted all the pieces together. Clearly he had passed through a purging experience that frightened and humbled him, but ultimately lifted him.
And where he found himself on the hazy, sunny afternoon of March 8 was in the jockeys' quarters at Santa Anita racetrack. It was nearly three o'clock. He had just slipped into red-white-and-blue silks and was waiting for the fifth race. He would ride a 15-1 shot, Hickory Crest—his first mount since the accident and his first for his new agent, Jeff Franklin, whom he had hired only five hours earlier. (During Davis's months of inactivity, Goodman didn't take on a new client.) Davis had been touched by the warmth of his welcome in the jockeys' room at Santa Anita—the home of such riders as Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay Jr. and fellow Idahoan Gary Stevens, who won the Kentucky Derby last year on Winning Colors. "They came over and shook my hand and gave me a hug. Chris was very comforting," said Davis as he sat and felt the anxiety mounting.
"Boy, I have butterflies like crazy, but it feels good to put the silks back on," he said. "It's like I've got the bug again, and this is my first mount."
He rode Hickory Crest like a jittery young apprentice too. Heading into the far turn, lying fourth, the filly suddenly kicked into gear and took off, nearly running up the heels of the horse in front of her. Davis, noted for his silky hands, snatched Hickory Crest back too hard, causing her to throw her head in the air. To make matters worse, just after they straightened out for home, he dropped his whip. They finished fourth. "Whew!" he said. "Old fumble-fingers. I'm a little embarrassed. My hands got all tangled up. I felt like a bug boy again. But everything will come back to me."
It began coming back in the next race, in which he finished a solid third aboard Swifterthanthewind, at 8-1, in his only other race of the day. "My hands were normal," he said. Davis appeared tired but relieved as he emerged from the jockeys' room at the end of that first day back, to find Marguerite and the kids waiting to greet him. Even the fans were glad to see him. "Welcome to Santa Anita," one horseplayer said, reaching to shake Davis's hand.
So it was here, at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, that Robbie Davis ended up—after fleeing New York, after weeks of traveling the Northwest, after months of tortuous journeying through his conscience and his past. There he was after his two rides, standing near the paddock in blue jeans, as the bugle sounded the call to post for the eighth race and the horses strode through the sunshine onto the track. This was his world, a world of silks and starting gates and powerful thoroughbreds pounding for home.
"It's been a long, long road back," Davis said. "Longer than anyone can imagine."