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The gate in front of the 68-year-old man is locked. The gate behind him is locked. There is nowhere to go now. No one to talk to. The audience is hushed. He licks his lips and stares down the backstretch. It's 9:26 p.m. on Dec. 1, 1990. Time stops.
The old man is sitting on the number 2 horse at the Charles Town Races in West Virginia. Beside and behind him, the 3 horse won't enter the gate. The old man's doctor stands in front of the grandstands and stares at the gate, waiting for the bell, waiting for the bell. "I'll never forgive myself," the doctor murmurs.
The 3 horse rears. The old man takes a deep breath. The 2-year-old filly beneath him has never raced before. The old man has raced 10,612 times. Six hours ago he arrived in the jockeys' room and began smoking cigarettes and sipping coffee and playing cards and listening to the young punks go on about the cobwebs in his saddle and the wrinkles on his body. Then the first race started and the punks all went off to ride, leaving him alone at a round table with seven empty chairs, playing hand after hand of solitaire. Waiting for his race, the seventh.
The old man's doctor peers across the infield and shakes his head. "What's the delay for?" he asks. "My god, I had no idea he was coming back on a first-time starter—anything can happen with a first-time starter."
At least when the old man was in the jockeys' room, time was still moving, still moving as he pushed aside the deck of cards and pulled on his silks and spat into his hands and walked to the paddock and climbed onto the number 2 horse and headed down the chute as the railbirds shouted encouragement and ridicule at him. Still moving as he warmed the filly up around the turn where the world had gone dark the last time he raced, more than five months ago. But now time is stuck at 9:26 p.m. and the crowd's silent and his saliva's gone and they're still pushing and pulling on the 3 horse.
The doctor cups his eyes and squints. "But he was determined to do this," he says. "Oh, I'll never forgive myself...."
It was dark when Willie Clark awoke. A morning in October, just a couple of months before time stopped. For a moment he lay still and waited to feel if the headache had started again. Then he rose and turned on the television to hear the price of gold.
He began to dress. In one drawer were his false teeth, which he never wore or even looked at. In another drawer was a silver belt buckle with a gold colt on it. Once upon a time his daughter had worn it as she flew around the field upon a white pony, and 50,000 people in Memorial Stadium roared her on, celebrating each Baltimore Colt touchdown. Sometimes the old man was strong enough to look at that.
He had not ridden in a race in 3½ months. The last few times he had raced, he had gone blind coming down the stretch. Willie Clark was no longer the oldest active jockey in the world. Something had to be done.
Willie went to the kitchen, sliced a piece of bran bread and ate it with his gums. He was married, but he and his second wife, Maxine, ate meals at different times and watched TV on different sets. He grabbed his sleeveless jacket. In the closet were 40 Christmas presents he had already bought for his wife's grandson.