I was the jockey in the family.
I rode ’em all.
Cheap claimers and allowance horses. Stakes race, black type and graded. Sprints or routes, turf or dirt. Necks and noses or the length of the stretch. None of it mattered. I won.
I always won.
Year after year I was Saratoga’s leading rider. I even won a title or two at Belmont. I didn’t ride Aqueduct. Too cold. Florida? Not an option. I lived in Jersey. Besides, I was concentrating on my studies.
After a race I’d come back to the room with rail dust on my boots. I learned that from Manny Ycaza.
He was the toughest there ever was.
I’d skim the bushes of the inner turf and dared others to knock me over.
Some called me aggressive. Some said I have no business riding.
But to be a race rider – a real race rider – you need guts.
I had ’em.
I always broke clean and my clock kept perfect time. Chest to saddle, I rode with perfect form. I was smoother than silk when changing sticks.
All I really needed were my hands. I learned that from The Shoe. Such talent that man had.
I’d thread through horses with the belief if there’s room for the head, there’s room for the rest of ’em. My horses didn’t take bad steps. They, nor I, ever fell.
Victory and I met often and she was always glad to see me. So were my horses. They won for me, no one else.
There is no metaphor for what I did.
Race riders and Thoroughbred racing are used as metaphors for other sports. Nothing can compare to its true experience.
I never had a problem with weight or height. I ate candy, drank soda and had PB&J for lunch, daily. I never flipped.
These were my glory days.
When I was invincible. When I feared nothing. That was what I worked for. To ride. To ride well.
To win races.
To be the single most talented jock in the room.
“Patrick!” I heard the voice call from the other room.
“What?!” I hollered in return.
“Cut that out and get to the table. Dinner’s ready” Mom said.I should have known. The kitchen’s smoke alarm routinely beat her call to dinner by three minutes.
Two belts strapped together formed my stirrups. A throw pillow between them for a saddle. A gift-shop whip and goggles thrown by the pros at meet’s end for souvenirs. A sturdy couch. A rope wrapped around the far leg and pulled over the back of the couch for reins.
A mother, who was at her most patient when I was out of ear-shot.
A father, researching or writing tomorrow’s column, locked away in his den.
This was my home, my living room and my racetrack.
But in my mind’s eye I saw only the magnificent grandstand of Saratoga.
Sometimes my big brother would want to ride. When he did I would call the races off an old program.
He hated when I called the races.
Owners would have loved me. First, twelfth or anywhere in between, your horse got a call at every pole.
My brother is four and a half years older than me and did the things most big brothers do to little brothers. He made my life hell.
He picked on me, tormented me, beat me up, teased the devil out of me, blamed me at every turn for the trouble he’d get himself into and poke fun at me at every opportunity.
And he hated it when I called the races.
He’d get tired after each one. He’d yell at me because it took too long.
But that’s not why he hated me calling the races.
He would have beads of sweat pouring from under his makeshift helmet. His palms would get sweaty and he’d lose his stick.
That wasn’t why either.
Sometimes, at the head of the stretch, I’d make a call where his horse charged from far back, passing foes like they were standing still. He’d pick them off one by one. This always made him smile.
He loved this too. He loved to “ride” and win. He grew confident in the stretch. He felt proud.
Then, perhaps callously, I would scream in desperation how his horse took a bad step, stumbled and went to the ground, taking its jockey with it.
That wasn’t why he hated me calling the races.
Oddly enough, the crazy bugger liked jumping or falling off the couch and onto the ground when I did that.
What he seemed to forget was this: it’s his little brother that is the jockey in the family.
He did love to ride the closers, though. “A quarter mile to the finish” or a Dave Johnson-esque “…and down the stretch they come” was when he’d put it in Cordero-mode.
He worshiped Cordero.
In my calls he’d weave and cajole his way through horses. That, he liked.
Oh, I made him ride. I made him ride those horses hard. I made work, whip and drive to the wire in every race. He and his rival would drive to the finish like Affirmed and Alydar.
When they hit the sixteenth pole I’d look up from my program, and without fail I could see him fighting back the smile.
There was that confidence again.
Poised to tuck the whip and ready for the win photo across the wire.
God, he loved that.
Sure. I loved it too.
I loved it because for every time he’d pick on me, torment, tease, hit, blame or poke fun at me I would happily see to it that that son-of-a-you-know-what would get clipped by a neck, a head or a nose at the wire in every race he rode.
It was a 10-year-old’s sweetest revenge.
Because I was the Jockey.