The Men of the Mountain
DateSun, May 1, 2016
Once more into the fray
Into the last good fight I'll ever know
Live and die on this day
Live and die on this day
They said his wife was a witch, and one well-respected trainer, semi retired now, would probably attest. It seems he claimed a horse from her, stood on the receiving end of some strange incantations, and watched his next several starters carted off in the far-turn taxi. He gave the horse back.
I never saw the surrender Dorothy side of her, though, and suspect any spells sent my way were merely intended to help me find happiness here, in this 300-acre Land of Oz
Cardigan sweaters and Sinatra hat, Armand was part rat pack, part tough Pittsburgher and all heart. The kind of guy who could glare at you and seem friendly, or call you honey or babe, yet make you feel like MORE of a man.
For awhile, as a fledgling entry-clerk condemned to patrol shed rows, I couldn't figure him out. The dour intensity and slouched, laid- back manner just didn't jive. And then it hit me: He was simply the coolest man ever, the first person I ever encountered who was completely comfortable in his own skin.
My admiration became something more the morning he fished in his wallet for a tenner to pass the pony girl, and a photo of my girlfriend and I-tattered from frequent removal- fell out from between the coupons and Medicaid cards. "You're like my kids," he whispered hoarsely. I think I loved him after that, just a little.
To be honest, Armand never won many races-a budget that took Thanksgiving dinner in the track kitchen wouldn't permit it. But with a thousand tough beats carved into that soulful countenance, he wore defeat like it was tailored for him, and with some swag. And true to the old school, each loser earned some long, tortured excuse. Excuses I listened to with more and more patience-after that picture fell out.
And there was Gerald, a jocks agent who claimed to have been a pugilist-and an exceptional one, at that. The Cajun had run to fat by the time I met him, but a hard stare and improbable bounce in his step definitely fit the story. You could never tell with Gerald, because the man was notorious for taking license with the truth. But if ANY of his tales contained even a crawdad of fact, I'd be arrested now for even listening, and his memoirs could have made the best seller list. Except it was whispered that he couldn't read or write, which, to me, made his matchless success at hustling book all the more impressive. John Burton, Tony Dlugopolski and the great Dave Gall all passed milestones with the Cajun in for a cut.
Gerald was his own man, and never stooped to the cuddly mascot approach now in fashion amongst his successors. You bought your own donuts when you used Gerald's rider, but you were always good for a loan from those bulging pockets- as long as you kept right on naming that rider. Other agents? Well, they were held in seething contempt. He didn't conspire with them. He hated them, and isn't that most reliable of sentiments sorely missed in this era of hidden alliances?
Earl was even tougher, a trainer whose square jaw and brusque attitude said "walk lightly." Evidently, a fellow soldier at Pearl Harbor had trod just a little too hard, which resulted in he and Earl throwing down- with the entire company looking on and the Commanding officer's complete blessing. We're talking Hoss Cartwright here, haymakers and all. And the guy was certainly no sissy, battling Earl to a draw. So I asked Earl, who I counted as a pal, if that had resolved things-you know, resulted in a newfound respect or even friendship between the antagonists?. "Hell no," was the reply. "I went after him the next day, too."
The last time I saw Earl, who was tag teamed at the end by leukemia and a bad ticker, he was sitting quietly in a hall outside the racing office, head in hands. When I asked if he was OK, he grunted and said something like: "Ah, I don't know. I guess I had another heart attack. No big deal. I've got a horse to saddle."
That was minutes before what locals call the midnight handicap, and I can't fathom the fortitude it took to run that horse, cool out, load up and van back to Ohio in the wee hours. And I'd love to say the animal won. But we all know racing doesn't work that way, right? But that's all right, too, since guys like Earl love the game like Jacques Cousteu loved the great white shark-for its savage beauty and raw power. Not because it would ever love him back.
But the sport loved Tony, at least at the windows. Three or four scores in the high five- figure range-back when gas was 65 cents a gallon- confirmed that. Tony liked to toss numbers around and usually keyed his own trainees, which was generally good strategy, since the man had a way of winning races.
Even after the slots came, and hordes of his deeply entrenched peers disappeared completely under the the wheels of incoming horse vans with names like Flint or Amoss painted on the side, Tony continued to succeed with modestly bred horses that began their careers slowly, then just kept getting better. Tony was somewhat unique in that regard, but a reluctant poster boy for defending his home track's honor and conditioning methods. “I have no idea why I win races," the 60 - something chain smoker would plead. But he said it with those five- figure scores dancing in his eyes, as he mucked stalls shirtless in sub-50 weather.
Nowadays, he walks institutional flooring, sometimes mistaking it for an endless shed row, clean and well-manicured, but never quite leading to his stalls. Someday, when the cruel robber of dignity is exposed as cheap speed by the breathtaking bid of forever, he will get there.
My favorite, in a romp, is Ralph, very much retired, but still with us, by the way. Ralph made his bones in our home track’s outlaw era, back in the 60's when steelyeyed trainers stared each other down like gunfighters in a spaghetti western, and snuck glances at the tote board in hopes their bookies hadn't leaked money back. That traces directly to my late father's faithful patronage (and obsession with larcenous trainers). In fact, I think he and Ralph were casually acquainted, which is appropriate, since Ralph comes as close to a surrogate dad as any man could with me.
Early on, taking entries from him clipboard in hand, I'd recall that my dad had once said Ralph was SO shifty that Ralph didn't even tell Ralph when Ralph decided to turn a horse loose. I saw no hint of that chicanery, but the first time Ralph watched me fish out coins for a hot dog in the rec hall, I DID see a twenty quickly stuffed into my shirt. And President Jackson wasn't an only child, either. In addition, Ralph made it a point after that to spring for all snacks.
I'll repay him soon, with a bag of goodies when I visit him at the rest home. Word varies on whether he'll know me. But that doesn't matter, because I'll know him, and gently probe, about the old days, of course.
Armand, Earl, Gerald, Tony and Ralph...plus some others who could have been mentioned. Some past the final post, others trapped in waking dreams as thunderous hoof beats race off into darkness. Dreams of the place that defined them and gave purpose, that needed and nurtured them. A picturesque place whose bucolic face belies the cast iron spirit they helped to forge. So raise a glass and remember them well, for they are the strong men, the loyal men, the eternal men-of the mountain.