g r a v e l
A L I T E R A R Y J O U R N A L
Photograph by Lorrie Lykins
Gambles are something every man makes in life. The card sharp gambles money and luck, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. I mean the gamble with life that a policeman makes when he stops a car or the gamble a pastor makes when he tells his congregation there’s only one way to heaven. He’s gambling on faith being stronger than people’s doubt, isn’t he? He’s placing a bet on God, if you want to think about it that way. I do. I think of it that way.
A lot of people say it’s bad luck for a jockey to bet on themselves, bad luck and illegal, but I have been doing it since my second race. I don’t bet myself to win, hell I’m not close to being that cock-sure of anything. You can tell when there is a better horse on the track, and why get some stupid ego over something you can’t possibly control? So I’d play the odds—I’d bet on who I actually thought was going to win and bet on myself to show, at least. I didn’t set myself up to win on something impossible—something that the bookie knew I was lining myself up for, of course. If I bet on myself to place I’d have to work for it at least, and my bookie and I both knew if I tried to work him I’d be in more trouble than just losing a bookie. It was something I did. Part of my race-day ritual. I’d get a shower that was impossibly hot, get a few drinks a bar near the racetrack, and then put a bet down with my bookie. Every jockey’s got something they do to calm themselves down—to satisfy whatever luck they think is deciding to play along. This was my thing, this was my ritual. I’m sure you know what I’m talking about—I’m sure you have your own kinda ritual you do. Every profession does. I didn’t do it to make money, and I want you to know that.
It was halfway through my ritual when I saw Francis. He’s the kind of guy who you’ll run into all over as a jockey. He’s the kind of guy who has propositions and suggestions and tips to share with you. Francis is the kind of man who will break your lousy head open if you don’t listen to exactly what he has to say, and that makes him easy to listen to, for most people. It was before a race at Penn National he came up to my table and sat down like I owed him something. I knew he’d been watching me by the way he sat down next to me. Too familiar, like we’d been friends a long time ago.
He asked me if I was getting loose but it took me a few seconds to figure out what he said. Not because I didn’t hear him, but because I couldn’t understand why he was talking to me. He started to say it again so I cut him off and told him it wasn’t his business. It wasn’t his goddamned business what I was doing, to be more precise.
He didn’t react to what I said at all. Like I never even said it, he just waited there for me to answer his question. I thought about throwing the gin into his face, but a jockey who gets into fights is a pretty dumb jockey, if you ask me. So I stared him down and let my last statement hang between us. He waited a while longer and laughed to himself, then called out to the bartender for another Yuengling.
He told me he’d been watching me for a while. He knew what I did before each race. He said he memorized the drinks I’d order and the seat I’d sit in and the way I’d gulp down the first one and draw slow on the next. He said he knew the last time was supposed to be the last time, but it wasn’t. He told me this was the last time.
He told me he’d memorized what I’d say to my bookie over the bar phone. Then he said he knew my bookie and the laws of Pennsylvania, too.
I stopped being pissed and started listening.
He smiled a big, dumb smile when he saw I knew what he was getting at. He smiled that big dumb smile and shook his head back and forth like a song he knew was playing through the bar.
Francis seemed like the kind of guy who would cut your ear off just to prove to you that he wasn’t just passing the time when he threatened someone. His type is all over the track—the hardline gamblers, the racketeers. I watched them bring in spectators with promises and other hardline gamblers with threats. I thought I’d gotten away from it, but the money someone can make off of a jockey is the easiest to make, maybe. Francis—he came off as a guy who thought the world was something to be conned, and I was the next part of the world that he wanted to focus in on.
He told me today was my big break.
His beer came and he swallowed it down in gulps that reminded me of kids drinking water from a garden hose. He drank the beer down like he was owed it. When the glass was empty he told me everything he wanted me to know and left the bar. He told me that I wasn’t supposed to think about it—that it wasn’t because I was who I was, but that I was just a dumb animal that could do what it was told. He told me jockeys weren’t supposed to think for themselves, and that I fit the bill.
I called my bookie from the bar’s phone and placed the bet just like Francis told me to. I said everything the same way he told me to say it, because if I didn’t, he’d know.
When I got to the racetrack I took my time unloading my things and getting to the stall Alamo’s Last Stand was in. She was a young thing, and while we knew each other well enough she never really came to love me like other horses normally did. So I took my time with her. I brushed her out so she’d feel a little more comfortable with me around while the owner’s man told me what her records were and how she responded well to voice commands of her riders. I didn’t listen to him because most owners don’t know shit about their horses, and owner’s hired hands generally know even less, though I was one of those hired hands right at that moment.
I asked the guy talking if he’d give me a second with the horse and he did, walking out to smoke a cigarette and check his phone. I rubbed Alamo’s Last Stand and told her what Francis had told me—I told her we were in it together, and that I didn’t want to make her look bad, but we had to get in as the third horse for Francis and his friends to make a superfecta bet. There were three other jockeys who already agreed to it, and the payout was going to be big enough that I could stop racing horses for a while—to actually take a break. I told her that I could start hiring my own men to tell jockeys what my horse liked or didn’t like. I told Alamo’s Last Stand how I didn’t want to stop racing because of anything but my own decision, and if I didn’t do this one thing I would be pushed out and never be allowed near a horse for the rest of my life.
I told that dumb animal exactly why I had to do what I was doing. It didn’t understand me, of course, but that wasn’t so much the point. It just needed to do what it was told.
After a while I got suited up to ride and found myself at the starting gate. Alamo’s Last Stand was tensed up just like she should have been, and I slapped her hard on the neck and shook out her skin under my palm so she knew I was there on her back. I didn’t know who the other guys were on the bet, or if everyone was in on it and we were all playing a part, but I looked to my left at the other jockeys and hated every one of them.
When the gate opened Alamo’s Last Stand slammed hard against the starting gate but recovered herself well enough to still be part of the pack. I didn’t think to curse at her or get worried, I was too focused. I felt the pace she was beginning to set for herself underneath me. It’s not unlike a ship swaying back and forth in the ocean. See, it’s important for the horse to find that rhythm and she found it just fine after we ran into the starting gate, so I wasn’t worried.
I got myself up to fourth position and was about half a length behind third when I saw the jockey look back at me and pull the horse just enough that I could get past him without him losing too much position. Number seven was the fourth position in the superfecta, and he was going to let me get into position behind the other two jockeys in front of us. I didn’t look at his face when I passed but I think the bastard was smiling at me—smiling because we were all going to make out on this deal just fine. Smiling because what else was there to do?
And then I thought about Francis and whoever he was working with smiling in their seats or at the bar or in the seats where they served the people who owned all the horses. I thought about Francis sucking down a Yuengling in the bar and how he’d look when he gave me my cut—how he’d think I didn’t deserve it but it would be enough to keep me quiet. I thought about how much I’d been pushed around. Just another dumb animal for Francis.
I thought about how the first and second position jockeys wouldn’t be pushing too hard now, because they didn’t have to. I started pushing Alamo’s Last Stand to go faster.
I clicked and shouted at her to run harder, and she did. The jockey in the second position shouted at me when I rode past him, and that made both him and the first position jockey start riding faster, but my horse was the fastest. She was so young and her muscles were so responsive, I could feel them pulse with the blood from her enormous heart as she picked up her legs and slammed them into the track.
I smiled then, because what else was there to do?
And it was right then—right as the owners of the horse underneath me were starting to shout and hug each other and Francis began calling the Pennsylvania Racing Commission that Alamo’s Last Stand shuddered up her entire body.
When a horse’s leg breaks during a race, it feels like the jockey’s own leg has shattered. I felt the bone crunch into itself and the nerves race from her leg to her brain. But Alamo’s Last Stand was running hot, and she didn’t want to stop. See, horses will do that when they are racing. They’ll just keep going despite the bones pulling themselves apart. Remember Ruffian in seventy five? Just like that, they’ll keep running. We were making the last turn before the finish line, and I knew that I could win it. I knew the horse would, at best, have hours of surgery and maybe make it to a pasture. I knew at worst she’d be put down as soon as they got her off the track because the owner didn’t want to pay or the damage was too much. I looked at the odds and took the gamble.
We finished the turn and started on the straightaway. I kicked her sides and lowered my head so it was next to her neck. I saw that her hoof was beginning to slide sideways when it hit the ground—like a sock not put on the whole way. I shouted at her that she just had a little while longer to go, that she had to do this. I shouted that I was betting on her.
I told her, but a horse is just an animal that doesn’t think for itself.
Matthew Kabik's work has appeared in Structo Magazine, Nib Magazine, Cease Cows, Fat City Review, and Literary Orphans, among other publications. He has work forthcoming in WhiskeyPaper, Pea River Journal, and The Story Shack . Follow him on Twitter @mlkabik or visit his website.