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The Big Race

Derrick Bailey


My fascination with horses started at a very young age. I was told that my first word was “horsy.” It was not “mama” or “dada,” but “horsy.” It was July 14, 1979, the day of my fourth birthday. The smell of homemade chocolate cake was drifting through the air since my mom was busy in the kitchen preparing my favorite dessert. After dinner, birthday song, and cake, it was time to open my gifts. I headed straight for the one wrapped in horse-pattern paper and took no time to rip the paper right off. To my surprise, I found a neatly handcrafted stick horse. The smell of the fresh cedar wood just about knocked me off my feet. My dad had spent almost three months of hard labor crafting this magical piece of art. The mane and tail were light golden brown color made from real horsehair neatly woven together, which made the wooden artwork come to life.

This wooden stick horse left me speechless. My parents asked me if I was all right. I just opened my mouth, but no words came out. Woody, as I would later name this great artwork, went everywhere with me and never left my side. The next year when I started school, I had to leave Woody behind. It was the saddest time of my life; I did not want to leave my best friend in the world alone while I was at school.

Later that year, as I rode my rusty, old bike home from Bear Creek Elementary—like I had every day because we only lived three blocks from the school—I decided that this day I would take a detour. You see, there was a miniature horse ranch next to the school that had always held my interest, so I decided to investigate on this fine day. The hundreds of “no trespassing” signs tempted me, as they would any youngster my age. Along the fence was this big oak tree about thirty feet tall and ten feet around, the prefect-climbing tree. After finding my way up this monstrous tree, I now had the chance to clear the fence. When I landed and looked up, the owner, mean old Mr. Montford, was staring right at me. He had one gray eye and one blue eye and was as broad as an ox. He was probably no older than forty-five, but he looked a lot older. I tried to run, but he picked me up with one finger, carried me a good twenty yards to his front porch, and set me down in this big, ugly, green, old, wooden rocker. In a deep voice as he entered his old rotting log home, he told me, “Sit there and do not move until I come back.” It was one of those moments when any kid would freeze up and do what he was told.

There was a lot of noise coming from inside the house, and then I heard the screen door squeak as he stepped out onto the old, wooden porch that creaked below him. He had two glasses full of ice-cold tea, and I thought to myself “what is he going to do with that?” Next thing I knew he was offering me a glass of that refreshing brown liquid. I took it and drank it all at once. My mouth was dry from my trauma that I had just been through, and that tea hit the spot. We started to talk. It seemed like hours had passed, and it was getting dark. I knew that my parents were starting to worry, so I told Mr. Montford, “Thanks for the tea, but I have to go. It’s getting late.”

He replied, “Why hell, sonny, you love horses so much, and I could use a new hand around this here old place. Can you start tomorrow around four?”

I said “Sure.  I’ll be here.” It was a moment that I had always dreamed of. Working with horses meant everything to me. Unfortunately, my parents did not like Mr. Montford. They saw him as the town grump, but if they only got to know his true side, they would have understood. They were my major hurdle that I would have to overcome because I knew they would not let me work for Mr. Montford. When I looked at my green and black Timex watch, it was five minutes until six. My parents normally got home around six, so I peddled my little heart out to try to beat them home, but it took too long. Sure enough, when I walked in the house, my mom was standing there waiting. “Where on God’s green earth have you been?” she asked. As soon as she said that my dad entered the room and stared directly down at me.

We just looked at one another for a minute. Then he said, “Do not let this happen again. Go to your room.” I did not want to tell them about Mr. Montford or Joe, as he later would let me call him. I was afraid that they would turn down the idea of me working for him, so I decided to hide it.

I was successful. Joe and I worked together for three years on his ranch and all along, I kept it from my parents, as far as I knew.

It was the summer of 1983. My mom had been transferred to a new office in New York to become a major player in the company she worked for. We packed up and headed to that dreadful city. Before I left, I spent my last hours thanking Joe for everything he done for me.

Joe and I still kept in contact, thanks to the help of the United States Postal Service. I always looked forward to his letters; they reminded me of the country life I had left behind. Every time I opened one and began to read, it would bring back memories, like the smell of his rotting barn mixed with the fragrance of sawdust. I would picture myself back on his porch rocking away in that old, green, wooden rocker and drinking that glass of fresh brewed tea.

New York was a dreadful place. Everything was made of concrete, and the air was hard to breathe. It was heavy, not light like the air in Texas, except for one magical place known as Saratoga Downs Racetrack. Here I felt all warm on the inside. This was the place where I would pursue my dream one day of becoming a big shot horse trainer. Family connections are helpful. One day my dad met some people while attending a party with my mother. One of them was Brent Davison.

Mr. Davison was a tall, slender man. I swear that he did not weigh more than one hundred and sixty pounds soaking wet. He had black hair and wore glasses that were as thick as coke bottles. I was later introduced to Mr. Davison, and he offered me a job as a hot walker during the racing season at Saratoga.

He became my mentor in the field of horseracing. My job consisted of washing the horses after workouts or races and then taking them to the walker to let them cool down before returning them to their stalls. It was 1990, and I was only fifteen at the time, but it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Opening day of every race season, I would get to the track at five in the morning and begin my daily activities. This would continue until I graduated high school in 1993.

That summer of 1993 was the hottest summer ever recorded in New York history. Brent moved me to the grooming position. As groom, I was in charge of preparing four horses for workouts and the days that they would race. I had to make sure that the horses were in shape, or it could cost me my job. We traveled all over the United States going to one track then another. As the meets went on, his horses kept winning, and I felt more and more confident in my skills with the horses. By the spring of 1996, I had been promoted to the title of assistant trainer. This meant that I was in charge of everything if Mr. Davison was not at the track. In this position, I gained more responsibility and faith in my every endeavor that I set my mind to. Brent was there for me, and I thank him for everything that he taught me, in particular the skills that I would later use in my own career as a horse trainer.

In the spring of 1997, I decided to take a big leap and see if I had what it took to become one of the greats in the business. I remembered that one day while I was working back in Texas at Joe’s old ranch, he told me that if I ever needed something to just give him a call. The first thing I did was pick up the phone and call. Joe was now in his sixties, but he still sounded like his same old self. I asked him if I could come and talk a little business with him on a personal level.  I had a lot that could not be discussed over the phone.

So I loaded up in my rusty, old 1964 Chevy that I restored while I was in high school and hit the road. Two days and one thousand and seventy eight miles later I was in Texas pulling into Joe’s washed-out gravel drive way. The house was still the same, and the porch that was rotting away and creaked when you walked was still there.

Mr. Montford was sitting in the same old, green, wooden rocker, rocking back and forth awaiting my arrival. He greeted me with a glass of his famous iced tea, and in his aging voice said, “So what is so important, sonny?” I then told him everything that happened throughout the years, so I could catch him up on what I was about to say next. Without hesitation and having no idea knowing what he would say, I asked the most important question of my life: “Would you, Joe, be able to help me in my venture to become a star in the horse-training world?” He was silent for a while. All I heard was just the sound of the wind blowing through the trees.

Then out from his mouth I heard these words: “Why, I would love to help out, but all I have is five hundred dollars if you plan on buying your first horse.”

With Joe’s help and his five hundred dollars to add to what I already had, we loaded up and headed to Fort Worth, Texas, to the premiere racehorse auction.

When we arrived, it was clear that the auction was underway. Most of the horses here were going for half a million dollars or more. I was getting worried that we would not find the horse we had set out to find. The auction was coming to a close when this overwhelming, sharp feeling hit me. It left me numb for a few seconds. Then this funny little horse entered the arena. She had two bandaged legs that everyone was turned away by, but me. No one was betting, so I offered all that I had, which amounted to a little over three thousand dollars. I had purchased the cheapest horse of the night. I was so excited; I had this feeling about her as she looked into my eyes.

Joe and I had to see what we could do to doctor her up for the long haul back to his ranch. I spent every waking moment for three days in her pen doing everything to make her healthy, so we could transport this young philly.

Finally, we managed to get her strength up, and we were able to make the long road trip back to Joe’s ranch. Baby Doll, as she was later known, was one year old at the time, and most horses do not run until three years of age. Everyday for the next two years, I was by Baby Doll’s side doing everything I knew to prepare her for that magical day she would run. I had managed to take the sickest horse at the sale and turn her into my own million-dollar horse. She may not have looked like it, but Baby Doll had heart, which is what it takes to make it in the race world.

Two years had passed and she was now ready to take her first trip to the races. Joe and I had decided to enter her in the Texas Mile at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie. This was the biggest event at this track, and every horse but Baby Doll had races under their belt. One horse named Cigar had won his last three races on this track. The race would be a test for both of us. It was my first race as a trainer and Baby Doll’s first race ever. The race was for Texas-bred horses age three to four years of age, which she was. The purse for the winning horse was five hundred dollars.

Baby Doll had pulled the number three post, which was the worst place to be coming out of the starting gate. The morning odds on Baby Doll were at seventy-five to one. The race was about to start, and it was now time to saddle Baby Doll for the race. I had done this many times, but today I was shaking so bad that I was having trouble. I finally calmed down and saddled her up. The four-foot jockey now took his seat upon her back, as she was led to the starting gate. The day was humid and sticky. The track was fast, and horses had been setting records all day. I did not like knowing this, considering who she was racing against.

The loud speaker came on, and all that I could hear was that all the horses had entered the gate. Then the voice bellowed, “and .  .  . they’re off.” Just like that Baby Doll was left in her tracks. At this point I thought it was all over. The one thing that I had forgotten was that the race was a mile long. I could not watch for fear of what was happening to poor old Baby Doll. As the horse hit the first turn, the announcer said, “and taking up the rear is Baby Doll.”

My heart wanted to stop then and there, but there were still three turns left in this mile race. Baby Doll a horse to make a quick run at the end. As the pack rounded the second turn, a man in the crowd behind me yelled, “Go, Baby Doll, go!” This renewed my faith in my horse, but I still did not want to watch the race. Was she gaining ground on the rest of the pack? Now the horse entered the turn into the home stretch, and then I looked up just in time to see Baby Doll and the fan favorite Cigar neck to neck at the finish. There was a photo finish; this was the most agonizing day of my life. My heart was beating faster than ever before as I awaited the results. A nose is as good as a mile.

Today I train horse for the richest people in the world and compete in the Kentucky Derby. Who would have thought that my dreams would have taken me this far in life? I took a funny, sick-looking horse and turned her into a shining star.