Finally! In my early twenties I felt qualified to seek a job working with horses. Easier said than done, but I landed a job at Aurora Downs harness racing track after returning to Illinois from Maryland. The track was more of a misadventure than a stroke of luck, but there were still some positives. Or where there? And what twists did my career take after that? You got. It's all in the book.
Part Three, Hay in My Hair
A Council of Horses, Life Lessons Straight from the Horses' Mouths
Working at Aurora Downs and Maywood Park, harness racing tracks in the Chicagoland area, in the 1970s, I experienced more lows than highs, but befriending Marty was a highlight.
(excerpt - first meeting, Marty)
The stalls were filthy, but I had them stripped by 3:00 pm. No one was around to help me with Balor, so I tackled the walkway, picking up litter and emptying trash. Then I stacked buckets, leaned up the wheelbarrow, and flanked it with rakes and manure forks, many of which I considered putting in the dumpster. There were four racing carts in the aisle. The shafts were easy to lift, but no matter where I parked them, they were in the way.
I walked around to the other side of the barn and found an elderly Black man sitting on a hay bale resting his elbows on his knees. His tan canvas field jacket covered a small frame, and he wore a tattered straw fedora with a pinched front. The man jumped and caught himself from toppling to the ground when I spoke.
“I’m sorry,” I said, stepping back. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
He leaned forward and pressed against his thighs, raising himself to standing in calculated, jerky stages. A deep breath raised his chest to finish the job. He hooked his thumbs behind the brass hooks on the straps of his bib overalls and squinted at me.
“Who you?” His weathered bronze face featured drooping eyelids.
“I’m working for Tommy.” I said, watchful of his stare.
Above - Nancy and Ivan, 1971
Left - Riding Chief at Southern Illinois University, 1972
A grin erupted in a flicker of smile lines. “Well, now.” His smile widened, revealing several missing teeth. “That right? Folks calls me Marty.” He nodded and touched the brim of his hat. “What kin I do fer ya?”
“Can you show me how to lean carts up like that?” I pointed to three nearby. I had to wait for a response while he fussed over IvanShe’d pegged Marty as a dog lover and had used her nose to bounce his idle hand to the back of her neck for a scratch.
“Why sure, nothin’ to it.”
I slowed my pace to walk with Marty to Tommy’s aisle. He let go a loud whistle upon noticing the raked walkway, empty trash cans, and organized tools. “Ain’t you bin busy?”
I smiled. “Yep. But these,” I said, gesturing toward the racing carts, “are in my way.”
Made of fiberglass and wood, the carts had U-shaped frames with wheels and a narrow seat. Marty showed me how to brace a foot against one wheel while I walked the shafts up to the rafters, so I could park them without help.
“You a trainer, Marty?”
Marty smiled. “Naw. But I knows more than most. I been round racehorses all seventy-seven years of my life.”
“Do you drive?” I asked.
“No more. Takes too much outta me to straddle that bike. My job’s pampering horses. Keep ‘em happy, so’s they kin run their best.”