Chap. 28: Humboldt County Fair, Ferndale California, August 2006
They’re in the track’s parking lot just like the jockeys told us. A girl no more than 18 slouches in the cramped back seat of a rusted-out Pontiac Firebird. In her arms, a baby is curled up in a pink blanket, sleeping soundly. Piled in every vacant space are clothes, blankets and tools. It’s cold and early morning, and the girl looks up and flashes an embarrassed grin. I glance over at my wife, Sandi, and put on a warm smile. Not far behind us in the barn area is the baby’s teenage father. I’m thinking I should have brought him.
After working as the Race Track Chaplaincy of America’s Director of Development and Communications for five years, I get a two-week vacation. When a track chaplain friend calls and says the usual chaplain for the tiny track in far Northern California can’t make it this year, Sandi and I decide to be real track chaplains. We’ve driven 600 miles from Los Angeles to the county noted for giant Redwoods and pot grower. We walked into the backstretch that morning for the first time, quickly meeting an older jockey and two others who told us about a young couple, who were broke and living in their car with a young baby. The riders want my help in taking up a collection to get them a place to stay.
The girl cranks down a back window and Sandi leans in, smiling broadly. “Sorry to surprise you. We just wanted to come see how you and the baby are doing.”
“We’re okay, except it’s kinda cold.”
I bend closer. “How about we go someplace warm and have breakfast?”
Soon, we’re in a nearby diner booth where she’s shoving down bacon and eggs with one hand and holding the baby in the other. She tells us her name is Lisa, and she met her “fiancé,” Ralph, when he came from Idaho to ride here last year. She became pregnant and had her baby, Sarah, while living with her mother who won’t allow Ralph in her house. When he returned this year, she hopped in his old car with their baby, not yet a year old, and came to the track.
“She’s real healthy and eating baby food fine,” Lisa says. “It’s just that Ralph blew the transmission in his car on the way here. We don’t have much money, but he’s named on two horses tomorrow, so we have money coming.”
The irony hits me. I too had once showed up to ride at Rockingham Park, busted and with a five-day-old baby, depending on coming paychecks to keep us going.
“Some of the jockeys are taking up a collection to get you a place to stay,” I say. The baby is awake now and looking around. Sandi starts making faces and tickling the baby’s stomach. Sarah starts laughing.
Well, I’m telling myself, I wanted to be a track chaplain. This is exactly what they do. The work is rarely neat, usually filled with dangling ends, and how to help is not always clearly defined. It’s far colder than Sandi and I expected, and we’re staying in a donated garage-top apartment no bigger than a motel room, so staying with us is out.
“It’s in the 40s this morning,” I say. “It’s dangerous for your baby, and if someone notices and calls social services, they might take little Sarah.”
“I’m not going home. I love Ralph, and we’re going to get married one day.”
I want to tell her she’s being shortsighted and selfish, but I’m not into sermons. “Great. But we need to get you and Sarah a place to stay.”
We stop at a grocery store, and I pay for diapers and baby food. When we take her back to the auto, she starts the engine for heat, but explains she can’t leave it running long or it will overheat.
It’s the first day of racing, and at the outside rail we watch horses train and introduce ourselves to trainers, jockeys, grooms and owners. It’s like they’re all kids and it’s the day before Christmas. Many of the trainers and riders work at other racing jobs as exercise riders and shed row foremen but leave during the summer to race the California fair circuit. It starts in early June with the Alameda County Fair in Pleasanton, moves to the California State Fair in Sacramento and the Sonoma County Fair in Santa Rosa and ends in August at the Humboldt Country Fair. Like the rest, this one has livestock shows and contests, flower and craft competitions, and a midway with rides, sideshows and rows of win-a-stuffed-bear vendors. Racing is for Thoroughbreds, Quarter Horses and mules.
Unlike typical racing, there is room for non-rich owners. Successful owners of small businesses and companies buy a half-dozen or so horses in the spring, take a hiatus, gas up their motor homes and for a few months enjoy live horse racing. They help at the barn, park beside each other in the track’s RV lots and maintain a friendly but competitive camaraderie. After the races, they gather on lawn chairs under their portable overhangs, barbecue, have a few beers and rehash that day’s victories, defeats and the enthralling peculiarities of racing. Humboldt is the last in the circuit and some say the best, kind of a Saratoga for poor folks.
Sandi and I find Ralph outside one of the ramshackle barns and wait until he ends his conversation with a trainer. We introduce ourselves and tell him we just had breakfast with Lisa and little Sarah. We learn he’s a part-time cowboy who each summer reduces and rides the fair circuit. But this year there were problems and he’d just arrived. He’s at least 5’7”, and while lanky, I wonder how he makes weight, though the weights seem higher than at the larger tracks. I explain about the riders planning to take up a collection to get the baby a safe place to stay. He seems accepting and explains he’ll have a paycheck in a week.
“We’re in love, you know. We do plan to get married.”
“You met her last year?” Sandi asks.
“I left before I knew she was pregnant. I wanted to take her with me, but she wasn’t 18 yet and her mother hates me. Now she’s of age, and we can get married without her mom’s permission.”
“That’s one sweet baby,” Sandi says.
“Yeah, she’s something else.”
“You need other accommodations,” I say.
“This is the season here, and motel rooms are high,” he says. “Some of the jocks are so broke they have to sleep in the jockeys’ room. Don’t know how much they can help.”
“We’ll figure out something,” I say, having no idea what it might be.
The racing secretary’s office and adjoining jockeys’ room look like a tool shed built in the 1930s. Their decaying wooden slats painted a fading red tilt slightly and have places where the boards don’t meet. It’s nearly noon when I walk into the jockeys’ room. Filled with at least 25 jockeys, no valets are in sight. It has three rooms lined with dark boards that show daylight. Its wooden benches sag and the walls are lined with cupboards the size of microwave ovens for the jockeys’ gear. No showers or reducing facilities are in sight. On the floor of an adjacent room, I see several rolled up sleeping bags.
Yet, conversation and laughter flow. As in all jockeys’ rooms, there is a sense of fellowship, community, and we’re-all-in-this-war-together attitude. I chat with a couple of the riders proposing the collection and with the clerk of scales’ permission, ask loudly if any would like to gather for a pre-race prayer. Every person in the place stops and comes forward.
I’ve said pre-race prayers in several jockeys’ rooms. Usually, a handful or a dozen show up. Never have all wanted prayer. I later learn why. I recite the 23rd Psalm and say a prayer for everyone’s safe return at the end of the day and close with a petition for Ralph, Lisa and little Sarah. I announce the collection and riders step forward, a few with $20 and some with change. I count it in front of them: $127.43. I add another $20, possibly enough for two nights in a motel.
Ralph clears his throat. “I’d rather use it to pay for part of a new transmission. We’re okay for now in the car.”
I stiffen, but hold my tongue.
Ray, the older rider who wanted the collection, takes a step forward and faces Ralph. “Kid, you’re not thinking clearly. That baby needs to get out of your broke-down car. Like today.”
Ralph’s face reddens. He takes a deep breath, and I use the pause to jump in. “Is it all right if I ask some of the owners? They understand things like this. They’ll help.”
“Do what you want,” Ralph says and walks off.
On my resume is a history in raising funds for the national RTCA office and a Certificate in Fundraising from UCLA. Asking people for money is what I do. I go into the saddling paddock with the riders and trainers who saddle their own horses, identify the owners, and after the horses are saddled, I introduce myself. I tell the story, trying not to be maudlin. Some donate on the spot, others promise to later. An older man there with his wife seems genuinely shocked. They talk privately for a second.
“Look, we got a 42-footer with an extra bedroom in the back,” he says. “She and the baby can stay there as long as they like. Just tell her to stop by after the races.”
I learn he’s a retired RV dealer who fell in love with racing decades earlier. I thank him, go back and give Ralph the money I collected. He seems pleased. He’s not only got his wife and baby a place to stay, but over $200 toward getting his transmission fixed. That evening I take Sandi out to dinner to celebrate.
In the next two weeks, I organize and make the chili for two backstretch cookouts that feature hymns played on a guitar, singing, and a short message. I remind all that Jesus loved having dinner with those not loved by society and is always ready to have a deeper fellowship with anyone. Later, several ask me to pray for specific needs. That week, a woman who runs the midway asks Sandi and me to hold a Sunday morning service for the carnival workers beneath a giant Ferris wheel.
I learn why the riders love prayer: mule racing. The mule Black Ruby won fame when she won 57 races, earned $175,000 and even raced at classy Del Mar. This meeting’s richest race is a $5,000 winner-take-all match race between mules Smokin Joe and Sarah Nelson. In it, Sarah smokes Joe. A hybrid cross between a female horse and a male donkey, a mule is not easy to train. While intelligence is a trait attributed to mules, it is not evident here. In their defense, some at Humboldt do not seem to be trained to race. Many refuse to load in the starting gate, rear in the air once inside and in the first turn bolt to the outside. Several run through or jump over the outside rail. Worse is the immediate stop. After the race ends and riders rise in the stirrups, many mules dig in their front feet and in one stride prop to a stop. Rider after rider is propelled into the air like circus acrobats. Mule riders are falling like soldiers at Gettysburg. A few are hospitalized, treated and released. I don’t know that I ever prayed harder for safety.
But it is a spider that keeps Sandi and me busy at the local hospital. A few nights into the short season, Ray is sleeping in the jockeys’ room when he’s bitten by what a doctor says is likely a Brown Recluse. In about half the cases, the bite is not serious. Not so with Ray. He is so sick on our way to the ER that we have to stop several times to allow him to throw up. I watch as a doctor lances and medicates the ugly red wound on his lower leg. The painful wound grows and does not respond to antibiotics.
We visit daily and help him contact long-lost relatives and collect information needed to become a Medicaid patient, something that seems necessary if he is to remain hospitalized. A cowboy and former bull rider, he has a face of shriveled rawhide. He tells us of herding cattle in a blizzard and outrunning a Montana Grizzly on horseback. He’s ridden the summer fair circuit for decades and lists his broken bones like combat metals.
Each afternoon at the track, a fog bank rolls in from the nearby Pacific Ocean like an arctic dust storm. The temperature falls as fast as the mule jockeys. Sandi and I go to a thrift store and buy coats. One morning we’re late getting to the track because a fence has come down and the road is clogged with Guernsey cows. I tell Sandi, “We’re in the big time now.”
On the final day, we throw a farewell chili dinner. The poor folks’ Saratoga is over. None of the riders have been injured. I think the prayers helped. Ray is still in the hospital, but I’ve found an owner willing to file a worker’s compensation claim on his behalf, one that allows him to get paid while he recuperates. Ray is talking regularly with the formerly estranged daughter I’d called for him. I think she even listens to his tall tales. Ralph won a few races, making and collecting enough money for a new transmission.
Outside one of the barns, the long August day lingers. The group, which includes the horse owners who housed Sarah and Lisa, use plastic spoons to dip into Styrofoam cups and put away the chili Sandi and I made. Most of the riders and trainers will go back to their more mundane jobs. I’ll go back to my RTCA office in the bowels of Hollywood Park. Sandi will resume a job for an inner-city charity. Like the owners who will drive home in their RVs to jobs in ordinary businesses, we leave to face a life not nearly as enthralling as the Humboldt County Fair.
But for a few more hours, fair racing is our universe’s center. Earl Baze, an Outrider and member of the same family that includes famous riders Russell and Tyler Baze plays his guitar with a new gusto. We sing songs into the night. Ralph, with Lisa beside him carrying Sarah, amble up to Sandi and me.
“We’re going to get married up in Idaho,” Ralph tells us again.
“In a real church,” says Lisa.
Congratulations,” I say, thinking I should suggest pre-marital counseling but don’t.
Lisa puts an arm on Sandi’s shoulder. “Would you two pray for us?”
We do and at the end share hugs. Sandi holds Sarah to her shoulder, rocking her from side to side. Ralph looks at me head on. “Thanks chaplain.”
I savor the word “chaplain.” I was officially endorsed as a chaplain by my denomination the previous year, and many people call me chaplain. Tonight, it has new meaning. Behind us, the music starts anew. The smell from the big pot of simmering chili wafts into the cool air. With it comes the heady aroma of celebration. I remember diving joyously onto a muddy track following the last race at a Florida Downs meeting.
It’s a celebration I understand.