A most unlikely source can emerge to have an unfathomable impact on one's life
The Magic of Moses
Mike Magee sat alone at a window-side bar table, idly sipping a beer while gazing upon a soft summer rain spattering the glass of Duffy’s Tavern, a small but popular eatery among horsemen less than a block from Belmont Park. Morning stable chores were done and with no horse racing scheduled this dark-day afternoon, the clamor of a noonday crowd faded as the captive image took him back nearly fifty years.
“A penny my foot. Hell, I’d give a whole dollar for those thoughts,” Robby teased, anxiously standing by with a plateful of lunch in one hand and a tall lager in the other. “Mind if I join you, Mike? The place is packed.”
“Huh? Oh, sorry ‘bout that, Robby.” Startled from his pensive mindset, Mike quickly motioned for his farrier to set his lunch down. “By all means, have a seat. Was lost in space, I guess.”
“No harm done. Seems I got here a little late today. Had to fit a custom shoe on one of Whittingham’s stake horses. And that reminds me; congratulations on taking second in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Tiawah was awesome in the stretch.” Robby praised the colt’s spectacular closing rush in the last leg of the Triple Crown who missed beating the even-money favorite by a short head.
“Yeah, almost got the job done. Ran out of real estate was all.”
Between bites from one of Duffy’s famed 'pastrami heroes on rye', Robby glanced in the general direction of Mike’s interrupted trance but failed to see anything other than ordinary traffic. “What the devil were you staring at outside?”
Mike smirked. “Oh, that. Was nothing outside, but the window itself is what had me hooked.”
“The window? What’s so dang special about this window?” Robby wrinkled his brow, eyeing the panel's artful lettering for clues.
Mike finished his beer. “Let me ask you something... and think about this no matter how trivial it may seem. But has anyone— uh, maybe an event, or perhaps something that someone might have once said or done for you that somehow changed your life in a big way? You know, had such a lasting impact that you never forgot it?”
Perplexed by the rather offbeat question, Robby paused, switching from further attacks on his oversized sandwich to beer as Mike afforded him time to search his memory when Robby's expression brightened.
“Yeah— as a matter of fact, I do remember something. It was a long time ago when I was a kid. I bought a stolen catcher’s mitt from some kid on the sandlot with someone’s initials tooled into the wristband. My Little League coach noticed the mismatch one day and asked where I got it. I stumbled with a few fibs at first, but eventually fessed up to getting a five-fingered discount. But was I ever embarrassed, Mike. I respected him for being nice enough to me, especially after trying to lie my way out of it, but I’ll never forget how ashamed he made me feel; that I was no better than a two-bit thief myself. ‘What if it was your mitt stolen,’ he said. ‘Something that was precious to you that you had worked so hard shining shoes and mowing yards for? Would you want me buying it from some thievin’ delinquent for seventy-five cents?’
“And let me tell you something, Mike; he really got to me. The guilt stuck with me all my life. I never bought another stolen thing since— ever. To this day I won’t even look at hot goods. So yeah, you might say he’s someone who had one hell of an impact on me, and I’ve hammered that message home on my two boys as well. But what’s that got to do with this here window?”
“Well, when I was a kid, my Grandpa used to say that all people are like a race of raindrops— just millions of colorless souls, created in the heavens, and born by chance upon a window pane of life. Like this one here.” Mike swept his hand about the window as the rain perpetually populated the large panel with millions of droplets.
“Grandpa said most are content to stay put, going nowhere, just minding their own business living separate lives. Then there are those who are more venturous, plodding every which way through life, bumping into others causing all sorts of chain reactions that not only affected their own lives, but lord knows how many others who had changed directions; some for future generations, even. Sort of how your coach did to you.”
“Hmm, the windowpane of life, you say. Very interesting. A rather profound thought, actually. Sounds to me like your Grandpa was a wise old gentleman.”
“He was indeed, Robby— and likely far more so than you'd ever imagine.” Mike coyly grinned as if hiding a secret while flagging a barmaid for two more beers. “Of course you remember my dad, Dermot?”
“Yeah, sure; one of the best horsemen I had ever worked for. I was a new farrier breaking into the New York circuit then, building my book of clients when one day I happened to be working for another trainer sharing his barn. Your dad came over to ask if could help him out in a pinch by fixing a problem on a horse he had running that day. If memory serves me right, you were in your teens as his assistant trainer at the time, and here we are today. I’ve been shoeing for you ever since you became a trainer on your own. Say, how about that?” Robby mused, pointing to the window. “Kind o’ like one of them raindrops you’ve been talkin’ about up there.”
“There ya go, Robby,” Mike nodded.
“Yeah, Robby reflected, “your Dad was a good man, Mike. A real true blue no-nonsense guy who was well liked around the ovals.”
“That he was,” Mike agreed, “and though I learned a great deal from him, but what would you say if I told you I owe virtually everything, and I do mean everything I am today to an old Negro— the most decrepit, flea-bitten, worthless old coot that no one in the world would ever dream such a vagrant could affect anyone’s life, much less mine?”
“I’d say, no way. You followed your dad’s footsteps to where you’re now one of the top trainers in the country. You're in the big leagues, pal.”
“Maybe so, but it’s true.” Mike was amused at Robby’s perplexed expression. “Tell you what. While you finish with lunch, how about I tell you a little story?”
“I’m all ears, amigo. Go for it.”
“Well, back before the war, my father grew up the only child of Irish immigrants. They barely survived the Depression, but despite the poverty and rough ‘n tumble life in the slums of Boston, they managed to keep him out of inner-city gangs and raised him to be a fair and honest man, though he did have a stubborn streak a mile long.”
“Oh yeah,” Robby chuckled. “I do remember that about him, too. Once his mind was made up, there was no getting him to budge. He sure could be a hard-headed son of a gun at times, but go on.”
“I was only about two when my mother died about a year before Pearl Harbor. Papa qualified for a hardship deferment since he was the only one left to care for me, and all the while growing up, I remember we were always strapped for cash. But somehow, he managed to raise me between winter racing meets in Cajun country and summers at Boston’s Suffolk Downs. The back-and-forth travel, learning my three R’s in single makeshift school rooms at the track, or of being holed up in one-room shanties on the backstretch if not living out of Papa’s old '34 Woody at times, didn’t bother me a bit.
“All I ever knew or cared about was loving every minute learning the horse game helping Papa train a half-dozen cheap nags. I guess you could say he personified the ultimate optimist. You know the type, Robby,” Mike chortled. “The die-hard horseman, always stone broke but keeps on dreaming of the day he would pluck his own ‘Seabiscuit’ from a field of also-rans.
“Anyway, not long after mother passed, and with me still so young, Papa needed some help despite a lean wallet when an unwitting twist of fate happened to where Papa took in a pathetic, dirty old vagrant. His name was Moses LeBlanc, a busted-up former bush-league jock who at one time had a very promising career.
“Moses was born in 1865, the second son of Cajun slaves from the delta region of Louisiana. But unlike his folks, he never knew the backbreaking work of farming cotton. Instead, he grew up messing around with horses after an aging blacksmith had hired his father as an apprentice after the Civil War.
“Back then, a favorite pastime among local colored folk was match racing whatever dreadful steeds could be saddled away from plowing fields, or from patching up broken down giveaways from a nearby race meet.
“Moses started real young. He was fearless in the saddle and won his first race when only seven. He once told me of how at age twelve he had earned the nickname of 'Meanie Mo’ after being chastised for whipping the ass of an older jock who had purposely bumped Moses' mount off stride when passing in close quarters during a winner-take-all sprint race.
“His hero was Isaac Murphy, the famed black jockey who won forty percent of his races, including three Kentucky Derby’s. Moses even patterned his life after him, renowned for his loyalty and integrity.
‘“Never lose yo intiggerty, young’n,’ he would always preach to me. ‘Cain’t nobawdy take dat away ‘cep’n you.’ He’d stress it was the most valuable thing a man could ever possess, and that’s something I never forgot, Robby.
“Moses was small but a little powerhouse with strong sensitive hands and tireless legs. In his prime, he was a natural perched near motionless astride the withers of a charging thoroughbred. But sadly, he was never to be another Murphy. His future vanished in an instant one afternoon at the Fairgrounds when nearly killed in a tragic spill that claimed the life of a fellow jock and three horses. His shattered left arm and leg never healed properly, and the poor sot remained disfigured for the rest of his life.
“Uneducated and partially crippled with nowhere to go, his life crumbled to bare subsistence. He hung around bush-league racetracks grateful for the odd handout or took menial jobs watering horses for whoever would tolerate his slovenly appearance.
"Papa hated to see the old codger rummaging through garbage barrels for bits of food like a stray cur, or of finding him asleep in empty stalls or wherever else he could lay his weary bones without being chased off. But there wasn't much Papa could do. We were only a sawbuck away from being vagrants ourselves. Yet somehow, Moses survived until one day, two lowlifes set in motion a flukey chain of events.
“Papa was passing through a rear parking lot when a skirmish between horse vans drew his attention. He happened upon a pair of shifty riffraff who were literally pissing on Moses after they had knocked him down and rifled his pockets for what little change he had. Papa flew into a rage and gave them a vicious beating, sending one to the infirmary in need of several stitches.
“Times were hard, but Papa took Moses in anyway, cleaned him up and fed him. Moses asked if he could stay on as a groom despite the lack of normal wages, likely more grateful for Papa’s kindness and no longer homeless than for any pittance Papa could afford to pay. But Moses’ needs were simple. He never complained of anything and was content to sleep on a cot in the tack room where he kept a hot plate for heating meals. Moses was always upbeat and eventually became known as a fixture in Papa’s barn, never failing to greet a passerby with a congenial, ‘mawnin boss,’ or a ‘howdya do missem.’
“And let me tell you, Robby,” Mike reflected. “What a boon Moses turned out to be. He was not only there to potty-train me, but he was a brilliant horseman. Papa learned a sackful of homespun training skills that dovetailed his own talents. Yeah, Papa really admired that old Negro’s extraordinary way with horses. He’d marvel at Moses’ eerie affinity for bonding with them— as if he could reach in and touch their equine souls that galvanized their competitive spirit.
“Moses would stay with a sore horse for hours, or even days after a race… humming old spirituals while massaging swollen joints with his special poultices if he thought it would comfort one of Papa’s worn-out nags even the slightest. Moses used to tell me he could even talk to horses, and let me tell ya something, sir— I believed him, too. Still do,” Mike said, smiling.
“‘You gonna be jess fine,’ Mike imitated Moses. ‘Doncha go worry none now, cuz ol’ Moses be workin’ his magic, now— fo’ sho. Why, he be fix’n you up reeal good. You’ll see.’
“Yeah, ol’ Moses seemed to identify with their lot in life as being bred for one purpose: ‘to run yo hawt out for da Massah,’ he used to say. But no matter how poorly a horse performed, Moses never held losers in contempt. He said he respected their ‘intiggerty’ as much as his own.
“‘Doncha go fret none, Massah D,’ he’d say to appease Papa. ‘Why, he done do his best. Yassah. He be jess unlucky t’day, dat’s all. We git ‘em nex’un, fo’ sho,’ and then cackle like a demented old witch, secretly relieved his baby was able to walk back to the barn on its own power, let alone running up the track that cost him his last deuce for the week.
“Then one day, the day after my tenth birthday in fact, I was sitting atop a barn rail, sharing a jelly sandwich with Moses. He was teaching me how to spot conformation flaws, or be pointing out existing and potential injuries in horses walking past when a sudden disturbance flared up in a neighboring barn. Peering beneath the eaves, we could see someone battling a rank horse in its stall. Moses hobbled to assist as quickly as eighty-one-year-old legs could manage.
“When we got there, a stable lad was beating on a horse with a heavy muzzle twitch. To keep me from getting hurt, Moses shoved me aside with his bad arm as he lunged for the thick club with his good hand before another wallop could be delivered. Moses got whacked hard in the face and forehead but managed to hang on while wrestling the s.o.b. to the straw, both at risk of serious injury if kicked or trampled.
“Seconds later, a vet and his assistant working four stalls down had heard the ruckus and dragged the scuffling pair from the stall. Moses and the groom were still cursing and hurling threats at each other when the stable’s trainer returned from gate-training a two-year-old at the track.
“Once things were sorted out, the trainer fired the sorry-ass groom on the spot. Satisfied justice was served, and despite a bloodied lip and a huge welt rising on his noggin, Moses ignored warnings of the horse’s mean-spirited ways and re-entered the stall to check on the beaten animal. It was then Moses recognized the small but compact bay as Cohasset, a four-year-old he had been observing on and off the track for weeks.
“I moved closer to the stall door as Moses calmed the colt, gently stroking the horse’s neck and flank while giving him a good looking over. He showed me how he liked Cohasset’s balance and fluid shoulder angle; his intelligent head and big determined eye. From what Moses could tell, that aside from a dull coat and being underweight, Cohasset didn’t appear to have any obvious bone or tendon afflictions that would account for his lackluster race efforts.
“‘Don’t knows fo’ sho, Massah Mike, but don’t tink diss hoss be hurtin’ none, ‘cep’n maybe for a couple bruises from that sumbitchin’ coward,” Moses scowled. “Seems he could be awright. Why, he be a fine lookin’ lil’ fella, yassah.’ Moses alluded to the colt’s smallish size at 15-2 hands versus 16 for an average thoroughbred.
“As time moved on, the beating incident had faded into memory as Suffolk’s race meet was coming to a close in the fall. Several stables had already vanned to southern destinations while other trainers decided to cull sore or mediocre horses not up to grade for winter meets. Others sought to free up stall space, making room for incoming two-year-olds prepping for spring campaigns. Like now, Robby, a common practice for dumping stock was to enter horses at lower claiming ranks than normal, hoping to tempt owners and smaller trainer stables into claiming away a bargain— and that meant us as we were desperately looking as well.
“I remember like it was yesterday. It was a warmish Saturday morning when I was helping Moses water off horses and pin leg-wraps. Papa was in the tack room with his nose buried in the racing form, making notes and checking a bunch of math calculations.
“Two weeks earlier, one of Papa’s horses had been claimed and we lost another that had to be given away after pulling up lame with a torn suspensory. We were down to only three runners and in dire need of replacements if we had any hope of earning a living in Louisiana.
“Papa was focused on a five-year-old gelding dropping in for thirty-five hundred, down from a tag as high as ten-grand during the summer. But all he had was two thousand from his claimed horse, plus a G-note he barely managed to scrape together. That left Papa staring at the form with yet another problem— he was still five hundred short.
“‘Wass yo readin’ so hawd, boss?’ Moses poked his head through the doorway as I came up beside him and looped my arm around his waist. We listened as Papa described his intent to claim a lucrative prospect— and his dilemma.
“‘I know you got some rat-hole money stashed away,’ Papa said. ‘Any chance you might have five hundred to lend? I’ll give it back out the first purse monies we get, I promise.’
“Moses used to keep cash in a small tin box hidden in a shallow hole in the corner of a stall. He covered it with a shingle and masked it with dirt and straw but shared his secret hideaway with us should anything ever happen to him. However meager his salary, he’d manage to squirrel away a deuce or a fiver here and there. But there were times when he’d increase his stash many fold if afforded tempting odds on horses catching his savvy eye during morning workouts, or when making notes of bad rides that should have won in previous starts. Moses said he thought he might have enough, but asked more details of Papa’s targeted claim first.
“‘Oh lawdy, not Diggery Doc,’ Moses frowned. ‘Why, he be dat big chessnut wit da white blaze dat Massah Lowe trains?’ Moses stood in the doorway, staring at the floor while scratching his head with concern as I sidled past to peek at Papa’s notes. ‘I dunnos ‘bout dat one, Massah D. I tink dat be a baaad move.’
“Moses agreed the flashy chestnut had some useful talent and usually earned a piece of the purse, but advised Papa that lately, Diggery seemed to favor a left fore ever so slight when setting it down in a slow walk. Moses suspected the 17-hand gelding was about to bow a tendon and urged Papa to reconsider.
“‘You need to listen to Grandpa,’ I butted in. ‘He showed me Diggery’s problem a couple times already.’ I reminded Papa how a bad claim would destroy our finances— and us. I again glanced at Papa’s scribbled notes and got excited when spotting an entry in the following race.
“‘Hey, Grandpa! Cohasset’s in the sixth for five-grand today.’
“Papa popped from his chair so hard he knocked it over, and nearly me as he pushed me away from his form he was so mad, convinced we were deliberately out to subvert his plans.
“‘What’s so damned special about Cohasset?’ he yelled. ‘You two save a horse from a beating one time and all of sudden you think he’s a wonder horse? Fat chance in hell,’ Papa cursed. He realized the colt was dropping in for twenty-five hundred less than previous starts, but even so, Cohasset was two thousand dollars more than was needed for Diggery. ‘Besides,’ Papa ranted, ‘he’s nothin’ but a gawl-danged plodder! A worthless bum who ain’t been closer than five lengths in his last dozen outs, for Christ’s sake. Look!’
“Papa shoved the form at me, his face turning crimson with anger as he stabbed his finger at the stats. I didn’t respond; his mind was made up as he glowered at Moses. ‘Are you gonna give me some money or not?’
“Though I was upset myself, let alone fearful of Papa's temper, I found the courage to challenge Papa and begged him to heed Moses’ advice. All that time, Moses remained silent, his eyes darting between the two of us, torn between his loyalties versus wariness of Papa’s decision. But Papa’s glare was too much as Moses gave in and agreed to retrieve his savings.
“I hurried over and grabbed Moses by the arm as he turned toward the stalls, and to Papa’s astonishment, I laced into Moses for turning tail.
‘Don’t do it, Grandpa! Don’t do it! I yelled. ‘We can’t afford it if the Doc breaks down.’ I urged Moses to ignore Papa and stick to his own instincts, but instead, he ignored me.
“I whirled to face my father. ‘Grandpa knows, Papa. He can really talk to horses, I tell ya. He knows.’ I searched Papa’s eyes, thinking a different tactic might sway his decision. ‘If we have to, Papa, we can claim Cohasset out the next race. Grandpa likes him better; a lot better. I seen it.’ I prayed he might go for the compromise, but I was wrong.
“‘Use your dang fool head, boy. You ain’t listening! I just said we ain’t got enough for Diggery, so how in hell do we pay for the bastard when he’s two-grand more than I got?’ Papa slammed the form on his desk, sending clouds of dust spiraling into the air. Moses was nervous but hopefully excited as he hurried toward the first stall.
“‘Now you jess hold on, boss! Dunnos fo’ sho, but I mights have enough.’
“I chanced a last-ditch effort using one of Papa’s own precepts against him. ‘You always told me that Grandpa’s can never lie, Papa; that grandkids tend to hang on to their every word a Grandpa says no matter how tall the tale— so I say trust him, Papa. Please, trust him.’
“But my words had no effect. Papa’s laser-like focus was fixed on Moses through the open door, waiting for him to retrieve his money. Papa simply brushed me aside when Moses returned with the tin box. Ignored and out-gunned, Moses and I stood uneasily by his desk, our eyes locked onto Papa sifting through wads of crumpled bills.
“‘My word, Moses,’ Papa broke the suspense. ‘You have thirty-eight hundred and change in here? Where’d you get all this money?’ Papa asked, not waiting for an answer. ‘All I need is five hundred,’ and handed back the tin box of neatly compiled bills. But Moses refused.
“‘Nossuh, Massah D. You knows I cain’t read or do figger’n. You be da boss o’ diss fam’ly, so you minds it for ol’ Moses, now hear? G’won, now— git. Go git us da Doc. We jess do best we can wif 'im, fo’ sho.’
“Our motley faces were too much for Papa to contend with any longer. He pocketed a roll of bills and ordered me to snatch a halter and lead shank. Papa was still mighty angry as he stormed from the tack room, but stopped short of the barn’s portal where he turned and thrust a dangling shank at me.
“‘Damn it to hell, boy!’ he yelled. ‘Are you comin’ with me or not? ‘Cause if you don’t have the stomach for this, then stay here and help Moses prepare a vacant stall ‘til I get back.’
“Tears of frustration mixed with defiance welled in my eyes, but I stood rigid, determined not to be part of what would end up being a financial disaster.
“‘Humph,’ Papa grunted. ‘So be it, then!’ He abruptly turned his back on me and stomped off toward the track. Since I’d lost my battle, I tried once more into goading Moses to stop him before it was too late, but Moses dismissed the notion with a wave of his hand.
“‘Nossuh, young’n. Nossuh. And doncha be frettin’ none, boy. He be da boss man and dat’s dat. Come on, now; we best do what he says.’
“More than two hours had passed while we waited in the tack room— brooding. Our reticent eyes met when hearing Papa yell for help. We heard snorting, regretting it was time to wash and cool out Papa’s claim. Still sulking, I shuffled when gathering the soap, a big sponge and a bucket. Moses tossed me a squeegee and told me to scoot while he folded a horse blanket before ambling out to the wash rack.
“Moses soon followed but stopped only feet outside the shed row, his eyes widened in sync with an exuberant smile.
“‘Why, lawd sakes alive. Lookie there; it be da ‘Hasset. Moses stood for a moment to observe the horse stepping in place as it tugged against Papa’s tether. Satisfied, Moses began dancing a little two-step toward us as I lathered Cohasset up. Moses and I were elated, but Papa was in a downright pissy mood. He greeted us with pure contempt, fumbling for words as he scrutinized our new racing prospect.
“‘Yeah, go ahead and party!’ Papa bellowed. ‘I hope you two nitwits are real happy now, ‘cause Diggery won his race— by five! But this— this worthless son-of-a-bitch plodded home sixth, just like I said he would, beaten over a dozen lengths! What a bum, a worthless bum,’ Papa grumbled while pouring a bucket of rinse water over Cohasset’s back.
“Moses had taken over holding Cohasset but refused to even look at Papa. ‘Aw, dat ain’t bein’ nice, Massah D. Doncha be sayin’ dat about da ‘Hasset. Why he tain’t no sumbitch. Nossuh. Why, he be da boss hoss now, fo’ sho.’
“Moses whispered into the horse’s nostrils, fixing his scent while stroking the colt’s head and upper neck. ‘You remember me, doncha lil’ fella? Sho ya do, so doncha pay no ‘tention to Massah D. He means you no hawm. He knows you be a good’n.’
“Moses palmed the colt’s muzzle, soothing him to a quieter stand as I finished rinsing him off. ‘Why, you gonna be talkin’ to ol’ Moses from now on. You jess bin awaitin’ on me to fix you up real good, haven't cha? Yassah. Jess you wait ‘n see, cuz ol’ Moses be workin’ his magic now, fo’ sho.’
“While I squeegeed excess water off of Cohasset’s flanks, Papa slowly slid experienced hands over the colt’s knees, cannon bones, hocks, and fetlocks… all the while mumbling.
“‘Christ almighty, I’m gonna be the laughingstock of the whole damned meet.’ Satisfied Cohasset’s joints and tendons felt sound with no heat or filling, Papa warned us to be mindful of the colt’s temperament, that he tended to be a bit rank walking back to the barn.
“‘Be careful, you two. He can be an ornery cuss, so if you need me, I’ll be at the track kitchen— gettin’ stinkin’ drunk!’
* * *
Robby corralled our waitress and produced two cigars from an inside vest pocket. “Give us each a Hennessy and me both tabs,” he ordered as Mike continued to describe how his father and Moses worked on Cohasset for nearly two months before his next start.
“At first, Papa went nuts; absolutely furious over feed and vet bills piling up before he could even smell a chance at recovering some purse money. But about five days after the claim, Moses detected a hint of unusual odor in Cohasset’s stools and showed Papa the difference from normal samples in other stalls.
“Moses suspected the colt had been suffering from heat ulcers, an unusual ailment seldom diagnosed, let alone properly treated by the best of trainers, or even by good vets of today,” Mike added before continuing.
“‘Dat might be why he be cranky sometimes, and so light on weight. Dat would also make his coat be dis flat, too,’ Moses reasoned.
“Moses explained how he had gained such knowledge from his old match-racing days and shared his secret remedy I still use today. You start by blending de-hulled oats with corn meal, add some molasses, and then slowly stir in an aromatic, dark olive-colored tea made from boiling a wild Cajun plant until it thickens to a soft warm mash.
“After three weeks of ingesting Moses’ secret ‘mojo mush,’ Papa was amazed at Cohasset’s transformation. The colt muscled up while putting on weight, his coat dappled to a healthy rich mahogany sheen, and eagerly took to training with noticeable vivacity. Even his temperament improved which was probably aggravated by the ulcers at the time, but I really think his affectionate interaction with Moses had a lot more to do with it." Mike smiled.
“The time came when Papa had plans to enter Cohasset for the same five-thousand claiming race, hoping the colt’s improved appearance and decent action during morning gallops would attract a claim so Papa could at least break even, maybe earn a small piece of the purse in the process while getting rid of the overhead. But Moses pitched a fearsome fit.
“‘Doncha be doin’ dat, Massah D! Nossuh! Da ‘Hasset done tol’ me he be ready dis time,’ and insisted Cohasset be entered for at least double the tag to avoid losing the colt at the lower claiming price.
“‘An’ den ol’ Moses be gone, too— fo’ sho! Moses’ nostrils flared as he stomped his foot down hard for emphasis. ‘An’ I means it, boss!’ he sternly warned, threatening never to set foot in Papa’s barn again.
“I had never seen Moses so forceful toward Papa, who grumbled annoyance but conceded to Moses’ ploy. The only qualifying race Papa could find was for non-winners of two races lifetime at a much higher claiming tag than he wanted at twelve-five.
“As Papa had so adamantly pointed out, Cohasset’s racing form was pathetic at lower claiming levels, now stepping up in class to nearly triple the original value. Morning line odds and the betting public confirmed it, too, sending Cohasset to the gate at 50-to-1.
“Papa was pretty sore, further irritated by taunts from onlookers in the saddling paddock, but held his tongue while prepping Cohasset for post parade. After boosting the jockey a leg up, Moses purposely avoided Papa’s sour mood and quickly disappeared into the crowd shuffling toward the grandstands.
“Uh, you remember the tin box, Robby?”
“Yeah, sure; hidden in the stall.”
“Well, Papa had taken most of the money for the claim, but gave it back to Moses with over thirteen hundred still in it. I was proud of my father for not taking advantage of Moses, but rather committed his own money for a half interest as the honorable thing to do. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound,’ Papa said. And a damned good thing, too,” Mike chuckled.
“Cohasset made a mockery of the race. He broke alertly and settled into a smooth and steady stride. After stalking the early pace, he gained ground on the outside, circled the two leaders rounding the turn into the stretch, and drew off to win by four under a hand ride.
“What’s more, that day ended up being the first of only two times I ever saw my father cry. Not for the win, mind you,” Mike paused, fighting back a sudden spate of emotion himself— “but after Cohasset was cooled out, fed, and bedded down for the night, you should have seen Papa’s face when Moses handed him a thousand dollars in face-value win tickets.”
“Holy, Jesus!” Robby computed. “At 50-to-1? That’s fifty big ones, a ton o’ dough back then.”
“Yep. A little over fifty-four thousand to be exact, and Moses insisted on Papa cashing them.
“‘Naw, ol’ Moses needs no mawny, boss. I gots all I need right here,’ he said, and slid his good arm over my shoulder and hugged me close. ‘You keeps it— for m’grandboy here.’
“That’s when Papa’s eyes watered up, and though he caught a couple tears trying to escape, it was all he could do to keep from losing it.” Mike became a shade more mournful, slowly drawing on his cigar while gazing at the rain-soaked window before speaking.
“But the second time was not so easy after finding a lifeless Moses curled up on his cot at first light. He died during the night about six months later.
Robby remained respectfully silent as Mike lowered his eyes for a moment, obviously immersed in memories while gently rolling the snifter of cognac until ready to finish his story.
“Uh, as I was saying, Moses’ winnings improved everything— first our living conditions and then the stable,” Mike recounted. “Though it was really his money, and despite the lack of comforts living in a tiny cold and dusty room at night, Moses refused to move in with us, insisting on staying in the tack room close to his beloved horses.
“And that was only the beginning, Robby. Oh, Cohasset turned out to be okay, earning his share of purses with a couple wins or placings until claimed for a nice profit. But it was Papa’s popularity that took off.
“Papa used the rest of the winnings to expand the stable, and given the improvement in Cohasset and a few other shrewd claims, owners came around asking to be clients. The stable grew and even to this today, I train for some of Papa’s bigger stables, like the Kentucky farm who sent me Tiawah and a half-dozen other well-bred prospects each year.
“So there you have it, my friend. Here I am, fourth leading trainer in the nation, a big stable of fine horses and good owners with plenty of money behind me— and all because of a broken-down old wretch who came into my life. I deeply loved that old man, Robby. Besides Papa, he’s all I ever knew or had to care for me; even adopted him as my true, wise-old Grandpa.” Mike winked. “Yeah, ol’ Moses sure worked his magic on me, or I’d be living in a tack room somewhere myself.”
“Oh, I’m not so sure about that entirely, Mike,” Robby challenged. “I think you should give your father a great deal of credit, too.” Robby was pleased he managed to induce a clueless expression on Mike’s face.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, if you ask me, I think your father knew all along he had found his elusive 'Biscuit— only it wasn’t a horse.” Robby fanned emotional flames Mike had never before fathomed, prompting Robby to ask why Mike’s father hadn’t claimed Diggery in the first place.
“Ya know, I asked him that myself and all he said was four little words: ‘Grandpas can never lie,’ and winked at me.”
“Mm-hmm, there you go,” Robby nodded, smiling. “I would like to propose a toast. Here’s to you, your Belmont second, to your insightful dad and both your unwavering ‘intiggerty,’ and especially… here’s to your wise, old Grandpa.”
“Yessir, I’ll drink to that,” Mike beamed, clinking glasses.
Robby smiled and maneuvered Mike’s attention back to the window, fascinated by all the droplets. “So that’s our windowpane of life. An amazing story, Mike. Truly amazing. Makes me wonder which ones are us.”
“Don’t know, but you can bet we’re on there— fo’ sho,” Mike playfully confirmed.
An alluring mystique pervaded Robby’s mind as he browsed the rain-spattered glass, fantasizing how it could relate to his present life. I wonder which one’s me, and who I’m gonna bump into next?
Leaning back in their chairs, the two pals cradled snifters of cognac as strands of sinewy cigar smoke oozed from pursed lips, each facing the window in reverent silence as if waiting for a curtain rise.