A most unlikely source can emerge to have an unfathomable impact on one's life
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Mike Magee sat at a small bar table, idly sipping a beer while gazing upon a soft summer rain gently spattering the front window of Duffy’s Tavern, a popular eatery among horsemen a block from Belmont Park. Morning chores were done and with no horse racing scheduled for the afternoon, the clamor of a noonday crowd faded as the captive image took him back nearly fifty years.
“A penny, be hanged. Hell, I’d give a whole dollar for those thoughts,” Robby teased, standing by with a plateful of lunch in one hand, a draught beer in the other. “Mind if I join you, Mike? The place is packed.”
Startled from his pensive mindset, Mike motioned for his farrier to set his lunch down. “Oh, sorry 'bout that, Robby. By all means, have a seat. Was lost in space, I guess.”
“No problem, and by the way, 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 that 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, 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 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— um, maybe an event, or perhaps something that someone might have said or done for you that somehow changed your life? You know, had such a lasting impact that you never forgot it?”
Perplexed by the rather offbeat question, Robby paused and sipped his beer as Mike afforded him a moment to search his memory when Robby's expression brightened.
“Yeah— as a matter of fact, I do remember something. When I was a kid, I bought a stolen catcher’s mitt from a classmate with initials tooled into the wristband. My Little League coach noticed the mismatch and asked where I got it. I eventually fessed up to getting a five-fingered discount, but was I ever embarrassed. I respected him for being nice enough, 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; would you want me buying it?’ he said. It really got me to thinking and I swear, Mike, the guilt stuck with me all my life. Ever since, I never bought another stolen thing— ever. I won’t even look at hot goods, 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— millions of colorless souls created in the heavens and born by chance upon a window pane of life; like this one here.” Mike pointed to spates of droplets dotting the glass. "He said most are content to stay put, going nowhere just minding their own business. Then there are those who are more venturous, plodding every which way through life, bumping into others or causing all sorts of chain reactions that affect their own or lord knows how many other lives. Some for several generations even; sort of how your coach did to you.”
“Hmm, the window pane of life, you say. Interesting. A rather profound thought, actually. Sounds to me like your Grandpa was a wise old gentleman.”
"He was indeed— and likely more so than you'd ever imagine, Robby." Mike coyly grinned as if hiding a secret while flagging a barmaid for two more beers. “Of course you remember my dad, Dermot?”
“Sure do, and one of the best horsemen I ever worked for. I was just getting started then when he gave me a break and trusted my work about a year before he passed, rest his soul. And here we are today; I've been shoeing for you ever since. Yeah, your Dad was a good man, Mike; a stand-up no-nonsense guy who was well liked around the ovals.”
“That he was," Mike agreed, "and though I learned a lot from him, but what would you say if 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 suspect could affect anyone’s life, much less mine?"
“I’d say, no way. You’re one of the top trainers in the country. You're in the big-leagues, my friend.”
“Maybe so, but it’s true.” Mike was amused at Robby’s dubious look. “Tell you what. While you enjoy lunch, how about I tell you a little story?"
"I'm all ears, Mike; go for it."
"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, I remember that about him, too." Robby chuckled. “Once his mind was made up, there was no getting him to budge. Yeah, he sure could be a hard-headed son of a gun at times, but go on.”
“Well, after my mother died about two years before Pearl Harbor, Papa got a hardship deferment since he was the only one to care for me. He was always strapped for cash, but somehow managed to raise me between winter racing in Cajun country and summer meets at Boston’s Suffolk Downs. The travel and being holed up in backstretch shanties, or even living out of Papa’s old Woody when we had to didn’t bother me. 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," Mike chortled, "the die-hard horseman, always stone broke but keeps hanging on to a dream of one day plucking a ‘Seabiscuit’ from a field of also-rans. Anyway, not long after mother passed, fate happened to where Papa took in this pathetic, dirty old vagrant. His name was Moses LeBlanc, a busted-up former bush-league jock who at one time had a 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 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 a broken down giveaway from a nearby race meet. Moses started real young. He was fearless and won his first race when only seven. He told me by the time he was a teenager, he was known as Meanie Mo for tattooing passing jocks with his whip. His hero was Isaac Murphy, the famed black jockey who won forty percent of his races, including three Kentucky Derbys. Moses even patterned his life after him, renowned for his loyalty and integrity.
"'Never lose yo intiggerty, young’n,’ he’d always preach to me. ‘Cain’t nobawdy take dat away c‘ep’n you.’ He’d stress it was the most valuable thing a man could ever possess, Robby, and that's something I never forgot.
“Moses was small, but had strong sensitive hands and tireless legs. Word was 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 really healed properly and remained disfigured for the rest of his life. Uneducated, partially crippled, and 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 fateful 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, always greeting a passerby with a congenial, ‘mawnin boss,’ or a ‘howdya do missem.’
“And what a boon Moses turned out to be, Robby,” Mike reflected. “He not only was there to potty-train me, but he was a brilliant horseman. Papa learned a ton of homespun training talents that dovetailed his own skills. Yeah, Papa really admired that old Negro’s extraordinary way with horses. He’d marvel at Moses’ eerie affinity for bonding with them— it was as if he could reach in and touch their equine souls and galvanize their competitive spirit.
“Moses would stay with a sore horse for hours after a race, humming old spirituals while massaging swollen joints with his special poultice 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, sir, I believed him, too,” Mike said, smiling.
“‘You gonna be jess fine,’ Mike imitated Moses. ‘Doncha go worry none, cuz ol’ Moses be workin’ his magic, now— fo’ sho. Why, he be fix’n you up reeal good.’
“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'd 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 ‘n fret none, Massah D,’ he’d say to appease Papa. ‘Why, he done do his best. Yassah. He be jess unlucky t’day. 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 injuries or conformation flaws in horses passing by when a disturbance flared up in a neighboring barn. Peering beneath the eaves, we saw 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, we found a stable hand beating on a horse with a muzzle twitch. Moses shoved me aside and lunged at the s.o.b., grabbing the thick club before another wallop could be delivered. Moses got whacked hard in the forehead but managed to hang on, wrestling the man to the straw at risk of being kicked or trampled.
“A moment 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 the track. Once things were sorted out, the trainer fired the sorry-ass groom on the spot. Satisfied justice was served, and despite a huge welt 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 mahogany bay as Cohasset, a four-year-old he had been observing on and off the track for weeks.
“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 a bit 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 dat hoss be hurtin’ none. He could be awright.’
“Time moved on and the beating incident had long 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 and mediocre horses not up to grade for winter meets, or had to free stall space 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 smaller stables into claiming away a bargain— and that meant us as we were desperately lookin’ for one as well.
"I remember like it was yesterday. It was a bright Saturday morning when I was helping Moses water off horses and pin leg-wraps. Papa was in the tack room, his nose buried in the racing form. Two weeks earlier, one of Papa’s horses had been claimed and another had to be given away after pulling up lame with a torn suspensory. We were down to 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 scraped 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 prospect, and his dilemma.
“Papa said, 'I know you got some rat-hole money stashed. Any chance you got five hundred to lend?’
“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. Moses said he thought he had enough, but asked more details of Papa’s targeted claim.
“‘Oh lawdy, not Diggery Doc. He be dat big chessnut wit da white blaze dat Massah Lowe trains?’ Moses stood in the doorway scratching his head 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 a little talent and usually earned a piece of the purse, but lately seemed to favor a left fore ever so slight when setting it down in a slow walk. Moses suspected Diggery 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, knocking it over he was so mad, convinced we were deliberately out to subvert his plans.
“‘What’s so damned special about Cohasset?’ he yelled. Papa realized the colt was dropping in for twenty-five hundred less than previous starts, but the claim was another two-thousand more than he had for Diggery. ‘Besides,' he said, 'he’s nothin’ but a gawl-danged plodder! Ain’t even been closer than five lengths in his last dozen outs, for Christ’s sake. Look!’
"Papa shoved the form at me, his face flaring with anger as he stabbed his finger at the stats. His mind made up, he glowered at Moses. ‘Are you gonna give me some money or not?’
“I defied my father and begged him to heed Moses’ advice. All that time, Moses stood silent, torn between his loyalties versus wariness of Papa’s decision. But Papa’s glare was too much. Moses gave in and agreed to retrieve his savings.
“I grabbed Moses by the arm, and to Papa’s astonishment, I laced into Moses for turning tail. ‘Don’t do it! We can’t afford it if he breaks down.’ I urged Moses to ignore Papa and go with his 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. I said, 'if we have to, Papa, we can claim Cohasset out the next race. Grandpa likes him better; I seen it.’ I thought he might go for the compromise, but I was wrong.
“‘Use your fool head, boy. 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 got excited and hurried toward the first stall. ‘Dunnos fo’ sho, boss, but I mights have enough.’
“I chanced a last ditch effort using one of Papa’s own precepts against him. ‘You always told me Grandpas can never lie, so trust him, Papa.’ But my words had no effect. Papa brushed me aside as Moses returned with the tin box. We stood in the doorway, our eyes locked onto Papa sifting through wads of crumpled bills.
“‘My word, Moses. You have thirty-eight hundred and change in here? All I need is five hundred.’ Papa handed him the box, 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 da Doc for us. 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 pushed me aside to snatch a halter and lead shank. Papa was still angry and stormed from the tack room, but stopped short of the barn’s portal. He turned and thrust a dangling shank at me, yelling once more.
“‘Damn it to hell, boy! Are you comin’ with me or not? ‘Cause if you don’t have the stomach for it, then stay here and help Moses prepare a vacant stall ‘til I get back.’
“Tears of frustration welled in my eyes, but I stood defiant. Papa turned his back on me and stomped off toward the track. I tried goading Moses into stopping 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. 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 sullen, I gathered the soap, a 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. It be da ‘Hasset. Moses stood gazing at the prancing horse tugging at the lead shank, and then danced a little two-step as I lathered Cohasset up. We were happy, but Papa was in a downright pissy mood. He greeted us with contempt, fumbling for words as he scrutinized the compact colt.
“‘I hope you two nitwits are satisfied. Diggery won his race— by five! But this— this worthless son-of-a-bitch plodded home sixth, just like I said he would, beaten twelve lengths!’
“Moses ignored Papa. ‘Aw, now 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 neck. ‘Pay no ‘tention to Massah D; he mean no hawm. Why, he knows you be a good’n.’ Moses palmed the colt’s muzzle, soothing him to a quieter stand as I rinsed him off. ‘Why, you gonna be talkin’ to ol’ Moses from now on. You jess bin awaitin’ on me to fix you up, aincha lil’ fella? Yassah. Jess you wait ‘n see, cuz ol’ Moses be workin’ his magic now, fo’ sho.’
“Papa slowly slid experienced hands over the colt’s knees and fetlocks, all the while mumbling. ‘Christ, I’m gonna be the laughing stock of the whole damned meet.’ Satisfied Cohasset’s joints felt sound with no heat or filling, Papa said to be mindful of the colt’s temperament, that he was a handful walking back to the barn.
“‘Be careful, you two. He can be a bit ornery, but if you need me, I’ll be at the track kitchen— gettin’ stinkin’ drunk!’
* * *
“Give us each a Hennessy and me both tabs,” Robby ordered, and produced two cigars as Mike described how Moses worked on Cohasset for nearly two months before his next start.
“At first, Papa went nuts. He was 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. He suspected the colt had heat ulcers, an unusual ailment seldom diagnosed, let alone properly treated even by the best of trainers today.
“Moses gained such knowledge from his old match-racing days and taught us a secret remedy I still use today. He started with de-hulled oats and corn meal, mixed in a special batch of wild Cajun herbs, added molasses, then heated it in water to a soft mash. After six weeks of feeding Cohasset that ‘mojo mush,’ Papa gradually warmed up to the colt as he put on weight, and his dull coat dappled out to a rich mahogany sheen, and he took to training well.
“The time came when Papa was about to enter Cohasset for the same claiming tag, hoping the colt’s improved appearance and decent action during morning gallops would attract a claim so he could at least break even and get 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.’ Moses insisted Cohasset be entered for at least ten thousand, or risk losing him to a cheaper claim. ‘And den ol’ Moses be gone, too— fo’ sho!’ and stamped his foot, threatening never to set foot in Papa’s barn again.
“Papa grumbled, but found a spot for non-winners of two races lifetime, though the claiming price was much higher than he wanted at twelve-five. Cohasset’s form was pathetic at lower levels, let alone stepping up in class to nearly triple the value. The betting public confirmed it, too, sending Cohasset to the gate at 50-to-1.
“Papa was pretty sore, irritated by taunts from onlookers and other trainers in the saddling paddock. But, he held his tongue while getting Cohasset ready for post parade. After boosting the jockey a leg up, Moses avoided Papa’s sour mood and disappeared into the crowd shuffling toward the grandstands.
“Uh, you remember the tin box, Robby?”
“Yeah, sure; hidden in the stall.”
“Well, Papa took 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. His stride was smooth and steady, and after stalking the early pace, he drew off to win by four under a hand ride. Yes, sir, that day was the first of only two times I ever saw my father cry. Not for the win, Robby” Mike paused— “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, fifty-four-K 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. ‘You keeps it— for m’grandboy here.’
Mike again paused, and drew slowly on his cigar while gazing at the rain-soaked window. “That’s when Papa’s chin quivered and tears filled his eyes. It was all he could do to keep from losing it. The second time was finding a lifeless Moses curled up on his cot at first light. He died during the night about six months later.
“Moses’ winnings improved everything— our living conditions and the stable,” Mike recounted. “But that was only the beginning, Robby. Oh, Cohasset turned out to be okay. He improved and went on to win or place in a few races until claimed for a nice profit, but it was Papa’s popularity that took off.
“Papa used Moses’ money 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 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, plenty of money, big stable of fine horses, good owners— and all because of a worthless, downtrodden 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 ‘Biscuit— only it wasn’t a horse.” Robby fanned emotional flames Mike had never before fathomed, inducing 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 were three words: ‘Grandpas never lie,’ and winked.”
“Mm-hmm, there ya go,” Robby nodded. “I propose a toast. Here’s to your Belmont second, to your own ‘intiggerty,’ and especially to your wise, old Grandpa.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Mike said, clinking glasses.
Robby smiled and maneuvered Mike’s attention back to the window, fascinated by all the droplets. “So that’s our window pane of life, huh? An amazing story, Mike. Makes me wonder which ones are us.”
“Don’t know, but you can bet we’re on there— fo’ sho,” Mike teased.
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 while sinewy strands of bluish cigar smoke oozed from pursed lips, each facing the window in reverent silence as if waiting for a curtain rise.