Looking back on the spring and summer of 1988, it remains one of the highlight periods of my life and easily one of my favorites to that point. I turned 25 in May and earlier that spring had moved from Olympia, where I was attending The Evergreen State College, to Renton to be nearer to Longacres, a racetrack just south of Seattle.
I had heard from colleagues at the Daily Racing Form that there was going to be an opening for the “call-taker” at Longacres that season. The “call-taker” is responsible for noting where the horses are at different points in a horse race using shorthand to write down the “calls” announced by a co-worker during the running of the race. Right after, the call-taker translates the shorthand into a chart that is typed up and made into the mass of data points in the Racing Form known as “past performances.” Having worked for the Racing Form prior to starting at Evergreen and after having spent my years at Evergreen working with and studying brain-injured children, as well as knowing I would soon be pursuing graduate work in education, the idea of having one last “fling” in the horse racing industry appealed to me tremendously. The job was mine if I wanted it. But I still had a number of credits to earn to meet the requirements of my undergraduate degree.
Back in 1985 when I started at Evergreen, like all first-year students I participated in a “core program,” a structure that introduces students to the school’s unique educational philosophy under a broad subject heading. I’ve sometimes referred to it as “2nd grade for college students” in that you work with the same students and teachers for the duration of the program. The core program I chose was called Human Development and was designed for students interested in future studies in education, medicine, psychology and other “helping” fields. Human Development enrolled 90 students who were supervised by four faculty members, three being part of the team all year and a fourth who changed each of the three academic terms. The head of the teaching team was a longtime Evergreen teacher named Sandra Simon.
Coincidentally, Sandra was involved in the horse racing industry as a horse owner so her name was familiar to me. Prior to Evergreen while working for the Racing Form, I had the responsibility of keeping owner records up to date. Not surprising, as my first year at Evergreen progressed, Sandra and I got to know each other pretty well, especially in the second quarter when she mentored me and approximately 20 other students directly. She was somewhat brusque in her manner but dedicated to helping her students discover our own deeper meanings. I enjoyed my conversations with her, which often started on something related to an assignment before venturing into horse racing. I clearly remember talking to her about Hester Prynne’s plight in “The Scarlet Letter” before the conversation pivoted to the ride her horse had gotten during a recent race down in California. I think I knew which topic we both preferred.
I had less contact with Sandra during the 1986-87 and 1987-88 school years owing to my off-campus work with an autistic teenager, a couple of brain-injured boys, and their parents. But with the call-taker job offer, I made an appointment to see her. Quite quickly, she got excited by the obvious “insider” status I would have at Longacres. The job involved me having a desk in the mornings near the barns, what in racetrack parlance is known as “the backstretch.” And during the races, I would be perched atop the grandstand near the stewards and the track announcer, as well as having access to the press box. In short, she recognized I would be hobnobbing with nearly every interesting personality at the track.
Sandra helped me conceptualize a study in which I would become, as she put it, a cultural anthropologist. The racetrack, she suggested, was a kind of closed culture. As an insider into this culture, she said, I could report on my observations while earning sociology and journalism credits. For spring quarter, she would assign me texts to read and reports to write. Two times per month, when racing wasn’t happening, I would travel the 60 miles from Renton to Olympia to meet with her in person to review my experience and efforts. For successful completion of the study, I would be awarded 16 credits, the maximum a student could earn for an academic term.
I was completely smitten by the idea. Spending a season at Longacres with press credentials, free copies of the Daily Racing Form and other publications, as well as having access to trainers, jockeys, and race officials would be like a graduation gift to myself. An extra special bonus would be additional time with my dad, just the two of us. He was working two jobs then, one of which was as a correspondent for various horse race industry publications so he was at the track nearly every race day. With Sandra’s guidance, I wrote up what Evergreen called an “Independent Study Contract” and she signed it. I took the call-taker job and moved from Olympia to Renton.
As hoped for, my job at the track put me in contact with the inside workings of the racetrack. I would arrive at the track in the morning with a special parking pass that allowed me to drive my car into the barn area to a reserved parking spot near the race office. It was there that trainers entered their horses for races that would take place a few days later. I was given the entry information and organized it in a way that would make it easy to access each horse’s past performances for publication. In the case of a first-time starter, I would retrieve and copy the horse’s “papers,” what is in essence the horse’s birth certificate, to get breeding and other relevant information.
My desk was at the far end of the race office, just outside of where the stewards worked in the morning. The stewards at a racetrack, of which there are typically three, are like the referees in other sports. During the races, they watch for interference and can disqualify horses who negatively impact the ability of other horses from achieving their best performance. The stewards determine whether or not a violation has taken place and who is at fault, most commonly a jockey. In the morning, one of the stewards is present to meet with jockeys who have been responsible for such a violation. I could often overhear these conversations which resemble a seemingly repentant teenager listening to an authoritative parent chew them out. “Yes, sir. No, sir. Thank you, sir.”
On race days, of which there were five each week, my parking pass whisked me passed the general admission and preferred parkers to a special lot for members of the press and race officials a few feet from an employee’s entrance. I picked up a set of programs, passed through the press box, and then up to the “roof” to my desk in a special office for Racing Form employees. About an hour before the first race, I enjoyed a free meal offered to members of the press in the dining room. Before the first race and between races, I either hung out with the track announcer, the photo finisher camera operator, or with my dad in his favorite seat under the press box. During a race I was out on the catwalk with my call pad and pencil, having prepared my shorthand to identify each horse during the race. Next to me was the caller. A few feet from him was the videotape analyst and then the three stewards.
I was immediately drawn to the videotape analyst because he was my favorite jockey when I was a kid. His name was Steve Austin (yes, the same name given to the fictional Six Million Dollar man of the hit ABC TV show in the 70’s). Steve had to give up riding due to injuries but he had caught on in this role due to his good communication skills. His job was to watch the races from the perspective of a jockey and help the stewards understand what a jockey may have been been considering during a race. He would also coach and counsel jockeys to make better decisions. They listened to him because he had been in their position many times.
Steve was such a talker that it was easy to get to know him. I told him that he was my favorite jockey as a kid, regaling him with a story of how my grandmother and I liked to pick horses that he rode in a day’s final race if their running style was that of a closer, a horse that started slow and then came running past others toward the end of the race. Early in the season, I reminded him of a horse named Steelenson that he rode regularly and on whom my grandmother had cashed many $2 show tickets. I remember him laughing, his mustache smiling. He asked, “Do you remember Grandy Dandy?”
I remembered the name but not much more. Between races over a couple of days, Steve told me the Grandy Dandy story. I listened intently and when I got home each night, I wrote down what I remembered. I knew I had found a gold nugget for Sandra and my independent study requirements. What Steve told me of Grandy Dandy overlapped with when I became a huge horse racing fan. It was like pieces of a puzzle coming together in a wonderful way. I wrote an initial draft of the story and shared it with Sandra at one of our bi-weekly meetings. She enjoyed it but asked me to tighten it, focus a little bit more on the overlap and try to make the ending more profound. I drove to the office of the Racing Form to find charts of some of the races Steve recounted, worked on a final draft, and shared it with Sandra. It became one of the stand-out results of my 16-credit spring term and the one piece of writing I completed then that has survived the ensuing 35 years.
I present it here as I wrote it 35 years ago.
I was twelve-years-old in 1975 when Steve Austin was at the peak of his riding career. I was enjoying a leisurely summer, typical twelve-year-old fare, while Steve was earning a living guiding thoroughbred racehorses into the winner’s circle at Longacres racetrack near Seattle. Occasionally our paths came close to crossing as I was fast becoming a horserace fan and could think of nothing more entertaining than to spend an afternoon at the track with my father. He would teach me some of the finer subtleties of racehorse handicapping and over the course of the day’s ten races put up two dollars and allow me to put it on whatever horse I chose. If the ticket I bought was a winner, he’d get back his two bucks, leaving me with the profit.
One of the handicapping tools I found particularly useful was relating a jockey’s riding style to the running style of a horse. For instance, it became clear to me that Steve Austin was quite adept at bringing in horses from off the pace. And I always enjoyed watching a horse begin a race slowly, as if he were a rubber band slowly tightening, only to be released as the field turned for home. With a burst of speed on the outside he would catch the front-runners at the wire. I began looking for horses with this running style on which to invest my two dollars. And it was a plus if Steve Austin happened to be the rider.
That summer Steve picked up the mount on a three-year-old named Grandy Dandy. Actually, Steve had ridden the horse once before, guiding the gelding to an easy win over an average group of allowance runners in Portland. Recently, however, veteran reinsman Larry Pierce had been handling the assignment. But Grandy’s performance early in the Longacres season was below expectation and a rider change was suggested. Grandy and Steve were a perfect fit; Grandy was a loper, laying far off the early pace and Steve had the riding patience to allow for this. But when Steve asked him to run, Grandy would take off, circling the field and running them down. On June 29th, their first time together over the Longacres course, Grandy rallied from last in a stakes field of ten, catching the leaders late and paying 15 to 1!
Despite the fact that racehorse aren’t at their physical peak until about age five, their three-year-old season receives the most attention. The Kentucky Derby, the object of every thoroughbred horse owner’s dreams, is restricted to three-year-olds, as are many of the nation’s most famous races. When dreams get smaller and closer to reality, owners often turn their hopes to their state’s variation of the Derby. In Washington state that would be the Longacres Derby, run toward the end of August. Following his upset victory, Grandy’s owners were having these modest dreams. It appeared that they had a legitimate shot at capturing Washington’s biggest prize for three-year-olds but soon learned they would face one major obstacle, Dusty County.
Dusty County had been facing the top three-year-olds in northern California and had come away the kingpin. Going into the $100,000-added California Derby, he was undefeated and it took a record-breaking performance from an invader named Diablo to beat him. Still, Dusty moved on to face the best the west had to offer. In three starts at Hollywood Park, he had a second and a third, missing part of the purse only once and this due to a rough trip out of the gate. Hailing from Washington, it was expected he would be brought north to compete in his home state with the Longacres Derby as the ultimate goal. And with all variables considered, it would take a herculean effort to upset this overwhelming favorite.
But Grandy’s connections were not going to sit idly by and watch their star get beaten. They took Grandy north to Exhibition Park in Vancouver for the Richmond Handicap on July 5th. Contested over the Longacres Derby distance of nine furlongs, it would be the perfect indicator of Grandy’s ability to handle the distance. Steve Austin ventured north to accept the mount and the tandem was bet down to 2 to 1 favoritism. Negotiating Exhibition Park’s tight bullring turns to perfection, Steve asked Grandy to move sooner than usual. Grandy responded and together they drew off to win by a commanding eight lengths.
The traditional final prep at Longacres for the Derby is the Spokane Handicap. Run the first Sunday in August and contested over 1 1/16th miles, it is the perfect tightener for the three-year-olds against stakes-caliber competition before the Derby. In the thirty-eight runnings prior to 1975’s renewal, no fewer than ten winners of the Spokane went on to capture the Longacres Derby. And it was here that Grandy Dandy and Dusty County would first meet.
The morning of the race Steve had completed his usual activities of exercising horses and was lingering a bit longer than usual in the backstretch café. He was absorbed in the Racing Form, looking over the past performances of both his horse and those of his chief competitor. A friend approached and sat down, ultimately asking Steve about the big race. Steve explained he was looking for a way to beat Dusty County.
“Can’t be done,” his friend exclaimed.
“Well look here,” Steve said. “Here’s a race where Dusty got beat. Diablo beat him and Pincay was riding. All I’ve got to do is pretend I’m Pincay.”
A beautiful summer afternoon of sunshine greeted the Northwest race fans. By the time of the ninth race they were well settled in, anxious to catch a glimpse of the superstar they had heard so much about. They bet down Dusty County to sixty cents on the dollar and weren’t disappointed when leading rider Gary Baze took the favorite right to the front. Steve allowed Grandy to assume his usual early battle position toward the end of the pack, conserving his energy for his strong late kick. As the field pounded around the clubhouse turn, Grandy was in ninth, some eleven lengths off the pace. Dusty County was running easily on the front end as Grandy started picking up some of the pack. With a half mile to run, Grandy was fifth and closing. At the top of the stretch, Baze asked Dusty County for all he had. On this day, however, it was not enough; Grandy and Steve caught them inside the 16th pole and registered an electrifying 3/4 length win. As Steve weighed in after the race his friend called out, “Nice ride, Pincay.”
The scene was now set, all that was left was to wait the two weeks for the Derby. Grandy’s dramatic victory had endeared him to the hearts of the race fans and much of the pre-race chatter was of his chances. The more seasoned handicappers were looking for Dusty County to bounce back, improving after having had a trip over the local course. But there were other horses to consider as well. Cash Your Ticket was coming south from Vancouver following a big win and was expected to push Dusty on the lead. And the game runner Auguste was expected to venture north from California where he had just won and figured to be a factor late in the race if the speed backed up. The race promised to be an exciting one.
12,902 race fans were on hand to witness the 40th running of Longacres’ premier event for three-year-olds. Each and every one was treated to a spectacular show. Dusty County broke alertly and, as expected, Gary Baze again took him right to the front. They settled in comfortably, despite early pressure from Cash Your Ticket and longshot Majestic Major, completing the first half mile in a relaxed forty-seven seconds. Grandy had settled back and was also running easily. Steve gauged the pace from atop his mount, a little concerned at its leisurely clip but reassured by the pressure Dusty was getting. Next to Grandy, just inside him, was Auguste. Larry Pierce, who had been riding Auguste in California, was also content to allow his horse to relax, saving speed for the important stretch run.
As the field rounded the far turn, Baze asked Dusty for some run and he quickly opened up a three length lead, finishing Cash Your Ticket and Majestic Major. Both Steve and Pierce knew they had better move now or the race would be over; Dusty County was running too well. Then Pierce got a break. The rail opened up and he guided Auguste through. Steve and Grandy were caught on the outside, losing precious ground as the field turned for home. Dusty was still out by three but both Auguste and Grandy were closing. At the eighth pole Steve felt Grandy shudder but the horse responded and he kept riding hard. They were four lengths back and Auguste and Dusty County had locked horns.
Dusty County and Auguste hit the wire together, a photo finish. Grandy was six lengths back in third, unable to threaten the top two. As the riders brought their horses back to be unsaddled, the winner was announced. Dusty County had held off Auguste’s challenge and had won by a nose. The race was all a fan could want. Two fierce competitors had waged battle in a classic confrontation and one had emerged victorious. Steve gave Grandy an affectionate pat on the shoulder and took his saddle to weigh in. Grandy was then led back to his stall as Dusty’s delirious contingent celebrated in the winner’s circle.
Later, it was learned that Grandy had blown the suspensories in a leg during the running of the race. Obviously to Steve, the injury had occurred as Grandy was making his patented stretch move. His inability to sustain this move was due to the injury and it was a testimonial to Grandy’s tremendous heart that he had continued to dig in and give it his all after having been hurt. Grandy was turned out for the rest of the season with the hope of returning him to action the following spring.
Hope springs eternal, especially at the beginning of any horse race meet. In early May of 1976, Grandy Dandy was back in training, being pointed for the inaugural running of the Lewis & Clark Handicap at Longacres. The five furlong sprint may have been a bit short for a closer such as Grandy but at least the race would be a good indicator of how well Grandy had recovered from his injury. With regular rider Steve Austin up, Grandy spotted the front-runners twelve lengths early, a huge amount in so short of a sprint. He closed well, making up over six lengths in the stretch and was only beaten by two and a half, an encouraging effort from a horse who hadn’t raced in nearly nine months. Unfortunately, Grandy came out of the race sore and was turned out again.
His second comeback began in June of 1977. Despite his having been sidelined for thirteen months, Grandy’s connections were optimistic of finding racing life in his now five-year-old form. He finished sixth in each of his first two tries, both against allowance company. Steve Austin rode him the first time but wasn’t available the second. In his third start, also without Steve, Grandy finished a fast-closing third and it was thought he could compete in the stakes ranks again. Grandy and Steve were reunited for 1977’s renewal of the Governor’s Handicap at Longacres. Grandy never got untracked and it was plain to Steve that the horse was hurting. He never asked him to run and Grandy limped home a well-beaten tenth.
At this point, the plan was to retire Grandy Dandy permanently. He had given everyone involved with him some exciting times and plenty of joy. Being a gelding, Grandy’s value was in racing, but his racing days were over. He now belonged in a picturesque pasture where he could live out his days in luxury, choosing to run when he himself wanted to.
Perhaps Grandy was one of those horses you hear about who want nothing to do with retirement. The kind who, understandably, feel useless without having a job to report to every day. For whatever the reason, in 1979 Grandy came back to the track. He came back in the claiming ranks this time, making his first start in a measly $1600 claiming affair at Playfair in Spokane. He still had his penchant for late moves and dramatic finishes, getting up at the wire to win by a nose. He was claimed out of that first start and ran eight more times in Spokane for his new owners, never finishing worse than fourth and winning twice before the Playfair summer meeting ended.
In the fall of 1979, I was a junior in high school. My earlier enthusiasm for horse racing had escalated into a full-time hobby and my father’s two dollar investments had changed into portions of paychecks I earned while working as a clerk in a bookstore. I had a few friends who were equally smitten and on a sunny Saturday following the close of Longacres’ 1979 campaign, three of us decided to embark upon the three hour drive to Yakima and try our luck at Yakima Meadows. Our luck, mine especially, was poor as the day passed and we found ourselves with only two races left. In the first of those final two I selected Satus Springs, an even-the day’s-ledger choice at 9 to 1. When he went wire-to-wire, putting me a few dollars ahead, I decided to sit on my wallet and enjoy the afternoon’s final race, a non-descript cheap claimer for older horses going six furlongs.
Though nary a dollar escaped my wallet before the running of that all-too-ordinary race, I lost. In some great scheme of things, we all lost. For on the far turn, while making his typical move, a seven-year-old gelding named Grandy Dandy, the race favorite, broke down.
Steve Austin was there. He had ridden in the seventh race and, despite being without a later mount and having endured strong requests from his wife to head on home, had stuck around. He wanted to see Grandy one more time.