On the last morning of the fall ’43 meeting at Jamaica, Stymie’s first year of racing was about to conclude. He ate his breakfast of oats and syrup and when it began to rain he stood near the webbing at the entrance of his stall and looked out onto the low wooden fence. It separated the stable area from 137th Avenue, which crossed with Rockaway Boulevard, and the streets and the sidewalks of both streets were flooded with racegoers. Stymie could hear the trains that approached the neighborhood. There was a war going on; it was always on the radio, but people in Queens wanted to go to the track, even when it rained. Working stiffs, all headed to watch the races. The air was heavy and cold. The Factory. This was one of the nicknames for Jamaica Racetrack. The grounds here were not as expansive as those of Belmont or Aqueduct. The small grandstand was always overflowing and the crowds were rowdy and unforgiving. They wanted to see the horses and they wanted to win at the races. The steeple-shaped shed next to the grandstand held all of the betting windows, and gamblers did their worshipping there. The rails that marked the oval racetrack looked loose and the poles that held them up weren’t straight in the ground. People bunched along the wobbly rails and berated the losing jockeys, grooms and horses. Every afternoon had its saviors. But no jockey, no horse could permanently escape a Jamaica crowd’s derision.
That morning, Stymie had been taken out for a light jog around the oval, which told him he would be running in a race that afternoon. In his stall, he watched the sidewalks along 137th Avenue and felt apprehensive. Soon, he would be paraded out on the track and then he would be in the starting gate and the gates would open. The crowd loved that moment. He thought of this as he watched the racegoers on the sidewalk. Whenever there was a flash of lightning, he could see the colors still left in the leaves of the trees. Lightning had a way of making everything seem important.
Dressed in a suit and tie and a topcoat, Jacobs stepped in front of the stall, the shoulders of his jacket dotted with raindrops. Stymie stared at the necktie. Stymie’s eyes were like the lightning in that they could not hold colors for long.
Jacobs said, What about it, Sty? You ready today? Should I bet my Cadillac? Should I go to the bank? I feel like going in with everything. What about it, old Sty? You gonna bet everything today, EJ?
EJ appeared behind Jacobs. Yup, he said. He wore a vest and a bowler hat; the cuffs of his pants were tucked inside black rubber boots.
You all packed up? Jacobs said.
Jacobs had his hands in his pockets and he turned partway. We’re leaving tomorrow afternoon.
The trainer nodded. Stymie’s talkin’ to me today. He’s tellin’ me good things.
EJ said, He’ll like that mud.
Jacobs faced Stymie again and said, I know he will.
The rain continued through early afternoon and the trains kept arriving from the city and the cheering from the racetrack grew louder as each race was run. The rain stopped and, for a few minutes, the barn and the neighborhood beyond it turned silent. In the distance came another great roar; the next race had begun. EJ, carrying a rubber bucket with a new-looking, polished handle, appeared in front of Stymie’s stall. He watched the horse as he undid the latches of the webbing and stepped in. He did not take his eyes from Stymie as he refastened the webbing. Stymie knew he could make a sudden charge at EJ, send him rolling out of the stall. But he wasn’t in that kind of mood now. EJ reached for the leather halter, hooked one end of a soft-looking rope shank to it. All right, he said. He set the bucket on the straw that covered the floor of the stall. He extracted a brush from the bucket. Outside, the crowd cheered again; the track announcer’s race call turned frantic. His voice bubbled like he was being pulled underwater. Then the cheering dissipated, the race was done.
As he did before every race, EJ started to brush Stymie. When he was finished, Stymie knew, he would place the brush back in the bucket, straighten himself, and wipe at the lapels of his jacket with a rub rag. He liked to have a short cigar sticking out of the corner of his mouth when he led Stymie over for the stands. EJ would lead Stymie through the barn area and when they made the turn at the barn where the Greentree Stable runners lived he and Stymie would be able to see the small grandstand of Jamaica Racetrack in the distance. EJ liked to stop him and take a deep breath then. It was a moment he had for himself. Stymie wondered what EJ thought. If the crowd in the distance meant something to him. Something good waiting for him. A world ready to cheer him on. Did his life feel different at this instance, was he was no longer a nigger horse groom? Or did he feel revulsion at the thought of facing this huge, nasty crowd once again? Of course, they had to start walking again and when he did EJ would walk with his head down.
As EJ brushed his back, Stymie stood quietly in his stall and felt a wave of energy travel down his shoulders, feeding his muscles. It was not a new feeling and when it came he always felt alert and ready. This understanding of things provided him with more power. His neck curved, from the corner of his eye he wanted to see if EJ had noticed anything about him. They watched one another. The horse tried to speak, say anything, but this was impossible and he knew it.
I’m bettin’ you today, old man, the groom said in a quiet voice. Mud, he said.
Stymie straightened his neck, faced ahead. EJ left the bucket in the stall and led Stymie out past the shedrow. The blacktop was wet and looked like a layer of black snow. The racing plates on his hooves clocked rhythmically as he and EJ walked in the direction of the racetrack. They passed a series of barns and in the distance the grandstand appeared. On the roof of the stands were a half-dozen huge flags, one of them an American flag, and the way they fluttered in the cool wind made Stymie think of prairie grass. The sky was silvery, like steel. For a moment, EJ and Stymie watched everything. The grandstand looked full, yet everything felt quiet. Stymie had raced in front of these stands a dozen times already and the sickness he’d felt about racing had at last dulled. EJ led him in the direction of the clubhouse turn. Other grooms walked horses ahead of them. On the track, Stymie’s hooves sank into the mud and this felt good. He already understood that he was going to win today. They walked around the bend and headed for the tunnel between sections of the grandstand. People called out, said his name. Stymie! We need you today, Stymie. Don’t fucking blow it, Stymie. In front of the stands, a section of the outer rail had been taken down so the horses and grooms could pass into a tunnel. The tunnel was filled with shadows and when EJ and Stymie emerged from the other side of it, they were in the walking ring. The outside of the ring went twenty deep with people trying to get a look. Jacobs stood inside the ring; he wore a wide hat and had his woman with him. People along the walking ring shouted things in the trainer’s direction and he ignored all of that. EJ led Stymie around the oval-shaped ring. Jockeys appeared, stood with the trainers and owners. The next moment, one of these jockeys was tossed up on Stymie’s back. It was Brooks this time. Stymie hoped the weight of the rider would feel like nothing to him. The grooms led the horses back through the tunnel and when they appeared out in the greenish-blue light of late afternoon in New York, voices yelled, Don’t shit yourself today! You heartbreak choke motherfucker. Try not to drop dead out there, Brooks. My kid needs another operation! Out on the track, the rider guided Stymie away from the post parade and aimed him in the direction of the far turn. Stymie galloped, felt wings of mud fly out from under his hooves. Brooks was silent; he’d been on Stymie’s back a few times already. He was like Permane and McCreary, canned by Jacobs, then brought back because he knew something about Stymie’s quirks. Brooks was like the groom in that he didn’t want the horse to notice he was there at all. Stymie galloped around the far turn and then Brooks slowed him to a walk. The rider sat like a stone, then gave the reins a slight tug, turned Stymie in the direction of the starting gate. The gate was positioned in the homestretch, right in front of the stands.
Stymie lined up with the others and when the gates opened, the field sprang forward. In a few strides, the other riders turned anxious and gunned their horses along. Brooks remained still, dropped Stymie close to the inside rail where they were showered in mud. Stymie tasted the mud and the metal bit in his mouth. Brooks had a light touch and he didn’t panic as the others sprinted far ahead. The field of runners turned in to the backstretch. Stymie felt the mud under his hooves, he was running easily, with no encouragement. He lost focus, his mind went to the images from earlier in the day, to the sidewalks, the people headed for the races. Stymie did not want to win for them but he knew he could win because of them. He could make them delirious. He grasped what was in front of him.
Stymie felt the weight in the saddle shift. Brooks lowered his arms and Stymie felt them on his neck. Go, go! the rider said to him. His heels bumped just below his Stymie’s spine. Come on, Sty, he said. Something was happening to Stymie: he knew that he would be up to everything. He took off after the others. He felt the jockey’s arms flowing along with his mane and he heard him yell as they sailed by a runner. They passed another horse and then two more. Stymie and Brooks were in front when they arrived at the top of the homestretch and when they straightened for home, the ground rattled from the noise of the crowd. Stymie knew to keep running. It felt as if he were leaving his own flesh and bones. They hit the finish far ahead and Brooks raised up in the saddle and the bit pulled against Stymie’s mouth.
Brooks brought Stymie back in front of the stands. There were hats on the track and Jacobs, who stood in the mud near the finish line, picked one up, wiped at it with his elbow, then turned and faced the fans bunched along the railing. He flipped the hat in their direction and someone caught it. Brooks walked Stymie over to the trainer. Stymie’s sides were heaving; he knew the crowd adored everything about him.
I’d love to ride him in Florida! Brooks said.
Maybe, maybe, Jacobs said. He laughed. He turned in the direction of the outer rail, said, Pumpkin pie’s on me you sons of bitches. I’m taking this horse to Miami!
This horse ain’t afraid of the cold, Jacobs.
Be a man, stay up here!
A photographer appeared, and when the bulb flashed Jacobs stood next to EJ, who held Stymie’s head. The men standing on the racetrack had mud up to their shinbones and they looked happy. Brooks popped down from the saddle, worked it away from Stymie.
You’re the best, Brooks!
Yeah, till the sun comes up tomorrow, he murmured. EJ guided Stymie around the clubhouse turn. The sky held ash-colored clouds and soon it would be dark. For a long time, EJ walked Stymie in revolutions around the shedrow. EJ used a rag and a bucket to clean away the dried mud on Stymie’s legs and chest. Jacobs eased around the corner of the barn in his Cadillac. He got out on the driver’s side and the woman extracted herself from the passenger side. They stood near the driver’s door and he lit a cigarette and held it out for her. The sky beyond the neighborhood turned purple and blue and finally it went dark.
This is an excerpt from Stymie, a novella based on the American Thoroughbred racehorse from the 1940s.
Photo by Claudio Gennari