A Day at the Races—The Human Races By James McPherson

At the time, I thought that meeting the man my mom married before she married my dad was part of the fun of going to the horse races. I still think that, but now that I’m grown up, I understand why some of my friends would cock their heads, wrinkle their noses, and say, “Really, your mom would take you to see her ex-husband? What did your dad have to say about that?”

He didn’t say much.

When we got home, he’d ask how our day was, and we would tell him. I do not think he especially liked the idea, but he understood that Mom was not going to the Santa Anita Racetrack to see her ex-husband. She was going to share her only child with her friends and her friends with her only child. Her ex just happened to be one of those friends.

Smitty was different from any adult I had met in my seven years. Gray at the temples, he wasn’t much taller than me, yet much thinner.

Arriving at the racetrack on a sunny afternoon and walking through the parking lot, we bumped into him and stopped long enough for Mom to introduce me. He wore a navy-blue tweed sport coat over a white shirt, a green bow tie, beige gabardine slacks, black and white saddle shoes, and a gray fedora. He smiled, put one hand on my shoulder, and shook my hand vigorously with the other.

“So, this is the little man?”

I thought, “No, I’m the little boy. You’re the little man.”

Saying goodbye, Smitty walked toward a gate labeled “EMPLOYEES” as we walked through a turnstile under the “GENERAL ADMISSION” sign.

Mom stopped in front of a life-size statue of a horse on a granite pedestal. I had been around horses a few times before. when Mom would take me to a local stable and rent horses to ride, but I had never seen a bronze statue up close before, and all I could do was stare—transfixed—the flared nostrils, piqued ears, six feet above me.

Speaking in a quiet, reverent tone, she said, “Jimmy, that is a statue of the greatest racehorse that ever lived. His name was Seabiscuit.” The expression on her face was the same as when she sang in the church choir—smiling, happy, but very serious. Reaching down, taking my hand, excited, she said, “Come on, let’s go see the horses.”

We passed under the back of the grandstand and came out into a large open area that reminded me of the baseball stadium I had been to with my dad. Except here, the seats didn’t go all the way down to the edge of the track. They stopped at the grandstand roof, leaving a flat open area between the grandstand and the racetrack for people to stand, mill around, read newspapers (I found out later that these newspapers were called Racing Forms), and chat about the horses and the races. Mom held me tight by one hand, and we walked all the way to the railing.

What a menagerie of humanity; well-dressed women wearing hats and dapper men wearing spats. It was 1955. With World War II and the Korean Conflict over, the country was finally at peace, and society was enjoying itself and showing its new sense of fashion. The mood was festive—quite the holiday.

“Jerry! Hey, Jerry! Is that you?” We were still standing by the rail, and Mom was pointing out to the infield scoreboard and flowerbeds. The voice came from behind, we turned, and it was one of the dapper men. “It is you! How are you? How long has it been? Where have you been? I heard you remarried. Who is this handsome young man?” his words shot out, rapid-fire.

“Hello, Brooks, and whoa, hang on! One question at a time. I’d like you to meet my son, Jimmy. He and I are spending the day at the races. He just turned seven, and this is his first time at Santa Anita.”

“That’s wonderful. It is so good to see you. You look great. Glad to meet you, young man.” He stooped to shake my hand and then to Mom, “Jerry, what are you doing down here? Come with me. For the rest of the day, you two are my guests.” With that, Brooks led the way back up under the grandstands to a stairway.

At the top of the stairs, we walked along an aisle, then turned toward the racetrack, down a few steps, and into an area fenced off in sections of six chairs each. Brooks showed us to one section next to the railing a few feet above the track. Beyond the railing was a wide dirt path coming from behind the grandstands, past our seats, and out to the racetrack. There were hoof prints in the soft dirt. Mom appeared very comfortable in this environment and explained to me that the horses for each race would come from the paddock along the path on their way to the starting gate and how lucky we were that Brooks invited us to sit in his private box, so we will be able to see the horses and jockeys up close – thoroughbred racing was quite a treat.

Mom grew up on a small farm outside Hot Springs, Arkansas. In 1937, she turned 18. Stars in her eyes, she had worked as a housekeeper, and a nanny, saving her money to pay for music and dance lessons. She loved singing along with the radio and went to see every Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie that played at the “Malcro” or “The New Strand” downtown. She wanted to get to Hollywood and become an actress. But she was born into post-depression poor rural Arkansas. She had to escape.


During the time after the Depression and before World War II, Hot Springs was to Chicago, what Miami is to New York today. People with money went there to have the kind of fun they couldn’t have at home. Hot Springs was Las Vegas before Las Vegas existed—gambling parlors, horseracing, bars that served “white lightning” and hot mineral baths to purge the body of last night’s frivolities.

One day at the races, Miss Geraldine Davis (Mom) met Mr. G.L. Smith (Smitty), fell in love, and married. Mom joined a traveling troupe of trainers, owners, jockeys, and gamblers that “rode the circuit”—moving from racetrack to racetrack, following the Summer weather, and entertaining the public. As with any cloistered professional group, they became close, sharing each other’s triumphs and tragedies, celebrating the victories, and consoling each other in defeat. It was this camaraderie developed between people who shared everything, which made it okay for Mom to bring her child from her new life and share him with those she was close to in a former life. It was certainly all right with me. I met so many wonderful, happy people.

Of course, life often goes differently than planned, and once Mom got to Los Angeles—and Hollywood—her ambition to become an actress demanded she stay put and give up the vagabond lifestyle. She decided to stop traveling.

Absence does make the heart grow fonder, but sometimes it also makes the heart grow lonely. Soon, Smitty and Mom decided to divorce in order to keep their marriage from destroying their friendship. Mom went on to achieve some success in movies but landed little more than minor roles. To keep the lights on, she worked as a cigarette girl at Ciro’s, a popular club with Hollywood celebrities, and earned membership in the “Screen Actors Guild.” During World War II, she was hired by an entertainment company called the “Camel Caravan,” which was contracted by the USO to go to military bases in California singing, dancing, and assisting magicians. Eventually, she met my father, a fighter pilot in the Army Air Corps, and decided to settle down and raise a family.

The rest of my day at Santa Anita was a succession of visitors—wives of trainers and jockeys and several flamboyant men Mom called businessmen. I figured out later that they were probably professional gamblers—all coming to chat with her. It was a milestone for me. I saw her in a different light, as a person with a life outside of being my mother.

I listened to stories about the good old days, shook hands until my arm ached, had so many Shirley Temples my stomach hurt more than my arm, and felt very grown-up.

Along the path, a few feet from our paddock seats, horses mounted with jockeys walked by to the track.

Smitty said, “Hey, Jimmy,” waving his crop as he passed, perched atop a big dark brown horse.

As he passed, Mom said, “Smitty’s horse is a bay.”

I barely recognized Smitty in his white and orange silks, goggles, and cap. I recall thinking, “How could that small man control an animal that huge?”

Someone had given Mom a racing form, and she explained that it had all of the information on each of the horses in the races. I asked if she used it to pick the best horses.

“Absolutely not,” she answered, “I use it as a fan. I pick my horses by looking at them as they walk by and by their color. I always bet on the Bay,” giggling. I was too young to get the “Camptown Races” reference, but now I do – I laugh every time I think of it. She won most of her few two-dollar bets that day; unfortunately, Smitty’s Bay wasn’t one of them.

Of all the memories I have of how people interact, this day at the races is my earliest and fondest—respect, honest feelings, trust, and civil conversations.

Thanks, Mom.

Derek Robins

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