Desnee Flakes's Blog

That Noise You Hear Is Real Talk For Real People

Desnee Flakes

Desnee Flakes
Aiken, South Carolina, US
December 04
I am a recently employed activist who has been writing all my life about the issues that mean the most to me. My interests lie in politics, parity, race, and history. I believe that each of those things are interconnected and that only when we look straight at something do we actually see it. My politics are left of center, and I don't rely on any movement to define where my center is. My father taught us to measure others with the same yardstick you measure yourself.


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FEBRUARY 25, 2012 2:09PM

An Itch You Can't Scratch

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Paddock Schooling Doonesbury

How I got to the racetrack probably isn't important, at least not as important as the fact that I spent roughly the next thirty or so years trying to rid myself of the itch. And any race tracker will tell you it is an itch; an addiction, a way of life, and the greatest game played outdoors. In the 1970s and early 1980s horseracing was the largest spectator sport in the world. Deservedly so, because in one decade, the sport produced three Triple Crown winners, that is a feat that hasn't been replicated since.

I started at Bay Meadows in San Mateo, CA. and believe you me I was green as grass when I arrived.  Back in those days there was a hazing ritual for greenhorns and I fell for every one of them. These pranks were totally harmless, except to one's sense of self esteem. A typical one would be to send you from barn to barn for the key to the quarter pole. The quarter pole demarks every quarter mile on the track, and there is no key to it. So here I was earnestly asking for the key: and one horse trainer after the other would direct me to the next barn, until someone felt sorry enough for me to let me in on the joke. Your reaction to the joke had everything to do with if you would become a race tracker or not.

A woman had to have true grit to work on the racetrack or the heart of a hooker. If your ambition was to be a jockey, let's just say in those days you needed the heart of a hooker, but the ambition of a madam. California is still not friendly to the idea of female jockeys, too many cowboys there. In fact the very first sign I saw as I approached the gate at Bay Meadows read, NO WOMEN AFTER DARK---NO DOGS PERIOD! Yeah I know, women and dogs on the same sign, and what's worse, women had been allowed to live on the track for two years when I arrived! No one bothered to change the sign to reflect the current rule. Truthfully, most of the women who rode races in California at that time were sleeping with somebody that would or could give them mounts. In fact, many of the women who were exercise riders scored the job of galloping the big horse, by letting a trainer "fix her seat." 

In 1979 I got a job with a scoundrel named Barney Willis, and under his shed were two of the best horses I ever had the pleasure of grooming. One of them stole my heart, a two year- old colt named Doonesbury. All my horses were my kids, but this one was different from day one. A horseperson will tell you that the good ones stand out like a stop sign in the middle of a cornfield.  Everything came easy to him-- he had it-- without any understanding of what the it was. The it, was blowing past anyone we worked him with. He never exerted himself; he simply loped by them, as if they were tied to the rail. Typically a horse will work 3/8th of a mile around 36-38 seconds, but he worked them in 33 seconds. Usually to get an animal to run that kind of time you are pushing them, we never had to push him. He worked 1/8th of a mile in perfect 11 second intervals. In horseracing horses that can do that are whispered about. You start noticing that when you take them to the track to work, everybody and his brother has a stop watch on them. The only horse in the barn able to keep up with him was my two year-old filly Hazel R.

Hazel R

Hazel R with Chris McCarron up 

Barney sent me down to Hollywood Park to run another horse right at the time that Doonesbury was scheduled to run his first race. When you spend everyday preparing a horse for a maiden race --and I worked a 7 day week-- the last thing you want is to be somewhere else the day of their maiden start. Imagine missing your child’s first steps, it is the same feeling, believe me. Because Barney was incapable of communicating there was a mix up with the filly I took to Hollywood Park, and we missed our race.  I tuned her up, by having her galloped long everyday, and on the day she would have run, we galloped her a little faster, but not an actual work out. This puts the horse on edge to want to do more. When we returned to Bay Meadows she won handily. In the meantime, Doonesbury had wired the field and broken his maiden pretty handily. He broke late stalked the field, and then just circled them in a blazing 57 and 1/5 seconds.  A guy named Charlie ran him in my place, per the etiquette of the day he hid his face behind Doonesbury’s head in the picture. Essentially the win wasn’t his, and he didn’t want me to have to see his face every time I looked at my win picture. Back in those days race trackers were well aware of each other’s feelings, and we acted accordingly.

We had rules we lived by too-- the essential rule-- was never let a fellow race tracker go hungry. In the vernacular of racing you were to sponsor a meal when asked, and if you were able. These rules were handed down probably from slavery: each successive group of race tracker passed them to the next, until the illegal population out numbered the native one. In those days you studied your craft at the knee of the journeymen grooms. They were very generous with their knowledge. (Even though they resented teaching a woman) In their eyes we were taking food out of the mouths of a mans’ family. During the 70s the industry was looking for the next cheap source of labor, and women filled the bill nicely. We worked hard, and we worked cheap, also we just wanted to be around horses. Do you know of a little girl who doesn’t want a pony? Yeah well, that was exploited for everything it was worth.  My first “job” I worked a month without pay, and the trainer shipped out of town, never having paid me.

I was a willing student I would sit for hours listening to the masters, guys who had been to the big show. Bay Meadows was a gyp track; therefore trainers were struggling, and they cut corners, but they were better at holistic healing. We rarely called a veterinarian for an ailment, because the job of groom was akin to being a Shaman. We used nature’s best cures: water hot or cold, poultice correctly, sweats, rigorous rubbing of the legs to stimulate the flow of blood.  This is a lost art as most of today’s barns use the better racing through medication theory.

Doonesbury with Laffit Pincay up 

Doonesbury with Laffit Pincay up Hollywood Juvenile 1979 

Jay Silver Heels (Tonto from the Lone Ranger) trained at Bay Meadows. We had quite a few Native Americans there at the time. Doonesbury had been broken by a Native American named Teo, he was a master. I know this because some of the greatest jockeys ever rode him, and nearly each told me he knew to get level at the quarter pole at the top of the stretch.


Doonesbury's owner Doug Roberts, Big D, and Teo

That means they didn’t have to do any real work because he knew his job. We lost the Hollywood Juvenile Stakes because his jockey didn’t know that about him. He took a short hold out the gate: however he should have taken a long hold by relaxing the reins and then urging him by taking a shorter hold at the proper time. But we still finished second beating Jaklin Klugman, the horse owned by Jack Klugman.

Klugman Hollywood Juvenile Stakes 1979 

 Jack Klugman 1979 Hollywood Juvenile Stakes

Doonesbury was being groomed to be a classic horse, meaning he was one of the few with realistic ambitions to be a Derby, Preakness, or Belmont winner. Earlier I told you Barney was a scoundrel, well so was his oldest daughter Mindy. Through the year she had been caught in my stalls (she worked for someone else) taking my bandages off and examining Doonesbury’s legs. I called her mother who told her that she was an assistant trainer for another outfit. Thus checking the legs of her father’s horses was out of bounds. Had it been reported to track officials, it would have been considered a serious offense. Once Mindy could see the direction the big horse was headed, she quit her job and worked behind my back to take mine.

Because as the saying goes “God don’t like ugly!” she was able to get the job, but Doonesbury failed to make the classic races. He was still a very good horse and ended up in the stud shed. The man who stood him, former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones told me years later, that I must have done something right with him, because he was the kindest stud he ever stood.


Doonesbury kissing mommie


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Great to read this. Love Your political posts, but this shows that You are just a GREAT writer overall.

I really appreciate that Mark I love writing and having lived many lives I have plenty of stories to tell.
And I keep a sharp eye out for Your name, because in such a short time, You've shown to be one of the best in this pantheon of writers - anxiously awaiting more.
But Peter does it make you want to kiss a horse ;-)
Don't know a thing about horse racing or horses but I loved this post. And I'm sorry about what happened with your job. Do you own a horse these days? I do know being horse crazy isn't something you easily get over.
No Margaret I don't own a horse, but I have plenty of friends that do. The problem is once you get it out of your system hanging out around them is like being a junkie with dope sitting on the table in front of you. Before you know it you're shoveling manure and being bossed around by someone who learned how to spell horse last week, and would rather hire someone illegally. (so they can feel knowledgeable)
What a dream job. Sorry about Doonesbury not winning, but I'm guessing his bloodlines got passed down a lot. Is he still alive? He'd be pretty old, but some horses have pulled it off.
Very entertaining account Desnee. It reminded me of the reaction I sometimes get reading the New Yorker where there'll be an article about something I never thought I was interested in but it turns out to be fascinating. Always great to read about one of those eddies of life I knew nothing about.
Great piece, Des. I agree with markinjapan, your writing on any subject is great writing. Glad to see you following your "other" passion!
@Phyllis no he passed a while ago. I snuck in to visit him once after I left. It was so depressing because he was standing in the back of his stall, ears pinned to the back of his head. Mindy had that effect on several horses. I stood there till he came to the front of the stall, and loved on him one last time.
@Abrawing I could write for days on this subject and I guarantee you that you would want to run away to the track. We had so much fun in the good old days, that most of us would have paid to work there.
@June people are going to start thinking I'm paying you and Markinjapan. I love you guys.