The Great Equalizer

By Morton Cathro -- It has been said that all men are equal on the Turf and under it. Regardless of size, location, or caliber of horses, racetracks long have served as a microcosm of society, holding up a mirror to humankind. They play no favorites.

Late this summer I attended the races on successive weekends in my native state of California. On Aug. 20, Ferndale, a remote north coast village that once a year emerges Brigadoon-like from the mists to celebrate the noble horse, presented the Humboldt County Marathon as the climax to its 104th meeting among the redwoods.

Six days later, 900 miles to the south, and seemingly part of another world, the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club staged the $1-million Pacific Classic (gr. I), won by Skimming, as the highlight of its 61st luxurious summer soirée.

Ferndale's $10,000 Marathon, at 1 5/8 miles, requires the horses to cross the finish line of the half-mile oval no less than four times, prompting some jockeys, so the story goes, to put four marbles in their mouth and spit them out one by one as they circle the track. Hence, when a jockey loses all his marbles, the race is over.

This year's winning rider aboard Ebonist was veteran Danny Boag, not a household name, but good enough to rank close behind Hall of Fame jockey Russell Baze in fair circuit standings. Eschewing marbles, Boag relies on the flagman in the infield to signal the final lap.

This laid-back, light-hearted approach to racing manifests itself at Ferndale, a charming Victorian-era dairy farming and racing community of 1,400 designated a National Historic Landmark. The track's "Turf Club," a spoof of the real thing, is open to all. On the apron beneath the tiny grandstand, it boasts a single betting terminal and an antique bar featuring draft beer served by rosy-cheeked milkmaids. The rough board floors resound to the clump-clump of cowboy boots worn by real cowboys wolfing down homemade sandwiches and shouting at four small television monitors piping in races from the outside world.

On the other hand, the luxury suites of Del Mar's fifth floor Turf Club are leased by some of Southern California's wealthiest moguls, whose lavish wagers help swell the daily handle to the highest of any track on the continent.

Yet who's to say Del Mar plungers enjoy the sport any more than Ferndale's $2 bettors? In a sense, all (betting) men are equal on the Turf.

When Corey Nakatani's mount fell, two races before the Classic, I thought back to the previous week when Carlos Aquino tumbled from his cheap claimer in the ninth at Ferndale. A world-famous jockey and an obscure fair circuit rider both met misfortune as they turned for home. All men, all mishaps, are equal on the Turf.

And when Tyler Baze, the cherubic Del Mar apprentice, exuberantly kissed Betty Mabee and every other lady in the winner's circle after his stirring ride aboard Dramatic Show on Classic day, I thought back to a sweet moment following the Humboldt County Marathon: Jockey Jim Burns, like Boag, a veteran of the fair circuit, had lost to his rival, but upon dismounting rushed into the winner's circle to kiss winning trainer Deanna Cook. An 18-year-old kid and a 40-ish journeyman succumbed to the joy of the moment: All men, all emotions, are equal on the Turf.

Earlier on the card, Burns had ridden the fair circuit's most popular runner, the 8-year-old mare Black Ruby, to victory in the Cream City Mule Stakes. Black Ruby thus notched her 27th win in 32 lifetime starts, justifying the previous day's page one headline in the Eureka Times-Standard: "Famous Mule Arrives in Ferndale."

At Del Mar, 89-year-old trainer Noble Threewitt saddled two stakes winners, then told me he was heading for the Keeneland September yearling sale in search of more like them. At Ferndale, racetrack habitué Stanley Genzell, 88, stubbornly stuck to his diet of organic food and yoga exercises, which include standing on his head for three hours each day. He told me it helps him pick winners.

A famous trainer and headstrong horseplayer, both still on racing's eternal quest: North and south, big track and small, my summer odyssey seemed to prove once again that all men, indeed, are equal on the Turf.