From Philadelphia Weekly: Blazing Saddles
A muddy white pickup truck slowly pulls into an empty gravel parking lot next to the Speedway, a grassy 500-yard straightaway lined with thick low-hanging trees in Fairmount Park.
A procession of cars follows. Men, young and old, pile out. Some wear sports jerseys and ballcaps, others barn boots and dirt-stained jeans. A few men arrive galloping out of the brush, cool atop their mounts, sporting cowboy hats and silver-and-gold Western-style belt buckles.
A car radio blasts old-school soul.
Wives and girlfriends gather at picnic tables, holding babies, chatting and laughing.
The men hang in the parking lot, shaking hands, giving bear hugs and talking trash, the first language of the Speedway.
"When you gonna bring your horse up here?"
"Man, just tell me when you want to do it."
"You crazy you think your horse a racehorse."
A trailer pulls up. In the back, a big chestnut-bronze thoroughbred.
A group of men ambles through the grass with another thoroughbred, this one midnight black, leg muscles flexing visibly with every step.
"Let's get it on," someone shouts.
"Some things just always been around," says one Speedway regular, gray and stooped, moving through the crowd. "It's what we do."
Speedway lore dates the races to early last century, when black stable hands who worked for wealthy equestrians would bring their mounts here for a little weekend racing. A ritual was born, and the tradition has endured.
For years black cowboys bought horses at livestock auctions in New Holland, Pa., and cared for them at stables in North and West Philadelphia. Many of the cowboys bought horses as hobbies in their retirement, taking them for weekend rides through the neighborhood and across Fairmount Park's many trails. Today a dwindling number of cowboys still buy aging racehorses--many of which would otherwise be killed--and give them a second racing life.
For generations, kids more interested in horses than in hanging on street corners have spent their summers in city stables "shoveling crap," as they put it, and dreaming of one day riding at the Speedway. The action starts as soon as the ground softens each spring.
Over the decades, legends were made. And some are still in the making.
There were the jockeys. Boo, Parrot, Devon and Jerome. They all could ride, say the old-timers.
Today there's Keith. Keith is the man. Beating Keith is the only way you can get a name for yourself on the Speedway.
The old-timers say there were too many horses to remember. There was Annie, who streaked to 21-0 on the Speedway. And Big Kojack and Little Kojack too.
Now the horse is O.J. "Fast as lightning," they say. Trouble comes getting him to stay calm at the gate. He jumps and bucks all over the place, because when he's ready to run, he's ready. If you get a rider who can handle 'em, he'll run the quarter-mile in 19 seconds flat.
There are 10 tales for every race at the Speedway.
But most of these stables have closed over the past couple decades due to redevelopment or stable mismanagement. This past February, as part of its Neighborhood Transformation Initiative, the city evicted dozens of cowboys and more than a hundred of their horses from three stables at Master from 31st to 32nd Street.
The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority claims the cowboys were illegally using the former warehouse as a stable, a use it wasn't zoned for.
Many of the Master Street cowboys are quick to defend their home.
"The animals were kept in fine condition," says Ellis Ferrell, who ran horseback riding programs for kids in Strawberry Mansion and Brewerytown, and was in charge of one of the Master Street stables. "They were just looking to get us out."
With nowhere to keep his horses in the city, Ferrell, 65, was forced to end the programs he'd run for 23 years.
"Learning to ride kept the kids out of the drugs and taught them responsibility and respect," he says. "But all that's gone now."
The cleared space where the stables once stood is being sold to a private developer who plans to develop a mix of market-rate and low-income houses on the site.
The cowboys say the Master Street stable was the last large, affordable place for them to board their horses in the city.
"It was our headquarters," says one.
A few cowboys have relocated their horses to better digs in New Jersey or the western suburbs. But most others couldn't afford the boarding rates and sold their horses.
There are fewer cowboys every year, which means fewer races. Races were held at the Speedway most every weekend last summer. This summer there are races every other weekend, and sometimes only every third.
Before warming up, leg wraps are removed and muscles rubbed down. Some of the horses get "vitamins," Speedway slang for performance enhancers.
"We can race today," says Cheech. "I don't give a damn."
Cheech points his finger in the air and bellydances in a skintight purple shirt. Boo laughs. "You wanna race me, Boo? Bring that horse of yours out here."
Boo offers a dismissive nod and a wave, then turns his back on Cheech, who's still yelling.
"O.J.," he says, drawing out the infamous initials that belong to his copper-colored Oklahoma-bred 10-year-old gelding.
Sixteen hands high with legs like tree trunks, O.J. is the current folk hero of the Speedway and the cause of Cheech's rage.
"His name is O.J.--the Juice," says Boo. "Ain't no one faster."
In the seven years Boo has owned O.J., he's raced the animal just seven times.
"I pick my spots," he says.
Cheech's horse was the most recent victim.
It was Cheech who'd been pestering Boo to race. Cheech taunted Boo last summer. "You scared, Boo. You scared."
But Boo wouldn't bite. Boo played it cool, took his time, let Cheech get confident. A confident man, Boo knows, will bet big. Then one day Boo came to the Speedway with O.J.
"Let's get it on," said Boo.
A purse was agreed on, word spread, and the crowd swelled.
"When the Juice runs, that's the race of the century," says Boo.
O.J. was jumpy at the starting line. Cheech's horse bolted first and gained a big lead while O.J. stayed frozen for what seemed like forever. A hush came over the crowd.
Then the Juice jumped.
"When he landed, the Juice was right beside that boy's horse," says Boo, laughing. "And I turned around and looked at him and said, 'This race is over.'"
Boo was born in Washington, D.C., 47 years ago. As a child he spent time on his grandfather's Virginia farm, where there were horses and mules. His mother later moved the family to Philadelphia.
"Me and my cousins, we used to go up to 40th and Parkside after school," Boo says in a rapid-fire Southern drawl. "They had stables there and would rent the horses out. The older guys would come off work to take care of their horses, and they'd start in with each other. Just like the talk on the Speedway: 'Well, your horse can't run.' 'What, you wanna run?' We'd go and sit and watch them race. And I said to myself, 'Well, I seem to like this.'"
When Boo was 17, a racehorse owner named Mr. Hilton spotted him.
"Where you learn to ride like that, boy?" Mr. Hilton asked.
"Street racing," Boo answered.
Mr. Hilton introduced Boo to the pro racing circuit. Boo worked as a groom and later as an exercise rider at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts and at Tampa Bay Downs in Florida.
"I was galloping a horse one morning," Boo says. "But the guy didn't tell me the horse wore blinkers. When the sun came out, the horse saw the shadow and ran right over to the railing. Me and him flipped over. I said, 'Oh man, here we go.'"
Boo fractured his neck, and broke an arm and collarbone.
He recovered, but then came another accident, this one along the Parkside Avenue trail. Boo was galloping on a horse when a four-wheeler drove by. The horse got spooked and ran straight into a tree.
"I broke my whole left side," says Boo.
The horse died a week later.
After Master Street closed, Boo was able to move his horses into some of the few remaining stable spaces in Fairmount Park.
"Well, I know why they did it," says Boo of being chased off Master Street. "They're trying to get people back into the city, so they're building all these houses. To do that they had to knock somebody out. They knocked the cowboys out."
Boo's mornings are now spent at the stables in Fairmount Park, catering to O.J. and other horses, cleaning stalls, changing bedding, dishing out feed and riding or walking the horses. His stalls are clean, and his horses are strong and healthy.
"I love my horses," he says. "Treat them like they're my world."
O.J. gets the middle stall.
"I treat him like a hot rod," says Boo. "Make sure everything's right on him and buy the best stuff. If he needs a girlfriend, I get him a girlfriend."
Boo says O.J. will race again soon.
"There are just too many fools to be tooken," he says of the hot shots who show up at the Speedway but know nothing about horses.
Hot shots who make their money on the street and have plenty of it to burn, who go to the auctions in New Holland, overpay for horses, hire trainers and jockeys and then come to the Speedway looking to race.
"They think they're smart and know everything," says Boo. "We let 'em think they have a fast horse. And we just take 'em."
Kyle, 16, is small and lean and has wanted to be a jockey since Boo introduced him to horses as a child. He spends many of his summer days in the stables with Boo.
Having shoveled his share of manure, Kyle's earned himself a place on the Speedway. He already has two races under his belt. Victories both.
Boo says he worked his old connections to land his boy a job as a groom at the track when he graduates from high school. "He's going to Philadelphia Park," Boo says proudly.
For now, though, Kyle plans on racing Champ--a big, fast copper-colored horse--at the Speedway in the coming weeks. "I'm taking all new contenders," he brags.
Though he's a relative newcomer to the Speedway, even Kyle sees things are changing.
"You'd always see new faces and all that," he says. "But now you see the same little bunch of people coming out."
"It's the race everyone wants to see," says Jordan, Chief's owner.
Burly, with a hustler's smile and tinted sunglasses, Jordan allows himself to be identified only by the famous name printed on the back of his Washington Wizards jersey.
"We won't put all the stipulations to rest today," says Jordan, "but we gonna race 'em."
Since the horses in this race are stablemates, their owners have wagered just a dollar on the race. Yet there will, of course, be side bets.
Jordan is nothing but confident.
"Keith is riding my horse," he says. "And he's the best."
At 44, with innumerable wins under his belt, Keith is a legend on the Speedway. He plays the part well. He spends most of his prerace time pacing the sidelines, his thin face, covered with a scraggily beard, looking tense with concentration.
Keith was just 3 years old the first time his sister's boyfriend came around his North Philadelphia neighborhood on a horse. The boyfriend let Keith hop up for a ride, and he was hooked.
He worked as an exercise rider at Philadelphia Park for a time. But it was at the Speedway that Keith found his calling. He's been riding horses at the makeshift track for 27 years.
He gets all the top rides and big-money races at the Speedway, and has taught most of the other Speedway jockeys how to ride--mainly by beating them again and again. But they keep coming back because the only way to earn a rep is by besting him.
"Some of them luck out and beat Keith once in a while," says Boo. "But most of 'em don't."
Keith runs the Fletcher Street stables these days. He's there seven days a week, 12 hours a day, cleaning, riding and training the horses. It's a tough way to make a living.
"I stay in it for the love of the horses," he says.
The Fletcher Street stables are small and cramped. There wasn't enough room to take in the displaced Master Street cowboys. "We were like a family," says Keith of the two stables. He says it's just a matter of time before the city comes looking to close down Fletcher Street.
"Ain't gonna be none of us anymore," he says. "All the black people that own horses, the city is pushing 'em out of the city."
Keith tucks his riding crop under his arm and hops up on Chief. He pulls back the reins, gives his horse a little heel and heads down the Speedway for a warm-up gallop.
Keith is cool and calm upon a horse.
"He knows how to ride with the horse," says Boo. "Them kids don't know what to do against him. They'll get all excited and start whipping the horse, all caught up in trying to beat him. And Keith, he'll just set his horse, and when they get real close to the finish line, he'll just zoom by them laughing."
"See what they did to [Smarty Jones jockey] Stewart Elliott at the Belmont," says Keith. "I play those games with the guys down here."
Earlier this year, some cowboys from South Carolina came to race at the Speedway.
One of South Carolina guys grew up in Philly and was cool with everybody. But the rest were running their mouths.
They lit into the Philly cowboys for not being able to scrape together enough purse money.
"The trees got more green than y'all bitches do," one of them taunted.
The opposing jockey tore into Keith.
"This is my home," he spat at Keith. "I own this strip."
Keith stayed cool, and with a hundred yards remaining, he blew into the lead.
Crossing the finish line to a frenzied crowd, Keith stood up on his horse. He pointed his whip at the lagging South Carolina jockey and shouted, "Don't come here talking trash."
"They're both fast horses," Boo says. "But I like Keith's horse."
The jockeys trot their horses down the Speedway toward the starting line. There's a chain-link fence at the bottom of the Speedway where the jockeys stop and wait for the race to start.
Keith is riding against Timmy, a young jockey he beat badly two weekends ago.
The horses reach the fence.
The crowd spills onto the Speedway.
The horses seem reluctant to get into starting position.
"They both down there fighting," yells Power's owner. "Two studs down there. One got enough, the other one don't."
The horses settle down.
All is quiet for a moment.
The horses bump out of the start.
The jockeys quickly regain control.
"Here they come!" yells Cheech. "Here they come!"
The crowd recedes back onto the sidelines, cheering and jumping.
The owners cheer on their horses.
"Come on, Power."
"Take 'em Chief. Take 'em."
Timmy is on the outside and has a slight lead.
The riders near the bushes. About 200 yards to go.
Keith starts to make his move.
Timmy invades Keith's lane, cutting him off and forcing him toward the bushes.
Keith reins in his horse.
Timmy takes off and finishes two lengths ahead, pumping his fist as he crosses the finish line.
Keith follows behind shaking his head in disgust and furiously screaming epithets that get lost in the noise of the crowd.
Power's owner is jumping up and down.
"You know what I mean, baby!" he yells. "You know what I mean, baby!"
Someone taped the race with a camcorder. The replay shows what everybody knows: Timmy cut Keith off.
Keith stands off by the brush, sweating and pacing.
The crowd starts to thin out, laughing and relaying the race to each other as they leave.
Jordan stands at the finish line paying out his bets despite the disputed ending.
"That's how we do it here," he says, smiling. "This ain't Philadelphia Park."
Most of his buddies are already back at Fletcher Street drinking beers and bullshitting about the race.
He's cooled down since the end of the race.
"Timmy was just trying to beat me at all costs," he says, smiling confidently. "A lot of these younger guys, that's their goal in life--to beat me."
Boo walks over with Jordan.
"It was a race," says Jordan, sarcastically.
"A dirty race," adds Boo, laughing. "But, you know, we get 'em next time. That's how you got to look at it."
They all shake hands.
"This is the only thing we like to do," says Keith about the Speedway races, before climbing into the car that will take him back to the stables.