The Outside Rail

A pile of photographs sits on my desk. Been there for a month, maybe more. The pile was in a box, but I needed the box so I removed the photos. I’ve looked through some, once or twice, but not all. Then I moved on to something else. Then I came back to them. Then I left again. Then I came back. They’re random, from all eras and sources. I’m not sure how they wound up together in a box, but they amaze me.

So let’s get started.

DeskPhotos2Top of the pile. An image by Deirde Davie of the clocker’s stand at Saratoga Race Course’s Oklahoma training track. One guy stares through binoculars, stopwatch in his left hand. His shirt pocket holds an iPhone, maybe a pen, a single cigar, something. He’s focused on the track, clearly something far away. A horse I’ll assume. Another guy closer to the photographer holds two stopwatches and stares intently at the one in his right hand. He’s busy, two watches will do that to you, and lifts the index finger on his right hand as if to tell the camera, “Hold on a minute.” I’m struck by the details – the old wood grain of the cocker’s stand’s siding, the chips, nicks and notches on the window ledge, the rogue paint marks on the door’s glass window. Guy No. 2 wears a National Steeplechase Association hat – half-script, half-block NSA on the crown. What a moment in time. Other than the digital watches, iPhone and binoculars of a certain style, the photo could have come from almost any time period.

Second photo. Another Davie scene, this time from the inside of the clocker’s stand looking out at the track. It might be the second guy, the one with two watches, but his shirt seems lighter. Maybe that’s the sun or something. His stopwatch reads 0:00:00 so he hasn’t started it yet. His watch band is on the third hole from the end. A McDonald’s soda cup sits to his left. His HighMark legal pad (man, I hope it’s yellow) features various scribbles. Times are relatively easy to see – 50, 492, 1:041 maybe. TAP (Todd A. Pletcher?) is written on the upper right side. I think. Two horses jog by on the track. In white (or light anyway) saddle towels and polo bandages, the horses on the outside rail backing up toward the chute. I doubt they’re breezing, not with stirrups that long. The horses are blurry, while the man’s hand and stopwatch are tack sharp.

Third photo, and the last of the clockers – unless there are more buried in here. This one is from the outside again. Trainer Todd Pletcher is on his lead pony, backed up to the wall of the stand. Pletcher’s hair is more pepper than salt, his heels (with cowboy spurs) are down and he’s twisted around in the western saddle speaking to the clockers. The pony seems non-plussed, like none of this matters to him, but his dirty polo bandages and hooves hint that he’s had a long morning. Four clockers sit at the windows. The doors at either end are open. NSA hat guy is on the left, watch in his right hand, chin in his left. He squints at the track. The next guy looks down at a notepad, pen in right hand and is clearly taking something down, probably something Pletcher says. I wonder who breezed. Next comes another clocker, T-shirt, glasses, old-school binoculars on the counter in front of him. He’s looking down as well. The fourth guy is clearly the youngest. Backward baseball hat, white summer-at-the-beach necklace, a tight squint (and crease between his brows) eyes on the track. He could be undercover, an extra in The Wire, something. A small slip of paper is tacked dead center on the outside wall, just over the head of Pletcher’s pony. What does it say? It’s an advertisement, terribly ineffective if I can’t figure out what it says. Patterson-Price Real Estate, Something Oaks Farm. For sale, rent maybe. I could be wrong. Behind the clockers, on the back wall, three pieces of paper are tacked. They’re folded over, like the humidity got to them. They’ve been there awhile. A phone cord is attached to a wall jack (remember those?). A small cabinet with a small hook and an even smaller lock occupies the right corner. Pletcher holds a pocket program.

Fourth photo. Thoroughbred perfection. Zaccio, a Hall of Fame steeplechaser and three-time champion, and jockey Gregg Morris glide to the finish of the 1981 Colonial Cup. The back includes a stamp from The Steeplechase News (never heard of it) in New Jersey, and the name Douglas Gilmore. Nice shot Doug. Zaccio won by 11 lengths. He is trace-clipped, his chestnut colt darker across the top with a perfect line running down his neck, across his shoulder, along his midsection and up and over his hip. His ears are pinned flat, his tail stretches out behind him. The 4 saddle towel flaps a bit from his speed. Did the saddle slip? Maybe a little. Morris crouches low, like a flat jock, his left foot jammed home in the stirrup, his left elbow touching his left knee, his left wrist flat on the horse’s neck, the fingers giving enough rein to let Zaccio stride out. The race is over, but not. In the blurry background, people stand along the fence, watching. Some in the back stand on a hill, or on parked cars in tailgate spots, hands shading their eyes from the sun. Do they know they’re watching one of jump racing’s greats? Zaccio won 18 jump races, collected three Eclipse Awards (1980, 1981, 1982) and earned $286,299. He retired in 1984 as American jump racing’s leading money winner. He joined Thoroughbred racing’s Hall of Fame in 1990, and lived – with his Hall of Fame plaque outside his stall door – until age 31. A month ago I texted the photo to Morris, who lives around the corner from me. He works as a physician’s assistant in the emergency room of St. Francis Hospital in Delaware. During this global health crisis, I think of Gregg often. St. Francis isn’t Bellevue and Wilmington isn’t Manhattan, but the coronavirus is there too. He replied to my text an hour after I sent it: “Now THAT was a happy moment.” He said his ER’s census was down, meaning fewer patients overall, but they were all sicker. Stay safe, Gregg.

Only 79 photos to go.