In this episode, destined to become a holiday classic, the Christmas spirit arrives at a frigid Pennsylvania racetrack, delivered by a plucky claiming horse.
[Laurie] Welcome to the Barn Stories podcast. I’m Laurie Prinz, editor EQUUS magazine.
[Christine] And I’m managing editor, Christine Barakat.
[Laurie] This podcast features our favorite essays and articles published in EQUUS over the past 40 years. Although EQUUS is known for articles on horse care and veterinary research, our editorial mission has always been guided by the bond that exists between horses and people. And each issue has featured a real-life story that celebrates how horses enrich our lives and touch our hearts.
[Christine] We’ve searched our archives, chosen the stories that resonated with our readers and given them new life in this audio format. Longtime subscribers may recognize some of their favorite pieces. And if you’re new to the EQUUS community, these stories will confirm that no matter what sort of saddle you sit in, a deep emotional connection to horses is something we all share.
[Christine] Christmas spirit isn’t always found in brightly wrapped packages, cookies and reindeer. Sometimes, it appears on frigidly cold Pennsylvania racetrack, delivered by a claiming horse with heart.
[Christine] The story in this episode is as heartwarming as any Hallmark Christmas movie. But it’s also better than any Hallmark movie. Instead of a cliché plot about a big city lawyer who returns to her hometown to open a bakery, it features a claiming horse, a plucky jockey and sweet little boy who wants to go home for Christmas. I’ve read this story dozens of times over the years and it always makes me smile.
[Laurie] This story is great. It could become the “It’s a Wonderful Life” of horse stories—destined to be listened to every year, and reminding us about what is good in the world, even when circumstances at the time may not seem that great. But instead of Clarence the guardian angel, we get Coal Bay, a guardian claiming horse.
[Christine] It also has a similar theme of community pulling together when someone needs a hand. That’s something horse people do year-round, but it’s particularly poignant when it happens at Christmas time.
[Laurie] So grab yourself a hot drink, settle in and enjoy this soon-to-be Christmas classic, “Home for Christmas” written by Jan Jasioni Cross and read by Taylor Autumn.
[Taylor] It was some kind of cosmic thing that took me there. I certainly did not go for the money or the atmosphere. Pocono Downs in late November was, in fact, quite depressing—the temperatures averaged about 25 degrees by post time for the first race each evening. Plus there was a nice, comfortable job waiting for me in Florida for the winter months. A leading New York trainer had offered me a position as an assistant trainer and exercise girl. It was a job I had prayed for.
I finally had fallen on my head enough times to realize that my waning career as a jockey was becoming more dangerous than lucrative. I would have gone straight to Florida and strolled the sunny, blessed beaches for a few weeks while I waited for the New York outfit if I hadn’t gotten sidetracked by two of my best friends.
Russ and Jackie were a hardworking young couple, and I had won a few races on their cheaper horses a t a Philadelphia t rack. They were heading to Florida too. But first they were going to ship part of their stable to Pocono Downs, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to win some races and lose some of the cheap claimers, horses who compete in races in which all entries are for sale at a specified p rice. Somehow, they convinced me that I should accompany them. We were staying only for a few weeks, they told me, and we would win lots of races. I packed halfheartedly.
We shipped in one afternoon the week before Thanksgiving. The roads were becoming slick from the falling sleet. Our little caravan slid through the stable gate and down a hill that bottomed out at our assigned barn. My little car had no snow tires. If it had, I probably would have made a quick U-turn and headed south, but there was no way my car was going to make it back up that hill. We unloaded the horses from the van and headed for the little apartment that we would share for three weeks, sipping hot chocolate laced with whiskey and dreaming of the big bets we would cash.
I had made a pact with myself not to ride for any trainer at Pocono Downs but Russ. There was that job waiting for me in Florida, and I did not want to risk getting on horses I did not know for trainers I did not know. But pacts were made to be broken.
Stabled next to Russ and Jackie’s string at barn “T” was an odd sort of outfit. The Boyd racing stable had traveled to Pocono Downs from a little track out West. A few days after our own arrival, their battered old Ford pickup had chugged in, toting a rusty two-horse trailer. The entire stable consisted of two aged geldings. The two old warhorses received plenty of attention f, or the trainer, S ally w, as accompanied by her husband, elderly father and young son. The little boy, Scott, was a towheaded, courteous and attentive 11-year-old.
I asked how it was that he got to skip school and live at the racetrack with his folks. Scott told me that just as soon as the family could get some money together, they would be going home for Christmas. Then he would return to school. Home, Scott told me, was in Arkansas. Sensing that the Boyd s table could not afford an exercise rider, I volunteered to gallop their two-horse stable for them. Sally readily accepted m y offer. One horse, Bart, galloped an easy mile every morning, but the other horse, a black gelding named Coaly, was a wee b it off in the left ankle and usually was ponied alongside Russ’ stable pony for his daily exercise.
Within hours of arriving at the track, little Scott asked Russ and Jackie if he could work for them for wages. I am sure that Russ had no clue as to what duties Scott would perform, but he did not hesitate in putting the little boy on his payroll. From then on, Scott hustled about the barn all morning, cheerfully holding horses for baths, bedding stalls, raking the shed row and helping me clean tack. Russ paid his little right-hand man his wages daily. Scott would thank him politely and hurry off to join his folks down the shed row. The entire clan would then stroll over to the track kitchen for breakfast I don’t think they ever left the racetrack grounds.
Three weeks went by, and my calendar was lined with X’s that ended with the date of my departure f or Florida. By December 15, Russ had run and lost the last horse he wanted to part with. He was making shipping arrangements, and I was planning to get my gear out of the jocks’ room and settle up with my valet, P aul. Our neighbors down the shed row had not yet raced Coaly or Bart.
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On the 16th, I went to the jocks’ room after morning workouts to retrieve m y belongings. But when I requested my tack, Paul gave me a look of consternation. “You can’t leave,” he said. “You have a mount tonight in the ninth race.”
He pulled a folded list of the day’s entries from his back pocket and passed it to me. He was right. I was named on “Coal Bay” in the ninth. I asked Paul if he had seen the form on Coaly, “Uh-huh. If this horse wins tonight, there are snowmen i n Hell,” he replied. “Gonna take off?”
I nearly let the word “yes” slip through my badly chapped lips when I caught sight of something out of the corner of my eye. It was little Scott. The racetrack cherub had come dashing out of the racing secretary’s office with the entries list in his hand. He was jumping u p and down like a young antelope a s he raced back to the barn area.
“No,” I said. “I guess I’m riding tonight.” That evening before dinner, I borrowed Russ’ Daily Racing Form to study Coal Bay’s past performances. He had not seen a winner’s circle since he was seven, and he would be nine years old in a few weeks. The chart writer had summed up Coaly’s last three efforts as “dull,” “outdistanced” and “tired early.” These performances had been in cheap claiming races. Tonight Coaly was entered in an allowance race, a higher level of competition.
At 6:30 I went to the jocks’ room to await my last ride at Pocono Downs. God, was it cold out! As I donned my riding garb, I thought to myself that riding a 60-to-1s hot on a night of freezing temperatures was not a terrific way to end one’s race-riding career. Such was fate.
When the call went round the jocks’ room for the ninth race weigh-in, my valet informed me that it was 10 degrees outside. I put on an extra heavy turtleneck shirt after weigh-in and stuck my gloves and boots into the sauna for a last-minute toasting before venturing out.
In the paddock, my teeth chattered as Sally told me that Coaly was a cold-weather horse. The old gelding did look good. His coat was thick and shiny. His large hazel eyes were bright with anticipation. I glanced over at our competition. One horse stood out: The betting favorite, Fast Exit, had just shipped in from New Jersey, but I knew him well. I had ridden Fast Exit when he won his first race a couple years before at a Jersey Shore track. With that race, I lost my “bug,” the weight allowance given to apprentice riders until they chalk up a certain number of victories, and the trainer I was riding for promptly fired me. Another memorable day in my career.
The same trainer still saddled Fast Exit, and I waved stiffly at him as he met my stare. Suddenly, Coaly and I had a mission. We had to beat Fast Exit, f or old times’ sake.
When the gates opened, Coaly shot out like a bolt of black lightning. We easily took the lead, with Last Exit alongside. My old Coaly was running like a fine-tuned sports car. In fact, Fast Exit seemed to be having trouble keeping up. I signaled to Coaly, and we easily left the favorite in the dust. From the quarter pole to the wire we raced along, just me and Coal Bay. At the eighth pole, I started grinning and posing.
To the wire we coasted, four lengths ahead of the favorite. Coaly pulled up kindly and galloped back to the winner’s circle like a gentleman. He was my hero, and I patted his glistening neck tenderly as we posed for the picture. Sally, her husband, father and little Scott were surprisingly calm during the brief victory ceremony. “We knew he could do it!” Scott declared. I thanked them all for a most memorable ride.
The next morning, I went to the stables at 8. I was packed and ready to head to Florida. But before I hit the highway, I needed to see my new friends one last time. I headed over to the two stalls where Coal Bay and his stablemate had been bedded. The stalls were empty. I was quite upset to find the Boyd stable gone without notice. Russ walked down the shed row and stood by my side as I stared misty-eyed at Coal Bay’s empty stall.
“They were already gone when I got here this morning. They must have loaded up in the middle of the night,” he said. “I think something was left for you on their tack-room door.”
I walked slowly to the end of the shed and pulled the piece of white construction paper from the door. It was a crayon drawing depicting a huge black horse in a winner’s circle; his jockey had been given a large red nose like that of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. A family of four was grouped at the horse’s head. I smiled as I read the neatly h and-printed caption at the bottom of the picture:” COAL BAY—WINNER—WE, ARE GOING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS,” and, in smaller letters, “Thanks Jan. We love you, [signed] Scott.” Only then did I realize why I had come to Pocono Downs.
[Christine] Thanks for listening to Barn Stories. We hope you enjoyed this episode. If you have a favorite article or essay from the EQUUS archives that you’d like us to feature in a future podcast, let us know. You can reach us at [email protected]
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The Barn Stories podcast is a production of the Equine Podcast Network, an entity of The Equine Network.