They murdered the jockey within 48 hours. It took two weeks before a hiker found the trainer downstream from a hunting cabin in Idaho with two bullets in the back of the head.
Golden Gate Fields racetrack sits across the bay from San Francisco. But the grandstand faces the freeway, not the water. Racetracks are for betting, not for gazing at the view. Golden Gate Fields smells of horses and hay, body odor and bath oil, grease and greed. But, despite its proximity to the Bay, nothing is supposed to smell fishy.
All the same, I was leaning on the paddock rail before the sixth race which, even before it was run, smelled like four day old mackerel.
I’m a private investigator. Fishy smells waft opportunity for me.
It so happened that the filly on which I’d invested my lunch money in the fifth was still running while, not far from the paddock, a blonde and tan couple towered over the jockey as they posed for the traditional winner’s circle photo. I shook my head, cynically projecting that, back before the bust, the owners probably made a bundle taking some money-losing company public, leaving them set for life and suckers scraping to get by in their wake.
These days, plenty of investing suckers were scraping to get by. Otherwise, more money would be circulating. Enough anyway for someone to pay me three hundred a day for my investigatory services, which usually involved sitting in the front seat across from a hot pillow motel with a wide mouthed jar for pee and a telephoto lens for evidence.
I measured life’s fortunes in units of $375. That’s how much my monthly rent ran for two rooms and bath over an old double garage four blocks from City Hall in nearby Richmond. Even in an area scarred by urban blight, the rent was ridiculously low. For years, my landlady, old Mrs. Gillespie, had assumed I was a police detective. That seemed to make her feel safer in a drug-infested neighborhood and I never corrected her assumption. Likewise, I’d flashed a gold badge I bought from an army surplus store at a neighborhood gang leader and told him to stay the hell away from Mrs. Gillespie’s or I’d have my buddies from the gang task force nail his ass faster than he could say “I’m a loser.” It worked.
I was down to $1,006.47. My ability to divide any amount by $375 told me that was less than three months rent. Rent isn’t my only expense, of course. I got to eat, pay insurance, all that. It doesn’t help that San Francisco has the highest gasoline prices in the country. The latest excuse for high prices was a local refinery fire. In North Dakota, gas costs 30¢ a gallon less than out here and you can’t drive to the closest refinery in two days at the speed limit.
Guys from Merrill Lynch call the racetrack a sucker set-up. Even so, if a winner goes off at lousy odds like even money, you still double your outlay. I don’t know anyone who can remember the last time their blue chip portfolios made money, let alone doubled, except maybe that blond couple and, technically speaking, I didn’t know them.
Horses and jockeys were starting to gather in the paddock before the next race. In the paddock, a groom throws a strip of leather on the back of a thoroughbred and gives the jockey a boost into the stirrups. Were it not for the stirrups, the jockeys might as well ride bareback. That so-called saddle has no horn to grab and no leather to hug the horse but it does have pockets to hold weight. Weight is important in racing. The heavier the load, the slower the horse.
I was at the paddock for a close-up look because the easiest way to fix a race is with a jockey. Horse races are like prize fights. You can fix it for a guy to lose but you can’t pay somebody to win. And you can’t bribe every jockey in the field. Somebody would say no. Somebody would squeal. Still, this race smelled so fishy that I thought there was a chance that I might spot something, and whatever that something was, I might figure a way to scrape a few dollars off it.
I glanced sideways to find that Frank Conner, a jockey’s agent, had joined me at the paddock rail. Jockey agents book mounts and take a piece of the pie. Conner was a big guy with a florid face.
He nudged me. “I saw you from up in the boxes and wondered what an old railbird like you was doing down here at the paddock with the bettors picking horses based on the jockey’s pretty silks.”
“I gave up on pretty silks,” I said. “Now I bet cute names.”
Frank plopped his forearms on the paddock rail. “Big class drop in this race.”
“Too big,” I answered. “Say, you know this kid Alarcon? I had a nice winner with him at the beginning of the meeting but I haven’t seen him much since.”
Frank nodded toward a jockey just walking into the paddock. “There he is now.”
Frank knew his jockeys because the kid was wearing pale blue and yellow silks just like the program said. Up from Mexico, Alarcon had a sculpted nose and dark skin that made him look like Montezuma’s blood still pulsed in his veins.
“The kid craves the cerveza,” Frank said out of the side of his mouth. “He either shows up overweight or can’t get out of bed for early morning workouts. His agent finally dropped him.”
“Kid’s got the world by the tail if only he knew it.”
Alarcon walked right by us. He was tall for a jockey, about 5’5.” He probably had trouble keeping his weight down even without the beer.
“Yep, youth is wasted on the young,” Frank answered. “I’ve got to get back to my party but I wanted to say ‘hello.’ The other day, I gave your name to a fellow named Johnson. I don’t suppose he called you.”
I shook my head.
“I told him you were a good man.”
I nodded, keeping my eyes on Alarcon. “Appreciate that.”
Frank probably did give my name to some guy named Johnson. But, then, people were always telling me they referred someone to me. After a while, I sort of viewed it as bullshit conversation filler.
Weight problems haunt a lot of jockeys but the ones who can least afford extra weight are bug boys like Alarcon. Apprentice riders are designated by a “bug” in the program and get a weight advantage, usually five pounds. Put a bug boy on fillies or mares, who get five pounds when they race against males, and it adds up to a ten pound weight advantage. Ten pounds translates into a few lengths over a long race. That’s how bug boys get mounts and that’s how Alarcon had caught my attention early in the meeting. He brought home a filly in a photo that paid $28.80. I had thirty bucks on her nose. Do the math and you see that the payoff came to better than a month's rent. A jockey helps you like that, you keep an eye out for him. Now I knew why I wasn’t seeing him much.
In this race, Alarcon had the six horse, a four-year old gelding named Stormyport that was struggling to pay its hay bills. Even in a $12,500 claiming race, like this one, Stormyport was outclassed by most of the field, if you asked me. But, seeing how I’d given away my lunch money in the fifth, maybe I wasn’t the one to ask.
True to Frank’s comments, Alarcon had shown up three pounds overweight today. That meant his five pound bug boy advantage was down to two pounds. The sixth race was six furlongs — three quarters of a mile. That’s a sprint for horses. Two pounds doesn’t make much difference in a sprint.
The Racing Form showed where Alarcon had ridden Stormyport once early in the meeting, finishing eighth in an eleven horse field. The trainer gave Stormyport’s next three races to Gary Rogers, another bug boy. He pulled in a third, a fifth and a fourth. Rogers was riding today but he didn’t have a mount in this race. Which meant that he hadn’t opted for another horse over Stormyport. Why in the world would the trainer go back to Alarcon, let alone Alarcon three pounds over? I might dwell on that in this fishy set-up except there’d be no sense in paying a guy to lose on a horse that was outclassed anyway.
The big class drop Frank spoke of was another gelding named Brailback Guy. He wasn’t going to make anyone forget Secretariat, but he paid his barn bills and then some running against better company than this race.
If you don’t know, there’s a pecking order to races. A claiming race, like this one, meant that any horse in the field could be claimed, that is bought for the specified claiming price, in this case $12,500. At big tracks like Santa Anita, they might run $100,000 claimers, but they’re still claimers. People can take your horse away from you. Most races are claiming races because most horses aren’t very good. Good horses run in allowances, handicaps or stakes races where nobody can take your horse from under your nose. Those big races that everyone has heard of? They’re handicaps or stakes.
If a horse that is used to better company suddenly takes a big class drop, it gets everyone’s attention. Somehow the horses sense it, too. It’s like a Big Leaguer playing sandlot ball against high school kids. It doesn’t take long to know the guy’s a ringer.
So what the hell was Brailback Guy doing in a cheap claimer? The Racing Form’s past performances showed that he wasn’t winning often against better company. But he was grabbing enough also-rans shares to make money for his owners. He even came in second in a handicap over at Bay Meadows. Plus, if he was suddenly going to drop to claimers, why not a $20,000 or $25,000 claimer against better horses with a better purse than he’d see in this field?
Was there something wrong with the horse? Were the owners begging someone to claim it? That seemed so obvious that maybe it was supposed to seem obvious. Poker wasn’t the only game where players bluffed. Could be they hoped to grab a quick purse with the meeting set to end in two days anyway, after which everyone would disperse to other tracks.
Pablo Espinoza had the mount on Brailback Guy. He was due to finish second in the jockey standings for this meeting. I’d seen him driving a new Camaro. He would be a guy you’d figure would say ‘no’ to the suggestion that he was supposed to get boxed in or lose his whip. Looking like a cool professional in the paddock, he was sure hiding it if he was getting paid to lose.
When the horses filed out for the post parade, I hurried back to the stands. Sweat dotted my forehead by the time I’d climbed high enough to view the backstretch. Two tractors furrowed the track. Outriders indolently led jockeys and horses toward the starting gate in the afternoon sun. Nearby, I heard two guys pointing out that the Form showed Brailback guy was a come from behind router who preferred longer races while this race was only six furlongs.
“Sure is a crazy set-up,” one of the guys says sagely. “Could be there’s something wrong with the horse and they want someone to claim it.”
You can chase your tail all day wondering whether something is obvious or just supposed to look obvious.
Through field glasses, I watched the horses load evenly into the gate down the chute off the opposite corner of the track. I saw the starter’s flag. Then they broke cleanly.
You can’t watch every horse in a ten-horse field. I kept my glasses on Brailback Guy who went off as the favorite. True to form, he stayed near the rear while he gathered speed. Pablo Espinoza didn’t make second in the jockey standings by luck. He knew he didn’t have much time with a router in a sprint. He used the whip early. Going into the turn, the crowd screamed when Brailback Guy surged as if Espinoza had stepped on the gas while the lower class nags were braking. It looked like he was out to steal a purse.
Rounding into the clubhouse turn, Brailback Guy grew abreast of Stormyport. Just as Stormyport changed stride coming out of the turn, Alarcon threw up his arms in imitation of a stumble and banged hard to the right directly into Brailback Guy. I caught my breath anticipating an ugly spill. Miraculously, a trailing jockey yanked his horse inside, still clipping heels. Veering wide, Espinoza tried to salvage the race but it was too late. The speed horses were gone. Brailback Guy finished sixth. Stormyport last.
So that was it. Bug boy Alarcon’s job wasn’t to lose himself but to keep Brailback Guy out of the money. The kid might get suspended for sloppy racing but the stewards weren’t going to take down any numbers off the board. The winners had run clean.
Seeing that Alarcon wasn’t listed to ride on the rest of the program, I ran down to the parking lot and positioned my Crown Victoria where I could see whoever drove down the hill from the jockey’s parking lot. Whatever the payoff, Alarcon wouldn’t be getting it at the track.
That gave me time to think. The tote board had shown that Brailback Guy went off as the 9-5 favorite, almost two to one. But I’d take 1-5 that someone somewhere (not here at the track or Brailback Guy would gone off lower than 9-5) had placed a bundle on him. Someone bets a quarter mil at track odds, the payoff would run around $700,000, including the return of the original bet. There’s enough there for whoever set this up to compensate a cooperative owner if his allowance horse winds up being claimed for $12,500. On the other hand, there’s also enough for whoever is taking the bet to pay a trainer to find a jockey who will make sure that the set-up doesn’t come off. And, for sure, there’s enough to pay off a bug boy whose career is circling the drain anyway. Stupid kid. Within hours a guy wearing leather gloves would be in the front seat of a black Cadillac looking for Alarcon.
An old white Ford Aerostar burning blue smoke was coming down the hill from the jockey’s lot. I pointed my glasses at its windshield. That was Alarcon all right. A white van is an easy tail. I waited a minute. Before I got caught in the middle of something, I wanted to see if anyone else followed Alarcon. No one did. Even when I’m not working, I keep my gas tank full — just in case. I could follow Alarcon for as far as that Aerostar could take him.
But he wasn’t going far. On the other side of the freeway was Brennan’s, an old track hangout. Brennan’s did a busy bar business and was usually busy with Berkeley gourmets sneaking out to a good Hofbrau.
Alarcon pulled into Brennan’s parking lot and braked. Someone taking three shifts to back out of a parking slot had him blocked. I zipped into the spot near the door, threw my stolen Handicapped tag on the dash and hustled on into the restaurant so that I would be standing in the back facing the door when he walked in.
A minute later, Alarcon came in and sized up the room. I followed his gaze to his left, my right. A diminutive man with a black cowboy hat stood up at a table by the wall. You see a lot of guys like him around tracks, mostly guys who never made it as jockeys. The man in the hat left something on his chair and walked past Alarcon without a word. Alarcon and I got to the table at the same time. I saw that the man in the black hat had left a manila envelope. Alarcon reached for it, too green to know just to take a seat and not draw attention to himself. He grabbed the envelope and turned right into me.
I flashed my Army Surplus gold badge so that only he could see it. “Have a seat,” I whispered.
He slumped into a chair. I took the seat opposite. I reached inside my coat, like a woman reaches to fix a loose bra strap, to show him my shoulder holster.
“How much did they pay you for the bump?”
He put his head in hands.
“How much?” I repeated, an edge to my voice.
I nodded. “You’re going to have some people mad at you, starting with the trainer you gave away.”
“He tol’ me I’d make easy money.”
“Easy if you did it right. You didn’t do it right. Too obvious. Something gets too obvious, people get upset.”
He licked his lips and sucked his tongue. That’s what my dad used to do before the booze killed him.
Even if this kid didn’t have a contract on him, he wasn’t going to make it in racing. Beer adds weight. And you can’t ride drunk. For a year or two, he might scrape by at bush tracks with rope rails that were off the radar screen from officialdom. He’d wind up broken from a fall with a long ride to the emergency room in the back of a pick-up truck and no one to pay the hospital bill.
As I stared at his chiseled Aztec features, I figured he was used to Mexican cops who got paid once by the state and twice by the crooks. I could probably lift the whole five grand off of him and tell him I’d forget the whole thing. No jail time. No arrest. No report to the Racing Commission. Divide $375 into five grand and it’s better than a year’s worth of rent. This kid was going to be dead soon enough. Even if the guy in the Cadillac missed him, he didn’t stand to live long, being a drunk around horses.
No, taking five grand might leave me feeling guilty. I didn’t need that. I’d only take six months rent which I’d earn with advice that could save his life. I motioned him forward with a nod.
“I’ll give you a break. I’m only going to take $2,500, but on one condition.”
He pulled back and looked at me expectantly.
I motioned him forward again. “If you promise to start driving for Mexico tonight, I won’t take the whole five thousand. The people who set up Brailback Guy to win may already be looking for you and when they find you, you’ll wind up either maldonado o muerto. Crippled or dead. Comprende?”
He sat back, sucking his tongue. He wanted that drink bad.
I leaned forward again. “The stewards are going to suspend you after that ride anyway so you won’t get shit these last two days of racing.”
He looked like he wasn’t ready to concede that. Poor kid. He had better start conceding a lot of stuff, starting with his beer jones and the fact that he was a marked man. But, then, how much more advanced would civilization be if we could all re-live our stupid youth?
“Don’t stop at Santa Anita. Don’t stop at Agua Caliente. Disappear. Vete.”
He leaned back and nodded. He thought he was fooling me.
“Go to the Men’s Room. Step inside a stall and count out twenty-five hundred for me. I’ll follow in a minute. Try not to look obvious.”
* * *
On the short drive home, I changed lanes back and forth on the freeway, glancing in the mirror each time to see if I was being followed. I licked my lips. After I got home and hid the money behind the tile next to my toilet, I’d go out and buy a quart of gin when I picked up tomorrow’s Racing Form at Lou’s Liquors. I needed to break one of those twenty-five C-notes anyway. When I had a good day at the track, I bragged a little to Lou. But I wouldn’t be bragging about this score. That would be too obvious.