The Neighborhood Story Project takes it to the track

The Neighborhood Story Project strikes again, this time bringing us open letters from the men and women responsible for the behind-the-scenes ballet that facilitates a bunch of faster-than-normal horses carrying smaller-than-normal people to run around a dirt track for spectators who gamble and gasp at photograph finishes.

The newest NSP exhibition will be on display at the paddock area of the New Orleans Racetrack in Mid-City, 1751 Gentilly Boulevard, beginning with an opening soiree this Wednesday, March 23, from 6 – 9 p.m. The exhibition will feature letters and images by jockeys, trainers, grooms, hotwalkers, veterinarians and track employees, accompanied by photos by Aubrey Edwards. It will include handmade letter boxes with copies of the letters that can be taken home to read more about the months of work and planning that go into creating the racing glory that lasts less than two minutes.

The event will feature light hors d’oeuvres and a cash bar with proceeds benefiting the NSP. Below is an example of an open letter from the project. I hope to see you at the reception.

Matin Brown, jockey

Hey sis-

Mother always said no news is good news. The only thing I would send was a money order wrapped up in a clean sheet of paper, with nothing written. That meant everything was good.

Even though we talk three or four times a week, I am writing you today. There is still no bad news, just something different to let you know that I love you, and explain to you about the life Ronald and I have lived on the track.

I am reaching the age of retirement, but where do I draw the line? I love the horses, and although you keep telling me about retirement, I keep saying, “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” I don’t know how to say “I quit.”

I think God is with me. I’ve had a lot of broken bones in the last six years. But I keep getting up, dusting off, and getting back on. And when I get back on I remember that rush, and the challenge. The battle feeling that warriors get. The adrenaline blocks out everything, the dirt clods on your face, the wind in your ears. You are waiting for the right moment, your horse is waiting for the command, and your heart is as big as a beach ball.

I remember how skeptical you were when I decided to get back out there as a jockey, at age 62. Your fear was that I wouldn’t be able to compete with those young riders, forty years younger, and I would hurt myself trying. I felt like I was fit enough, and I was wiser. God gives you youth and he gives you wisdom, but he doesn’t give them to you at the same time.

When it comes to retirement, you are pretty much like I am, don’t know how to say “quit.” You’ve been wanting to retire for two years, but you go on being a doctor at Howard University. We’re doing the same thing. We love our jobs, and the jobs are also a measure of how far we’ve come.

With our mother and father out of the picture, I think we both grew up a little financially insecure. We never got a chance to have a lot of things that our cousins had, and we took that as a pain. That pain made us stronger, but it also has kept us more devoted to our jobs, because we took them as a measure.

We’ve come a long way. You’ve made it to be a doctor, and Ronald and I made it as jockeys, and have developed businesses for ourselves in the racing industry.

I followed Ronald into the racing world. I first got up on quarter horses in match races when I was eight years old and fifty-four pounds. For eight years, I dominated the Lafayette, Lake Charles, Ville Plate, New Iberia, anywhere in the state of Louisiana they had a race track, I was there. Tracks at the end of dirt roads, way in the country. Cars parked on one end, one horse on each side of the ditch. No gates. Turn and burn.

You were always at home, you and Dorothy, and I would come back with what felt like big money, two or three dollars. I was winning ninety percent of the races, at least in my mind.

When I was seventeen, I started to get to be too heavy for the quarter horses, getting up to 95 pounds. The younger, lighter 55 pound jockeys were pushing me out the way I had pushed out Ronald, and Paul Darjean and Larry Freeman when I was 10 years old.

When I made seventeen, in 1962, I wasn’t getting many mounts, so I thought I could get my thorough bred jockey’s license in New Orleans. I caught a ride back with Ronald after he visited, and I went to work galloping and rubbing four for Larry Robideaux for forty dollars a week.

I had ridden for Larry’s father in Opelousas, and I had it in mind to become the famous  jockey that I had been, but I needed a contract holder to become a jockey. A jockey needed a trainer with three or more horses to take his contract to get a license. Ronald and Paul had been before the stewards to see about a license, but they were told, “Forget about it. Those white riders are not going to let you in. You’re just looking for trouble.”

When the Fair Grounds ended in 1963, I went to work with Clifford Scott, the famous black trainer,  as he pulled out for Chicago. I was a hotwalker and an exercise rider for him, still hoping to be a jockey. But when I got to Chicago and it was the same story, no black jockeys.

When I came back to the Fair Grounds, I went to work for trainer Jere R. Smith, exercising horses. In 1967 I was the exercise rider for Ask the Fare. He was easy, well-mannered, and had a lot of sense. In the Louisiana Derby he laid back and came running down the lane, beating Diplomat Way by a head.

With a win in the Louisiana Derby, we were on our way to Louisville. I was exercising him one morning when the reporter came by, and saw how well we worked together, and wanted to know why I wasn’t a jockey? I told him I had tried, but there was no chance of me being a black jockey. So then he got to telling me about Isaac Murphy, the greatest jockey of all time and the long history of black jockeys.  I had the Kentucky Derby looming, and Ask the Fare finished fifth, but that conversation inspired research, and soon I was back dreaming of being a jockey again.

In 1968 I got Jere Smith to take my contract, and I had my first mount, Lady Quillette, at the Detroit Race Course, and I finished back, fifth or sixth.

From there, I was jockey. I could have stayed on as an apprentice, five pounds lighter, but I waived the bug (the five pounds) so I could ride for anyone, and I started making the circuit, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans.

It took me a while to get steady business. In Chicago there was still some resistance to black jockeys, and it took my Louisiana connections to break through. Trainer Spanky Broussard named me on Doorstep Waif, in May of 1971, and the stewards called him into their office, asking him, “Are you sure you want to name Martin Brown for this horse?” After the third asking, he replied, “I believe Mr. Lincoln ended slavery days,” and walked out of their office.

I rode, and Doorstep Waif won, my first victory in Chicago.

I rode on through the seventies, some years better than others, some tracks better for my style. I took advantage of the sharp turns at Sportsman’s Park in Chicago, my lack of fear helping my horses home quicker. I had never been scraped up off the track then, and I had no fear.

I found a bit of fear in 1976 when I hit the ground face first when my mount broke both front legs. Then in 1980 I was working a horse for Wilbert in the morning at Delta, when my saddle turned and I was hanging on his neck for few strides, before I was under his feet, and he stepped on my chest, injuring my collarbone.

You know the rest- the twenty-five years of pony-riding at Evangeline, and then teaching  and training Cherell how to ride and training myself back into jockey condition at the same time. And when we split up, I found myself light enough to ride again.

I said there wasn’t any bad news in the letter, so I’ll go light with news about Ronald. You know what’s going on in his life. There is no light news. It is what it is. He’s had the triple bypass, lung cancer, blockage, he’s had it all, but he’s a fighter, and he’s not a quitter. Because if he was a quitter, he would have quit drinking. But he feeds my horses when I am in New Orleans. He’s not as fast as he used to be, but then again, neither am I. We get there.

I guess God’s going to tell us when to get out. I don’t know why we are hanging on to our jobs. I have my place in Opelousas, 18 acres, six horses, and the rent man can never put me out. And I know the same is true for you- a home in Houston, and a condo in Washington.

When you live to be this old, and been all-around the country, and seen the things I’ve seen, it makes you believe in almighty power. This last year I’ve been more focused on my relationship with God, and all he has given me. I’ve been trying to give back, making rosaries and trying to promote the word of God. I am sending another thirty rosaries with this letter.

I said at the beginning no news was good news, but I’ve sent a lot of news, and most of it was good. I’ve made it this far, and that feels like a win.

Love always,

Your brother