Rockingham Again: a piece by Jim Gath

Jim Gath: Tierra Madre Horse Sanctuary, Cave Creek, AZ


Jim Gath, founder of this sanctuary, writes the most touching, goose-bumpy best pieces I’ve ever read.  About his horses that he’s rescued, about life, about everything.  His writing style will capture your attention and you’ll just crave more.  You will.   Jim was a co-founder of USA Today, left that life, had a rocky road that led him back to the horse.  He’s a published author of books that are so excellent, I stay up until the wee hours to finish.  I will write more about him later (and publish some other pieces he wrote).  Meanwhile, look him up.  You can follow his page on Facebook, Tierre Madre Horse Sanctuary, one of the best.  His horses are his soul mates, and vice-versa.  I could describe him forever, but get on Facebook and “like” that page; visit/volunteer if you live in that area, and donate to them if you can. Worthy. More than Worthy.  And, yes, I am promoting the hell out of this place, what they do and how they do it.  Scroll down to read his piece on Rockingham Park closing… (Yes, I have his permission!) And, see way down for another piece of writing on California Chrome by Jim…


June 21, 1906 – August 31, 2016.

The Rock dies today.

Rockingham Park.

Salem, New Hampshire.

In its day – back in days of yore – Rockingham Park was one of the finest racetracks in the nation. Beautiful setting. Beautiful horses. Beautiful people.

My uncle – Johnny Jaekle – rode there back in its heyday, in the late 1930s. He was leading rider there several times. He rode the circuit – the Rock & Suffolk Downs & Laurel & Havre de Grace in the spring, summer & fall & Tropical Park & Gulfstream Park during the winter. And his father – my Grandpa Jake – was with him a lot of the time. And, of all those tracks, Grandpa Jake always said Rockingham was his favorite.

And when I was a kid – in my early- to mid-teens, in the mid-1960s – I learned to love the Rock just like they did.

We went there every year – Grandpa Jake & Mom & my sister Jean & Uncle Dale & Aunt Jeanne & cousin Diane (Uncle Johnny died in 1953) – & we all looked forward to it like nothing else, other than our annual sojourn to Saratoga.

Dale & Jeanne had about three horses during that time – Blenscope & Nita Dee & State Offense. Somewhere along in there, Nita Dee bowed a tendon & became a brood mare. But Blenscope & State Offense were there & were trained by an older gentleman by the name of Bill Daly (we kids called him ‘Uncle Bill’ – it’s a racetrack thing). And, by ‘gentleman’, I mean exactly that: one of those gentlemen who always tipped his hat & opened doors & put everyone else’s needs before his; he always wore a white dress shirt, just like Grandpa Jake always did.

Whenever we visited the Rock, we always had breakfast at the track kitchen, along with all the trainers, jocks, exercise riders & general all-around racetrack folk. Usually, Jean wore one of the guys’ riding helmets & Diane would wear Jeanne & Dale’s racing silks. The air smelled of bacon & eggs & potatoes & Absorbine Sr. (horse linament). Grandpa Jake was always “on the ear” – meaning that he was always trying to pick up some morsel of gold about a horse that was running that day, to perhaps increase his odds of winning a ten-dollar wager. There was a lot of laughter & kidding around & guys yelling good-naturedly at each other from across the room.

It was magic.

My favorite time of day, though, was during the races.

See, at that time, you had to be 21 years old to get into the track, meaning that Jean & Diane & I had to be parked somewhere while all the grown-ups got to go through the turnstiles. So, the backstretch became our babysitter.

Uncle Bill Daly would turn us over to one of the guys that worked for him: “Watch these kids, okay? And don’t let ‘em get into trouble & don’t let ‘em get hurt.” Our folks never worried at all. After all, this was the backstretch & everybody looked out for each other like we were all part of one big family.

We’d wash wraps & bandages & visit with the horses on the shedrows & brush them & groom them & all of that – the ones that weren’t too obstreperous, that is. We’d saddle-soap the saddles & bridles & polish the stirrups & rake the hay & the poop & just generally make nuisances of ourselves wherever & whenever we could. We’d get as excited as anything when one of the neighboring horses would be getting ready for a race, though we knew enough to stand the hell back & let the professionals do what they had to do.

It was during those long afternoons that I experienced some of the very greatest excitement that I’ve ever known.

See, I’d walk to the outside rail all by myself & stand up against it with my hands on the fence – right on the last turn, where the horses would turn for home – just before every race. And I could tell – could actually see a little – as they were making their way down the backside. And I’d get ready.

And, then – all of a sudden – coming out of the stretch & into the turn – a herd of horses, all going about 35 miles an hour – would head straight for me. And, in a couple of split seconds, would be flying past me no more than thirty feet away. And the ground would shake. And the thunder not only filled my ears, but I could feel it in my chest, in my whole body. It took my breath away. It was thunder & lightning. And I was the only one in the entire world to experience it right that way right at that moment.

As they flashed past me, every jock would begin to scream at the top of his lungs – something you never, ever see or hear unless you’re right there. And, in half a second, they’d be past me, entering the stretch. And the crowd in the grandstand & clubhouse would begin to roar – & it was a sound like an on-coming train. One that grew louder & louder as the horses approached the line.

And then it would be over.

Until the next race.

A couple of minute after the race, a car would drive all the way around the outside of the track &, from four different stewards’ stations, would retrieve canvas sacks that swooped down metal cables. Those sacks held the film (this was even before videotape!) of the race. The films would be rushed to the head steward’s office & would be viewed if any jock complained about anything untoward that had happened during the race before the race became official.

Watching those races from that perspective & feeling those feelings I had during them are emotions that will be with me until my very last breath. I only wish everybody could feel what I felt. If the gods of racing would only do what I did & feel what I felt, maybe they’d be smart enough to put seating along the outside & inside rails on the last turn & put a whole lot of people up close & personal with what racing is really all about: that kind of thunder & lightning that can be experienced nowhere else on earth.

And, now, the Rock is but a long-lost dream.

The very final race – ever – at that track is probably going off right about now.

And, just maybe, some teenaged kid is standing at the outside rail on the last turn at Rockingham Park right this very minute & will experience something magical. Something magical that has happened nine or ten times a day, each & every summer, for 110 years.

I hope so.

I really, really do.

Goodbye, Rock.

It was wonderful knowing you.

2 thoughts on “Rockingham Again: a piece by Jim Gath

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