His hands are the thing I notice first. The disparity of strength and frailty is alarming: perpetually curled, the man's long, slender fingers are a sharp contrast to the gnarled knuckles and calloused palm that graces mine when he nervously shakes my hand.
The man's face might not reveal the truth about his age, but his hands tell a whole different story.
His name is James Williams, and at 78 years old he still spends his mornings exercising Thoroughbred racehorses at the Fair Grounds. He doesn't ride big-name horses for big-name trainers, and the former jockey's name isn't likely be found in any record books; he might never be recognized for it, but Williams has given every ounce of his life to the sport he loves, for better or for worse.
“I had a lot of ups and downs, but I don't never give up though,” Williams tells me, the obvious pride causing his voice to break. “I still do it all. I love it, I'll never give it up. Sometimes I'll be singing to (the horses). Some of them really do understand me. I get along with them better than I get along with people.”
He has put on his best clothes for the big Saturday of racing at the Fair Grounds: well-worn dark jeans, a white button-down shirt and pin-striped vest. His salt-and-pepper hair could use a trim, though, and the dirt stains inside the collar and sleeve cuffs of his shirt say that he's owned it for quite some time.
“I don't wanna look like no bum,” he tells a friend stopping by his dorm room.
The friend smiles kindly, passing Williams a beer can, then addresses me.
“He's got more stories than a story has a story,” he said.
“And it's all true,” Williams retorts.
Williams is a heavy drinker, it seems, based on the not-so-subtle hints I got from trainers and friends when I asked about him. I met him in one of the 12 x 12-foot concrete rooms on the backside, a lifetime of possessions crammed into his half of the shared dorm space as best he could manage.
All these details pale in comparison to the way Williams smiles when he talks about the horses: joy reaches every single corner of his weathered face.
“They used to call me number one back in the day,” he said, grinning. “I got my eyes closed, I can see it all over again. It was one of the most wonderful times of my life.”
Williams rode races in Louisiana, Michigan and Illinois in the 1970s and '80s, a time when it wasn't popular to be a black jockey, especially up North. He remembers being told by one Chicago trainer in late 1974 that “it wasn't his time.”
Williams responded: “I'm gonna go where it is my time.”
Jefferson Downs re-opened at a new location in Louisiana in 1971, and Williams was, for a brief period, a bright star of the track in 1975. In his first week as an apprentice jockey there, Williams guided all 15 of his mounts to top-three finishes. Then, tragically, one of his pick-up mounts rammed into the wooden inner rail and sent Williams head-first into the ground. He suffered a punctured lung and several fractured ribs in one of his many riding accidents.
“It was the best, but it didn't last long,” he said, eyes glazing as his memories took over. Then he snapped back to the present, laughing again: “I lost out on the leading rider title, but at least I had it for a few days!”
A conversation with Williams is full of fascinating tidbits from racing's “wilder” days, from being placed second in a close finish of a race he was sure he'd actually won (that particular track had no finish line camera), to vibrant tales of jockeys' room fights over incidents both on and off the racetrack.
“You gotta be tough,” Williams explained. “If you show signs of weakness… If they get in your head, you'll be done. My temper was a little bad though, I ain't gonna lie. I had to grow out of that, it was getting too expensive (from fines from the stewards).”
Williams' earliest memories of the racetrack are from his days in grade school, when he would wake up in the mornings to hot walk horses around the shed row, then try to sneak back into his house before his mother woke up to find him gone. Sometimes he'd go to school after walking the horses, he said, but other times he'd go back to the racetrack.
“I was too young to bet, but I put on my trench coat and a hat like Rocky Balboa,” he recalled. “Then I'd put on a little fake mustache, some gold in my mouth. I had one teller lady I always went to. She always called me 'My little man.' I think she knew I was too young, but man, I had some good times.”
He remembers the exact amounts of his winnings, from his first two-dollar bet on a horse ridden by Larry Snyder that paid $100, to growing up and betting on his own mounts (via proxy). Sure, jockeys weren't supposed to bet on themselves, he said, but it helped make ends meet.
When he was too young to ride on the track (some states then required jockeys to be 21 before they were licensed), Williams rode in match races around Louisiana. At one point he won 49 in a row before an injury cut him off. When it came time to get his official license, though, Williams was exceptionally nervous. It was at the Fair Grounds, and he had to gallop a horse in front of the outriders and the clocker.
“There was a horse called That's The Babe, I used to walk him, rub him and everything, and I got close to him,” Williams recalled. “I was so anxious to gallop him that I forgot to tighten the saddle. The horse took care of me though. He was an old horse, about six or seven years old… So we're galloping, and it's going good, nice and smooth, but then I felt the saddle slipping as we approached the wire.
“I had my feet in the air and I'm underneath him, and he stopped… he knew what to do. I'm at the wire, trying to get my feet out of the irons, and he stood there patiently. I walked him back to the barn, explained what happened, and got back on him and everything went good that time. That was a wild experience.”
These days, Williams tries to be more careful about the horses he gallops in the mornings.
“You got good horses out there and bad horses out there, and good grooms and bad grooms, and good help and bad help,” he said. “I gotta pick the horses I get on, so I don't get on as many.”
That doesn't mean Williams doesn't still make mistakes, he explained, getting emotional. Several weeks ago, a filly he'd been galloping regularly had gotten hurt, and Williams believed it was his fault for asking her to go on when she'd been getting sour.
“It tore me up inside because I hurt her,” he said, admitting that he hadn't been able to do much in the mornings since she'd gotten hurt.
The last race he ever rode was in the early 1990s at Delta Downs. A self-proclaimed “sweat-box” jockey, Williams fell prey to a cheeseburger and French fries that afternoon and started getting cramps all up and down his legs.
Since that day, Williams resigned himself to galloping in the mornings. Sometimes there were periods when he left the track altogether, but he always found his way back to the horses and the sport he loves.
“It goes and comes, but I ain't giving up nothin',” he summarized.
As much as horse racing media focuses on the stories happening in the here and now, it's easy to forget about those people who laid the groundwork for where the game is today. If you look hard enough, most every track around the country has a “Jimmy” Williams.
Personally, I'm grateful for every single person who was ever brave enough to don a helmet and safety vest, then vault up onto a half-ton flight-animal, just for this sport we all love. I'm thankful to Jimmy for sharing his stories, and I hope they mean as much to you as they did to me.
Special thanks to trainer Jere Smith, who brought James Williams to the Paulick Report's attention.
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