Red Smith, the famous New York sports columnist, described the directions to the historic Saratoga Race Course in upper state New York this way: "Take the 87 north from New York City, drive past Albany, turn right on Union Avenue, and go back 100 years."
The Humboldt County Fairgrounds in Ferndale may not have the same international horse racing fame as Saratoga, but on a smaller scale, walking into the old wooden grandstand area and sensing the excitement of the opening of the race meet is also a step back in time.
The Humboldt County Fair prospered in the early years around the beginning of the 20th century. It followed local racing traditions of the Eel River Jockey Club in Rohnerville, where the backstretch is now just a street called Brandy Lane and trotters and pacers raced in Sulky's at a time of an even earlier yesteryear.
Smaller gambling outlets also dotted the area in the golden age, some recognized, some not – a makeshift racetrack in Hydesville, a cock fighting venue on Centerville Road, and card games far and wide on Friday nights.
Of course, the Ferndale Racetrack is just Ferndale, not Saratoga or Del Mar, but to the residents of Humboldt County, it has long been our slice of Americana.
Since 1935 there have been ongoing attempts to maintain the perimeter of the Ferndale racecourse to allow the charm of bygone eras to endure. Every year enough people are lured there for two frantic weekends in the dog days of August to allow the place to survive for at least another year.
The racetrack has everything needed for a casual racing fan: a fair for the kids to wander off to, racing mules, thoroughbreds that still have a chance to win at age 12 (horses, in other words, that can run a little bit), small-town politics between the Humboldt County Fair Board and the Ferndale Enterprise, and corndogs.
An ethical bunch of horsemen choose to pick up their tack and stock and drive north or south to this backstretch for a few days, a life where the Sport of Kings is simply unending work with an occasional flight uptown to a hideaway called The Palace.
Melanie McDonald is a hard-working, small-time trainer who owns a few horses. On the early morning backstretch at Santa Rosa last month, she reminisced about the Humboldt County Fair races with a drawl of melancholy in her voice: "I don't know if I have any horses to bring up to Ferndale this year since I don't have one for the Humboldt County Marathon — my favorite race at my favorite race track."
McDonald is an astute, seasoned horsewoman, having claimed a horse for $4,000 in Sacramento two years back and shipped him here to win the marathon. She won the marathon — the final race of the meet — last year too, with her only winning thoroughbred of the year.
Barrington Harvey is an honest and reliable journeyman jockey who has been a lifer around the racetrack stables. Born and raised in Jamaica, he began racing at the age of 16 and moved his tack to the East Coast in 1987 to try to hit the big time. Now, at 52, he still works horses in the morning and takes mounts on anything he can in the afternoon.
He is colorful, popular and lives the life of a self-made nomad; he needs no handouts living a tough life existing in his own element; he works hard and keeps his weight down by exercise, not sweatboxes; and every summer he is lured back, hoping to get a decent horse to ride in the Humboldt County Marathon, a race he has mastered in the past.
As one story goes, since the horses pass the finish line four times in the big race — the Marathon — some jocks have been known to put four peas in his or her mouth and spit one out each time passing the grandstands to remember how many laps are left. Barrington Harvey doesn't like to use an agent like most jockeys, he would rather take less mounts and do it himself. He travels light and packs no peas in his duffle bag.
Class reunions are timed around the horse races. Friends meet; longshot seekers wander in, everyone puts a few bucks down on front running favorites that win at an unusually high percentage on all the bullring tracks like Ferndale. Patrons cash all their winning bets at the end of the day and wonder how they lost money.
Groups of gamblers at other racetracks rely on the little guys at Ferndale to drink too much beer and bet the favorites down. The home track relies on the money gambled at off-track sites even more.
Maybe Americans are still drawn to the roots of our country, the idealized way of small-town life in days long gone. Our country made big strides before the Depression and World War II to accept others as part of the mosaic of society, to bask in the tossed salad that we had become instead of an idealized "melting pot" of cultures that our forbearers imagined. Maybe Americans really long for that acceptance of diversity.
To me, the racetrack has always felt like a place that has more equality than other sports. Back in the late 1800s, the children of former slaves won the Kentucky Derby many times before being banned. Women have unique equal rights in the sport, as a female jockey with good hands can often outride a more aggressive male. In the biggest twist of sports culture, the smallest of men are the heroes and stars of the sport. It's a game, and it's a sport; but it binds us together as the culturally diverse crowd roars in unison as the horses turn for home.
Picture a perfect day at the track, winning most of the races — not all of them, but almost. Finish the day with a big hit on an exotic wager like the Pick 4. The day is over and the winners mingle under the grandstands, reveling together before drifting uptown to the watering holes and dining establishments where the day never quite ends. You can hear the clinking of whisky glasses into the din of the evening even from the outside of the Victorian facades, the chatter of the tales of the day's triumphs and tragedies.
These aren't the days of young men out driving around the back country roads with a fishing pole and tossing Pabst Blue Ribbon beer cans off the back of flatbed trucks, or a Sunday morning church social, or the drive-in theater, or couples dancing past midnight to a soft jazz band or jukebox at the dinner club. But the Humboldt County Fair is a close second by a photo.
Saratoga and Del Mar are two of my favorite places on earth, but somehow in August I'd still rather be at the historic little racetrack in the historic little town where I grew up. The smell of a cigar always triggers memories: Gaining entrance to the races as a kid by climbing the fence between the Ferndale football field and the far side stables; the sandwiches from the booth under the grandstands smothered with a simple mustard and mayonnaise spread; the two lady ushers upstairs, one tall, one short, both dressed in red, white and blue, who ushered us kids out of the reserved box seats; and my first big winning score, a $2 exacta that paid $749 in the summer of 1973 just before my senior year at Ferndale High.
My lifelong love affair with horse racing began here. My first love. These are the good old days. Hope to see you at the races this weekend, 100 years ago.
Rod Kausen is a Fortuna High School teacher and coach and a longtime horse race enthusiast.
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