Bush Track Diaries: The rubber bit episode

HN racing editor Heather Benson kicks off her “Bush Track” series with a story about a wronged trainer who, instead of getting mad, decided to get even.

From Heather:

While most perceive horse racing to be the “sport of kings,” racing in some locales in better described as the “recreation for rascals.”The bush tracks of horse racing’s backwaters, places like the Dakotas, Montana, Wyoming and Nebraska, offer some of the best stories of horses, horsemen and the games they play.And like big fish stories, racing stories tend to morph into legends over time.Here are a few in circulation (names and places have been changed to protect the innocent and not-so-innocent alike!)

The Rubber Bit Episode

Racing on the bush track circuit is not for those who want to get rich quick, or ever, really. While horses at tracks like Churchill Downs or Santa Anita Park run for purses worth tens of thousands of dollars, horses on the bullring (that is tiny, half-mile tracks that populate the bush tracks) run for purses that are sometimes as little as $1,200… and that amount has to be divided between the first 5 finishers!

The homestretch at the Ft. Pierre, SD bush track.  That inside rail?  It's a piece of PVC strung across the middle of the rodeo arena.

The homestretch at the Ft. Pierre, SD bush track. That inside rail? It’s a piece of PVC strung across the middle of the rodeo arena.

To make matters worse, jockeys on these tracks get just a small ride fee and then an even smaller percentage of the winning purse.And, in the not so distant past, most of the bush tracks operated without modern conveniences like instant replay video.And so, for a $50 bill here or there, a jockey could sometimes be persuaded to throw a race. Without video to back it up, proving they did it was more than a little difficult, leaving trainers and owners with grievances to often take matters into their own hands.

At a little track in Montana, a well-known trainer was suffering from just such an occurrence.One of his best horses, and favorite in his race, had been “stiffed” the weekend before by the jockey he had put on.“Stiffing” is the trackside term for pulling the horse back so he loses momentum and most likely the race.

Crossing the wire at Ft. Pierre...rodeo arena and all!

Crossing the wire at Ft. Pierre… rodeo arena and all!

The next week, this trainer figured revenge was a dish best served not so much cold, but white hot and fast.He entered the same horse and named the same jockey to ride, the one who had cheated him the week before.He then rigged his horse’s snaffle bit with a heavy rubber band linking the two bars of the bit.As long as the rider rode normally all was well; but when a rider pulled back hard on the reins, the band simply stretched and stretched and stretched.Thus leaving the hapless (and let’s not forget, cheating) jockey with little more than a thin piece of rubber to guide the horse by, much less try to stop him.

Horse and rider trotted onto the track, with the jockey oblivious of his predicament.They entered the starting gate and as expected, the once-more favored horse set out for the lead.Full of steam into the first turn and mostly out of sight of the track stewards in the tower, the jockey reached down and attempted the stiff the horse once again.  The reins just pulled back and back and back, no resistance… the D-ring of the bit was practically by the horse’s ears!By the time they came out of the turn, the luckless jockey was practically standing in his stirrups, realizing just how perilous his situation was. 

The bit just keep stretching and the horse wasn't stopping!  (Cartoon by Dale Simanton)

The bit just keep stretching and the horse wasn’t stopping! (Cartoon by Dale Simanton)

They finished well in front, as expected from a big favorite.And lucky for the jockey, the horse was an old pro who took his turns and pulled himself up without added guidance from the now power steering-free rider. A lesson well-learned in the age before videos and steward’s fines had the trainers’ backs!

Heather Benson is a former racetrack executive, professional handicapping analyst and owner of a Triple Crown winner (well, at least a horse that played one in a movie). But far more importantly, she is a is still that girl who gets giddy when the starting gate opens and cries every time she watches a replay of Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes. Join her each month as she takes you on a journey through the world of horse racing, from top to bottom, with a little bit of everything in between! Heather also operates Back Forty Media and Marketing, a full service marketing firm focusing on telling story of equine ventures around the country. Go to her website for more info and to follow her on Facebook at www.backfortymarketing.com.


“Me and my ‘Triple Crown winner,’ a.k.a. Cyclone Larry, taken at the North Dakota Horse Park in 2009. He was a racing prospect I owned that failed utterly as a racehorse but was cast in the role of ‘Secretariat’ in the 2010 Disney movie by the same name.”


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