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A Nostalgic Wonderland: Days at the Races

Off Campus | October 28, 2013

The next time you feel the Tufts bubble closing in around you, consider an outing beyond the typical Boston destinations. Stop dragging your feet across campus and head over to Suffolk Downs, where 1200-pound horses gallop gloriously at 40mph around a track of ten-inch deep sand. They thunder past you and the energy is infectious—both that of the horses and the fans who frequent the stadium on race days.

Located right on the Blue Line, one stop before Wonderland, Suffolk Downs is another world entirely. Dressed to the nines in your Sunday best, you’ll feel as lost as Alice as you wander down the quiet dusty road leading up to the stadium. As you enter the venue you’ll realize that you may as well be in Wonderland as you walk into a crowd of old men chortling together by the TV screens and betting machines in their Saturday sweats.

While some fans have been coming here for decades and clearly know how the betting ought to be done, anyone can place a wager for as little as two dollars. People cheer for horses with names like Moon over Parador and Good Humor in the same spirit as the fans who once came to watch Seabiscuit and Funny Cide, who raced here in the early days of the thoroughbred racetrack. The track, which opened in 1935, was built to accommodate tens of thousands of people, and as one gentleman who has been coming since the 1950s recalls, it was a special occasion back then. “This is what we did for entertainment. People would line up their beach chairs and make a day out of it.” Now that he is retired, he says, “I come every race day.”

Certainly, one may question whether these regulars who come four times a week are really coming to see the horses. Betting is big here, and when faces focus on the races—pursed lips and eyes squinting at the screens—the intensity across all visages adds a fascinating element to the otherwise rowdy dynamic.

But outside at the track is a thoroughly dramatic scene. While horses are the obvious stars here, it’s easy to miss the pint-sized jockeys on their backs—and even easier to overlook their essential role in all that goes on at the races. The constant training and dedication of a jockey are details to which most fans are oblivious. Janelle Campbell is a twenty-eight-year-old female rider, but her four-foot-eleven stature, bright copper hair, and constant smile evoke the energy of someone much younger. Janelle admits that she didn’t start riding until last year, which is unusually late for most jockeys.

“I never wanted to be a rider,” Campbell confesses. But she grew up with horses, and the responsibility of taking care of them. “My whole life, horse poop,” she laughs. She spent much of her life with her grandmother’s horses near her childhood home in Amesbury, exercising and grooming them, and performing them in shows. “I started from the bottom and I worked my way up to this point,” she says.

Campbell first started coming to the Downs at age eight to learn the ropes from her aunt, Tammi Piermarini—the only other jockey in the family, and third-ranked female jockey for all-time wins in the US.

Asked about the shows, Campbell explains, “You wear a three-piece suit, walk, trot, and canter around the ring and that’s about it…It’s who’s got the prettiest horse,” she laughs. But while traveling around to horse shows on weekends throughout high school, Janelle also earned her trainer’s license and learned to ride without any fancy schooling. While studying for two years at a small college in Newton, she practiced riding under her aunt’s guidance.

In 2001, Campbell starting working full-time at the racetrack as a pony rider, helping to warm up and guide the racehorse to the starting gate. Often, these ponies are retired racehorses, but Campbell rescued hers from a slaughterhouse. When she bought him, right off the van, she says: “He was in manure, a bag of bones.” Now, she recounts proudly, he’s “happy and fat, living life on the farm.” Since then, Campbell has found homes for a lot of horses.

Janelle Campbell felt content as a pony rider, but one day she was asked to dress up as a jockey and mock-race a horse, when she realized that, “Hey, this is kinda fun!”

But she has not forgotten where she comes from. Unlike jockeys who leave the upkeep to the trainers, Campbell enjoys spending her free time with horses. “I talk to them every morning,” she says. “I carry candy in my pockets. Every barn I go to, they all get it. They love peppermints. I go through five pounds a week.”

It’s no wonder, given that Suffolk Downs houses around 800 horses, with each horse racing only once every two weeks. The grounds are so expansive that most fans neither notice the stables located far from the racetrack—where Campbell spends all this time—nor could they guess all that goes on here.

Every day, she rises at 4:30, in order to arrive at the barns by 5:30. From 6:00 to 10:00, she and the other jockeys get on whatever horses the trainers want to warm up, so depending on the day, she could nine horses or none at all.

After the daily training, she and the other jockeys head to the jockey room for lunch and an hour-long nap. “I always get my nap,” she says. She is very serious. “I love my nap, can’t live without it. All the girls nap.”

It sounds like a nice life.

“Easy,” she agrees, but is quick to emphasize the physical stress that she experiences on the track. At the beginning of a race, the horse is fired up. But “from the quarter pull home, when you’re pushing the horse home, that’s the hard part,” Campbell explains. It’s the horse’s 1200 pounds against her 100. “The last stretch of the race. You drive ‘em; when they stride out you push ‘em. You push on their neck and help them go forward. They get tired and you want to keep their momentum going. It’s like cheering someone on: ‘Come on, you can do it!’”

Jockeys bear the intense pressure of having to drive home a racehorse while also remaining vigilant of the track, but Campbell worries less about horses speeding along her path than she does about other cars on the road. “You can tell what horses think,” she explains. “You watch their ears. You see everything, see the horses next to you, in front of you. But you watch their ears. When the horse is running and the ears are up, you be cautious because [the horse] could just start slowing down and put the breaks on. [Horses] are more alert when they’ve got their game faces on: the ears are flat back and they’re running.”

Knowing the horse like this takes time, and Campbell emphasizes the importance of practice. Jockeys aren’t paid for training hours, but these morning hours are essential. Campbell shares a locker room with the four other female jockeys, one of whom is her aunt. She herself isn’t competitive with them, but among all the jockeys, “there’s always drama in the colony.”

“We’re one family,” she says. “I’ve grown up with all these people; you know everybody. We call it ‘As the Racetrack Turns’—it’s like a giant soap opera, sometimes like high school. New girls would show up, and it’s all ‘I don’t like that girl,’ or ‘Why’d you do that to my horse,’ you know.”

Often, competition is bred from the biggest struggle of most jockeys: maintaining a very low body weight. Luckily, Janelle is one of the only jockeys she knows of who doesn’t have to worry about this at all. Everyone on her mother’s side is naturally tiny. She eats whatever she wants, and at 99lbs, she even has to fill her saddle with packs of lead in order to meet the 124lb requirement.

This standard applies to both men and women jockeys, and although they compete in the same races, women are a minority on the track. “It’s never been equal,” Campbell says. “It’s starting to, maybe now, but it wasn’t.” When her aunt started racing in 1984, there weren’t many female riders around. “Nowadays? You have to be a strong woman. That’s about it.”

Despite their competitive drive, the jockeys celebrate each other’s successes. They’ve all been in the same place, before the race, and as Janelle describes it: “You get that pit in your stomach, dry mouth, and you’re so excited.”

When the bell sounds, that excitement translates to power, precision, and speed. The jockey-horse teams fly by in all their dusty majesty, invigorating the crowd with their adrenaline. Everyone watches as they make their one-mile loop around the track, eyes tracking them in the distance, but a minute and a half later, it’s over. There’s a while until the next race, but until then, the ins-and-outs of Suffolk Downs are just as entertaining. There is tremendous opportunity for betting and people-watching, or simply breathing in the unparalleled combination of dust, fried food, and manure in the distance and imagining the days when such events were more popular than television.