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Look at any text on racing, from news articles or history books, and a set of names keep appearing such as Desormeaux, Delahoussaye, Romero, Bernis, Delhomme, Albarado, and Borel. In his new book, Cajun Racing, New York Newsday sports editor Ed McNamara writes about these famous families from Louisiana and how they have become a force in North American thoroughbred racing. Their Wild-West approach to the game and their historical skill as horsemen brought on a tradition of racing success that continues to this day, even as their original testing grounds, the unsanctioned bush tracks, disappear.
The result of about 2 years of research including frequent visits to Cajun country around Lafayette, Louisiana, McNamara talks about a remarkably resilient people with a passion for racing and an unmatched touch with racehorses. The bush track was the center of attention where match races were held and became the breeding ground for dreams and great careers. It was at these tracks where famous jockeys such as Randy Romero and Kent Desormeaux learned their craft. The race distances were short, the horses ran in lanes, and the rules were simple, first horse to the line wins. With that in mind, Cajun creativity knew no bounds in trying to gain an edge. One of the simplest ways to gain an advantage was to reduce the weight carried by the horse, and an easy solution was to use jockeys as young as 5 years old, tying their feet to the saddle to keep them from falling off. If that wasn't light enough, a horse might race with a monkey, a rooster, or with no jockey at all. One track owner had his horse's lane scraped and rolled hard while the other lane was harrowed deep, giving his horse a much faster surface to race on and a new meaning to the term "track bias".
Family ties are everywhere in Cajun country, with fathers schooling sons from sunup to sundown, and then brothers battled each other in those match races, as owners and as jockeys. Despite the fierce competition and often shady tactics employed, in the end winners and losers always remained friends. Although the betting handle was often large, Kent Desormeaux said that the bush tracks "were not about gambling. They were about this guy has a horse and another guy has a horse and they want to prove which is faster. Up at Saratoga those wealthy owners basically are doing the same thing." Having conquered the bush tracks, many of these horsemen moved up to officially sanctioned Thoroughbred races, and in Lafayette this meant Evangeline Downs. Almost all of the Cajun jockeys that grace the entries at tracks across America got their start at this venerable oval, using those winning skills learned as young boys in the bushes. The stretch run of the 2007 Preakness, with Robby Albarado aboard Curlin nosing out Calvin Borel aboard Street Sense, was an example of Cajun riding at its best, a Triple Crown race reduced to a Cajun bush track match race at the end.
However, in recent years the bush tracks have slowly disappeared with the 2007 leading apprentice jockey Joe Talamo, although not from Cajun country, earning his first win at the last of the bush tracks, The Quarter Pole in Rayne. There is concern among some that the tradition of great jockeys from Cajun country may go away with them. When a number of jockeys were invited "home" for the inaugural Cajun Jockey Challenge, they were treated to the hero's welcome they deserved, but while approaching the current Evangeline Downs they saw their old home destroyed, as bulldozers tore down the original Evangeline grandstand, where these men got their first official victories. Thankfully a local owner bought up the property and, although much of the original grounds will be developed, the track itself will remain as a training center with stall space for 1,000 racehorses.
Fans of racing history will enjoy Cajun Racing, a wild ride to Cajun Country where there's "a lot of character and a lot of characters." Besides great stories and lots of fun, this horse-centered area produced more world-class riders per capita than any place on Earth, as well as great trainers, and after reading McNamara's work it is easy to understand why.
Cajun Racing has a list price of $24.95 and is available from Amazon.com for $18.21.
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