At at Cajun Brush Track, you bet your life.

Jockeys ride between the rails at Carencro. It was a tradition that lasted more than two hundred years.
Jockeys ride between the rails at Carencro. It was a tradition that lasted more than two hundred years.

I REMEMBER THE CAJUN BRUSH TRACK at Carencro during its glory days.

I remember the Cajun brush track at Carencro when it existed.

It’s not there anymore.

***

It is early on a Sunday morning, and Johnny M. is leading Hit Man toward the trees on the near side of the track.

Hit Man doesn’t look like a racehorse.

He isn’t one.

But he runs races.

Nobody knows now many times he’s won, if he’s won at all, or even how many times he’s run, and nobody cares.

He’s horseflesh, and that’s good enough for the Cajun crowd gathering around and eating boudin blood sausages for breakfast.

Hit Man is a big brown horse with two white stockings and a slash of white above his glazed eyes, has a bloodline, but it came from nowhere and that’s where it’s headed again, and that’s where it belongs.

“He ain’t no quarter horse,” says Johnny M., the owner “He’s just a two-bit horse.”

“Who are you running him against?” I ask.

“Anybody that’s got twenty-five dollars.” Johnny M. shrugs. “If I lose, he can either have the twenty-five bucks or the horse.”

“Well, maybe you can keep the horse.”

“I’d rather have the twenty-five bucks.”

Hit Man’s not his real name.

Most times, he’s called George, or Sumbitch, or Damned Sumbitch, but that’s when he’s plowing, and that’s usually where he is, except the Sundays he’s tainted, shot full of “speed.”

When he’s tainted, he runs at Carencro.

Carencro was a Cajun brush track, tucked back beneath the gnarled old live oak trees of South Louisiana about six miles north of Lafayette. Its ground was littered with beer cans, pop tops, empty trash barrels, and boudin-bellied Cajuns, the hardest drinking, hardest living bunch of folks to ever suck the salty juice from a crawfish head.

At Carencro there were two tracks. One was oval and conventional. In the other, horses ran between the rails just as they had been doing for almost two hundred years. The wooden rails, crooked and splintered and badly weathered, separated the dirt lanes and therefore the horses.

The rails kept the horses from veering into each other and the jockeys from fighting, neither of which was particularly illegal.

Johnny M. explains, “Here you can run a horse with a whistle, run him with a whip, run him with a buzzer, or run him with a needle. If you don’t, and you lose, then, my friend, it’s your own damn fault.”

At the brush track, you would find thoroughbreds, quarter horses, Shetland ponies, and plow horses like Hit Man. The Cajuns don’t care whether the animals run, lope, trot, or gallop, just as long as they’re out on the track and generally all going in the same direction

The horses give them a reason to gamble.

At Carencro, the gambling is homespun – from one hand to another. As I’m told, “If you like to bet, you better damn sure like to pay off. The loser looks up the winner.”

Or the winner waits for the loser in the parking lot.

That’s when they bet on who’ll win the fight.

Louis Cormier, part owner of the track, tells me, “Cajuns first bet on the winner. Then when the gates open, they start betting on daylight – whether or not you can see daylight between the first two horses at the finish line. Give them a chance, and they’ll bet on which horse drops dead first, or which jockey will fall off, or even the number of belches in a bottle of beer.”

The crowd elbows its way around the starting line just so the gamblers, everyone at the starting line, can bet on daylight.

Only one man stands alone at the finish line. He’s the judge. His word is law.

The Cajuns curse him and disown him and won’t speak to him for weeks at a time.

But no one steps forward to replace him.

Hands on knees, he watches Hit Man break the barrier first.

Johnny M. is all beer stains and grins. “We won that sonuvabitch hands down,” he yells. “All they saw was a big old chestnut behind.”

Hit Man had been a brown plow horse until he won.

Now he’s a chestnut.

Johnny M. takes his twenty-five dollars from the loser and hands his jockey ten bucks.

I turn to Johnny M. “You gonna be back?”

“Damn straight.”

“Hit Man gonna run next week?”

“Hit Man gonna be too tired” He shrugs. “I got a garden to put in next week.”

Glory fades fast at Carencro.

Fame would, too.

But fame doesn’t hang around the Cajun brush track for a long time, and nobody expected it back.

Nobody missed it when it left the first time.

George was too busy plowing to know it had gone.

Caleb Pirtle III is the author of Deadline News.

 

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  • Caleb Pirtle

    When the last horse ran at Carencro, a great American and South Louisiana tradition rode away into the sunset. I miss the brush tracks. No. I miss the Cajuns who came to the brush tracks and bet their lives.

  • Sounds like a male preserve – thanks for the inside view.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      As I recall, Alicia, not a lot of women showed up. In fact, i can’t think of one. Women are smarter to do what we do at places like this.

      • At family gatherings, the women sit together and talk women things. The men talk men things. I’ve tried standing with the guys – both sides can be equally boring.

        But then that’s not why you go to family gatherings, is it? It is still reconnecting. Necessary for social fabric.

      • reorderone

        although I was a little kid at the time i was well aware that there were two kinds of ladies; the ” nice ones’ and the ” not nice ones” as my cajun father would say. The ‘not nice ones” would be the ones who went to bars or brush tracks. LOL

        • Caleb Pirtle

          You know South Louisiana and the brush tracks well. I do miss the Cajun horse races at Carencro. Civilization robbed us again.

  • jack43

    I grew up in horse country. No not Tennessee. Maryland. Yeah, that Maryland. I had friends. One’s father was a member of a syndicate that owned thoroughbreds. That earned me a ticket to the backyards of Pimlico. Another owned a race car garage near the Marlborough race track which got us close enough to harness racing that we could sneak in and enjoy the show. However, it wasn’t until I visited the county fair grounds at Timonium that I was introduced to quarter horse racing. Imagine my surprise when I discovered that parimutuel betting only focused on the winners. The real action, in the stands, were the side bets on which horses would make it out of the gate with their jockeys. Quarter horses are the drag racers of horse racing. The leap out of the gate with a ferocity that leaves some jockeys sitting on the ground wondering where their saddle went.I loved it…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      I’m with you, Jack. Thoroughbred racing at the big tracks is a little too slick, a little too polished. I prefer the brush tracks and fairground racing. Anything goes, and everything goes, and a horse might change owners three times before the day ends. Quarter horse racing is an entirely different game. By the time, it starts, it’s over,and, as you said, more drama takes place at the starting gates than at the finish line.

  • Don Newbury

    A colorful piece that makes me sorry I haven’t had a chance to view such a scene. And you missed a grand chance to mention “Beetle Bomb.”…

    • Caleb Pirtle

      Beetle Bomb: the best known last place finisher in the history of horse racing.

  • reorderone

    Family lore has it that I took my first steps at this track. I do remember going there when I was older, maybe 10 or 12. I remember the little boys would step on the beer cans (they were littered everywhere) and then walk around with them wedged on to the bottom of their boots. It was dusty and exciting and a specialty at that track was T bone sandwiches barbecued with Jacks barbecue sauce and served between two slices of Evangeline Maid bread. Speaking of Evangeline, Evangeline Downs was not far away from this track.

    • Caleb Pirtle

      You could indeed see Evangeline Downs from Carencro. But it never had the flavor, the excitement, or the suspense of running horses at Carencro. You never know what would happen next. And Cajuns would bet big money on which ear of the horse twitched next. I envy you your memories. South Louisiana is a great place in which to grow up.

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