At at Cajun Brush Track, you bet your life.
July 9, 2015
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?”
“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.