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Track gypsies hitch their fates to horses

Life switched leads this week for horsemen looking beyond this weekend's culmination of the Grants Pass Downs meet.

"I'm going to Prineville next," said Jim Whiteside, chief outrider at the Downs.

The 81-year-old cowboy sat loosely on his big horse, Cola, peering at several thoroughbreds being exercised Wednesday morning.

"This is my last year. I'm retiring from outriding," he said.

"I started training horses in 1960. Before that I rodeoed. It's a good life. It beats punching the time clock," he said.

"See that woman riding over there? She's Darlene Braden. She used to ride for me. She raised three children all by herself. She's a good hand," said Whiteside.

The good hand dismounted from the last of several horses she had worked that morning. Braden, now 51, gave up her long career as a jockey last summer after fracturing a total of three vertebrae, several fingers, a collarbone, some ribs and a leg.

"I promised my daughters I would retire. Now, I run a barn for my dad," she said.

Still, she gallops more horses every morning than she did during her racing career, so this retirement merits an asterisk.

Sometimes "jockey" seems like a synonym for "broken bones."

At trainer Emilio Guerrero's barn, his brother and main rider, Jose Guerrero, was wearing a sling while doing chores.

What happened?

"He got hurt Monday in the second race. The horse stumbled out of the gate and threw him," said Emilio.

"After that Jose won two seconds, then he won the Futurity Consolation race. The doctors saw him Tuesday. They say he has a cracked shoulder blade and cracked ribs."

Jose hooked a horse to the hot walker using one arm, a neat trick. He expects to be grounded a couple of weeks.

Along the backstretch fence, Shali Baker stood on a bench to watch her father, Jeff, work a friend's horse. Shali is 9. She's visiting from Florida for the summer, staying with her trainer dad.

When asked what she liked best here, she said, "Riding the horses. I ride them up and down the shed row."

Elsewhere, horseshoer George Davis was hosing off Boundary Lane, the mare who won a race after dumping her rider.

"We're probably going to run her Sunday in a $4,000 race," said co-owner David Hoover as he eyed the famous mare. "My brother and I have known our horses since before they were born. They're homebreds."

James Young was beaming Wednesday outside the racing secretary's office, ready to enter more horses for the weekend finale.

"I love this place. From the start of the year I look forward to being here. It's like a vacation. The press, the people, they treat you like a rock star," he said.

Perhaps Young's seven wins — the most of any trainer so far — helped fuel his euphoria.

Fresh off the track, pony rider Suzie Stader was counting how many mounts she led from the paddock to the gate over the holiday weekend.

"It was 21," she said. "It's been a good year for ponying."

Meanwhile, back in the barns, hundreds of horses awaited their next day in the sun. They included such veteran campaigners as Johnnydrew, a 10-year-old chestnut gelding who has gone to the starting gate 76 times. He won his 13th race last Saturday and came within half a second of breaking the track record for 51/2; furlongs.

Soon this caravan of people and animals will move on to the bulldog tracks of Prineville, Tillamook, Burns and Union. Some with higher aspirations will try Boise and Portland and Emerald Downs and the Northern California fair circuit. A very few might go even farther south, where you'll find the glitterati race mounts worth millions in what rightly deserves to be called the sport of kings.

But at this level, it's a sport of gypsies, not kings. It is a sport nearly as old as history, and those who live it don't do so for the money, which comes in all-too-fleeting spurts. They do so because they have the courage and knowledge and desire and hope necessary to hitch their fates to horses.

Dan Guthrie can be reached at dguthrie@connpoint.net