Take a quick look. See for yourself. A map of the United States shows the Mississippi River flowing north to south. The downward descent is more or less a straight line until it approaches the Gulf of Mexico where it begins to twist, turn and fold back on itself like the lower intestinal tract of the human body.
It was here on a vast expanse of bayous and grass prairies of what is now southwest Louisiana that the French-speaking settlers called Acadians arrived in the mid-17th century. Refusing allegiance to the King of England, they experienced a mass deportation from Nova Scotia in Canada. It wasn’t a Walt Disney movie. Thousands died on the ships.
Considered misfits, outcasts, resistance fighters and criminals by the British, the Acadians—later to be called Cajuns—would find their new home in the bowels of America.
A rowdy collection of renegades who loved good food, drinking and gambling, the Cajuns were determined to preserve their culture. One way to package their passion in a single event was through match racing at local “bush tracks.” Secluded on the flanks of cypress swamps, sugar cane and corn fields, the operating bush tracks had names like Hick’s Wagon Wheel, Mamou, Wild Cherry and China Bell Grove.
Needless to say, they were unsanctioned, unlicensed and uncontrolled by any state regulations or commissions. Stewards, placing judges and handlers at the starting gate were randomly selected from the crowd.
Some horses became crowd favorites. Runners like Black Mama, Popeye, Little Red Dice, Dusty Margo and Miss Law and Order may not have had lip tattoos or foal certificates, but they could generate attendance of up to 4,000 on a Sunday afternoon.
The card games, juke box and dance hall atmosphere began on Friday night, followed by cock fights on Saturday. The match races started on Sunday mornings after church. Admission was informal—people put a few dollars in a cardboard box. Beer sold for 45 cents and each bush track served its specialty lunch of pork chop sandwiches or a steaming bowl of “cowboy stew,” which contained parts of the cow most likely not served in restaurants.
The rough and tumble, broken collarbone bush tracks became the “cradle of civilization” for Cajun jockeys who would rise to national prominence and ride some of America’s most famous horses. The likes of Hall of Famers Eddie Delahoussaye and Calvin Borel would get their starts there before amassing multiple victories in the Triple Crown and Breeders’ Cup races.
“Stocked with ample provisions of whiskey, gin and ice chests of cold beer, Carencro Raceway was a weekend walk on the wild side.”
Nothing stays the same, though. The wild and wooly image of the bush tracks have been replaced by four sanctioned racetracks in Louisiana that operate under regulations similar to other racing jurisdictions across the U.S., and the incentive structure of the Louisiana Thoroughbred Breeders Association is one of the most lucrative in the country.
Located in New Orleans, the Fair Grounds Race Course is the third-oldest track in America still in operation. With the longest stretch run in the country, the Fair Grounds’ winter and spring meet offers a series of graded stakes that are prominent prep races for the Kentucky Derby. Plus, the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks for 3-year-old fillies has produced eight winners of the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, including 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. A few dusty photo albums and one
rusted starting gate buried in chest-high weeds are all that’s left of the Cajun bush tracks. The leaves have fallen, but the roots are deep in the rich bayou soil. As a society, the United States moves further away from the horse, but in Cajun country the passion for horses remains a way of life. This story is a collection of snapshots from the living descendants of those families and horsemen.
The Family Business
In southwest Louisiana, the apple does not fall far from the tree. The legendary trainer Junius Delahoussaye (a cousin of Eddie’s) was known as the “King of 2-year-olds” on the racing circuit there during the 1960s and ‘70s. Delahoussaye was a sharecropper, and his work ethic was rooted in the Great Depression. Men and women of that era knew there was no imaginary pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If you outworked the other guy, the rent got paid. When he became ill, his son Glenn dropped out of college and took over the stable.
“My Dad taught me that it was possible to make something from nothing,” Delahoussaye says, guiding his stable pony Smarty to the track. “Just because you are on a small circuit doesn’t mean you can’t do big things. These horses have a small window of opportunity, so you have to learn when and how to maximize that potential.”
Concentrating his efforts on the breaking and development of young talent, Delahoussaye the younger (a winner of multiple stakes) has persevered in the game for 33 years. With an abundance of common sense and a firm grip on his values, his success with a small stable is the result of a simple formula.
“When my father saw that I had the passion for the game, he told me to do two things every day of my life,” Delahoussaye explains. “The horse business is really the people business. Surround yourself—keep yourself—in the best company at all times. And then keep your horses in the worst company at all times.”
The Cajuns abide by the saying, “If you lay down with dogs, you wake up with fleas.” Those salty words have served Delahoussaye throughout his career. “I’ll take a bad horse for a good man, but I refuse to take a good horse for a bad man,” he insists. “I just won’t do it. I’ve walked away from situations where I could have made some money, but I was not comfortable with the company. That’s something I’ve never regretted.”
Leap of Faith
Ashley Broussard has never clicked on the Ancestery.com website, but there is a reasonable chance her Cajun lineage traces back to February 27, 1765. That’s when Joseph Broussard—leader of the Acadians’ resistance struggle against the British in Nova Scotia—navigated the first ship up the Mississippi River and delivered approximately 200 immigrant family members to Louisiana.
But for Ashley, who got her jockey license at the age of 18, the past no longer exists. She is hard at work, making her riding comeback at Evangeline Downs after having a baby.
It would be a mistake to discount Broussard’s credentials. Competing on the barrel racing circuit, she won several Louisiana state championships and has been ranked as high as fifth in the national competition.
“Maneuvering your horse at top speed, keeping your balance and rating your horse against the clock are all aspects that transfer to race riding,” says Broussard, who has three sessions a week with a personal trainer.
A sharp rider out of the gate, Broussard won eight races in the first four weeks after her return to the track.
“It’s all about fitness, working the weights, some cardio exercise and getting my timing back,” she says. “I was always underfoot at the farm with Dad during summer vacations, and I hope my son, Bentley, grows up with the horses and likes it as much as I do.”
Last Man Standing
As the only living past owner of a bush track facility, Don Stemmans qualifies as the Walking Wikipedia of the Cajun horse racing history. He operated Carencro Raceway from 1967-1974. Translated from Cajun-French, carencro is a word for buzzard.
The sandy loam track was a 3/8th mile straightaway for quarter horses and a six furlong oval for Thoroughbreds with bloodlines that read “by Trash Can out of Slow Motion.” Stocked with ample provisions of whiskey, gin and ice chests of cold beer, Carencro Raceway was a weekend walk on the wild side. Rules and regulations were few and far between. The Sunday racing programs were a single sheet of paper printed off a photocopy machine.[toggle title=”More about Cajun Country”]
Calvin Borel (here on Rachel Alexandra) is one of the most well known Cajun jockeys. He won the Kentucky Derby three times: Street Sense (2007), Mine That Bird (2009), and Super Saver (2010).
Made physically tough and gate smart from the hand-to-hand combat of the bush tracks, Cajun jockeys have dominated racing in the United States over the years.
No less than six Cajun jockeys have been inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame: Eddie Delahoussaye, Calvin Borel, Mark Guidry, Randy Romero, Kent Desormeaux and Eric Guerin. Not to mention, Shane Sellers and Ray Sibille are retired with a combined 8,411 career wins to their credit. Cajun riders that are currently active and prominent on their respective circuits include Robby Albarado, Brian Hernandez, Jr. and Gerard Melancon.
Bayou, pronounced Buy-you, is the French name for a slow moving river.
Boudin, pronounced Boo-dan, is a popular type of link sausage.
Recipes vary but the common denominator is rice mixed with other ingredients like pork, crawfish, alligator, celery, onion and cayenne pepper. Good for breakfast, lunch or dinner, boudin is also popular as a heated snack or car food. It can be purchased at grocery stores, gas stations and roadside food trucks.
Many racing and barn scenes in the critically acclaimed film Seabiscuit were shot at the Evangeline Downs Training Center.
The 1978 drama Casey’s Shadow remains the classic Cajun movie. Starring Walter Matthau and based on a true story of a down on his luck trainer with a big dream and a fast colt, watching Casey’s Shadow is required research for understanding the fabric of Cajun horsemen. The story is based on Lloyd Romero, Randy’s father.
Laginappe, pronounced an-yap, is a term that describes the tradition of a store owner giving the customer a small gift as an act of good will. Buy a dozen crabs at the seafood store, and you might find 13 or 14 in the paper bag when you get home.
Louisiana Crawfish Boil Cookout.
Creole people are the descendants of 18th century colonial settlers who are a racial and ethnic mix of French, Spanish and African. Typically well-educated and close to their European heritage, the Creoles have a unique style of cooking. Influenced by Haitian slaves, the traditional Creole dish is gumbo, which is a spicy and dark stew based on anything available like shrimp, crab, oysters, sausage, turtle, rabbit or duck.
Breaux Bridge is called “The Crawfish Capital of the World.” Either from natural habitats or from marsh water farms, harvesting crawfish is a major industry. Averaging production of 100 million pounds per year, Louisiana supplies 95% of the crawfish sold in the USA. The little crustaceans extracted from the muddy ponds in nets are so plentiful that a typical weekend house party would involve a 100-pound sack.
Cajun country has its own style of music, as well. Accordions and washboards are key instruments in zydeco.
Zydeco music is a genre that evolved in southwest Louisiana by French Creole speakers which blends blues, rhythm and blues, and music indigenous to the area. Usually fast tempo and dominated by the button or piano accordion and some form of a washboard, it was originally created at house dances, where families and friends gathered for socializing.[/toggle]
“Whatever you were old enough to do, you could do it there,” Stemmans recalls of the track, which once promoted a memorable match race between a trotting horse named Sorrel and a Model T Ford.
Like an old gelding on cruise control, Stemmans’ life is quieter now. As the owner of Stemmans Horse Supply, his contentment comes from sitting behind a giant oak tree stump in his work shop and repairing bridles, saddles, broken stirrups and halters for his many customers.
“I wouldn’t be in business today if I had not found small ways to save money,” Stemmans says over the whirring sound of an ancient Durkopp Adler industrial sewing machine made in Germany. “I buy local oats, corn and molasses in bulk and make my own brand of feed. I’ve been dealing with the same people for years. When I give them a call, the truck is on its way. They don’t have to worry about getting paid. Our contract is a handshake.”
The son of a blacksmith, Stemmans can fabricate, salvage or repair anything that comes in the door.
“Bring it on,” Stemmans laughs. “It can be any old piece of string, wire, leather, brass, chain or jockey silks. I can fix anything except a broken heart.”
Jack of all Trades
“I refuse to complain,” June Rideaux says with a smile that could light up a bat cave. “I woke up this morning on the top side of the dirt, and nobody was singing ‘Amazing Grace’. That’s good enough for any man with some sense.”
The 64-year-old Rideaux represents the ultimate truth when it comes to the phrase “job security.” After refusing to pick cotton at the age of 9, Rideaux’s mother brought him to Traders Rest horse farm to find work. The young boy never even glanced back over his shoulder.
“I started out galloping horses and breaking the babies,” Rideaux remembers. “I never wanted to take a day off or go on vacation. Being around these horses every day is what makes me happy.”
For holidays, Rideaux (who can speak fluent French and a few curse words in Spanish) puts on the apron and makes the pots and pans sing a delicious tune. His signature meal is barbecue goat, but a heaping dish of creamy red beans and rice is another tasty option.
The months of August and September are the height of
hurricane season in Louisiana, and Rideaux has a reputation for never evacuating during a storm.
“Sometimes it can get scary—barn roofs can blow off and fences come down or a flood,” Rideaux describes, sitting on a bale of alfalfa. “The wind gets the horses spooky and all riled up. Horses hurt themselves when they get excited, so I stay with them.”
Formal job descriptions are a foreign concept in Cajun
country. Rideaux does everything at the farm except file the taxes. Every morning at 5 o’clock he arrives to water and feed the horses. He is the groom and hot walker. During the
summer months, he cuts all the grass. He helps with sales prep of the yearlings and vans horses to and from the race track.
One particular instance even involved security patrol. The night before a $1,000 match race, the owner of a quarter horse named Little Red Dice brought Rideaux a gun and told him to guard the horse until dawn.
“That gun was bigger than me,” Rideaux says. “I stayed up all night, walking back and forth. Back in them days you had to be careful somebody didn’t sneak into the barn and do something to your horse.”
There is an advertising sign on the frontage road before you get to Jeff Delhomme’s barn at the Evangeline Downs Training Center. Under the flowing white robes image of Jesus, the
blaring words in orange and black read: “Are You Living in Heaven or Hell?”
Working with his two sons and training a small stable of blue collar Thoroughbreds, Delhomme is living his own version of heaven on earth.
It’s a Sunday morning at the barn and Delhomme is preparing to clean up and take his wife to church. Wiping the sweat off his forehead, he sits down on one of three mismatched folding metal chairs that look like discards from a yard sale. The drainage ditch around the walking wheel is full of red mud from last night’s thunderstorm. Cobwebs hang from the wooden rafters.
Form and fashion are not a high priority. Rakes and rusted pitchforks are propped up outside the door of a tack room that looks like it came straight off the set of True Detective. As a row of humming electric fans coated with dust blow cool air on the horses, the 65-year-old begins to talk about his father, Sanders Delhomme.
“My Daddy never went to school—not one day in his life,” Jeff says. “All he could do was sign his name, but he was street wise. The biggest thing he taught me was to stay low, get small so other people don’t make a big commotion over what you do. Bragging was never allowed.”
Delhomme grew up poor on a small 20-acre farm in the woods outside of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana. The neighbors were few and far between. Every family had a horse or two and some made bootleg “white lightning” moonshine to supplement their income.
By a stroke of fortune, oil was discovered on their property, and Sanders was able to quit his job as a “roughneck” on the
derricks in the Gulf of Mexico. He began training quarterhorses. His visual trademark was a white Stetson hat that he wore everywhere, and he had a reputation for being head strong.
“You couldn’t tell Daddy what to do with a horse,” Delhomme remembers. “If an owner came to him with an idea or suggestion, he would put a halter on the horse, hand the lead shank over to the guy and wish him good luck.”
Keeping a family safe, comfortable and protected is part of the Cajun DNA.
“My father never laid a hand on me, but I sure knew what I could do and what I couldn’t do,” says Delhomme. “There were no cars or traffic on the gravel road outside our house, but I had to ask permission to ride my bike and tell Momma where I was at all times. You can respect discipline when it comes from love. I wouldn’t trade the way I was raised for nothing in the world.”
“A lot of things in this world don’t go right, and you just have to deal with it”
A Way of Life
Collect enough sand and you can build a mountain. Sam Breaux took out his trainer’s license in 1980 and today has accumulated 1,506 career victories. In 2009, Breaux ranked 27th in the
United States with 126 winners. He didn’t learn the game from text books, Power Point presentations or seminars.
“Everybody in my family has ridden horses since we were
babies,” Breaux explains. “I was riding a Shetland pony before I could read. My brothers and sisters all rode in horse shows, and we galloped saddle horses up on the levee. That was our form of entertainment.”
In the late ‘70s Breaux cut his competitive teeth, entering horses in match races on the bush tracks. At the time, Calvin Borel rode many of the Breaux entries.
“Let me tell you, Calvin was barely a teenager, and he was cocky son-of-a-gun,” Breaux remembers. “For sure he could ride, but Calvin had an attitude. Believe me, he wasn’t all meek and gentle like he is now.”
Horse racing has been a daily life lesson for Breaux.
“A lot of things in this world don’t go right, and you just have to deal with it,” he says. “You try to follow a plan with a horse but most often the plan has to change. It’s like falling off a horse. You dust yourself off and get back on. It’s that simple.”
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