Saddling up: 47 years at the track

As Preakness nears, Baltimore native Don Cusick reflects on a lifetime of spills at Pimlico

May 14, 2010|By Jonathan Pitts, The Baltimore Sun

The finest in the world are here, horses and riders. The TV trucks and reporters and VIPs in business suits have been filling the place for days.

It's Preakness Week, there's a buzz in the air, and even Donald "Coos" Cusick allows a lump to come to his throat.

"It's the Indy 500, the World Series, the whole deal wrapped up in one," says Cusick, a grizzled man of 55 who has broken both shoulders and one wrist, mangled each hand and even fractured his back in service to the only place he has ever worked — Pimlico Race Course.

Just 12 men hold the coveted job of jockeys' valet at the track, and Cusick is the only one raised in Baltimore. He grew up across the street from Pimlico, the youngest of 17 kids in a house on Belvedere Avenue. Folks in the "jocks' room" say he's respected throughout the industry. With the horse's head tattoo on his forearm, partially missing finger and penchant for quick comebacks, he could have been a Dead End Kid if he hadn't grown up in Charm City.

Tomorrow, he'll saddle up a bunch of 1,200-pound horses just before they run, as he has done at Old Hilltop for the past 33 years. He'll tend to six of the world's top riders, including his old friend Calvin Borel, winner of three of the past four Kentucky Derbies. "I wouldn't trade this for anything," he says, hanging yet another set of silks.

It has been 47 years since he started out shining shoes and selling newspapers at the track. Cusick didn't get where he is by being soft. No, that's just this time of year.

The Hustler

Those who know Cusick have heard his tales of getting thrown from horses, wrangling thoroughbreds into stalls, helping high-strung jockeys make weight and taking care of legends such as Willie Shoemaker.

At some point, everyone asks how in the world you grow up with 16 siblings in a three-bedroom house.

It's simple, Cusick says. When your mom puts food on the table, grab it fast. Be OK with sleeping four or five in a bed. And when your parents turn the dining room into their boudoir, try to stay out. "You never knew when Dad might be working on No. 18," he says, laughing.

A small, wiry kid, Cusick was energetic and smart, a born leader, but poverty hit him like a ton of bricks. He never liked that his mom, Mary Rita, had to do without the things she wanted. It shamed him to go to school with cardboard patches in the bottoms of his shoes.

So he did what he always has: He made stuff happen. "I became a hustler," he says.

In 1963, when he was 8 and Pimlico was usually so crowded it was nearly impossible to find a parking spot, he got a shoeshine box, crossed the street and hit up customers at the track.

He gravitated toward bettors who'd just won since they were happy and free with their money. "I'd say, 'How 'bout a shine, Mister?' 'Sure, kid, here's a quarter.' You could make $50 or $60 a day," he says.

Money drew him like a salt lick, and from boyhood on he always found some. He hawked copies of The Sun for a nickel. He made $500 a week reselling Christmas trees. He reset pins at the bowling alley. "I tell my kids, 'You pick flies out of horse [dung] with boxing gloves on, if it pays right,'" he says.

Before long he wanted to move to where folks had big cars and nice clothes — inside Pimlico. Cusick hung around the guards at the gate so much they figured it was easier just to let him through. Lying about his age, he got work as a "hot walker" — the guy who leads horses around the track, post-exercise, to cool them down.

Since everyone knew he was underage, he had to jump the fence or hitch a ride inside just to get to work. It was worth the trouble.

"Thirty-five dollars a week steady income," he says, shaking his head. "I felt like I was [defecating] in tall cotton."

Learning the ropes

His track knowledge paid off in school, where his best subject was math, in part because he was a natural problem solver, in part because his teacher loved the ponies. Cusick would share an inside tip or two and later place the man's $10 bet. ("We usually did well. I got an A," he says.) With others, he had a deal: If he kept up with his classmates, they'd refrain from giving him homework. "They knew I didn't have the time," he says.

By 13, he saw he'd never have the financial backing to do what he really wanted: become a surgeon. "That was a heavy decision for a kid, but I realized it was horses for me," he says.

Cusick made himself so insufferably useful he worked his way up the ladder — groom, exercise rider, jockey, porter — and once he realized that at 5 feet 10 inches, he'd grown too big to be a jockey, he spent 12 years insinuating himself with the old-timers who were then the valets. Some retired; another died. He got his current job in 1977.

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