Labor of Love

Tema Stauffer

Bud Keen could not be dressed any more inappropriately for spending a day traipsing through the mud. The man in charge of the starting gate crew at Canterbury Park is wearing a dirty white cowboy hat, striped gray suit jacket, blue oxford-cloth shirt, and a neatly knotted, multi-hued tie that barely reaches his belly. Keen's only concession to the elements is a pair of black, calf-high muck boots. He looks like a diminutive version of Tom Landry.

Since Canterbury reopened in 1995, Keen has been in charge of the starting gate crew. Even by racetrack standards--where busted knuckles and broken limbs are routine--working the gate is perilous duty. Horses don't always take kindly to being locked inside a narrow metal cage--even if it's only for a few seconds. They're liable to kick, buck, even flip completely over. Over the years Keen has done damage to most parts of his anatomy. "This body's been used a little," he drawls, pointing out his misshapen nose. "You can't be scared of horses and work this job. You can't have no fear."

The sun is threatening to emerge on this Saturday afternoon, but the track is a mud pit. There are still pockets of standing water from the previous day's downpour. With every step, Keen and his roughly 10-man crew sink down into a foot of black, soupy loam. Keen's charges are a burly, dark-humored lot. They wear red polo shirts, baseball caps, and blue jeans with cans of chewing tobacco and bags of sunflower seeds protruding from the pockets.

It's the afternoon of the Belmont Stakes, and consequently several thousand spectators are already on hand, hoping to witness horseracing history, if only via simulcast. For Keen and his crew, most of whom have been up since well before dawn, this means an extremely long day in the mud. With an extended break for the Belmont, the final race isn't slated to go off until after seven this evening. To make matters worse, the last two contests feature quarter horses, the largest and most unruly racehorses. "They're just a different breed," Keen assays. "They're hot."

Keen has spent pretty much his entire life at the track. He began racing horses at the age of 13, mostly at "bush tracks." "That means just little old county fair deals," he explains. Keen gave up jockeying, however, after getting injured. "Broke my leg and got too fat," he laughs. In the ensuing years Keen has labored as a trainer, practice rider, jockey agent, and just about every other conceivable job associated with horseracing. Now 63 years old, his face lined with more than a few deep creases, he splits his time between Canterbury and Portland Meadows racetrack in Oregon. "Don't have any better sense," Keen says of why he's stayed in the horse business. "Once you get there you can't get away."

As the 1:30 post time nears, an orange tractor pulls the green metal starting gate into position for the initial mile-plus race. The horses slowly lope toward the post, jockeys climbing aboard their mounts. When the steeds get within about 20 feet of the gate, one of Keen's charges guides them into their assigned posts. He then perches on a ledge inside the stall, waiting for the race to begin--and praying that the horse doesn't decide to pitch a fit.

This time around every horse but one quietly accedes to its fate. Whatastitch is the lone holdout. Jockey Bobby Walker Jr. is forced to dismount the unruly animal. Two men lock arms behind the horse and firmly nudge it into the stall. Even after Whatastitch is locked down, however, the horse rears up furiously, looking to escape. His minder inside the gate bears the brunt of the animal's frustration. "Goddammit!" he hollers, after having a finger smashed against the metal. "That bitch!" The starting gate literally shakes from the caged fury of nine steeds.

Keen assays the field one more time, making sure they're ready to run, and then presses a button to release the beasts. The buzzer sounds, the gates open, and the thoroughbreds thunder off, mud flying 20 feet high in their wake. As the horses round the backstretch, jockey Seth Martinez furiously whips his charge, Turkish Zaar, prodding the horse past Favorite Companion and into the winner's circle.

Whatastitch finishes dead last, galloping in a good 50 yards behind the rest of the pack. The poor showing by the obstinate thoroughbred is not surprising. Horses that cause trouble at the starting gate don't usually fare well. "They're trying to tell you something," Keen figures. "That horse just didn't want to be here."

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