Ray Garry was barely getting by as a jockey, riding no-account horses for cheap purses at county fairs. Then, on a beautiful late-summer day, what little luck he had ran out.
By Geoffrey Douglas
Aug 04 2016
For the first three furlongs, he ran cleanly. Unblocked, near midpack, a yard or two off the rail—a patient, ground-saving ride. His mount, Highblast, a five-year-old brown gelding with six wins in 52 lifetime starts, was moving easily, barely four lengths off the lead. Rounding into the stretch turn, he had to be feeling pretty good about things.
A win would bring him $180. That, plus another $180 for the win aboard Stage Manager in yesterday’s sixth, plus the $70 in “rider’s fees” for the pair of losers he’d ridden home, would give him the biggest two-day take of the year. Add to that the win he’d had opening day and a third-place finish the Friday before, plus another $300 or so in rider’s fees…if he could bring Highblast home on top here, he’d be pushing $1,000 for ten days’ work.
“That was huge money for a kid like Ray,” says Sal DiMeo. “Huge money. He’d been waiting all year for those ten days.”
Sal is 63, a tiny, leathery man with an old athlete’s careful saunter, who has “bumped around” the Northeast’s small-track circuit for most of the past 50 years. Once, decades ago, he made his living briefly as a jockey (“A hard life,” he says. “I never had much luck.”), later as an exercise rider, hot-walker, and valet. Today he’s the jockey-room custodian at New Hampshire’s Rockingham Park.
In the old days, he explains, there used to be more than enough opportunity for the Ray Garrys of the racing world. “Brockton, Northampton, Weymouth, Berkshire, Marshfield, Great Barrington—20, 30 years ago, every one of ’em had its fair. Seventy days of fair-racing every year. Seventy days. And for kids like Ray, the guys with no racing luck, who couldn’t get the trainers [at the year-round tracks] to give ’em decent mounts, well, it was the fairs for guys like that, that paid a big part of the rent.
“The way it is now, Northampton’s the only one left. Ten days. You gotta make the best of it. So believe me, Ray, he was thankful for every ride.”
We’re standing just outside the Rockingham jockey room, across from the paddock, on a warm September afternoon. Joe Hampshire, a coiled, dark-haired jockey in blue-and-white racing silks, comes out the door and starts past us on his way to the track. He is about to ride the favorite, Side Winding, a $4,000 claimer, his fourth of nine mounts for the day. Hampshire, at present, is first on the Rockingham money list: $563,000 in purses (the jockey’s take is ten percent), 75 wins, 69 seconds, 60 thirds—in 90 days of rides. In the midlevel league of $5,000 purses, Joe Hampshire is as good as it gets.
“Hey, Joe!” yells Sal, pulls him over, then winks coyly at me: “Answer a question for us, will you, Joe? Northampton, the fair. What would you say to riding at the fair?”
Hampshire, briefly, seems bemused. Then impatient: “No,” he says flatly and moves on.
“See that?” Sal says. “See that? The good riders, the guys with money, the guys who get the mounts, they won’t go near the fairs. Half-mile tracks—too risky, too narrow, the turns come up too quick. You ride them half-milers, you gotta need it real bad.”
Then he shakes his head—twice, deliberately—and brings up his arms, wide apart, as though delivering a blessing or remembering a long-ago trophy fish.
“And have a heart this big . . .”
There’s been some bunching coming out of the turn. Five horses are abreast now, jammed as tight as packed fish, crowding, bumping, flailing whips. The favorite, Premier Flag, with Henry Ma aboard, has pulled a length or so clear of the pack, with the leader another length in front of him. The lagger, Rusty Brick, is running alone at the rear.
Behind them, at their backs now, is the midway. Teenage boys in Chicago Bulls sweatshirts jostle each other across the length of dirty-grass corridors chockablock with 50-cent thrills: ball throws, dart throws, rifle shoots, miniature colored horses that advance up a track powered by water shot from pistols chained to a board. Small children tag along behind mothers, their faces sugar-smeared from chin to nose. A young man in a crew cut wipes his hands dry against his jeans to gain purchase on a mallet that will send a rubber cone the height of a shaft to ring a bell—and win a stuffed bear half the size of his girlfriend, who watches oooh-ingly. And over it all, like a mist, are the smells of barn animals, dried alfalfa, charred burgers, deep fat. It is late afternoon, late summer, at a county fair in New England. The farthest spot on earth from death.
Highblast, with Ray Garry aboard, is bunched with the pack: second from the rail, with three horses outside,the closest a boot’s width away. (“It was crowded, too crowded; he should have pulled out,” James Bell, the state racing steward, will say later on reviewing the film.) Ray is hunched low, whipping wildly. He doesn’t look sideways; his straight-ahead view is of the rump of Premier Flag. It is nearly in his face now. It is the last thing he will see.
“Around here, we call it‘racing luck,’” says Bob Destasio, another of the old-time jockeys, today director of racing at Rockingham Park. “It’s hard to put your finger on it. Some guys have it, some guys don’t. Ray didn’t. Hell, Ray never had any kinda luck at all.”
That’s most of what people have to say about Raymond Garry. No luck. A big heart, a gritty spirit, and more than enough courage to go around (“He’d take the rough horses,” says Sal DiMeo, “the ones no one else would ride”), but no luck. Which translates to no winners. And when you don’t get the winners, the trainers forget you—no winners, no mounts. No mounts, no winners. No winners, no money. No luck.
Ray Garry had 57 rides—two winners—in all of 1994. At last year’s Rockingham meet, through roughly 60 days of racing, he rode just two horses; neither won.
So he did what all luckless jockeys sooner or later do. He hustled warm-up gallops on the backside at five in the morning for $7 a pop, and while he was waiting to get paid (“Getting paid can be the toughest part,” says another rider, who’d rather not be named), tried to convince this or that trainer to give him a mount in the afternoon. The few he got were nearly all long shots: hopeless, over-the-hill nags who would go off at 20 or 30 to one, run out of the money, and keep the string of lucklessness alive.
He lived, with his cat Misty, in a one-bedroom walk-up off Route 28 in Methuen, just south of the New Hampshire border, 30 minutes—by bicycle—from the track. He owned no car; more often than not, he had no phone. Even his tack, his saddlery, was hand-me-down. When riding on the road, his usual bed was the rear seat of a borrowed car.
His pleasures were as modest as his life. He played chess, tinkered with old cars, old radios, and cable TVs (“He sure knew how to work those dials,” says Sal), and shot pool on Monday nights in the B division tournaments at Salem’s Breckinridge Lanes. (At least once, he took home the top prize, $100, which, he told a fellow shooter, more than doubled his earnings for the week.)
“The guy didn’t have much,” says Sal. “Didn’t have much of anything at all. But you know what? I never once heard him say ‘I wish’ or ‘I want’—never. He never bitched. And he never turned down a mount.”
His first win came on a horse named Jet Capsule—a horse his father was training at the time—at the old Narragansett racetrack in 1974. He was 17 years old.
“It was only the second race he ever rode,” his father, Al Garry, remembers. “The other jocks, afterward, they did what they do to you when you win your first time. They got him back in the jocks’ room, knocked him down, pulled his drawers off, and painted his peter with shoe polish. It’s kind of an initiation thing.”
The pride Al feels for his son comes over the phone line intact. He is talking from his home in California, where, he says, he is “more or less retired.” He is 75 today and between racing and training has lived and breathed horses for 56 years.
“After Ray started riding—well, he was a changed boy. When he was growing up, you’d have to say he was kinda crazy, kinda wild. His mother and I, we used to worry. But once he got to riding, yes sir, he was changed.”
Ray Garry was born, the fifth of seven children, in Lincoln, Rhode Island, in January of 1957, “a redhead, like his mother, hot temper, always liked things his way.” By the time he was five, he was hanging around the stables where his father’s horses trained (“‘Take me with you, Daddy,’ he’d beg me and beg me, until I’d let him come”). He was seven when he rode his first horse.
“It was a pony, really, ‘Bill,’ you called any pony ‘Bill.’ We’d go out there Sunday mornings, I’d lead him around, he’d get a feel for the movement, get a feel for the reins. It wasn’t too long before he was doin’ it alone.
“He was maybe 12, 13, when I put him on a racehorse. We’d go once around the track; I’d be alongside on a pony, just ride alongside and tell him things: ‘Not so much strength on the reins there,’ ‘Keep your hands low on his neck’—the kinda things you gotta know.
“He’d come to the track when I was racing. He’d watch me, then he’d want to know, ‘How’d you do this, Daddy? How’d you do that?’ ‘Don’t worry,’ I’d tell him, ‘you just keep watching, keep practicing like you are. When the time comes, I’ll know it. You’ll be a rider soon enough.’
“When he got good enough to gallop, I’d have him breeze with some other jock. They’d breeze together—three-eighths, five-eighths, whatever it was—and I’d watch how he handled it, I’d watch him make his moves. Maybe a couple years later, he was probably 15, I taught him how to come out of a gate.
“He was crazy about horses, right from the first. And he took to it, too. Good moves, good instincts, no fear. I’d come home from the stables and I’d be tellin’ his mother. ‘Doris,’ I’d say, ‘we got us another rider in the family, I believe.’”
By the time Ray rode his first winner, his father had been retired from racing for two years. He was 53 and had known no life but the racetrack since he was old enough to shave.
“I raced at just about any track you could name. Rockingham, Scarborough Downs, Narragansett, Garden State, Pimlico, Bowie—California, Canada, Mexico, all over. I rode my first race in Arkansas, a horse named Be Jabbers, at Oaklawn Park, in 1939. My first winner was that year, at Rockingham, a horse named Ethel Pair.
“I didn’t get a lot of good mounts. But I got some, I had some good years. The biggest day I ever had was at Rockingham, in the early 1970s, on a horse named Handsome Flyer—a handicap, a mile and 70 yards. I told my father-in-law to bet $300 on the nose. The horse paid $68 [for $2] to win. Whoo-ee, we won some money that day.”
His best year was probably 1962. At the Berkshire Downs meeting that summer, he rode 35 winners in 96 mounts—easily earning the meet’s racing title—then followed with strong showings at the Weymouth, Marshfield, Northampton, and Great Barrington fairs.
“The Eddie Arcaro of the half-mile tracks,” a Boston racing writer christened him late that year. “After nearly 25 years in the saddle, he has the respect of everyone in racing . . . one of the top jockeys on the smaller New England tracks.”
Four years later, on September 9, 1966, Al Garry was aboard a horse named Orinoco, also at Northampton, with a half-length lead midway through the stretch.
“My horse went down. They say another horse came over the top of me, that he rolled over on my head. They say I should have wound up a vegetable. I don’t know, I don’t remember a thing. When I woke up, it was three months later, December 14, it was snowing outside.”
He has no sense of taste or smell to this day.
For the Garry family, life was never right after that. The brain damage, or the worst of it, lasted two years. In 1972, after four more years of on-and-off racing, Al Garry hung up his silks to try his hand at training.
“I’ve got a great home life with my wife and seven children, ranging from 21 down to the baby, who is two and a half,” he told a reporter just months before he retired.
Two years later, his son Ray rode his first winner—the first of far too few. Six years after that, in Pawtucket, his third daughter, Nancy, was “stabbed to death by a married man”—it is absolutely all he will say. Not long after, Al and his wife split up. She remains in Rhode Island. The children are grown and scattered.”
“He was real, real loyal to his dad. He talked about him a lot. It always seemed like, to me, that his dad was a hero to him.”
Gayle Murray (she is “Sandpiper,” for whatever reason, to all who know her at the track) is a blond-haired, watery-blue-eyed young woman of about 30, who sips coffee between long silences at a scarred wooden table in the jockeys’ cafeteria across from the stables at Rockingham Park. She makes her living as a lead rider, a “pony girl” in racetrack vernacular, and attends classes in biochemistry at the University of New Hampshire part-time. For two years in the early 1990s, she lived with Ray Garry in a small apartment in Derry, New Hampshire, 15 minutes from the track. They split up, she tells me, in October of 1992, but stayed close friends.
“He was close to his mother in Rhode Island. But it was his dad that he talked about. He wanted to be like his dad.”
She says Ray was “troubled, not happy.” But she will not, or cannot, explain. “I can’t tell you that,” she says. “It wouldn’t be loyal.”
No amount of coaxing will sway her. Were his troubles about his father? Over money? Because he couldn’t get rides?
No, she says. “It was different. He just wasn’t happy, is all.”
She talks in bursts, which end abruptly, followed by silences that seem never to end.
“We did things together. We got hot fudge sundaes. We went to movies, we played chess and Nintendo, we watched cable TV. We ate meals together. We played golf. We rode our bikes together. I miss the bike part a lot.”
She drifts off. Another endless silence. And then: “He was very generous. He was good at listening. He really helped me a lot. He helped me with my pony. He’d get me a sub if I was hungry, he cooked hamburgers for my dog. If my car was broke, he’d fix it. It was this maroon 1981 Chevy we shared. He’d fix it if it took five hours. And all he ever wanted was coffee and cigarettes.”
Gayle is silent once again. Stone-faced, staring at her hands. I break the moment with a question: What, in your mind, did you have to offer Ray?
She lifts her head, fastens her eyes to mine, and smiles.
“I tried to help him be more happy.””
It is nearing noon on a Sunday morning in late September. In a tiny, cramped anteroom off the jockeys’ locker room at Rockingham, there is a church service underway. The reading is from John (“Keep us safe from danger . . .”). There are several brief, informal dialogues—about fear, arrogance, the love of money and fame. “I’ve done things to win that I’m ashamed of,” one jockey confides. The others nod or smile. We bow our heads to a prayer for the departed, then to another that all present “stay safe through this day.” We join in the Lord’s Prayer, bid good wishes to one another briefly, then break
up. The service has lasted 30 minutes. First-race post time is 60 minutes away.
“Ray was always with us Sunday mornings,” Lee Allphen, the chaplain, tells me as she packs up her Bibles, her bag of clothing and notes. “He was a regular. He used to walk me out, tell me I ought to refer more to the gospels, tell me about some piece of scripture he’d say I left out. He was serious about the Bible. He was serious about God. And it wasn’t just words with him. He lived it, he really did.
“I used to get calls from Ray, late at night from the pool hall, ‘This or that person doesn’t have anything to eat,’ he’d tell me. ‘You got to help this lady, she’s 23 years old, she’s being abused.’ He’d leave the pool hall, or some friend’s number, as a contact. He didn’t have a phone. He was a beautiful person, he really was. He cared.”
She tells me then, as others by now, already have, about how Ray plasterboarded the altar of the little chapel on the Rockingham backstretch. And about how, as broke as he was, he wouldn’t take a dime. “‘I’m doing it for God,’ he told me. ‘For God and people. I can’t take money for that.’”
But as quick as you begin to think of him as some sort of beleaguered, benighted minor saint, the other side comes through. In 1985 he was suspended from racing for the illegal use of an “electrical device” on a horse. At least twice in recent years, he was taken off a mount because a steward smelled liquor on his breath. He is known, according to James Bell, the Massachusetts state racing steward, to have been suspended in California in 1978 for marijuana possession.
“You get to know the ones who have problems,” Bell says. “Ray Garry was one of them. He was a troubled guy.”
“He was hard to know,” says Al Howarth, another of the jockeys who get by on fair riding and 5:00 a.m. gallops. “Kinda strange and weird, a by-himself kinda guy. One day he’d be up, joking, laughing; he could be a real comic sometimes. The next day he won’t talk to you, he won’t have a word to say.
“But he’d give you anything. He’d give you five dollars if he had six in his pocket. If he had two shirts, he’d give you one. A while back, we took up a collection for this jockey who’d got hurt. Ray had made $135 that week. He gave the guy thirty-five bucks.
“He was strange. Inside himself. There wasn’t anybody who really knew him. That pony girl, maybe, that he used to hang out with. I liked him, though. You couldn’t help but like the guy.”
For the 60 days before the Northampton Fair opened—the first 60 days of the Rockingham meet—he couldn’t get a mount to save himself. The one or two trainers who’d believed in him had either lost faith, lost their horses, or moved on. His phone was cut off. He was having trouble making the rent. “I’m 39 years old,” he told his old girlfriend. “Thirty-nine years old, 20 years riding, and I can’t get a ride.”
Opening day at Northampton, he had four mounts—twice as many as he’d had through two months at Rockingham—and one winner. The next day, three mounts; no winners. Then a three-day dry spell and a canceled racing day. Then three mounts on August 30; two mounts and a winner the next day. He had money in his pocket for a change.
When he rode, he rode hard. Not always safely, not always well: “A whoop-de-doo kind of jockey,” says James Bell. “Not much style, not much finesse, just whip ’em hard, give ’em rein, and bring ’em home.”
“He didn’t have patience,” says Al Howarth. “No patience at all. He was always just wanting to shoot out.”
Howarth is 37, short and wide-shouldered, with tight-cut graying hair, a handshake like a vise, and four pounds of magnesium and stainless steel in his legs.
“From falls,” he says simply. “From taking falls.” He grins broadly, perhaps proudly, at the thought. “You ride, you’re gonna fall. It’s part of the game. Don’t know how many falls I’ve had. I’ve lost count. A lot, though.” And he smiles his wide smile.
Two or three days prior to the Highblast race, according to Howarth, Ray took his penultimate fall: “He just flipped right off his horse on the turn, maybe brushed the rail or something, I’m not sure. But he came down on his head. I thought for sure he was hurt, maybe bad. But no. He beat me back to the jocks’ room.
“Ray took a lot of falls. Always got up. Nothing scared him, nothing fazed him. He was one tough jockey, that guy.”
There is a furlong and a half left to ride. Highblast, still second from the rail in a five-horse knot, remains locked onto the heels of Premier Flag—forelegs linked to hind legs, a dance step waiting to come undone. There is danger here. A need for patience, for prudence, for the small instant judgments that measure risk against reward.
But Ray does not wait. He sees or feels—or thinks he sees, or wants to feel—an atom’s worth of running room to his right. He yanks the bit. Highblast veers briefly, then seems to straighten. For the briefest instant, a hoofbeat of time, his head pulls even with the rump of Premier Flag.
Then he stumbles, pitches, but does not fall, and Ray Garry, the next instant, is on his back on the ground. Ten feet from the inside railing, a furlong or so from the wire, not 100 feet from where his father had lain unconscious 30 years before.
A second or so passes. He makes a move to rise. There is a flash of brown and gray, a small sound—like a click—and he is gone.
“Mr. Garry’s horse stumbled, and he lost his balance,” reads the official accounting from James Bell’s office. “Mr. Garry fell to the ground and was stepped on by the #4 horse, Rusty Brick.”
“He was right in front of me,” says Al Howarth, who was riding Rusty Brick. “Right in my path. It all happened so fast. My horse stepped on him, stepped on his jaw with his back foot. Broke his neck. I knew he was dead when I heard it. There was a snap. I kept riding. There was nothing I could do. It was just a freak thing, is all.”
A jockey, Linda Fields, was watching the race along the stretch rail when Ray went down. She leapt the rail and ran toward him; he half-sat, opened his mouth once to speak, then collapsed. He never moved again.
“He broke his neck. He ripped his carotid artery,” says Trooper Steven Hynes, the state policeman assigned to the death. “You could say he died of a broken neck, or you could say he bled to death. He was dead either way.”
“This is an accident of the ultimate degree,” concludes the steward’s accounting of the race. “No one person is to blame for this tragedy. This is a very sad time for all racetrack people and is the most devastating accident I have ever experienced in almost 30 years of experience.”
The next morning at Rockingham, there was a memorial service for Ray Garry in the little track-side chapel whose altar he had helped, only months before, to build. Later in the day, as post time for the first race neared and the track’s flag remained at full mast, the jockeys sent a message to the steward: They wouldn’t ride until the flag was lowered and a moment of silence was observed. Both wishes were granted. The first race went off, on time and fully staffed.
The official service took place three days later, in St. Jude’s Church in Lincoln, Rhode Island. Al Howarth was there, and Henry Ma, and Sal DiMeo, and a small army of other jockeys, grooms, valets, and trainers, active and retired. Ray’s father was there, of course, and his mother and brother Albert, and the four sisters who survive. And an old groom known only by his nickname, “Piece o’ Meat.”
Ronnie Fischer, a retired jockey, delivered the eulogy. “He said Ray hadn’t had the happiest or the luckiest life,” Sal remembers. “He said that he worked hard to fill his old man’s shoes. That he was a good kid. And that he just kept plugging along.”
Gayle Murray, too, was at the service, although, as she explains it, she had paid her homage already, days before.
“I heard he was dead from a trainer. I drove to D’Angelo’s, the one we used to go to, and got a vanilla sundae, with the nuts under the hot fudge. That’s how he used to like it—with the nuts under the fudge.
“I ate it. And I thought of him. And I cried.”