MARTIN BROWN, 66-YEAR OLD LOUISIANA JOCKEY, GETS HIS DUE
In a letter to his sister, 66-year old jockey Martin Brown explained his start at the Fair Grounds Race Course:
“I went to work for the trainer Jere R. Smith, exercising horses. In 1967 I was the exercise rider for Ask the Fare. He was easy, well-mannered, and had a lot of sense. In the Louisiana Derby he laid back and came running down the lane, beating Diplomat Way by a head.”
“In 1968 I got Jere Smith to take my contract, and I had my first mount, Lady Quillette, at the Detroit Race Course, and I finished back, fifth or sixth.”
…“From there, I was a jockey. I could have stayed on as an apprentice, five pounds lighter, but I waived the bug (the five pounds) so I could ride for anyone, and I started making the circuit, Detroit, Chicago, New Orleans.”
Martin’s letter is part of “Letters from the Backside” – an exhibition of open letters by racing’s behind-the-scenes workers from the Neighborhood Story Project – on display at the Fair Grounds Race Course through March 27.
In the run up to the exhibition, Martin was interviewed by The New York Times and was told by Abram Himelstein, one of Neighborhood Story Project’s founders, to get ready for Hollywood to buy the rights to his life story.
But, even after gaining the attention that every jockey craves, Martin remains humble.
“Publicity doesn’t really move you like you’ll like to be moved,” he told me. “You just take it one day at a time. You see what it brings, and you just go from there.”
Martin’s hands are curled with arthritis, he broke several bones after a fall last March, and he’s had to deal with the hard facts of devoting his life to the racetrack.
“There is no retirement on the racetrack," he said, "so you better save your money. I pissed mine off. I was young: I lived. But if I had to do it all over, I’d probably do it the same way.”
Martin seems to live completely without regret, and he certainly doesn’t give anyone the chance to pity him.
I made the mistake of asking if the jockey’s life is tough. He sharply responded: “It ain’t no worse than no other life. Because when someone gets ready to mess up, you’re gonna mess up whether you’re a jockey or disc jockey.”
Still, Martin knows that even a physique as well built as his will crumble.
“I got nearly sixty years on these horses,” he told me. “Sixty years in the saddle, and no retirement. All I need is some kind of guarantee of retirement. I don’t just want to sit there and think, ‘Oh I just got enough money to live.’ That if I live ten more years and can’t work, or have to work this hard, I’m in trouble. … All I would like is to get some kind of guaranteed retirement out of [this publicity].”
Most days, Martin is on the race track by 4:50 a.m., and rides from six to eight horses. Each horse must be worked out before the track closes at 10:30 a.m. If there’s a race for that day, Martin’s back at the track to ride in whichever race he finds himself entered.
And his schedule doesn’t end when the Fair Grounds closes its season on Sunday.
“I’ll take two or three days off; it’s all I need. After two or three days, you’re ready to go back to work. [The Fair Grounds] closes on the 27th and Evangeline opens on the 6th. I’m at Evangeline until Labor Day, and then I go to Louisiana Downs.”
But hard days haven’t soured the humble and determined character of Martin Brown.
In the last line of his letter to his sister, Martin writes:
“I said at the beginning no news was good news, but I’ve sent a lot of news, and most of it was good. I’ve made it this far, and that feels like a win.”
Martin’s entire letter can be viewed on the Neighborhood Story Project's website: neighborhoodstoryproject.org
“MARTIN BROWN, LOUISIANA JOCKEY” IS PART OF NOLAVIE’S COVERAGE LEADING UP TO THE LOUISIANA DERBY. JOIN NOLAVIE’S NEWSLETTER, OR VISIT NOLA.COM/NOLAVIE ON SATURDAY TO READ MORE ARTICLES FROM THE RACETRACK.