Breeders’ Cup Diaries: Leonard Looks Back At His Racing Start In Louisiana Backcountry

This is our third edition in a daily diary series following trainer George Leonard’s first trip to the Breeders’ Cup with California Angel. Find Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

It may be the first time George Leonard has brought a horse to Del Mar, but he managed to find a familiar face on the West Coast. Leonard left his regular exercise riders back home with his Indiana Grand string, and picked up the services of jockey Chester Bonnet to help him work California Angel ahead of her run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf.

Bonnet and Leonard go way back, to the days when both were still in their home state of Louisiana. Leonard transferred to Indiana and Kentucky, and Bonnet came to California to be nearer to his son.

“I like the weather better [in California],” Bonnet said. “And the view, the beaches. But there’s nothing like home.”

Neither Bonnet or Leonard could remember whether they won a race together in those days, but in a way it doesn’t much matter.

Bonnet has had a light year in the starting gates, working back from one injury when he ended up with a back spasm and had to take more time off. He has been back in the tack for about two weeks after a four-month layoff and is still pressing on to resume race riding. California Angel is giving him a workout – the farther she goes, the tougher she gets, wanting to pull forward.

Like Leonard, Bonnet said his experience aboard the California Chrome daughter suggested a mentally mature 2-year-old filly who is professional and eager to go to work. Keen observers of the pair’s Tuesday gallop may have noticed her propensity for swapping leads, not just at the usual place in the stretch, but here and there throughout her canter around the Del Mar oval. That’s totally normal for her, Leonard said. If anything, it’s a sign of how well she’s feeling.

“In trying to get away, she’ll start switching leads,” he said. “She throws her head and switches leads, then tries to put her head down so [the rider] will turn her loose. Throw the head up, then try to take off in stride. She’s a little different. And that’s ok.”

California Angel and Bonnet on their gallop Nov. 3

California Angel will get even more to look at when she schools in the Del Mar paddock. Leonard knows that with the fan base California Chrome has, he’ll need to have her ready to deal with a crowd of people jockeying for a look at the bright chestnut with the flashy white markings.

California Angel is situated in one of Del Mar’s long, low barns reserved mostly for the out of state shippers. Bill Mott’s runners are down the way, and Chad Brown’s horses cool out in the row throughout morning training. Of all the horsemen, riders, and reporters gathered outside the open aisle-ways, Leonard’s trademark cowboy hat makes him easy to pick out. Where he came from, that was part of the uniform.

Leonard was born near Chicago but his parents hailed from Louisiana and returned there with him when he was young. Most of his Thoroughbred education comes from tracks you may have heard of – Delta Downs, Evangeline, etc. – but some of his earliest afternoons at the races were at the bush tracks you probably haven’t heard of, little spots known only to the locals that used to be common in rural Louisiana.

“There’d be a grove of trees, horses tied to trees,” he said. “There were no barns. People had horses tied to trucks and trailers.

“Half the people were poor. They had no shoes on, pants rolled up, cowboy hats folded in half. The whole family’s out with the horse. It was just a lot of fun.”

A bush track was very often not a track but a straight chute, sometimes emptying into a corn field. Leonard said he was a child when his father, who was a trainer, used to take the family to the bush tracks on the weekend. It was a social event as much as it was a friendly competition, with parents, children, and extended families gathering, sharing food, standing around talking horses.

Many of the country’s top jockeys, including Calvin Borel, Shane Sellers, Eddie Delahoussaye, and others got their start on bush tracks, often riding as children before they could be licensed at a parimutuel facility.

When there wasn’t a foolhardy kid interested in hopping on a horse for a quick jaunt down the chute (or when the trainer had other ideas), they sent the horses with no riders. Leonard said it was called “catch weight racing,” where the horse carried whatever weight it carried, and they weren’t supposed to all be equal.

Sometimes that meant the horses carried chickens on their backs instead of people, the idea being that the chicken could be secured onto the horse with its wings held still until the start of the race when it would be released and it would flap its feathers, chasing the horse forward down the shoot. (In case you also wondered, there does not seem to have evolved a chicken ranking system whereby particular poultry became sought-after pilots. Previous experience was not required for chicken jockeys.) Leonard said he never met a horse who acclimated to being ridden by a chicken, so previous experience was also immaterial to the outcome for the horse.

In other cases, Leonard recalled that horsemen would tie beer cans with little bits of gravel in them onto horses’ stirrups, so the rattling would prompt them to run forward. A pony rider would sit at the end of the chute, ready to free the chicken or secure the stirrups and pull up the horse. The ponies, predictably, were absolutely dead broke to any of the shenanigans you could throw at them.

“You had to see it to believe it,” he said. “I’d seen some things. They’d get to drinking a little bit and it’d be man against man, foot racing. They’d get in the gates and off they’d go. It was hilarious. I’ve got pictures – these guys would stand up to take a picture like a horse after the foot race. The family would stand all around and the guy would get down on one knee.”

Though the bush tracks were a very different kind of scene from the sanctioned racing where Leonard has made his career, they were, in a way, a return to racing’s origins. Louisianans told the New York Daily News in 2009 that the most famous of the bush tracks dated back before the Great Depression.

“People would get together and say, ‘My horse can beat your horse,’ and run at two or three o’clock,” he said. “It wasn’t about the money. They’d run for $5 or $20 was big money for them.”

Leonard said those horses were not Thoroughbreds. Most were Quarter Horses, but some were of less clear-cut origin. A few backyard riding horses may have snuck in from time to time. But it wasn’t about where they came from – it was about which man thought his horse was fastest, and was willing to prove it. Leonard said he didn’t glean many of his lessons in horsemanship from the bush tracks, but he does believe he has come to Del Mar with the best horse, and he’s eager for Friday to come so he can show her off.

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