At the Track with El Grande Renaldo!

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David Hardiman, Virtuoso Trumpeter, Professor,  San Francisco Jazz Master

 Watching the Sport of the Gods at Golden Gate

 When I agreed to meet my main man Renaldo Ricketts aka El Grande Renaldo – poet, painter and San Francisco Bon vivant – at Golden Gate Field I hadn’t been to a race track in over thirty years.  Not because of any crazy notions about the horses being treated “inhumanely,” since I believe humane treatment ought to be for humans although it is seldom achieved.  And horses well….they should be treated like horses…Duh?    I was kept away from the track by weightier considerations.  Since I am a passionate horse lover and hold a longtime fascination with the equestrian arts, I attended those marvelous horse shows at Madison Square Garden and often rode my own horses.

However I never missed the running of the Triple Crown Races on big screen televisions and thought I had the best seat in the house until yesterday, when I found myself standing tight down by the edge of the track – so close you could feel the momentum of those powerful Thoroughbred horses as they galloped by.  And since I had my camera with me I was happy as a hog in slop.  Renaldo had invited me to join him at the track on other occasions when I was visiting the Bay Area.   But I always played past it.  But this time it was on the eve of his sixtieth birthday, a landmark in the life of anybody these days, but most especially out spoken high spirited black men like Renaldo.

So I thought what tha hell; I’ll go hang out with my buddy and watch some great equine athletes do their thing, which is run faster and longer than any animal on the planet.  While I like to watch the horses Renaldo loves to play them, and is one of the few people who is successful at it.  The way he does it strikes me as some strange conjuration that’s part art, part science, and part Mumbo Jumbo, which makes it beyond the reach of most rational beings and has led to wreck and ruin for may who tried to unlock the secret to winning money playing the horses.  It is a mystery that I long ago decided was beyond the realm of my comprehension and I wouldn’t give a cripple crab a crutch to wager on a nag!

I grew up amid horses, my grandfather was an excellent horseman and my uncle was the town blacksmith in St. Augustine Florida, the nation’s oldest city, where people still rode horses through the street when I was a boy.  Hence I not only learned how to care for horses and handle them whether hitched to a carriage or under saddle, but to shoe them too.  I know a lot about horses, which is why I don’t bet on them.  Horses are living creatures that have a mind of their own and can be moody just like humans; or they just might not feel well, but you never know when they will sit down on you.

I’d rather play the lottery, where all I need is a dollar and a dream and one hit can put me on easy street.  However gambling wise guys know that playing the horses offers much better odds, but to win you have got to work at it and do some study.   In the photo essay below you will witness the intensity of the bettors, as the scan the TV monitors that adorn the walls everywhere, and the disciplined concentration with which they study the racing forms.

El Grande Renaldo is something of a legend at Golden Gate Field, the lovely race track nestled on the banks of the San Francisco Bay, especially in the Second Floor Lounge,  where the bartenders and barmaids treat him as an old friend and his seat at the end of the bar is practically reserved.  He was generous in providing my drink of choice, rum and coke with olives and cherries, while he stuck to light beer and sparkling water.  Like most of the people at the track Renaldo is all business.  He is not only placing bets on races all over the country and following them on the many TV monitors about.  It was fascinating to watch.

However there were many fascinating episodes on that adventure at the track.  It began with the ride on the shuttle bus that ferries people back and forth from the BART train station to Golden Gate Field.  The driver, a Pacific Islander who looked to be in his late thirties, was a passionate fan of vintage 1950’s Afro-American Rhythm and Blues, especially the southern artists.  So on the way to the race track I heard Bobby Blue Bland, BB King, Etta James, Sam Cooke, and James Brown.  They were all original recordings which ran about three minutes and change.  As this was the music that I grew up on it was like a trip back in time, except that back in the day in Florida I would never have been on a bus full of white people grooving to the music and seated next to a white woman with a skirt so short one wrong move and we would have seen her tonsils!

Thus I found myself strolling down memory lane and reflecting  on how dramatically race relations  have changed during my lifetime, not that I need any reminders, after all we have a black family in the White House, everything else pales beside that fact.  I say this without fear of contradiction, despite the verbose ahistorical numb skulls who insist that nothing has changed.   When I arrived at Golden Gate and walked into the vast park I began to have second thoughts as to whether I would actually be able to find Renaldo, but he had assured me in no uncertain terms that he would be where he said he would be.  And he was.

The first thing I heard when I entered the lounge was Renaldo’s voice calling out my name.  There he was in his seat at the end of the bar, impossible to miss with his radiant smile and Falstafian girth, holding forth in his lively loquacious fashion as his fellow travelers looked on.  He asked what I was drinking, introduced me around, and then turned his attention to the next races.  As Renaldo worked his strange alchemy, whereby he turns cardboard tickets into gold the way his Moorish ancestors were rumored to have turned sand into gold back in the day, I wandered down to the edge of the track and began photographing the horse and the humans, who were diverse and of interesting variety.

What was conspicuously absent from the multi-ethnic stew was Afro-American trainers and jockeys.  I’ll bet most people never even notice this, or find it unusual even if they do.  This is because most people who visit race tracks have never seen any significant black presence among the horse handlers.  Yet for many years during the late 19th and early 2th century, Black American Jockeys and trainers dominated the tracks; they owned the Kentucky Derby!  Since I have already written about this in another essay I shall not reiterate it here, for a full discussion of that topic enter “Black Jockeys” in the search engine of this blog.

The point is that they were driven out of the industry by white racist who couldn’t compete with these black masters fairly. And if they had their way Brother Hardiman would not be thrilling the crowds with his wonderful trumpet artistry.  They tried to lay him off but the public wouldn’t stand for it, Renaldo first among them in sparking a letter writing campaign to the management of golden Gate.  The lesson here is that we must be eternally vigilant and ready to battle the forces of white supremacy at all times: Anytime, Anyplace, Anywhere!

I have often felt that there is a serendipitous quality about how I come to write certain essays.  This is a case in point.  Recently I saw a movie starring Will Smith as a con man who hooks up with a foxy grafter and they paint a fascinating portrait of the high fashion hotties and other characters who hang out a race tracks.  So I was looking closely to see if I recognized any of those types.  However the high point for me was watching all of the beautiful horses; I really got an eyegasm.  Some of them you will see in the photographs below.

A hail fellow well met, everybody greeted Renaldo with a warm vibe, what the French call “bon homie.” But the person that I found most fascinating was the official Bugler at the track who plays the fanfare announcing the races.  I was first struck be the fact that he would play impromptu jazz improvisations during the intermission between races, and they were so hip I wondered who it was.  Well he turned out to be David Hardiman, virtuoso trumpeter, Professor of Music and Director of the San Francisco All-Star Jazz Orchestra.

So when he came out to play his next fanfare Renaldo introduced us and I asked him to play the classic Jazz tune Bugle Call Rag, and he swung it.  I have attached a clip of Hardiman and his orchestra in performance at the bottom of this essay.  Every time I hung with Renaldo in San Francisco it has been a fascinating and culturally enriching experience.  The first time we hung out he took me to the Church of Saint John Coltrane; this time I met one of train’s musical descendants. Hence I knew something fascinating would happen hanging out at the track with El Grande Renaldo!

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 After Playing the classic “Bugle Call Rag” at my Request
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The Bugler and I became fast Friends
 We had been Properly Introduced by a Mutual Friend
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El Gran Renaldo: San Francisco artist and Bon Vivant!
 It Was a Stylish Crowd

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 Filled with Free Thinking Fashionistas!
 Folks Still Wear Hats…….
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By the San Francisco Bay
 Even Barely Legal Young Foxes
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Be Rockin Fly Sky Pieces
 Many Mexican Playas Rock Cowboy Hats …

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 …and they play em to the Max!
 Harry Reems Jr Sported a Fedora
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 Played off by a Handle Bar Mustache
 And the Star Girls
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Bedecked themselves in finery
 Then Strutted their Stuff….
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…..before the High Rollers
 Some Fly Girls….
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 Put themselves conspicuously on Display
 While Others…..
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 Are Low Key
 Most People Came to Bet on the Races

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I came to watch these Marvelous Equines
 Among Racing Wise Guys…..Nothing is left to Chance

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They study racing forms as if they were Talmudic Text
 Even as they dine on wine and swine

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They keep their eyes on the prize
  Renaldo has a special spot in the Second Floor Lounge
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From whence he monitors multiple races and watch his fortunes rise or fall
 He has felt the Thrill of Victory…..

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 ……and the Agony of Defeat!
 Man’s Best Friend….The King of Beasts!
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Thoroughbreds can run longer and faster than any animal on earth!
 The Jockeys are cool, calm and collected
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As they wait to board their mo
The Boss Bugler Presented a Fanfare
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To Announce Every Race
 And what splendid Races they Were!
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The ran like they were running for their lives!
Until One Breaks Away From the Pack

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And takes the Money
 The Horses build up such speed
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 They need time to slow down
The Losers are quickly unsaddled
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And returned to the paddock 
While the Winning Steed

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Prances around like a Conquering Hero
 Heading to the Starting Gate

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 Racing Horses are so Hyped they must be Restrained by another Rider
 Ready to Run!
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The Escort’s job is Critical to Keeping the Racers Under control
 Getting them in the Gates require great skill

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 The Calm before the Storm
 The Big Grey took this One!
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A Rare Color for a Thoroughbred
 After the dramatic win…
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…….this champ got all snuggly
 It was just another Day for the Big Gray

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I marvel at his beautiful Conformation

 

In the Winner’s Circle!!!

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 This is what it’s all About!
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Double click to see Hardiman and the Jazz All-Stars

Playthell G. Benjamin 
March 2, 2015
 San Francisco

 

 

 

 

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