An orphan finds a home at the racetrack

The following is a chapter from the memoir of “Dickie” Jenkins. Jenkins served as the primary exercise rider for the legendary racehorse Kelso and was a longtime assistant for trainer Carl Hanford. Click here to read more from his memoir…

This is the story of a child in the forties who loved horses and dogs. He came from a broken family in which alcohol played a great part. You might not believe what I am about to tell you, but it is true.

I can remember things when I was five years old, and even younger. I used to roam the streets of Jacksonville, Florida, not knowing where my father or mother were. Sometimes, I would go to my Aunt Virgel’s, and she would ask me why I wasn’t home at that time of night. I would tell her some kind of story so I could get something to eat, and then take off to find a place to sleep which was at a stable. Every morning, the owner would find me sleeping in his barn and run me off, but I kept coming back.

This man was Marvin Jenkins, one of the best horsemen in Florida at that time. He saw that he couldn’t keep me out of his barn, so he told his wife, Pearl, about me. She came to see me, and when I saw her, she looked like an angel. She walked over to me, picked me up, and gave me a huge hug which I never will forget. Then she took me to her house, showed me to her son, Danny, who was three years younger than me. That is how I came to stay with my new family, the Jenkins.

Pearl wanted to know where my mother was, and I told her that she lived in town, but I didn’t know the address. I was so happy here, and didn’t want to leave, so I found my dad, and he came out to the stables to have a talk with the Jenkins. I think he really knew deep down in his heart neither he nor my mother could take care of me, so whatever kind of paper they had from a lawyer for him to sign, he did, thank the Lord.

Now Marvin had all the horses, and I couldn’t wait to start riding them. One day, I was on the fence, and one of the horses came over to me. I started rubbing his head and neck, and before I knew it, I was on his back, and he started walking among the other horses. I started jumping from one horse to another, and they would just walk here and there with me. They didn’t seem to mind it at all. So that day, I knew I didn’t ever need a saddle to ride. I rode bareback out of the gate in quarter horse races when I was eight years old, and was just part of the horse.

Now all of this was 1941 and 1942, so I was still wet behind the ears. I have some pictures of myself back then, but can’t seem to find them right now. I have one picture where all I have on was a pair of short pants and a little vest which had the number and colors painted on real fancy. The horse’s name was Thunder, and he could carry the mail. I weighed about 70 pounds, and the horse ran like he was loose. We worked him one morning at a race horse farm owned by Dr. C.C. Collins, and there were some more people there, working their horse. One of the men came over and asked Marvin if he would work Thunder with his mare.

Marvin said yes, why not, so I thought this would be another race which I would win, because I had won six in a row, and had never been beaten. That morning, we loaded up in the gate, and the boy who was riding the mare was named Jimmy, a good jockey at that time. Jimmy looked over at me, and said he didn’t think I was going to win this match today. So when the man said go, we were head and head all the way to the wire, but the mare was one stride faster than Thunder and beat me by half a head. I came to find out that the mare I was working with was none other than the best quarter horse of 1949, the great Stella Moore, who had had a match race with F.W. Hooper’s top quarter horse, Olympia.

I went on riding in all the little bush tracks around Florida, Texas and Louisiana, and learned to ride pretty darn well, but I never rode a thoroughbred or galloped one. One day in 1949, a policeman came to the house and wanted to talk to Marvin about me coming to his farm in Bayard, Florida, and told him he would like me to break his yearlings. He would pay me pretty well, but any pay would be good, because I never got paid to ride back then.

Marvin let me go, and I did a good job for the man. His name was Capt. W.B. Keene of the Jacksonville Police Department, and I think he was trying to learn something about the racing business. Bill Keene, his son, was a trainer, and I believe this was his first year on the job, because he didn’t know much more than I did. The Keenes had me on loan from my dad at that time because we had quarter horses, and we raced them on the Jax Speedway. When I was riding quarter horses, we didn’t have saddles, and rode bareback. At that time, I was ten years old and weighed 85 pounds. The horses I rode ran like they were loose, and yes, it was a big thrill to win. I wound up becoming the leading rider out of the four jockeys there (not bad). I was in a new ball game, and really liked it because all I did was ride, and that was all I wanted to do.

One day, Captain Keene asked me if wanted to go to the races with the young horses I had broken in, and I told him that I sure would, but I still had to go to school, since I was not old enough to make up my own mind about what I wanted to do. I asked Marvin, and he said that I should quit school, and go full time at learning to be a jockey. I could send money home, and he would put it in the bank and save it for me (Wrong, but that is another story).

I did go to Hialeah Race Track, and I was in a whole new world. There, I heard words that I never heard in my life, all the bad words a man could speak to another. Anyway, I remember when I would go to the back of barn X at Hialeah, and help Bruce Kendall, the Florida race track blacksmith. He made some of the best tools, and all the blacksmiths would buy them. I even learned to make a hoof knife. I stayed there most of the time, when I first came to the track because I wasn’t sure that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. Back there in the shop, I didn’t have to hear all that cursing and fighting. I just wanted to help Bruce make tools, and I thought this might be a better way to make a living.

So there I was at Hialeah. I tried to find someone whom I could follow. And the first people I noticed were Woody Stephens and Ben Jones. I didn’t know any of the horses they had, but I thought Two Lea was the best filly I had ever seen. I had no idea that there were more in that barn that were pretty good too. There were screen boxes in front of the stalls, and I couldn’t see through them. I decided to climb up the inside of the stalls from the rafters so I could see what those boxes were hiding. Just as I was climbing them, a black man known as Slow and Easy, followed by another man (Jimmy Jones) comes running in, and he sure was mad. He told me to get my ass down from the rafters and hit the road. I did, and went back to Barn X which was the last barn in the stable area.

At that time, I was ten years old, and I don’t think there was a horse I couldn’t ride, as long as it had hair on it. I might not look pretty doing it, but I always got the job done which was what people wanted. Enough notice was taken that the “Lakeshore Breeze” newspaper printed an article about how I hoped to become a well known jockey, since I had been the leading rider at Jax Speedway.

Read the next chapter: Inspired by Citation and learning to ride