by William Thomas
I was just 15 years old, living in a dot on the map called Dain City, when I had a vague notion that there was a beautiful and exciting racetrack 20 minutes away, at which horses raced on summer afternoons and people went to bet on them. Gambling being one of the few vices my father did not practise, I never got to the Fort Erie Racetrack as a kid. I made up for it after my first year at university when I found out the hard way that betting on the horses was not the same as a summer job in that the money was going the wrong way.
But in the late summer of ‘61, even people who cared little or knew nothing about Fort Erie — then and now one of the most stunning setting for horse racing in North America—had heard of Puss n Boots. He was the horse who became instantly famous for taking a swim in the middle of a thoroughbred race.
Puss n Boots, trained by the great horseman Frank Merrill, was brought to Fort Erie from Gulfstream Park in Florida, where he had earned the reputation of a promising sprinter but a bit of a nutter. During one outing, a piece of paper flying around the Florida track had sent him into a tailspin and he almost jumped the rail to get away from it.
It was a hot September afternoon at Fort Erie, the beautiful racetrack set around shimmering infield lakes with well-trimmed shrubs and flowers in full bloom. Puss n Boots was actually leading by five lengths at the top of the stretch on the mile-and-one-sixteenth turf course when the jockey slapped his butt … right-handed. Apparently, the horse was fine with a whack on his left cheek but never the right one. The jockey either hadn’t been told or forgot about this particular peculiarity.
Freaked and looking to flee the track, Puss n Boots spotted a narrow opening in the hedge that circled the turf course, used mainly by the groundskeepers to enter the infield where they watered the plants and trimmed the shrubs. At full speed, and carrying a very startled Ronnie Behrens on his back, Puss n Boots shot the gap. The quick left turn sent the jockey airborne over the horse’s head as his mount made a beeline for the nearest infield lake.
Sprawled on the grass, the jockey looked like he was starring in a cartoon that carried the caption: “Riding – the art of keeping the horse between you and the ground.” Did I mention it was also a very hot day? Nearing the water, the horse hit the brakes as a silent and disbelieving crowd of over 14,000 people in the grandstand watched Puss n Boots slide slowly and inelegantly into the lake, butt-first.
Trust me, when a bettor puts a wad of money on a rising star like Puss n Boots, expecting him to win the race, the last thing he wants to hear from the horse is the sound of a really big splash.
Immediately, Ronnie Behrens jumped into the lake to save his horse until … until he remembered he could not swim. Immediately, trainer Frank Merrill went thrashing into the lake to save his jockey until … until he remembered he too could not swim. With one horse and two men now flailing away in deep water, the entire starting gate crew first kicked off their shoes, stripped down to their skivvies and then plunged into the lake like a team of very pale lifeguards. Although the gate guys hauled the jockey and trainer out of the drink, that horse just wanted to have fun. Leisurely, he swam in circles in the middle of the lake like it was his private backyard pool. Horse racing is supposed to be a serious business, not a day at the beach.
A big horse, a small skiff, three guys mostly naked and nobody, nobody said: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat?!?”
It took a man in a row boat and the starting crew almost an hour to get a hold of Puss n Boots and lead him to land, at which time he got a standing ovation. Thousands of people showed up to watch a horse race and a swim meet broke out!
This amazing moment in horse racing history is commemorated annually with Fort Erie’s $30,000 Puss n Boots Circle the Course, coming up on Sunday, Aug.31 after which the winners — jockey, trainer and owners but no, not the horse — jump into that same infield lake.
Although the horse is long gone, the track lives on and is experiencing a bit of a renaissance. Running eight races every Tuesday and Sunday, people are starting to pack the place again.
On Twilight Tuesdays and a post time of 4:15 p.m., the apron is crowded, the restaurant is full and hundreds stay to hear the band play into the summer night. There’s no better way to remember summer than a long and languid afternoon at the track. Try it. I guarantee you’ll like it. Just don’t bet what I’m betting, okay?
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