Since 1996, I’ve worked part-time as a reporter at New York’s racetracks. The great writer Damon Runyon once said that there are more good stories at a racetrack than anywhere else. And he was right. What kinds of stories? There are stories about 1,500-pound Thoroughbreds racing at full speed, showing an uncanny determination and will to win. There are stories about jockeys, who weigh less than one-tenth of the horses they ride, driving their mounts through tiny slivers of openings between other horses—openings that could close up in a heartbeat and spell disaster. There are the grooms who care for their horses as if they were their own children, and hotwalkers who walk their horses in circles for almost an hour to cool down their muscles after racing or training. There are owners and trainers of horses, both reputable and unscrupulous, who would do anything to secure their horse’s safety, or hatch any scheme to win a race. And there’s the smell of pride, glory, and money in the air, the kind of aromas that push people to the limits.
In New York, almost all of the backstretch workers (grooms and hotwalkers) are Mexican. They come to the US in search of a better living. Many of them have been brought up in the tradition of caring for Thoroughbreds, with their grandparents, parents, brothers and sisters having also come to the US to groom horses. So when the folks at Simon and Schuster asked me to write a racetrack novel for young adults, the idea of prejudice against Mexicans came to my mind. Hence, my protagonist, Gas, grew up in Southwest Texas, and had a father who hated Mexicans or “beaners” as he would call them. I added to the thread of that hatred by having Gas’ mother die in a head on car crash with a sheriff’s deputy who was chasing an illegal Mexican trying to avoid deportation. When Gas runs away from his abusive father and hitches a ride, he finds himself on the back of a pickup truck with illegal Mexicans headed to an Arkansas racetrack to work. With nowhere else to go, Gas begins to work there as well. Without any real knowledge of horses, Gas is now far below the Mexicans he always believed himself to be better than. From there, Gas learns the true meaning of family, as he is practically adopted by a trio of Mexican brothers whose mother had the same name as Gas’—Maria. That’s what this novel is truly about—family, in both the smaller and larger sense.
There is also a joke here in choosing Gas as the protagonist’s name. Sure, Gas is a great name for a potential jockey—like hitting the gas pedal for more speed. But connecting the negative stereotype of Mexicans as “beaners,” (people who eat beans) and a teen named Gas, well, you can draw your own conclusions from there.
The character of Cap Daly, the old-school horse trainer, is based on the Hall of Fame horse trainer P.G. Johnson, who I got to know pretty well before his passing in 2004. Johnson usually wore a Kangol cap, which is why Daly is named Cap.
I once gave Johnson an award in a newspaper column I wrote called the Volponi Award. In Italian, my last name, Volponi, means “sly old fox.” Johnson liked the award and named one of his young horses Volponi. Volponi went on to win a $4-million race, the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic, beating the best horses in the world that day, including the winner of the Kentucky Derby. I’m very proud. You can see that race by going to YouTube and searching “Volponi/2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic.”
There is also some literary fun on page 80 of Homestretch in the horses’ names. Langhorne Express is ridden by a jockey named Samuel, and Deep Water is ridden by Clemens. It’s a tribute to Mark Twain, whose real name is Samuel Clemens. “Mark Twain,” Clemens’ penname, in riverboat slang means “deep water.” I did something similar with Twain references in my poker novel The Hand Your Dealt, which has a protagonist named Huck.
There is a horse in this novel named Rose of Sharon, and that’s a tip of the hat to John Steinbeck and his character of the same name from The Grapes of Wrath. I also have many Steinbeck references in my novel Hurricane Song, about a father and son who survive two hellish nights in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina.
The inner-workings of Homestretch are authentic, including the despicable practice of “milkshaking” (pumping a mixture of Gatorade and baking soda into their stomachs) horses to make them run faster. It was all honed over my years of being a racetrack reporter, and I hope you enjoy the novel.