MY OLD MAN by Ernest Hemingway
(by courtesy of the Gutenberg Project)
I guess looking at it now my old man was cut out for a fat guy, one of those regular little roly fat guys you see around, but he sure never got that way, except a little toward the last, and then it wasn’t his fault, he was riding over the jumps only and he could afford to carry plenty of weight then. I remember the way he’d pull on a rubber shirt over a couple of jerseys and a big sweat shirt over that and get me to run with him in the forenoon in the hot sun. He’d have maybe taken a trial trip with one of Razzo’s skins early in the morning after just getting in from Torino at four o’clock in the morning and beating it out to the stables in a cab and then with the dew all over everything and the sun just starting to get going I’d help him pull off his boots and he’d get into a pair of sneakers and all these sweaters and we’d start out.
“Come on kid” he’d say, stepping up and down on his toes in front of the jock’s dressing room, “let’s get moving”.
Then we’d start off jogging around the infield once maybe with him ahead running nice and then turn out the gate and along one of those roads with all the trees along both sides of them that run out from San Siro. I’d go ahead of him when we hit the road and I could run
pretty stout and I’d look around and he’d be jogging easy just behind me and after a little while I’d look around again and he’d begun to sweat. Sweating heavy and he’d just be dogging it along with his eyes on my back, but when he’d catch me looking at him he’d grin and say, “Sweating plenty?” When my old man grinned nobody could help but grin too. We’d keep right on running out toward the mountains and then my old man would yell “Hey Joe!” and I’d look back and he’d be sitting under a tree with a towel he’d had around his waist wrapped around his neck.
I’d come back and sit down beside him and he’d pull a rope out of his pocket and start skipping rope out in the sun with the sweat pouring off his face and him skipping rope out in the white dust with the rope going cloppetty cloppety clop clop clop and the sun hotter and
him working harder up and down a patch of the road. Say it was a treat to see my old man skip rope too. He could whirr it fast or lop
it slow and fancy. Say you ought to have seen wops look at us sometimes when they’d come by going into town walking along with big
white steers hauling the cart. They sure looked as though they thought the old man was nuts. He’d start the rope whirring till they’d stop dead still and watch him, then give the steers a cluck and a poke with the goad and get going again.
When I’d sit watching him working out in the hot sun I sure felt fond of him. He sure was fun and he done his work so hard and he’d finish
up with a regular whirring that’d drive the sweat out on his face like water and then sling the rope at the tree and come over and sit
down with me and lean back against the tree with the towel and a sweater wrapped around his neck.
“Sure is hell keeping it down, Joe” he’d say and lean back and shut his eyes and breath long and deep, “it aint like when you’re a kid”.
Then he’d get up before he started to cool and we’d jog along back to the stables. That’s the way it was keeping down to weight. He was
worried all the time. Most jocks can just about ride off all they want to. A jock loses about a kilo every time he rides, but my old man was sort of dried out and he couldn’t keep down his kilos without all that running.
I remember once at San Siro, Regoli, a little wop that was riding for Buzoni came out across the paddock going to the bar for something cool and flicking his boots with his whip, after he’d just weighed in and my old man had just weighed in too and came out with the saddle under his arm looking red faced and tired and too big for his silks and he stood there looking at young Regoli standing up to the outdoors bar cool and kid looking and I says, “What’s the matter Dad?” cause I thought maybe Regoli had bumped him or something and he just looked at Regoli and said, “Oh to hell with it” and went on to the dressing room.
Well it would have been all right maybe if we’d stayed in Milan and ridden at Milan and Torino cause if there ever were any easy courses
its those two. “Pianola, Joe”. My old man said when he dismounted in the winning stall after what the wops thought was a hell of a steeplechase. I asked him once, “This course rides its-self. It’s the pace you’re going at that makes riding the jumps dangerous Joe. We
aint going any pace here, and they aint any really bad jumps either. But it’s the pace always—not the jumps that makes the trouble”.
San Siro was the swellest course I’d ever seen but the old man said
it was a dog’s life. Going back and forth between Mirafiore and San
Siro and riding just about every day in the week with a train ride
every other night.
I was nuts about the horses too. There’s something about it when they
come out and go up the track to the post. Sort of dancy and tight
looking with the jock keeping a tight hold on them and maybe easing
off a little and letting them run a little going up. Then once they
were at the barrier it got me worse than anything. Especially at San
Siro with that big green infield and the mountains way off and the
fat wop starter with his big whip and the jocks fiddling them around
and then the barrier snapping up and that bell going off and them all
getting off in a bunch and then commencing to string out. You know
the way a bunch of skins gets off. If you’re up in the stand with a
pair of glasses all you see is them plunging off and then that bell
goes off and it seems like it rings for a thousand years and then
they come sweeping round the turn. There wasn’t ever anything like it
But my old man said one day in the dressing room when he was getting
into his street clothes, “None of these things are horses Joe. They’d
kill that bunch of skates for their hides and hoofs up at Paris”.
That was the day he’d won the Premio Commercio with Lantorna shooting
her out of the field the last hundred meters like pulling a cork out
of a bottle.
It was right after the Premio Commercio that we pulled out and left
Italy. My old man and Holbrook and a fat wop in a straw hat that kept
wiping his face with a handkerchief were having an argument at a
table in the Galleria. They were all talking French and the two of
them were after my old man about something. Finally he didn’t say
anything any more but just sat there and looked at Holbrook and the
two of them kept after him, first one talking and then the other and
the fat wop always butting in on Holbrook.
“You go out and buy me a Sportsman, will you Joe?” my old man said
and handed me a couple of _soldi_ without looking away from Holbrook.
So I went out of the Galleria and walked over to in front of the
Scala and bought a paper and came back and stood a little way away
because I didn’t want to butt in and my old man was sitting back in
his chair looking down at his coffee and fooling with a spoon and
Holbrook and the big wop were standing and the big wop was wiping his
face and shaking his head. And I came up and my old man acted just as
though the two of them weren’t standing there and said, “Want an ice
Joe?” Holbrook looked down at my old man and said slow and careful,
“You son of a bitch” and he and the fat wop went out through the
My old man sat there and sort of smiled at me but his face was white
and he looked sick as hell and I was scared and felt sick inside
because I knew something had happened and I didn’t see how anybody
could call my old man a son of a bitch and get away with it. My old
man opened up the Sportsman and studied the handicaps for a while and
then he said, “You got to take a lot of things in this world Joe”.
And three days later we left Milan for good on the Turin train for
Paris after an auction sale out in front of Turner’s stables of
everything we couldn’t get into a trunk and a suit case.
We got into Paris early in the morning in a long dirty station the
old man told me was the Gare de Lyon. Paris was an awful big town
after Milan. Seems like in Milan everybody is going somewhere and all
the trams run somewhere and there aint any sort of a mixup, but Paris
is all balled up and they never do straighten it out. I got to like
it though, part of it anyway, and say it’s got the best race courses
in the world. Seems as though that were the thing that keeps it all
going and about the only thing you can figure on is that every day
the buses will be going out to whatever track they’re running at
going right out through everything to the track. I never really got
to know Paris well because I just came in about once or twice a week
with the old man from Maisons and he always sat at the Cafe de la
Paix on the Opera side with the rest of the gang from Maisons and I
guess that’s one of the busiest parts of the town. But say it is
funny that a big town like Paris wouldn’t have a Galleria isn’t it?
Well, we went out to live at Maisons-Lafitte, where just about
everybody lives except the gang at Chantilly, with a Mrs. Meyers that
runs a boarding house. Maisons is about the swellest place to live
I’ve ever seen in all my life. The town aint so much, but there’s a
lake and a swell forest that we used to go off bumming in all day, a
couple of us kids, and my old man made me a sling shot and we got a
lot of things with it but the best one was a magpie. Young Dick
Atkinson shot a rabbit with it one day and we put it under a tree and
were all sitting around and Dick had some cigarettes and all of a
sudden the rabbit jumped up and beat it into the brush and we chased
it but we couldn’t find it. Gee we had fun at Maisons. Mrs. Meyers
used to give me lunch in the morning and I’d be gone all day. I
learned to talk French quick. It’s an easy language.
As soon as we got to Maisons my old man wrote to Milan for his
license and he was pretty worried till it came. He used to sit around
the Cafe de Paris in Maisons with the gang there, there were lots of
guys he’d known when he rode up at Paris before the war lived at
Maisons, and there’s a lot of time to sit around because the work
around a racing stable for the jocks that is, is all cleaned up by
nine o’clock in the morning. They take the first batch of skins out
to gallop them at 5.30 in the morning and they work the second lot at
8 o’clock. That means getting up early all right and going to bed
early too. If a jock’s riding for somebody too he can’t go boozing
around because the trainer always has an eye on him if he’s a kid and
if he aint a kid he’s always got an eye on himself. So mostly if a
jock aint working he sits around the Café de Paris with the gang and
they can all sit around about two or three hours in front of some
drink like a vermouth and seltz and they talk and tell stories and
shoot pool and it’s sort of like a club or the Galleria in Milan.
Only it aint really like the Galleria because there everybody is
going by all the time and there’s everybody around at the tables.
Well my old man got his license all right. They sent it through to
him without a word and he rode a couple of times. Amiens, up country
and that sort of thing, but he didn’t seem to get any engagement.
Everybody liked him and whenever I’d come in to the Café in the
forenoon I’d find somebody drinking with him because my old man
wasn’t tight like most of these jockey’s that have got the first
dollar they made riding at the World’s Fair in St. Louis in Nineteen
ought four. That’s what my old man would say when he’d kid George
Burns. But it seemed like everybody steered clear of giving my old
man any mounts.
We went out to wherever they were running every day with the car from
Maisons and that was the most fun of all. I was glad when the horses
came back from Deauville and the summer. Even though it meant no more
bumming in the woods, cause then we’d ride to Enghien or Tremblay or
St. Cloud and watch them from the trainers’ and jockeys’ stand. I
sure learned about racing from going out with that gang and the fun
of it was going every day.
I remember once out at St. Cloud. It was a big two hundred thousand
franc race with seven entries and Kzar a big favourite. I went around
to the paddock to see the horses with my old man and you never saw
such horses. This Kzar is a great big yellow horse that looks like
just nothing but run. I never saw such a horse. He was being led
around the paddock with his head down and when he went by me I felt
all hollow inside he was so beautiful. There never was such a
wonderful, lean, running built horse. And he went around the paddock
putting his feet just so and quiet and careful and moving easy like
he knew just what he had to do and not jerking and standing up on his
legs and getting wild eyed like you see these selling platers with a
shot of dope in them. The crowd was so thick I couldn’t see him again
except just his legs going by and some yellow and my old man started
out through the crowd and I followed him over to the jock’s dressing
room back in the trees and there was a big crowd around there too but
the man at the door in a derby nodded to my old man and we got in and
everybody was sitting around and getting dressed and pulling shirts
over their heads and pulling boots on and it all smelled hot and
sweaty and linimenty and outside was the crowd looking in.
The old man went over and sat down beside George Gardner that was
getting into his pants and said, “What’s the dope George?” just in an
ordinary tone of voice cause there aint any use him feeling around
because George either can tell him or he can’t tell him.
“He won’t win” George says very low, leaning over and buttoning the
bottoms of his pants.
“Who will” my old man says leaning over close so nobody can hear.
“Kircubbin” George says, “And if he does, save me a couple of
My old man says something in a regular voice to George and George
says, “Don’t ever bet on anything I tell you” kidding like and we
beat it out and through all the crowd that was looking in over to the
100 franc mutuel machine. But I knew something big was up because
George is Kzar’s jockey. On the way he gets one of the yellow odds
sheets with the starting prices on and Kzar is only paying 5 for 10,
Cefisidote is next at 3 to I and fifth down the list this Kircubbin
at 8 to 1. My old man bets five thousand on Kircubbin to win and puts
on a thousand to place and we went around back of the grandstand to
go up the stairs and get a place to watch the race.
We were jammed in tight and first a man in a long coat with a grey
tall hat and a whip folded up in his hand came out and then one after
another the horses, with the jocks up and a stable boy holding the
bridle on each side and walking along, followed the old guy. That big
yellow horse Kzar came first. He didn’t look so big when you first
looked at him until you saw the length of his legs and the whole way
he’s built and the way he moves. Gosh I never saw such a horse.
George Gardner was riding him and they moved along slow, back of the
old guy in the gray tall hat that walked along like he was the ring
master in a circus. Back of Kzar, moving along smooth and yellow in
the sun, was a good looking black with a nice head with Tommy
Archibald riding him and after the black was a string of five more
horses all moving along slow in a procession past the grandstand and
the pesage. My old man said the black was Kircubbin and I took a good
look at him and he was a nice looking horse all right but nothing
Everybody cheered Kzar when he went by and he sure was one swell
looking horse. The procession of them went around on the other side
past the pelouse and then back up to the near end of the course and
the circus master had the stable boys turn them loose one after
another so they could gallop by the stands on their way up to the
post and let everybody have a good look at them. They weren’t at the
post hardly any time at all when the gong started and you could see
them way off across the infield all in a bunch starting on the first
swing like a lot of little toy horses. I was watching them through
the glasses and Kzar was running well back with one of the bays
making the pace. They swept down and around and came pounding past
and Kzar was way back when they passed us and this Kircubbin horse in
front and going smooth. Gee it’s awful when they go by you and then
you have to watch them go farther away and get smaller and smaller
and then all bunched up on the turns and then come around towards
into the stretch and you feel like swearing and goddaming worse and
worse. Finally they made the last turn and came into the straightaway
with this Kircubbin horse way out in front. Everybody was looking
funny and saying “Kzar” in sort of a sick way and they pounding
nearer down the stretch, and then something came out of the pack
right into my glasses like a horse-headed yellow streak and everybody
began to yell “Kzar” as though they were crazy. Kzar came on faster
than I’d ever seen anything in my life and pulled up on Kircubbin
that was going fast as any black horse could go with the jock
flogging hell out of him with the gad and they were right dead neck
and neck for a second but Kzar seemed going about twice as fast with
those great jumps and that head out—but it was while they were neck
and neck that they passed the winning post and when the numbers went
up in the slots the first one was 2 and that meant Kircubbin had won.
I felt all trembly and funny inside, and then we were all jammed in
with the people going down stairs to stand in front of the board
where they’d post what Kircubbin paid. Honest watching the race I’d
forgot how much my old man had bet on Kircubbin. I’d wanted Kzar to
win so damned bad. But now it was all over it was swell to know we
had the winner.
“Wasn’t it a swell race Dad?” I said to him.
He looked at me sort of funny with his derby on the back of his head,
“George Gardner’s a swell jockey all right”, he said, “It sure took a
great jock to keep that Kzar horse from winning”.
Of course I knew it was funny all the time. But my old man saying
that right out like that sure took the kick all out of it for me and
I didn’t get the real kick back again ever, even when they posted the
numbers up on the board and the bell rang to pay off and we saw that
Kircubbin paid 67.50 for 10. All around people were saying “Poor
Kzar. Poor Kzar!” And I thought, I wish I were a jockey and could
have rode him instead of that son of a bitch. And that was funny,
thinking of George Gardner as a son of a bitch because I’d always
liked him and besides he’d given us the winner, but I guess that’s
what he is all right.
My old man had a big lot of money after that race and he took to
coming into Paris oftener. If they raced at Tremblay he’d have them
drop him in town on their way back to Maisons and he and I’d sit out
in front of the Café de la Paix and watch the people go by. It’s
funny sitting there. There’s streams of people going by and all sorts
of guys come up and want to sell you things and I loved to sit there
with my old man. That was when we’d have the most fun. Guys would
come by selling funny rabbits that jumped if you squeezed a bulb and
they’d come up to us and my old man would kid with them. He could
talk French just like English and all those kind of guys knew him
cause you can always tell a jockey—and then we always sat at the same
table and they got used to seeing us there. There were guys selling
matrimonial papers and girls selling rubber eggs that when you
squeezed them a rooster came out of them and one old wormy looking
guy that went by with post cards of Paris showing them to everybody,
and of course nobody ever bought any and then he would come back and
show the under side of the pack and they would all be smutty post
cards and lots of people would dig down and buy them.
Gee I remember the funny people that used to go by. Girls around
supper time looking for somebody to take them out to eat and they’d
speak to my old man and he’d make some joke at them in French and
they’d pat me on the head and go on. Once there was an American woman
sitting with her kid daughter at the next table to us and they were
both eating ices and I kept looking at the girl and she was awfully
good looking and I smiled at her and she smiled at me but that was
all that ever came of it because I looked for her mother and her
every day and I made up ways that I was going to speak to her and I
wondered if I got to know her if her mother would let me take her out
to Auteuil or Tremblay but I never saw either of them again. Anyway I
guess it wouldn’t have been any good anyway because looking back on
it I remember the way I thought out would be best to speak to her was
to say, “Pardon me, but perhaps I can give you a winner at Enghien
today?” and after all maybe she would have thought I was a tout
instead of really trying to give her a winner.
We’d sit at the Café de la Paix, my old man and me, and we had a big
drag with the waiter because my old man drank whisky and it cost five
francs and that meant a good tip when the saucers were counted up. My
old man was drinking more than I’d ever seen him, but he wasn’t
riding at all now and besides he said that whiskey kept his weight
down. But I noticed he was putting it on all right just the same.
He’d busted away from his old gang out at Maisons and seemed to like
just sitting around on the boulevard with me. But he was dropping
money every day at the track. He’d feel sort of doleful after the
last race, if he’d lost on the day, until we’d get to our table and
he’d have his first whiskey and then he’d be fine.
He’d be reading the Paris-Sport and he’d look over at me and say,
“Where’s your girl Joe?” to kid me on account I had told him about
the girl that day at the next table. And I’d get red but I liked
being kidded about her. It gave me a good feeling. “Keep your eye
peeled for her Joe.” he’d say, “She’ll be back.”
He’d ask me questions about things and some of the things I’d say
he’d laugh. And then he’d get started talking about things. About
riding down in Egypt, or at St. Moritz on the ice before my mother
died, and about during the war when they had regular races down in
the south of France without any purses, or betting or crowd or
anything just to keep the breed up. Regular races with the jocks
riding hell out of the horses. Gee I could listen to my old man talk
by the hour, especially when he’d had a couple or so of drinks. He’d
tell me about when he was a boy in Kentucky and going coon hunting
and the old days in the states before everything went on the bum
there. And he’d say, “Joe, when we’ve got a decent stake, you’re
going back there to the States and go to school.”
“What’ve I got to go back there to go to school for when everything’s
on the bum there?” I’d ask him.
“That’s different.” he’d say and get the waiter over and pay the pile
of saucers and we’d get a taxi to the Gare St. Lazare and get on the
train out to Maisons.
One day at Auteuil after a selling steeplechase my old man bought in
the winner for 30.000 francs. He had to bid a little to get him but
the stable let the horse go finally and my old man had his permit and
his colors in a week. Gee I felt proud when my old man was an owner.
He fixed it up for stable space with Charles Drake and cut out coming
in to Paris and started his running and sweating out again and him
and I were the whole stable gang. Our horse’s name was Gillford, he
was Irish bred and a nice sweet jumper. My old man figured that
training him and riding him himself he was a good investment. I was
proud of everything and I thought Gillford was as good a horse as
Kzar. He was a good solid jumper a bay, with plenty of speed on the
flat if you asked him for it and he was a nice looking horse too.
Gee I was fond of him. The first time he started with my old man up
he finished third in a 2.500 meter hurdle race and when my old man
got off him, all sweating and happy in the place stall and went in to
weigh I felt as proud of him as though it was the first race he’d
ever placed in. You see when a guy aint been riding for a long time
you can’t make yourself really believe that he has ever rode. The
whole thing was different now cause down in Milan even big races
never seemed to make any difference to my old man, if he won he
wasn’t ever excited or anything, and now it was so I couldn’t hardly
sleep the night before a race and I knew my old man was excited too
even if he didn’t show it. Riding for yourself makes an awful
Second time Gillford and my old man started was a rainy Sunday at
Auteuil in the Prix du Marat, a 4.500 meter steeplechase. As soon as
he’d gone out I beat it up in the stand with the new glasses my old
man had bought for me to watch them. They started way over at the far
end of the course and there was some trouble at the barrier.
Something with goggle blinders on was making a great fuss and rearing
around and busted the barrier once but I could see my old man in our
black jacket with a white cross and a black cap sitting up on
Gillford and patting him with his hand. Then they were off in a jump
and out of sight behind the trees and the gong going for dear life
and the pari mutuel wickets rattling down. Gosh I was so excited I
was afraid to look at them but I fixed the glasses on the place where
they would come out back of the trees and then out they came with the
old black jacket going third and they all sailing over the jump like
birds. Then they went out of sight again and then they came pounding
out and down the hill and all going nice and sweet and easy and
taking the fence smooth in a bunch and moving away from us all solid.
Looked as though you could walk across on their backs they were all
so bunched and going so smooth, Then they bellied over the big double
Bullfinch and something came down. I couldn’t see who it was but in a
minute the horse was up an galloping free and the field, all bunched
still, sweeping around the long left turn into the straightaway. They
jumped the stone wall and came jammed down the stretch toward the big
water jump right in front of the stands. I saw them coming and
hollered at my old man as he went by and he was leading by about a
length and riding way out over and light as a monkey and they were
racing for the water jump. They took off over the big hedge of the
water jump in a pack and then there was a crash and two horses pulled
sideways out off it and kept on going and three others were piled up.
I couldn’t see my old man anywhere. One horse knee-ed himself up and
the jock had hold of the bridle and mounted and went slamming on
after the place money. The other horse was up and away by himself,
jerking his head and galloping with the bridle rein hanging and the
jock staggered over to one side of the track against the fence. Then
Gillford rolled over to one side off my old man and got up and
started to run on three legs with his off hoof dangling and there was
my old man lying there on the grass flat out with his face up and
blood all over the side of his head. I ran down the stand and bumped
into a jam of people and got to the rail and a cop grabbed me and
held me and two big stretcher bearers were going out after my old man
and around on the other side of the course I saw three horses, strung
way out, coming out of the trees and taking the jump.
My old man was dead when they brought him in and while a doctor was
listening to his heart with a thing plugged in his ears I heard a
shot up the track that meant they’d killed Gillford. I lay down
beside my old man when they carried the stretcher into the hospital
room and hung onto the stretcher and cried and cried and he looked so
white and gone and so awfully dead and I couldn’t help feeling that
if my old man was dead maybe they didn’t need to have shot Gillford.
His hoof might have got well. I don’t know. I loved my old man so
Then a couple of guys came in and one of them patted me on the back
and then went over and looked at my old man and then pulled a sheet
off the cot and and spread it over him; and the other was telephoning
in French for them to send the ambulance to take him out to Maisons.
And I couldn’t stop crying, crying and choking, sort of, and George
Gardner came in and sat down beside me on the floor and put his arm
around me and says, “Come on Joe old boy. Get up and we’ll go out and
wait for the ambulance.”
George and I went out to the gate and I was trying to stop bawling
and George wiped off my face with his handkerchief and we were
standing back a little ways while the crowd was going out of the gate
and a couple of guys stopped near us while we were waiting for the
crowd to get through the gate and one of them was counting a bunch of
mutuel tickets and he said, “Well Butler got his all right.”
The other guy said, “I don’t give a good goddam if he did, the crook.
He had it coming to him on the stuff he’s pulled.”
“I’ll say he had,” said the other guy and tore the bunch of tickets
And George Gardner looked at me to see if I’d heard and I had all
right and he said, “Don’t you listen to what those bums said Joe.
Your old man was one swell guy.”
But I don’t know. Seems like when they get started they dont leave a