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Restlessness gets in your blood.
Whether by genetics or circumstance, the tug of the open road, the need to keep moving and changing, fighting the urge to settle down—to avoid getting close enough to anyone who might encourage roots to sprout—is felt more strongly by some than by others. In the case of Tim Snyder, it could certainly be argued that the odd romance of the racetrack life, as weird and nomadic as the circus it sometimes mirrors, was imprinted on his DNA, and reinforced at every step thereafter.
His grandfather, Earl Snyder, had been a reasonable man living a reasonable life in the rural hamlet of Duanesburg, New York, not far from Schenectady. The family had a small, working farm that required the combined efforts of parents and children to keep it viable. One day, though, as family lore has it, Earl took everyone to the racetrack and quickly became enamored of the life. In fairly short order he had sold off the farm, the livestock, and the equipment to tend them, and used the proceeds to purchase a single thoroughbred racehorse. Bitten badly by the bug, he moved the family to Belmont, New York, and embarked on a spectacularly dreamy and ambitious (if unfocused) midlife career change, one made even more complicated by the fact that it occurred in the thick of the Great Depression: he would be a horse trainer.
“My grandfather fell in love with horses,” Tim Snyder said. “He couldn’t help himself. And six months after they got to Belmont, his son—my dad—became a rider. A pretty good one, too. He was only fifteen years old at the time—same age I was when I started. But back in those days, I guess no one really cared how old you were—not even at a big track like Belmont. Long as you could get on a horse and hold him straight, you could ride.”
Warren Snyder was a natural, small and lean, with firm but gentle hands, and an easy rapport with animals. Something else, too. He had a quiet confidence, the kind all jockeys have to some extent—after all, you need a sturdy sack in order to sit atop one thousand pounds of heaving horseflesh as it roars along the backstretch, in heavy traffic, at speeds of up to forty miles an hour. Not everyone is cut out for that sort of work. Very few people, in fact. But Warren Snyder was one of them, a gifted and aggressive youngster who didn’t mind guiding his mount through cracks too narrow for sane or safe passage.
It’s a truism around the racetrack that there are only two types of jockeys: those who have crashed, and those who are going to crash. It’s also a truism that a jockey is never quite the same after he graduates from the first camp into the second. The ability to harness fear is a skill whose importance cannot be overstated. The “bug boy” (an apprentice jockey often still in his teens) rides with sometimes reckless abandon and a seeming weightlessness that is prized by trainers and owners and bettors, his mistakes and inexperience a fair trade-off in a world that covets speed and rewards risk, both at the window and on the dirt.
For a while, at least.
There is no shortage of stories about apprentices who lost the weight allowance that comes with the designation and soon thereafter lost their mojo, and then, naturally, the support of previously loyal and supportive handlers. Fear creeps into the equation, as well, fueled by failure or a stumble and the first chaotic, terrifying brush with mortality.
In short, for the rider, horse racing is easy. Until it’s not. And then it becomes damn near impossible. A career that in its nascence seemed limitless suddenly becomes grounded in practicality and survival. Forget the Triple Crown; just get me a ride at Rockingham, preferably on a nag that won’t start coughing up blood at the sixteenth pole or snap a tendon while I’m trying to squeeze by on the rail.
A jockey’s career, like anyone else’s, ebbs and flows over time, for any number of reasons. But the trajectory tends to be parabolic, and once the descent begins it’s hard to slow it down. At the height of his career, Warren Snyder was a semi-regular in the racetrack equivalent of the major leagues, at places like Belmont and Aqueduct, where the horses generally are sound, the purses substantial, and the potential for fame and fortune tantalizingly real. Tim has photos of his dad, youthful and fit, sitting proudly atop his mount in the winner’s circle at Belmont, hordes of racetrack fans in the background, reminders of a time when life held infinite promise and horse racing ruled in the hearts and minds of American sports fans.
For whatever reason, Warren Snyder soon found himself in the minors, bouncing from track to track all along the Eastern Seaboard, but primarily at the hardscrabble tracks of New England—places like Rockingham Park in New Hampshire, Suffolk Downs near Boston, and Scarborough Downs in Maine. He rode regularly and with varying degrees of success or failure for more than three decades, eking out a living any way he could. When his body protested the starvation and other reducing methods imposed upon it, and he became too big to secure mounts, he’d do what any seasoned horseman would do: he’d pick up a few bucks as a hotwalker or groom. Anything to pay the bills and support the family.
Sometimes, though, he’d piss away the paycheck on booze or betting, and it wasn’t long before promise and potential gave way to resignation.
“When people think of horse racing they tend to think of the glamour and the high level of racing at places like the Kentucky Derby,” said Cheryl Hall, Tim Snyder’s older sister. “But it’s not like that for most people. It wasn’t like that for Timmy and it wasn’t like that for my father. But I want to make one thing clear: in neither case was it because of a lack of talent. It was because of the drinking. It’s funny—Timmy and my father had so many issues with each other, and yet they were so much alike. They were both true horsemen who could have made different lives for themselves if alcohol had not been involved. Drinking changes people; it makes them unreliable. It causes a myriad of problems.”
Added Tim Snyder: “My father was a well-known rider in some circles, but in the end, he was just a waste of talent, mainly because of the drinking. That’s harsh, but it’s the truth. I don’t know … maybe he had reason to drink. He lost his family, his livelihood, everything, really. By the end he was broken in half. His life story was a story in itself.”
Warren and Virginia Snyder were, by necessity, an itinerant couple, roaming from one track to another, and one town to another, occasionally expanding on the family in ways almost too weird for words. Cheryl, born in 1949, was the oldest. She slipped into the world slightly ahead of schedule, as her parents were driving to Oaklawn Park Racetrack in Hot Springs, Arkansas. The couple stopped at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, just long enough for Cheryl to be delivered safely. The newborn girl spent her first night on Earth sleeping in the bottom drawer of a hotel dresser that had been rigged to serve as a crib.
Six years later Timmy came along, dropping into the crowd at Scarborough Downs with all the urgency of a gambler trying to get a bet down in the waning seconds before post time. His mother was jostling with folks on the escalator at the time, rushing to join her husband in the winner’s circle after he’d finished first in the last race of the day. She never made it, though, instead taking a detour to the first-aid room, where she gave birth to her oldest son. There would be two more children, Eddie and Danny, before Virginia Snyder called it quits. If the children had a sometimes chaotic upbringing, it was not without its charms.
“We grew up in the backseat of our cars,” Cheryl said wistfully. “I can remember sitting there at night, looking out the windows, staring at the stars. We never really settled down.”
What is normal, anyway? Tim Snyder never knew anything but the racetrack life, which was by definition an erratic, unpredictable existence. Through the eyes of an eight-year-old, though, it wasn’t so bad. The places they lived—Old Orchard Beach, Maine; Salem, New Hampshire—were veritable playgrounds for a little boy, especially in the sultry summer months, at the height of the tourist season. In the winter time they’d pack up the station wagon and head south to Florida or Arkansas. Uprooting had its downside, of course—the kids were always changing schools, trying to make new friends, leaving old ones behind—but they leaned on each other in times of transition, or when things got ugly between their parents, which was not infrequent as the years went on and money got tight and Warren’s drinking escalated.
It’s strange the way things can sour. For a while Warren Snyder was a hot rider on the New England circuit, and though that didn’t exactly make him Willie Shoemaker, it did carry with it a degree of notoriety that wasn’t unappealing. But when things went bad, they went really bad.
“My dad would go anywhere to ride a horse,” Tim recalled. “Maybe that’s part of the reason him and Mom stopped getting along—because he traveled so much. That and the drinking, of course. In Florida he didn’t just ride at the big tracks, he’d ride for the Seminoles on the reservation. Half the time they couldn’t find my father because he was off living with the natives. He was a strange guy—didn’t eat much because he’d get too big to ride, and so he’d drink a lot, maybe to fill his stomach, maybe to ease the pain. I don’t know.”
For most jockeys weight eventually becomes an issue, if not an outright obstacle. With age comes a slower metabolism, a loss of testosterone, and a natural thickening of the body. Bone and sinew give way to fat; injuries are slower to heal and result in diminished activity. An apprentice can eat almost anything, his body a veritable furnace of adolescent energy. The adult jock, though, must watch his weight and keep a careful accounting of his caloric intake, lest he find himself losing mounts because of excess poundage. With impending middle age, many riders find themselves facing a losing battle.
Knowing nothing else, and wanting only to hang onto the racing life, they fight anyway, using every weapon in the time-honored arsenal of reduction to keep their careers going. They do roadwork in rubber suits; they spend hours in the sauna; they gulp laxatives and amphetamines and coffee; they snort cocaine. Anything to curb their raging appetites. Sometimes they eat and retreat quickly to the toilet, where they heave their dinner before it has a chance to digest—a practice known in the business as “flipping.” So accepted is this practice that some jockeys’ quarters have a special stall designed specifically for this purpose.
Messing with the body’s normal rhythm in this way has predictably nasty consequences, some physiological (tooth decay, heart arrhythmia), some psychological. You try going years without a decent meal and see what it does to your temperament.
“My father was always reducing, always starving himself, and that made him nuts sometimes,” Tim said. “When he did eat, most of the time it was stuff he went out and found on his own. He’d spend hours hunting—pheasant and quail … almost anything. And then he’d cook it and eat it. Or part of it, anyway. Funny thing, though: he loved animals. My dad wrecked more cars than I can count just trying to avoid running over a squirrel on the highway. ’Course he was drunk most of the time, so I guess that didn’t help matters any.”
Tim got behind the wheel of an automobile for the first time when he was barely in his teens, not because he was particularly adventurous or mischievous, but simply because the old man occasionally required someone to drive him around after he got loaded. You grow up fast in a dysfunctional family, and the Snyders were hardly the Brady Bunch. As the brood expanded, Warren became more inclined to travel on his own, whether for reasons of practicality, or merely because he craved isolation. Regardless, the separation was better for all involved.
“Dad was there sometimes … sometimes not,” remembered Cheryl Hall. “When he was there, it was a very strict environment. My mother had too many children for my father’s tastes, so it was uncomfortable when he was home. And he drank, which made things pretty volatile. So when he was gone, it was almost like a vacation. We did our thing, just me and my mom and my brothers, and everything was pretty good. She was a good mother—or tried to be, anyway—and it was quieter around the house. It was a generally healthy environment.”
When Warren would return, though, tranquility gave way to turbulence.
“Mom was four-foot-eleven, and Dad was five foot,” Tim said with a laugh. “And they would go at it like a couple of prizefighters, whipping on each other like you wouldn’t believe.”
Cheryl recalls the fighting with a bit less whimsy (she was older, after all), and the combatants far less evenly matched or inspired. It was Warren who was usually the aggressor, the instigator, she said, and Virginia typically acted in self-defense. Both siblings, though, clearly recall an incident in which the fight spilled out of the house and into the driveway, with each parent screaming and flailing away, until Virginia finally got behind the wheel of one of the family’s cars and began ramming it into the two other vehicles that sat in the backyard. Backing up, rushing forward, spitting dirt and debris and then crashing into the side of the car, creating a veritable demolition derby in the neighborhood.
Such outbursts, though, were rare for Virginia. She was more passive, more inclined to bottle things up until she couldn’t hold the rage any longer. Repeatedly she threatened her husband: “Keep this up, and someday you’re going to come home to an empty house.”
Eventually, she would make good on the promise.
* * *
There was an accident.
It was one of many Warren Snyder endured during his career. Tim does not recall exactly when it happened. He was nine or ten years old at the time, and the family was living in Maine. Warren went off one morning to race at Scarborough Downs, as he had so many times before, only this time he didn’t come back. Instead he wound up in the hospital. Warren had been riding near the front of the field when his mount buckled beneath him. Every rider fears being thrown from a horse; what they really fear, though—even more than death—is the prospect of a life-altering injury and years of pain and incapacitation. At no point is that possibility more likely than when a horse breaks down at the front of a pack.
“I guess it happened about seventy yards from the finish,” Tim explained. “Bad spot to be in. He got run over by just about every horse in the field. Bunch of horses got hurt; his had to be put down.”
There was a pause.
“My father had a rough life, a rough career. Lots of spills and broken bones. Always made a comeback. But this one was really bad—the worst that I can remember.”
Warren Snyder spent several weeks in a hospital bed, trying to recuperate from a broken back and a compound fracture of the leg. Rehabilitative medicine in the 1960s was far from the science that it is today, and so Warren Snyder’s care involved little more than rest and painkillers and antibiotics, washed down with whiskey or beer.
“It wasn’t exactly upscale,” Tim noted. “Doctors today seem like they can put anyone back together and get you back out on the track in no time. Back then they’d just operate and put you in traction. It wasn’t long before he got an infection in his leg, and then he got really sick. Gangrene set in. They ended up drilling four holes in his leg: two pumping in fluid and medicine, and two others pumping the poison out. It got so bad they were thinking about amputating his leg. But my father was a tough little son of a bitch, and he wouldn’t let them do it. You have to understand how hard it was to survive at the racetrack back in those days. It wasn’t a sport for soft guys; still isn’t, to be honest. But back in those days? Forget it. Whatever else he might have been, my father was a fighter. He refused to give up.”
Then one day Virginia walked into the house and told the kids to pack their clothes.
“We’re leaving,” she said. “Now.”
And that was that.
“We left everything behind at our house in New Hampshire,” Tim remembered. “Everything except the clothes on our backs—and moved to Florida, and my father rehabbed his leg by swimming in the ocean.”
Well, not exactly swimming.
Warren Snyder would limp to the shore with an inner tube in one hand, a six-pack of cold beer in the other. Then he’d drop into the hole, prop the beer on his lap, and begin paddling and kicking lightly out into the surf. In the beginning he was content to rock gently in the waves, slowly working his way through the sixer, letting nature’s saline cleanse his wounds. In time, though, he began putting a little more effort into the process, methodically working his way up and down the shoreline. One day while playing on the beach Timmy noticed his father had disappeared from view, and he began to worry that maybe the tide had swept him away. A few hours later, though, Warren Snyder reappeared, a tiny, bobbing black dot on the horizon. It turned out he’d pushed the inner tube a few miles north, all the way to Hollywood Beach.
That became the routine for the Snyder family. Most days the kids would go to school, while Warren would trek to the beach. In time the leg healed—it took the better part of a year, but eventually he was able to walk on his own and even resume riding. After that, Warren Snyder made no secret of his contempt for formal medicine, and especially for the doctors who had told him he had a choice: lose the leg or lose your life.
The family stayed in South Florida for the better part of three years, as Warren continued to recuperate. Eventually he began picking up work around the track, exercising horses, hotwalking, whatever came his way. But economic hardship and chronic pain put a strain on the Snyders’ marriage, which wasn’t particularly strong to begin with.
“They all go together—injuries and painkillers and drinking,” Tim said. “You take all that, throw in the fighting and the money issues, and the fact that my dad was half nuts at the time … there was no way they could stay together. They’d been hanging on by a thread for years anyway, and the injury pretty much sealed the deal.”
When Warren Snyder felt strong enough to travel north and resume riding on the New England circuit, his wife and children stayed behind in Florida. Tim, as the eldest male in the house, took on an expanded role in the family, helping out with shopping and cleaning, and taking care of his younger brothers. By the age of twelve or thirteen he’d become an accomplished hustler (in the most positive sense of the term), shining shoes and selling tip sheets outside the front gate of Gulfstream Park.
He didn’t really understand what had happened, didn’t know that his father’s exit had been permanent. Timmy had grown up in a state of flux: sometimes Dad went away, but eventually he always came back. Or they went to him. So there was no real explanation this time around, no big family discussion to frame a new way of life.
It just sort of happened. For the most part, everyone got used to it.
“Timmy was my mother’s confidante,” Cheryl observed. “He missed out on a lot of childhood things because he became … almost like her partner. I mean, this was a kid who raced horses before he even got a driver’s license. He was never a normal teenager; he was like a little man. He was so independent and such a big help to our mother. But I never completely understood the relationship and was always kind of jealous of it, to tell you the truth. All families are unusual to some extent. But ours…”
Cheryl laughed, collected her thoughts for a moment before going on.
“Our parents were off-the-charts crazy, honestly. Maybe that’s a little too strong, but their lifestyle certainly was not the norm. My father was a racetracker and my mother had an art degree. They were sort of worlds apart. But she had that little wild thing going, too, and eventually that side of her personality came out.”
Before long there was another man in the house, a military veteran who had served in the Vietnam War. Tim refers to his mother’s relationship with the man as a “marriage,” but that isn’t true, according to Cheryl, since Virginia and Warren Snyder never officially divorced. To the children of a broken home, though, this was merely a matter of semantics. Tim knew only that his father was gone and a new man had taken his place. And while Warren was certainly capable of heaping abuse on anyone in the vicinity, including his children, at least there was a familiarity and predictability to his outbursts.
The devil you know, as they say.
“I didn’t get along at all with my stepfather,” Tim said. “We didn’t see eye to eye. He wasn’t my dad, first of all, but that wasn’t it. He picked on me all the time, probably because I was the oldest boy. You know—like a gunslinger; he always wanted to whip my ass. And he was really stupid and ignorant. Unfortunately, my mom thought the world of him, so she didn’t do anything about it.”
It’s an old story, the one about the adolescent boy who rejects the new man in his home, the new man in his mother’s life, without ever giving the guy a chance. But Cheryl Hall supports her brother’s memory of that troubled time in their lives.
“Imagine what that’s like,” she said. “Your father is gone and everyone is trying to just get along, and there isn’t much in the way of structure or discipline. Then all of a sudden this new guy comes along and he’s all military and feels like everybody should be acting a certain way. Well, that isn’t going to happen after living for so long without a father, and especially when it’s coming from a complete stranger. We all rebelled like crazy.”
In fairly short order the family had pulled up stakes and bolted for Key West, where Virginia’s boyfriend had been stationed during the war. Cheryl, by now old enough to make her own decisions, for better or worse, got pregnant and then got out of town. She moved in with a girlfriend and their family, had another baby, and for a time lost track of her mother and siblings. But she never stopped thinking about them.
“I suppose I felt kind of guilty for leaving,” she acknowledged. “But I had no choice.”
By the time they left Key West, Timmy had fallen far behind in school. Ultimately, he would call it quits with nothing more than an eighth-grade education. The more settled existence the family had known since Warren had left gave way to pure transience. For a while they lived in Newport Beach, California, reuniting there with Cheryl, who was by now raising her young children and working as an interior decorator. Cheryl fell in love with the California coast and settled in for the long haul (forty-one years later, she still calls California home). Virginia, meanwhile, got antsy after only a couple years and hit the road once more.
“After they left California, they really started kicking all over the country,” Cheryl remembered. “My mother had a little wanderlust in her; she liked to travel and move around and meet new people, and she became almost like a gypsy. She was a college-educated woman, somewhat conservative, but as she got older she became less and less constrained by society. She did a lot of things that I felt were wrong, and my brothers suffered in their childhood because of that.”
While Tim is inclined to refer to his father as simply “an asshole,” he chooses a slightly less pejorative term for his mom.
“She became a hippie, he said. “Every six months or a year, maybe two years at the most, we’d be on the move again. California, Oregon, Montana, Wyoming. We’d stop and pick fruit along the way, and not for fun! I mean, like migrant workers, the whole family out in the fields, me and my brothers, my mom and stepdad, all baking in the sun to pick up a few bucks. We did seasonal work—apples and pears in the fall, cherries in the summertime.”
It was backbreaking toil, but Tim and his brothers did it mostly without complaint, for to raise a hand or voice an objection likely sparked an outburst from their mother’s boyfriend, who had revealed himself to be every bit as much the belligerent and hostile drunk that Warren Snyder had been. As Tim grew older and less fearful, though, he became less inclined to tolerate the abuse, and his relationship with the man naturally deteriorated to a point where violence was inevitable.
The way Tim remembers it, they were living in Yakima, Washington, at the time. The man had been drinking and an argument ensued. In fairness, Tim would later admit, it didn’t take much to provoke his anger when he was around his mother’s boyfriend. By now he was barely fifteen years old, and while small in stature he was wiry and strong, and virtually without fear. In some sense he actually welcomed the chance to spar with the big bully, and when things grew more heated Tim did not back down.
“I grabbed a jug of milk and broke it over his head,” he recalled. “It was a bad scene. My mom was screaming, my brothers were crying, and my stepfather was bleeding all over the place.”
What does a kid do in that situation? Does he wait for the police to arrive? Does he stay at home, knowing that retribution is inevitable?
“Couldn’t do that,” Tim said. “He’d have killed me.”
So the boy grabbed a suitcase out of his closet, stuffed it with some clothes, and ran out the back door. He patted his brothers on the head before leaving, said good-bye to his mother, left them all crying in his wake. He couldn’t have known, as he ran across the lawn and out to the open road, his chest heaving, his thumb extended, that he’d never see his mother again.
Copyright © 2013 by Joe Layden