A Big Little Man In Antioch

02 March 2016 Written by  By Richard Valdez
Published in March 2016 Articles

When I was in my 20s, someone asked, “Are you a dwarf or a midget?” “I’m a jockey,” I answered.

I was just having fun with him, but my words turned out to be true beyond anything I could have imagined.

I was born in Antioch in 1952. A couple dozen of us baby boomers grew up together in my neighborhood on Bruce Street near Lake Alhambra, which was built before I was a teenager. We hung out, played games, and roamed around town and the Riverside District all the way through junior high. I attended Holy Rosary School and served as an altar boy at Holy Rosary Church where I learned my prayers in Latin. When I was 13 years old, I served the final masses before the church was torn down and replaced by a retirement center. I entertained an early ambition to enter the priesthood until I was in seventh grade and realized the full implications of celibacy.

Beginning in first grade, I was always shorter than anyone else. At my first communion, all of us lined up in order hours crying about my short stature. Mom tried to console me. “You are going to get your growth spurt,” she said. But the spurt never came. Mom took me to Kaiser for a bone test. The doctor said they could give me growth hormones but the outcome was uncertain. Mom finally solved the problem by telling me, “You are healthy and fit. Don’t mess with it.” I made up my mind that height was just a number; I was as tall as I felt. I never  measured my height again.

From that point on, I got into the role of Big Little Man. Transition to public school in the ninth grade tended to be rough for us Holy Rosary kids. Fortunately, I didn’t have much trouble because I became one of the cool ones. In public school, I tried all the sports. Because of my short stature, my track career was kind of a bust. I was dead last on the 100-yard dash and half a lap behind on the longer races. I could do high hurdles and pole vaulting, but couldn’t become very competitive. I excelled, however, when I joined the Junior Football League where my lack of height made me difficult to block. On the other hand, my nose was broken by a bigger guy running over me.

I became an exception to the rule that everyone in junior high gets picked on because I had an attitude. Nobody ever thought to pick a fight with me because they knew I would never back down. What I lacked in height I made up for in strength, and worked out to make myself even stronger. They had me do pull-ups for one fitness test. When I ripped off 20, they told me I had just set the record. “Let me do it again,” I said. “I can do more than that.”

I think bullies also realized there could be no advantage for them if they picked on me. They would look bad if a “shrimpy” guy like me took them to the cleaners, which is exactly what would have happened. On the other hand, what glory would they get if they beat up someone who was two feet shorter than them? Anyway, they figured out that if they tried to pick a fight with me, someone from my old Bruce Street Gang would clobber my attacker before he could do me any harm.

The fact is, if I got into trouble even some of the cheerleaders would have jumped to my aid. I was hanging out with them and actually dating a couple of them. Someone said that you teach people how to treat you, and I guess that’s right. Even though I hardly came up to their shoulder, those beautiful girls treated me like I was six feet tall.

I was too small to play varsity football in high school, so I started wrestling. I was wrestling in the lowest category, 98 pounds. There was no problem maintaining the weight, since my actual weight was even less. My first matches were tough and I got thrown around a lot. One guy from the Pittsburg team kept putting me on my back, but I kept getting back up. Finally, he stopped, “You got heart, kid. You’ll be good.” He was right. I decided, however, that I wouldn’t follow his example. When I became good I wouldn’t stop until my opponent was pinned or all the fight was taken out of him.

By the time I got to my senior year, I was regularly pinning opponents before the first minute was up and was undefeated for the year. I carried my winning streak through two tournaments and in the final State tournament, I lost by only two points to the guy who went to the finals. I followed him up the ladder and took third place while my original opponent lost to a guy I could have taken. In 1976, I was inducted into the Antioch High Wrestling Hall of Fame.

I graduated from Antioch High in 1970, enrolled at DVC, and joined the school wrestling team. The coach took me under his wing, but I had to wrestle in the 118-pound category and was giving up ten pounds to my opponents. I was diligent in working out at the gym trying to increase my weight, but I think that I worked so hard I sweated away most of the benefit I would have otherwise gotten in increased muscle mass. I graduated with a Computer Programming Degree to satisfy my parents who wanted me to have something to fall back on. That was four decades ago and I still haven’t fallen back on it.

My life changed when my buddy, Larry Hamilton, and I decided to go on an “Easy Rider” motorcycle tour across the nation. Rather than some Chopped Hog-type monster Harleys, we were both riding Honda 350s. I had $2,000 in my pocket. We stopped at a little town called Fort Jones on the Shasta Indian Reservation. A woman named Bess Jones kept asking my buddy if I was a jockey. I started talking to her and learned that her brother was a jockey and her sister a trainer at Bay Meadows.

Bess invited us to her ranch in the Quartz Valley where we met her husband, Tom, who was a full-blooded Shasta Indian. They were living in a two-room shanty on a 40-acre ranch with 20 unbroken quarter-horses. I had never been on a horse, but Bess told me that if I stayed with them they would teach me to ride, and I could help break the horses. They introduced me to a huge retired thoroughbred 16-hands tall racehorse.

Bess went on a bender one night and bragged to friends that she had a jockey who would ride the horse in a 50-mile endurance race. The race was only two weeks away; I had a lot of learning to do.

They showed me how to get on the horse and the beginning principles of horsemanship and then let me take off. At one turn in the road, the horse decided not to continue running on the path, carried us through a barbwire fence, tripped, and rolled over. Fortunately, he rolled up a hill so he only rolled on my leg and not downhill, in which case he would have rolled over me. I picked myself up and hobbled to the road. I felt I had done something wrong, because of my inexperience, but soon learned that horses will sometimes take it into their head to engage in some random rebellious act — they call “running off.”

A week later, I was riding the horse on that 50-mile endurance race beginning with a shotgun start at 7:00 in the morning. Tom was worried that the horse would spook again so I was the last to start of the 50 horses in the competition. In spite of the horse’s age and my ignorance, we finished in the middle of the field. The 50 miles was obviously harder on the old horse than on me; I was fine the next day, but the horse spent the next two weeks lying on her side in the pasture.

Bess said that if I stayed with her and helped her break the 20 wild horses, she would get me a job with her sister. Her sister’s name was Kathy Walsh, who turned out to be one of the most reputable trainers in the profession. Kathy taught me the things I needed to learn in order to become a successful jockey. I ended up riding in more races than I can remember and won more times than I can count.

I turned out to have a winning combination of strength, skill, and stamina. People watching a horserace might imagine that the horses are doingmall the work, but a rider can make the difference between winning first place and being an also-ran. I rode some marginal horses well and won some races I should have lost. I may be short of stature but sitting on a horse, I’m ten feet tall. The horses always knew the Big Little Man was in charge. They would run well for me; some of them would run like the wind.

That is all in the past; I’m retired and left with my memories of wrestling and riding. Good memories!

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