Booktalking "Bug Boy" by Eric Luper

  • by Miranda J. McDermott

    15-year-old exercise rider Jack Walsh hopes and dreams that someone will promote him to "bug boy," a.k.a. apprentice jockey. However, in no way, shape or form did he aspire to take advantage of the misfortune of Showboat, the leading jockey at his barn. 116 pounds is much too heavy for a jockey; ten pounds to lose in two days. Endless frantic running, eating and drinking little of anything, wrapping oneself in a heavy blanket in the middle of summer, and vomiting up anything that will come up. One hopes that his fate does not mirror Showboat's.

    The cutthroat world of horse racing where rules are not always enforced, deadly injuries and the dangerous dieting that riders engage in to "make weight," especially for the better horses that are not assigned "handicaps" (extra weight in the saddle to even out the odds of horses winning).

    Luckily or not so luckily, Jack meets Elizabeth, a debutante who turns out to be a bookie. High excitement for a 15-year-old in 1934 to have $559 in return for his overnight success in the races. The fame, riding at the Saratoga race tracks, everyone talking to him, and a little girl asking for his autograph. Next to the star by his name in the program, he draws a cartoonish bug and signs his name. Nice to be noticed.

    [Horses on racetrack]., Digital ID 1518385, New York Public LibraryFireside, the stable's star horse whom everyone hangs their hopes of success is Jack's mount in one of the races. Numerous people urge him to "sponge" the horse (stick a sponge up one nostril of the horse) to "throw" the race. Will Triple Cherry, Skee Ball or one of the other horses win? Will anyone even tamper with Fireside?

    Bug Boy by Eric Luper, 2009

    The racing industry is cutthroat, and I was a little bit surprized to learn of the extreme weight-control measures that jockeys take. Some of them are blatantly unhealthy, and some can be life-threatening. I was also surprised to find out the dangerous ways that cheating can occur in the industry.

    At several points in the story, the horses are said to "buck" during the walk to the starting gate. I have watched some Thoroughbred horse racing, and I have never seen Thoroughbreds buck before a race. I have seen many of them rear. Bucking is usually done in playfulness, anger, or when horses are in pain (during rodeos, people place a bucking strap really tight over the horse's stomach. This causes the horse to buck. Note that the horses continue bucking after the rider falls off. They are not bucking because of the rider, and this is animal cruelty.) Most horses rear out of fright; Thoroughbreds are "hot-blooded" (high-strung). When stallions fight over mares, they will rear and bite at each other. 

    Also, at one point, Jack clenches the mane and leans forward during the buck. I have ridden horses for over twenty years, and many have bucked. You lean backward when the horse kicks up his hind end off of the ground to maintain your balance. One must lean forward during a rear to maintain one's balance. Rearing is very dangerous because the horse can flip over backwards when they lift their front end off of the ground.

    I worked as a hotwalker at a track near Sydney, Australia, and it was quite an experience. The hours were from 4:30 a.m.-8:00 a.m., and I walked horses back and forth from the stable to the track. It was usually dark when I started—a cool temperature for the horses to work out in. Occasionally, I would also walk horses from 12:00 p.m.-2:00 p.m. for exercise. Once, they had me take one of the horses into the pool for exercise, it was dark, and they stressed the importance of staying in front of the horse or the horse could drown. I was very nervous and very glad when they never asked me to do that again.

    I have enjoyed riding Thoroughbreds (TB). There was Synergy in Brooklyn. I asked the manager if there was anything I should know about the horse before I took him out by myself. He said that he was "off the track" (an ex-racehorse) and that he might try to take off on me. I was glad I asked. My aunt's horse is 3/4 TB, and she is a dream to ride.