Youth is a rare commodity around a racetrack. The people grow old in a hurry - except, perhaps, in spirit - from the stresses and strains imposed by the business of the thoroughbred sport.
Nowhere is that more apparent than in the jockeys' room, where baby faces rapidly turn to walrus hides. Steven Cauthen is typical. At 16, he had the presence of a 30-year-old athlete. Being brought up in a racing environment will do that for many youngsters.
George Cusimano was different. When his mother, Louise, first brought her son to the backstretch at Bowie, he was 15 and "apple green." Buddy Delp, one of Maryland's most successful horsemen, recalled yesterday.
"George was always very close to his mother," Delp said. "His parents had divorced when he was very young. I remember the morning his mother brought George out to the track to stay, she had his suitcase with her, and she sat it down in my tack room. George had just turned 16 and she had promised him when that happened he could quit school and do what he wanted.
"It didn't want to make (develop) a rider. Kitty Moon, secretary over in the administrative offices, asked me if I'd at least consider it. So I did. George was a Washington boy. I don't think he had ever ridden anything more than ponies. But he was very, very polite, very conscientious and he worked his butt off."
Cusimano worked for more than a year in Delp's barn - mucking out stalls, cleaning equipment, walking hots, doing all the routine chores the employer might require. Then, in spring of 1967, when Cusimano was 17, Delp sent him to Oscar White's farm for his early education as a rider.
"He was there three months," the trainer said. "He breezed yearlings, learned how to sit on a horse, and came back ready to exercise horses in the morning. He couldn't ride anything tough at first. I always sent a pony out with him. But you could tell he had a natual seat."
In October of that year, Cusimano rode his first race at Atlatic City. Delp remembers:
"I put him on 10 to 15 no-chance horses for him to get a little experience. It wasn't until December that he won his first race, at Oaurel, and by the end of the year he had five winners and his apprenticeship began."
A year later, Cusimano had attracted national attention. He completed the 1968 season with 290 winners, leading all apprentice riders. His mounts earned $1,195,412, ranking him 16th among journeymen jockeys.
Few young riders ever enjoyed a better beginning. There were those who believed Cusimano was going to make it big in the big time.
That never happened; not even in Maryland. Vince Bracciale soon came along as another amazing apprentice. Chris McCarron followed, the best yet. Cusimano soon became just another journeyman jock. Good, but no cigar.
"George was a smart boy, and he never got big-headed, but he had a terrible temper," Delp declared. "I think that is what kept him from making it to the top. If a horse would run bad, or if George got himself in a tough spot during a race, and it happened early on the program, that would affect his riding the rest of the day. I think George would have been a helluva rider if he could have forgotten about the race just past. Top riders can do that. They look at the next one. By the time George learned to do that, it was too late.
"He would get so mad at times that he'd abuse a horse with his whip, or he would pull up a horse he was unhappy with too quickly after the finish. He'd get so mad, he'd tell a trainer, 'This horse is a bum. I don't want to get near him again.'"
Trainers, of course, don't want to hear such comments about their horses. There are plenty of jockes willing to ride anything that has four legs. And many riders make it a point to say something nice about every animal, no matter where it finishes, or to say nothing at all.
"I don't think George really loved horses, or horse racing. Certainly, he didn't like it the way you have to love it if you want to be great," Delp said. "He liked the money it made for him. But that was about it.
"He was content to be ordinary; he was a follower, not a leader. He had to be guided. But he rode for me for seven or eight years and he always give me 100 per cent on everything he got up on."
Late on the night of Sept. 2, at Delaware Park, Cusimano was killed when the car he was driving went out of control and wrapped itself around one of the large trees that lined the roadway to the main entrance of the track. There were no marks on the road that indicated that the car had slipped and slid into the tree; it had struck it at tremendous speed.
The way he died, at the age of 28, was indicative of the fact that he never grew up, some say. Indeed, there was always much of the boy left in George Cusimano. Maybe he was too popular. But he was a talented rider and, equally important, an honest rider. He was fearless.he have are betting public its money's worth, and then some, every time he went onto the track. As Delp points out, he cared too much, possibly.
The Bowie management will honor Cusimano today June Cusimano, the jockey's widow, will be there along with their son, George Jr., and Lousie Redman, Cusimano's mother.
Somehow, it seems, it wasn't that long ago that the lady brought her young son and that suitcase to the trainer's tack room. Yet it all ended so quickly, so tragically, so ridiculously.