When he reflects upon the events of Feb. 14, 1975, as he often does, Jesse Davidson still cannot quite believe that they were momentous enough to wreck his life.
"It's like a nightmare," the former jockey said. "I'll never get over it as long as I live. And I'll pay for it as long as I live."
The ninth race at Bowie on that notorious St. Valentine's Day was not the object of a well-planned conspiracy. If it had been, there might have been no race-fixing scandal, no trial, no jail sentences, no suicide by one of the convicted riders.
The conversations and transactions in the jockeys's room that preceeded the race were casual and offhand.
"I was riding a horse named CeceBelle," Davidson recalled this week, "and (Luigi) Gino came up to me and asked if I liked my horse. I said, 'No, I Don't think I have a chance.'"
Gino had made similar inquiries of other riders in the field, and he knew who was going to run well and who wasn't.
"I've got the race handicapped," he told Davidson. "Give me $92 and I'll get you five triple tickets."
In the race itself, Davidson said, "My horse broke bad, and instead of rushing her I decided I'd just sit and make a run at the end. I would have finished in the top three if I could have-the $92 meant nothing to me. But she didn't make any run at the end."
Instead, the horses Gino had picked finished one-two-three, and each of Davidson's triple tickets was worth $927,30. What Davidson and the other riders had done was a serious, unequivocal violation of the rules of racing: a jockey may not bet against his mount. And if the riders did it so unhesitatingly on St. Valentine's Day, it seems implausible that any of them were innocent lambs beforehand. $ But betting against a horse that didn't have a chance anyway hardly seemed to Davidson to be serious enough to bring a man's whole life crashing down on him. Davidson knew he had committed a technical violation, but even after the FBI investigation, the indictments and the trial, he could not think of his offense as criminal.
"The whole time," he said, "I thought there was no way they could convict us for anything except betting on a horse other than we rode. Even while the jury deliberated for 111/2 hours, everybody was telling each other, 'Don't worry.'"
But Davidson, along with three other riders, was found guilty of race-fixing. On an Aril day in 1977-"the worst day of my life"-he said goodbye to his wife and three daughters and left his Laurel home to serve four months in Allenwood, Pa., federal prison. In addition to that sentence, the Maryland Racing Commission suspended his license for five years, ending a carrer that had one been so bright.
The part of it he remembers most vividly was a summer morning when Sam Davidson, his brother and agent, opened the Racing Form and saw that Jesse was only 40 victories behind the leading rider in the country. "You know," Sam told him, "We could ride day and night and we could make it." For the rest of they year the two of them sped between the Maryland tracks and the West Virginia tracks in Sam's air-conditioned Cadillac.At the end of 1965, they had done it.
"It was a dream I had had since I was a little kid: to be the leading rider in the country," Jesse Davidson said.
Davidson had other good years, other triumphs, and he had won 2,486 races when his career was terminated. Since his release from prison, he has devoted much of his energy to an effort to resume that career.
He spent months soliciting recommendations from owners, trainers and jockeys that he could present to the Maryland Racing Commission. He hired a lawyer to help him to get an exercise rider's license, which would be a first step toward getting a jockey's license again.
But last week the commission voted, 3 to 2, to deny Davidson a hearing. His prospects were further hurt when an anonymous man telephoned Commissioner Ann Mahoney and said her appointment to the racing board would not be confirmed if she continued to oppose Davidson.
As bleak as his prospects look, Davidson will continue his fight for reinstatement.
"Riding is the only thing I know." he said.
"It's the only thing I like to do. I have another good 10 years in me, and I think I'd better than ever before. I think I've already paid my dues."