As jockey Jesse Davidson rode a horse onto the Laurel Race Course track yesterday for the first time in 10 years, a man close to the rail yelled, "C'mon, Jesse. Good luck, buddy." As Davidson prompted the filly into a gallop, another man was not so complimentary, directing a sharp needle Davidson's way.
The crowd reaction before the first race capsulized the controversy that has swirled around Davidson and three other jockeys convicted of fixing the ninth race at Bowie on Feb. 14, 1975. After numerous appeals, Davidson was reinstated as a jockey earlier this month by a Baltimore Circuit Court judge who accused the Maryland Racing Commission of being "arbitrary and capricious."
Davidson had been scheduled to ride on Thursday -- the 10-year anniversary of the event he refuses to discuss -- but his mount was scratched. He stayed away from the track that day, saying, "It hurts too much to be out there and not be riding."
Davidson was astride the betting favorite in two of his four races yesterday, although his best finish was fourth. He rode three horses for leading trainer King Leatherbury.
"I'm not going to ride Jesse all the time," Leatherbury said. "This was more a token kind of gesture to welcome him back and to show other trainers that I believe in him.
"A lot of trainers don't know Jesse. I figured if I went ahead and rode him his first day back, it could help him get started."
In the jockeys' room yesterday morning, Davidson was constantly amid smiles and handshakes.
"Everybody deserves a second chance," said Javier Canessa, who rode in the Valentine's Day race in 1975. "He's paid the price. Ten years he's been away from racing; it's practically destroyed his career. We all learn from our mistakes."
Jockey John Adams, a 10-year veteran of Maryland tracks, said, "They convict people all the time of a lot of crimes and put them in jail. They serve their time, pay their debt to society, then they come back to try to live a normal life. He's earned the right to be here."
"Everybody's happy for me," Davidson said. "They know I've been through hell. This is a new life for me."
Davidson, who led the nation's jockeys with 319 victories in 1965, began a four-month prison sentence in 1975, along with Luigi Gino and Ben Feliciano. The fourth jockey convicted, Eric Walsh, committed suicide before serving his term.
Davidson has acknowleged that he bet on other horses in the race in question, but has repeatedly denied that the race was fixed. Leatherbury supports him.
"I never considered him guilty in the first place, and I probably know more about this case than 'most anybody," Leatherbury said. "I bet up here every day, just as something to do. I'm not going to bet on my horse if I don't think he can win. That's what Jesse and the others did; they bet on the horses they thought were best in the race.
"If Eric Walsh was guilty, he wouldn't have killed himself. He's dead because he was innocent."
After his release from prison, Davidson turned to "buying and selling real estate." In 1980, he was allowed to return to Maryland tracks in a noncompetitive capacity and started exercising horses. He spent the past two summers in Montana, where a forgiving racing commission reinstated him as a jockey.
He rode 119 winners in 1983, 173 in 1984.
"It was pretty rough on the half-mile tracks out there," Davidson said. "There were a lot of cheap horses, and the riders weren't all that good. Hardly anybody got any (suspensions). At the most, they'd fine you $50."
At 44, Davidson is competing against jockeys half his age.
"He's going to have to fight and work his way in, just like everybody else," said Donald Miller, Laurel's leading jockey. "He has to prove he can ride in Maryland again. I have nothing against him coming back and riding; I'm curious to see how well he's going to do."
"Getting reinstated was the happiest moment of my life," Davidson said. "Now, I just hope I can do well enough to stay in Maryland."