It is a good piece of earth where the horses run, and not very far from the apartment complex where Jina Johnson and her boyfriend, Chuckie Hinojosa, decided to lease a one-bedroom flat a little more than a month ago. She loved the place because all the other tenants treated you like family and because you could walk out to the main road late in the afternoon and hear what was going on at the track.
On top of that, this was their first real home together, close enough to walk to work every morning and with a 7-Eleven just around the corner and that one special horse bar, the Turf Club, where she and Chuckie liked to go for beer after a winning run.
Jina Johnson knew that their stay at the apartment was impermanent, just a stop on the way to some other place, but she had counted on turning it into a real home anyway, full of rich voices and pretty smells and a million magic things. And she had counted on a December wedding, a pretty big affair, although Chuckie often said running off to a justice of the peace was fine with him.
Her fiance, who everybody said was the nicest person you'd ever want to meet, was a jockey only 23 years old when he took a bad spill at the Charles Town Race Course last Sunday and died two hours later at the Jefferson Memorial Hospital.
None of his friends, as far as they could remember, ever had seen Chuckie Hinojosa fall off a horse before, except for a couple of times in training and that one silly time last year at Jeff Runco's farm outside of town. Even then, it was only a "pretend spill," as witness Susan Motch described it, on a pony no taller than a high chair. Chuckie had slid down the side of the horse trying to make everyone laugh, and rolled around like a happy pup in the high weeds of the pasture.
But Sunday was different. It was different in a way that hardly seemed real, that hardly made any sense at all. Shortly after the start of the ninth race, Hinojosa's mount, Captain's Saddle, stumbled and fell after clipping the heels of Martian Winds. The Charles Town stewards ruled Wednesday that jockey Dwayne Grafton, riding Martian Winds, had "failed to maintain a straight course with his mount." Fleeton, ridden by William Sollars Jr. and running tight on the field, tripped over Captain's Saddle and fell on top of Hinojosa, inflicting severe head injuries.
Grafton received a seven-day suspension for his part in the accident.
"I was out there, sitting on the fence when Chuckie took his horse into the gate," Lewis W. Brown Jr. said Tuesday afternoon, the day before his best buddy's remains were to be shipped to Oklahoma for burial. Brown was standing before the big picture window in Jina Johnson's apartment, one of several close friends who had gathered together for no other reason than to remember and trade old stories and to share in their time of grief.
"The thing he told me was, 'Hey, crazy, how you doin'?' The next thing I knew two riders were down. It was the worst thing I ever saw. I ran out to him to see what I could do, I wanted to help somehow. Then they sent me away. I remember there was nothing but blood. I was sick and running the hell out of there. I remembered Jina and started out here to tell her what happened."
Jina Johnson is pretty in a way you can feel as well as see. People always said that was one thing Chuckie liked about her and why he always was quick to say, "Go on, move away, leave her alone," when some sweet-eyed fellow paid her too much close attention. Even without make-up, she has plenty of good, hard angles in her face to hold the light, and her hair is bright and blond, cut down to her shoulders and full of frantic waves.
Working to earn a trainer's license at Charles Town, she spends most of her days at the track and comes home in the early evening to prepare supper and clean up a little. The day of the accident, she was getting ready to stick a platter of pork chops in the oven when she checked her watch and realized it was about time for Chuckie's run.
Loving him the way she did, she said she'd never felt so alive as when they were together. It was a good love, the best, because it was young and true. He often stopped off at the 7-Eleven and bought her a single long-stemmed rose or a candy bar and presented it with the biggest fuss. Sometimes he wrote notes -- "I love you, baby" -- and stuck them under magnets on the refrigerator door. All this had come within a year after their first meeting. They had met at The Shenandoah Lanes, a bowling alley in town, and although he made a point of introducing himself, she knew who he was.
"At the track," she explained, "you know who everybody is even when you don't really know them."
She thought he looked just like Erik Estrada, the television actor. And she liked the way he would stare at himself in the mirror, run his fingers through his hair and say, "Damn, you are one handsome man." He had wrestled in high school, in Tulsa -- where his mother remained after she and his father divorced -- and owned a slight, athletic build. He had been a jockey only five years: the first two in Maryland, the last three at Charles Town. Because he never needed to watch his weight, he drank regular Budweiser beer, never Lite, except those nights he and Jina were out at the Turf and big-time owners might see him and wonder at the extravagant liberties he took with his diet.
"I was never jealous," Jina Johnson said. "He never paid any attention to any girl but me."
On Sunday, something told her to hold off cooking dinner until after the track closed and Chuckie came home. The night before, he had won on a horse named Comet Run, owned by Charles Bianchi, who had taken them out for a steak dinner to celebrate the victory. There had been a party of 10 at the Turf Club, and Chuckie had sat at the head of the table, jubilant in the great flood of praise. During dinner, he had talked about his father Herb, who has been a jockey for 33 years and earned more than $16 million in prize money during his career. His father had taken a bad spill at Charles Town in May and broken two vertebrae in his back, leaving him with some permanent numbness in his left hand, but the old man, Chuckie had said, planned to return to racing sometime in August.
The elder Hinojosa always had called the track "my world, the only world," and that night, Chuckie Hinojosa had called it the same thing. He had said he wanted to ride until he couldn't ride anymore. And he had said, "I love this place, I really love it here, I only wish I could tell you how much I love it here."
People who care about horses in Charles Town, driving down any old road at the correct hour, have been known to pull over on the shoulder or into some empty lot to hear the bright, booming voice of Costy Caras carry its way over the public address system. The other day Jina was standing at the front end of Oak Tree Court with Ruth Rix, the wife of Chuckie's agent, Wayne Rix, listening to Caras' report when it occurred to her that something was not right and never would be right again.
"Have they called his horse?" she asked. Then she heard a call for the jockeys to go wide, which meant, she said, "Somebody had gone down."
Jina already had left for the hospital by the time Lewis Brown arrived and ran to the door of the apartment. There had been something that Chuckie liked to say, "Hah-bah-bah," which meant no big deal or not to worry. It was a silly little thing but Chuckie liked to say it. Sometimes he spoke in a language that could only be called esoteric, using sounds that somehow took on greater meaning than words, that only his close friends could understand.
It was weird, but as Lewis Brown stood in the parking lot off Oak Tree Court Sunday, aware that his best buddy in the whole world had been crushed by a 1,000-pound animal and was dying, he wished Chuckie Hinojosa would bolt through the door of the apartment and wink or smile or run his hands through his long black hair and say that gloriously goofy word again. "Hah-bah-bah," he wanted to hear one last time. "Hah-bah-bah."
Wayne Rix said there must have been 100 people at the hospital the day Chuckie died, most of them friends from the track. Jockey Clayton Carmean's wife Chicky said you would have thought it was the president of the United States who had passed away and not a jockey with 130 career wins under his belt. The biggest feed store in town closed and the flags at the track flew at half-mast. It was all over the news, on radio and TV and in the local papers: Charles Hinojosa's death was the first in a race in the history of the Charles Town track.
Clayton, whom Chuckie called "Pop" and "The Bald One," wore a black armband under his suit coat all day Monday and Tuesday. Most of the jockeys in town were wearing black armbands, but Clayton said he planned to wear his until he felt it was time to take it off, although he had no idea when that might be. It might be a whole year, he said, maybe even a lifetime.
Susan Motch and Jeff Runco, sitting on the love seat in Jina's apartment, tried to keep count of the number of deliveries the truck from the Martinsburg florist made to the place where Chuckie Hinojosa once lived. Early on, they had lost track of the number of times the phone had rung.
Lewis Brown cried a lot and chain-smoked cigarettes. He was such a strong and silent man, glancing now and then through the great picture window, out into the blinding summer sun.
And Herb Hinojosa started talking about getting back out there again. It had been several months since he'd mounted a race horse, but he said he knew now he would ride harder than ever. He would ride with the memory.
His son had died a man, he told everybody. He was overloved.
"He was mine," Jina Johnson said. "And he was beautiful."