The bugle blows at the Aqueduct Racetrack in Queens, New York. The ordinarily sparsely populated bleachers are fuller than usual today. A small crowd of racehorse owners and their families gather in the paddock below the stands. Bottle blondes, here for the first time this season, wearing seven-inch platform heels and stretchy pastel dresses, shiver next to their balding husbands in the unseasonable April chill. Curious weed smoke from a small cluster of Jamaican men, dressed in white suits and Nikes, wafts over the crowd of seersucker and Barbour jackets waiting for the horses to arrive. They have all come to watch the biggest race of the day: the Wood Memorial, a qualifying run for the Kentucky Derby, and the last big race of the season at Aqueduct. But it will be the Carter Handicap – the race just preceding the main event – that provides the most excitement today.
Green Gratto, an unusually large thoroughbred, enters the paddock. Few notice the seven-year-old whose odds for winning the $400,000 purse, against the four- and five-year-old favorites, are listed at 54-1.
Gaston Grant, 54, who co-owns Green Gratto with his brother Anthony, walks beside the horse. Grant looks uncomfortable in the brown suit he wears for the occasion. He watches the horses move in a circle around the crowd as the jockeys hoist themselves up onto their saddles.
This will be Green Gratto’s 53rd career start, about twice as many races as most horses run in a lifetime. He recently lost the Tom Fool Handicap – a less competitive race on this same track – coming in seventh.
But Gaston Grant, a Jamaica-born New Yorker who trains his horse every morning before going to his day job as a driver for UPS, believes that Green Gratto has what it takes to win. Anthony Grant, 63, agrees. When asked about why the brothers entered Green Gratto in such a challenging race, he turns his palms up to the sky, smiles, and says, “You never know what can happen.”
Men in baseball caps and workman’s boots press against the rails of the grandstands, flicking cigarette butts and clutching folded-up racing programs in their free hands. The stands are built for over forty thousand, but these days races typically draw fewer than two thousand. Today, the spectators number ten thousand, but it feels like more.
Sonny Taylor, 79, walks up to Anthony Grant and says hello. A racing judge, Taylor has worked at Aqueduct since 1964. “I’ve been here since before they allowed people like us here,” he says to Grant, referring to black Americans. Leaning in close as though telling him a secret, he adds: “But I stayed.”
Those who remember the track at its peak tell stories of packed, chandeliered dining rooms, rich Manhattanites, and celebrity sightings. But years ago the top East Coast horses migrated south to Florida for the winter, taking the money and prestige with them. Aqueduct was left with a small crowd of regular gamblers from the outer boroughs, mostly older Asian and black working-class men, who ride the subway here, carrying bagged lunches and thermoses filled with coffee. It’s not uncommon to find a crumpled receipt for a thirteen-cent bet discarded on the floor.
Gaston Grant was fifteen when he first came to the Aqueduct with a father he barely knew. The elder Grant had left Jamaica and his family for Brooklyn when Gaston was little, with the hopes of establishing a better life away from the violent crime of Kingston. As a teenager, Gaston resented having to leave Jamaica for New York. But, after growing up accompanying his uncle to the local racetrack in Kingston each weekend, Aqueduct in Queens offered something familiar. The father and son soon shared a love for betting on racehorses – a national pastime in Jamaica.
“When that bugle blow, everybody there,” says Grant of the horseracing scene in Jamaica. It’s like religion.
Aqueduct sits adjacent to JFK airport, and the roar of low-flying jets is a constant reminder of Grant’s first dream: being a pilot. A certified flight instructor, he flew any chance he could. He loaded delivery trucks by day, and spent nights flying small charters carrying dead bodies.
“Up there, you can control your own destiny.”
But he never could quite get the flying job he wanted, and couldn’t shake the suspicion it was because he was a black pilot in a white industry. Grant resigned himself to a life working on the ground.
In 2000, Grant was no longer satisfied just betting on horses and craved the rush he once felt flying. He decided to learn more about racing. He began working for a local trainer, Peter Chin, walking sweaty horses after a race to cool them off, an entry-level position in the racing world. Chin mentored Grant, who soon moved up from “hot-walking” to become a groom, helping to care for horses and prepare them for races.
Six years ago, Grant was visiting a farm in New Jersey with Chin, when in the distance he saw a tall, dark yearling and thought to himself, “That horse is something special.”
Nobody else at the farm believed that. The young horse was an unglamorous New Jersey thoroughbred, one of two left for sale at the end of the day. The owner wanted to unburden himself from the cost of feeding the lanky yearling that would never be a fine racehorse. He offered Grant the animal for free.
Grant called him “Gratto” for his childhood nickname derived from his love for Jamaican round bread by the same name, and “Green” for the money he hoped the horse would win.
He arrived at the barn behind Aqueduct each day at 4:30 a.m. to exercise Green Gratto before heading to work as a UPS truck driver. He trained the horse himself, unofficially at first. He was one of the only owners in the barn who trained his own horse while maintaining a full-time job outside the track. After years of working in the stables and studying the racing rules, Grant received his trainer’s license in 2015.
His brother Anthony, a quiet city contractor, often came to the Aqueduct with Gaston. They would stand behind the painted rail, their arms crossed against the early morning chill, and watch Green Gratto run as the sunrise glimmered on the stadium windows.
When Gaston bought Green Gratto, “It wasn’t a question,” he says, that his elder brother Anthony would be co-owner. Anthony, who prefers a tweed hat and glasses to Gaston’s Yankees cap, stands in the background of photographs. Though Gaston would assume the horse’s training duties, they shared equally in the expense, as well as in hope for victory.
When Green Gratto began racing at age three, the year a horse typically emerges as a talent, he consistently placed in the back of the pack. He struggled with leg problems that stopped him mid-race. A veterinarian, moved by Gaston Grant’s optimism and work ethic, performed procedures on Green Gratto for reduced rates.
Throughout, Green Gratto had personality. The horse demanded to be noticed, and bit anyone he didn’t think was paying close enough attention to him. If a trainer came near his head with a bridle before Gratto was ready, he would aim front-leg kicks at their shins.
“If he was a human, he would be a thug,” says Grant, pulling his hand back from Green Gratto’s neck and narrowly avoiding a nip on the arm. “He’s a fighter, not afraid of anything. Like Mike Tyson.”
While horses are ordinarily willing to share space with other animals, Grant frequently had to clean pulverized pigeons from Green Gratto’s stall. The birds started avoiding that side of the barn.
Still, Grant was proud to walk his horse to the paddock, where he was surrounded by other owners who never had to worry about affording feed, or whether there would be enough left at the end of the month to save for their daughters’ college tuition. He knew that some day, Gratto would show he had what it takes and the other owners would be in awe.
He did the stable work himself, feeding, hot walking, and cleaning the stalls, which cost about $400 a week for one horse, not including $150 for food and bedding.
Grant talked to Green Gratto like an old friend, telling him, “You’re going to be someone.” Brushing the horse’s coat each morning, he learned every dimple of every muscle on Green Gratto’s body. He mucked stalls with the grooms, negotiated mounts for races with the jockey agents, and filled out entry paperwork with the other owners. When he got home, his wife, who hated the way his clothes smelled at the end of the day, asked about “his donkey.”
“It’s not a gimme kind of sport,” says Grant, his brow furrowing as though remembering every minute of effort, each disappointing race that ended in cleaning an inch-thick layer of track mud from Green Gratto’s chest.
* * *
There are very few black owners in horseracing. Besides Grant, most race fans can only name one other – Charlton Baker, a veteran horse trainer who stables at the prestigious Belmont track. Those who don’t know Grant often mistake him for a betting man or a groom, dressed in an unzipped puffy jacket and the same Yankees baseball cap.
Jeffrey Sammons, an African American history professor at New York University who specializes in sports history, says, “When Jim Crow was hardening in other areas of American life, sports were not exempt.” In the 1800’s, blacks were not just the best jockeys in American racing, but expert horse trainers. But, Sammons adds, “Blacks were run out of horseracing as jockeys and trainers at the turn of the twentieth century.”
Meanwhile, the financial barrier has long prevented more black fans from getting involved as owners. “Blacks are disadvantaged in capital intensive sports,” says Sammons. Owners of good horses are typically affluent. The financial investment can be prohibitive for those without abundant excess income, and the sport has never been an easy way to make money.
“An average trainer loses ninety percent of the time,” says jockey agent Winston Heslop.
But Grant has always been a betting man.
As Green Gratto’s losses added up, a pattern emerged. The horse would always break strong, but if another edged in front of him in the final stretch, he gave up and ran the rest of the race in the back of the pack. He did win some small purses, but couldn’t quite take home the titles Grant knew his horse was capable of.
Two years ago, after Green Gratto lost another big race by a nose in Saratoga, a jockey named Kendrick Carmouche approached Grant in the barn. “Your horse couldn’t see the other horse coming,” Grant remembers the jockey telling him. Carmouche believed that if the horse could see what was going on behind him, Green Gratto would never let another horse pass him. He showed Grant how to drill holes in the sides of Green Gratto’s blinkers to give the horse enhanced peripheral vision.
Green Gratto placed second in his next race at Aqueduct. Grant and Carmouche then switched to blinkers with low sides, called “cheaters,” that give a horse full-peripheral vision.
Carmouche, who is also black, volunteered to ride Green Gratto, and in their first race in 2015 they placed second, winning a $70,000 purse. In their next race, a few weeks later, they placed first in the $250,000 Fall Highweight Handicap. The horse soon became known for his grinding style and stamina. Green Gratto began to race more frequently, and placed more consistently, than any other horse in the barn.
If a racehorse wins a major a purse that pushes lifetime earnings over one million dollars, the horse is called a millionaire. Green Gratto began April 2017 with just over $860,000 in prize money.
Grant reinvested his earnings back into the barn every month, and continued to drive his UPS truck. Despite their success, many of Green Gratto’s races were uncomfortably close. He was fast, but stubborn, and wouldn’t pass other horses if they got ahead of him early in a race, according to Carmouche. Grant’s strategy was simple: break fast, get out ahead, and hope Green Gratto would fight to stay there.
* * *
The starting gates fly open for the Carter Handicap at Aqueduct. Thirty-six hooves crash into the dirt as horses and jockeys thunder down the track. Green Gratto stretches long and pulls his way forward, through the crush of horses trying to find their way to the inside track. His powerful head thrusts as he moves ahead of the horse beside him, the favorite, Unified, and pulls in front of the pack.
Grant can hardly believe what he’s seeing as the announcer cries, “A long shot leads the way!”
Green Gratto holds onto his lead comfortably, and runs a length ahead of Unified to the halfway point. But as he rounds the final turn, Unified and another top-ranked horse draw up behind him.
Heading into the straightaway, Unified makes his move. An endurance horse, he still has one final acceleration left, while Green Gratto is beginning to struggle to hold his pace. Unified pulls to the outside, and begins to gain speed.
There is a barely perceptible turn of Green Gratto’s head as he catches sight of Unified pulling up past his flank. He pushes harder, his neck reaching out toward the finish line. Unified passes his shoulder, then his neck. Green Grotto stretches out his nose.
The crowd erupts, shouts and expletives blurred together in a deafening roar. Green Gratto has won by a head, a distance barely perceptible from the bleachers above.
The announcer bellows, his own excitement for the underdog, “Green Gratto did it! Green Gratto shocked them!”
Gratto has won his first Grade 1 stakes race, with a $400,000 purse.
Jamaican fans in the grandstands pump their fists in the air and scream until their throats burn. Racing officials in suits cross their arms and shake their heads. “Extraordinary,” they mutter.
“It’s hard to explain how rare this is,” says Tauno Vannucci, a racing official at NYRA . “For a little guy to get a horse this big-time. It just doesn’t happen. It’s like winning the lottery.”
In the winner’s circle, reporters swarm Grant, asking him how it feels to own a horse that has just become a millionaire.
But Grant is not surprised his humble horse from New Jersey has pulled through to beat such tremendous odds.
Only his brother Anthony, standing behind the photographers snapping frantic pictures of the tired horse and his overwhelmed owner, gives any indication there had been a flicker of doubt Green Gratto would be successful that day.
“On the final furlong we are a little out of our league,” he says, tears leaking out of the corner of his eyes. “But the good Lord take us home.”