SONG OF THE WEEK – “QUICK AS DREAMS”

A tragic event occurred in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, on September 22, 1927.  A 16-year old jockey named Earl “Sandy” Graham was riding a horse named Vesper Lad, leading the field when the horse stumbled and his rider was thrown to the track and trampled by the horses behind him.  He suffered a broken back, injuries to his chest and internal injuries.  He was carried by other jockeys to the tack room, but there was no medical treatment available and no ambulance service.  His friend and fellow-jockey Tommy Luther begged racetrack officials to take Graham to the hospital, but they refused.  Other jockeys may have wanted to help, but all were without funds and under contract to ride in later races.  If they did not ride, they would lose their only means of livelihood..

Tommy Luther took up a collection for cab fare, but those present did not have enough money between them to provide Graham a ride to the hospital.  Instead, he lay in the tack room for hours until the day’s races had all been run.  Only then was he taken to the hospital, where he died 10 days later.  As a jockey, he had no life insurance or other benefits.  His family could not afford to bring the body back to his home in California, so the final resting place for Sandy Graham was a pauper’s grave in Winnipeg.

Tommy Luther continued to ride.  The following year, he won what was then the world’s richest race, the Agua Caliente Handicap.  When he retired a quarter of a century later, he trained thoroughbred racehorses for another 26 years.  Tommy Luther did not forget Sandy Graham, though.  They had been best friends – and Tommy had been scheduled to ride Vesper Lad on that September afternoon, but his mount was changed at the last minute.

In 1940, Tommy became one of the founders of the Jockeys’ Guild, a professional trade association, which was ultimately able to bargain with the owners and racetracks to secure safer working conditions for the jockeys.  His involvement resulted in his being banned from racing for one year.  That’s how it was in those days.

I first heard the story about Tommy Luther and Sandy Graham when I read Laura Hillenbrand’s book, Seabiscuit:  an American Legend, back in 2001 or 2002.  A singer-songwriter named Slaid Cleaves, who is part of the Austin, Texas, music scene read the same book and wrote a great song about the incident.  “Quick as Dreams” was released on his 2004 album, Wishbones.  I listened to the song today for the first time in several months, and decided it should be the Song of the Week.

“Quick as Dreams”

My name is Tommy Luther
I’ll soon be 84
I’ll show you a little picture
I keep tucked in this old drawer
60 years ago, boys
I rode for the diamond team
Sailing by, eight feet high
On horses quick as dreams

Well I joined up with the races
When they came through Alabam
They had a good young rider
Just a boy, named Sandy Graham
We were two kids run away from home
When the world was breaking down
Didn’t stay to see the family
Sell the farm and move to town

From Detroit to Tijuana
To Annapolis we rode
They called us rookies “bug boys”
We were just 16 years old
We were worth a couple of saddles
And two big bags of grain
The big men owned the horses
And they owned us just the same

60 years ago, boys
I rode for the diamond team
Sailing by, eight feet high
On horses quick as dreams

Well it’s Winnipeg and it’s raining
But the track’s not looking bad
They gave me Irish Princess
Sandy rode on Vesper Lad
We were flying down the backstretch
My horse was running proud
I pulled ahead of Sandy
When a roar came from the crowd

I crouched as Irish Princess
Thundered across the line
And then I stood and turned around
To see that friend of mine
Vesper Lad was standing still
There must have been a fall
In the mud lay Sandy
Looking lifeless as a doll

A crowd ran up to Sandy
They scooped him off the track
They took him to the office
With shattered ribs and back
At the hospital next morning
I stayed at Sandy’s side
But the season would be ending soon
And then I’d have to ride

Just a coupla days past Danville
Word came down the line
Sandy’d lost struggle
We hung our heads and cried
It was poor old Mother Harris
From the boarding house in town
Who paid for the little casket
And laid him in the ground

I sent a coupla dollars
It was all that I could save
She drew me a little picture
Of the lonely riders grave
I’ve kept it in my bedroom drawer
All these 60 years
I still see that crumpled body
Now but I’m too old for tears

My name is Tommy Luther
I’ll soon be 84
I’ll show you a little picture
It’s right here in the drawer
60 years ago, boys
I rode for the diamond team
Sailing by, eight feet high
On horses quick as dreams
Sailing by, eight feet high
On horses quick as dreams

© Slaid Cleaves

2 thoughts on “SONG OF THE WEEK – “QUICK AS DREAMS”

  1. Earl Sandy Graham RIP I read of your story and this song of your passing. I will think of you when visiting Polo Park. Although your life was much before mine your story touched my heart. Forever Young.

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