while Henry “Takeaway” White (big hat) takes control
of the excited animal. Photo is property of Dr. Roberto Reid
who has kindly shared it with us.
Since the very day I had ventured onto the schoolyard at recess and heard some kid ask me, “Are you related to Bobby Reid?” I would embark upon a lifelong quest, not to mention a fascination with the figure behind that name. I was bent upon knowing this singular personality who shared my name.
“Who is he?” I asked the boy puzzled. Then, he and the others who now smugly thought they finally had one over on me started to expound loudly amongst themselves on the one subject they were more knowledgeable about than me. “He is the greatest jockey in Panama, and that’s for you to know!”
Since I had neither the interest nor the opportunity to get into the miniature universe of the Juan Franco Racetrack, I hadn’t even gotten close enough to see the horses run. It would turn out, however, that I would not be able to chance a meeting with the Roberto “Bobby” Reid my schoolmates were always raving about; not until decades later.
My first and one of my rare visits to that historic racetrack named after La Finca Juan Franco, property of Don Nicanor de Obarrio, located right on Central Avenue in the locality of Obarrio, was when my father took my sister and me on an outing. I remember that my father took us on that impromptu trip to the racetrack and how we were accompanied by the same friend that I would later end up “taking trade” with when I decided to learn dentistry from the only Westindian dental clinic I knew of at the time.
In our Sunday best we walked towards the racetrack grandstand with our father when, suddenly, we made a detour and ended up at the track railing which was painted white. We then looked into the distance down the track to see horses being herded into what were the starting gates for the race to begin.
As mere children, however, we could hardly suspect how dangerous it was to be so close up to the action. We were simply taken in by the sights and sounds and the proximity to those powerful beasts straining and running as swift as the wind and we were filled with as much excitement as the adults were.
In my young mind, I was conscious of hearing the signal to start followed by the resounding hooves of horses passing uncomfortably close by when I sensed how reckless our two adult guardians had been to take us kids so near a possible and disastrous outcome.
Needless to say that from then on the whole experience would impress upon me an image of terror with anything remotely concerning horses and, yet, I did find the ostentatious parade of horses and riders with their colorful shirts, caps and boots intriguing.
At the time I couldn’t possibly imagine how close of a relationship I had with horses. My daily duties of tending to my father’s chicken coops had started right around my seventh birthday which included going over to the property of the Westindian man I would come to know as Mr. Harris every evening. I later discovered that Mr. Harris tended to Don Tomas Gabriel Duque’s prize horses- horses he kept for his racing activities. My family, as well as most other Westindians, pronounced the name as “Dukie” but my Spanish schoolmates would later set me straight and continually brag about getting into “Duque’s finca” to steal mangos.
One evening, while finishing up some chores at Mr. Harris’, I began admiring a stallion in a nearby pen. The beautiful steed intrigued me, and I wondered what such a fine-looking specimen like that was doing so far away from the racetrack. It was then I spied an even more interesting object not far from the animal- a fouled baseball that had undoubtedly come from the baseball field just across the high walls of the Olympic Stadium next door to Mr. Harris’ property. It was lying on the ground like an unclaimed treasure waiting for me to just retrieve it.
It is uncanny but the red stallion must have read my mind and scampered away to the far end of the pen. “This is my chance!” I thought and stepped under the barbed wire into the horse’s pen thinking that I could go in and fetch the pristine baseball in full view of the animal, then race back to safety before he could come to challenge my presence.
I’d almost put my hands on the ball when suddenly I heard the thundering hooves of the horse which sent me running back in a panic at the swiftest clip I could manage. I quickly slipped under the barbed wire all the time screaming “Ayyyyy Mama!” as I raced to avoid being trampled by the beast. The extremely clever animal simply whinnied for joy. He seemed quite amused by the entire episode.
After this experience I avoided horses and kept my distance from any known equestrian activity. But, my life would always inevitably be linked with horses- racehorses in particular- while growing up in Magnolia Building with my grandmother and my Aunts. One of my playmates would be “Dickey” White whose father, whom I only knew as Mr. White, was none other than the legendary Henry “Takeaway” White of Juan Franco Racetrack fame. A Jamaican by birth he became Panama’s earliest and most famous veterinarians, horse and jockey trainer and handler and one of our country’s most respected figures in the world of horse racing. His reputation would eventually extend to the farthest corners of the globe.
My life would take many turns at keeping me so near and yet so far from the figure of Roberto “Bobby” Reid, the young Westindian Panamanian jockey who was just a few years older than me. Providence would have it that we would eventually meet, thanks to the Internet, and all my expectations concerning that boy, now a retired physician, would be fulfilled.
This story continues.