Salt, Nails, and Prayer

Sports are a major component of Southern culture, and each of them has its own beliefs, myths, and narratives. In the minds of athletes, coaches, and trainers, success or failure can depend upon factors on and off the field, including adhering to the practices and rituals that surround the actual contests. In this essay, we learn about those beliefs in horseracing in Louisiana.

Salt, Nails, and Prayer:
Horseracing and Superstition
by W. Charlene LeBrun

The horseracing industry is an integral part of Louisiana culture. Trainers, owners, and jockeys spend extensive amounts of time preparing Thoroughbred horses for races. Aside from nutrition and conditioning, rituals and practices that are rooted in superstition, faith, and folklore are employed to ensure a successful outcome.

With the arrival of British settlers came the advent of horseracing on American soil. Although settlers engaged in horseracing, formal racing was not organized until after the Civil War. However, it came to the state of Louisiana before the Civil War, in 1853, with the establishment of Fairgrounds Racetrack in New Orleans, which was appropriate, as New Orleans was the gambling capitol of the South.

Louisiana is known for the Cajun and Creole culture, cultures rich in myths, folk beliefs, and superstition. It is natural and expected that the incorporation of these elements of Louisiana culture would be employed in the sport of horseracing.

Frequently, bettors will place their wagers based upon the horse’s appearance. Some bettors believe that braided manes and tails or brightly colored shadow rolls, which are thick pieces of material usually made of some sheepskin-like material that is attached to the nose band of the horse’s bridle to prevent the horse from seeing shadows, are indicative of a “sure” winner. In reality, manes and tails are braided to keep them clean, particularly on a muddy track and the color of the shadow rolls are nothing more than the preferred color of the trainer or owner.

Horseshoes are considered lucky. It is common to see horseshoes placed upright above the entrance of homes to prevent the good luck from running out. In addition, to rub a horseshoe is purported to bring good luck. Tangible proof of this belief can be seen on the grounds of the Louisiana Downs racetrack. At the entrance stands a monument to the Thoroughbred racehorse ShishKabob. Born in 1978on the farm of Leroy Adcock, ShishKabob’s name was conferred upon him at the suggestion of Mrs. Adcock who was cooking shishkabobs on the day that he was born. ShishKabob had an illustrious but short career from 1980 to 1984. Upon stepping in a hole on a turf course and suffering a broken leg, ShishKabob was “put down.”

In honor of ShishKabob, the ShishKabob Stakes race was created in 1985, he was buried on the grounds of Louisiana Downs and a monument was erected at the entrance of the track. Embedded in a block of marble, ShishKabob’s shoe is displayed for visitors to touch or rub for luck. Inarguably, there is an incongruity in that the physical monument that is supposed to bring good luck is associated with death.

There also seems to be a measure of superstitious belief attached to the equipment used by jockeys. Many jockeys believe that it is unlucky to allow their boots to touch the ground until the moment that they are placed upon their feet. No one seems to know why it is unlucky, and there seems to be a discrepancy in this belief. The boots are worn, cleaned, and put away until the next race day, but they are the same boots that have been worn and touched the ground before. For Carlos Gonzalez, who has ridden racehorses for over twenty years, it is more about routine in that he insists that his left boot must be put on first.

There is also a consensus among jockeys that there is luck associated with the bats that jockeys use during the competition. A bat is a short leather covered riding crop that jockeys use to “encourage” the horse to move faster. It is believed that if the bat is dropped then the race will be lost. In addition, if a race is won with a particular bat, then it should be used thereafter to continue winning, much like baseball.

Some degree of routine is intertwined with luck. In response to my question of what rituals he uses, Carlos Gonzalez answered, “If you get on a winning streak, you should continue wearing the same boots or carrying the same bat that you had when the winning streak began. If the luck streak seems to be coming to an end, then sometimes it helps to do something different like cut the hair.” Trainer George Northrup concurs in that the clothing that was worn when a horse won a race is worn thereafter.

 Frequently individuals will make the Sign of the Cross or whisper a short prayer for a positive outcome before engaging in sporting events. In 1984, the power of prayer became evident when The Little Sisters of the Poor began to pray for Louis Roussel’s Thoroughbred Risen Star. According to George Vecsey, the relationship between the sisters and Risen Star began when Sister Mary Vincent, administrator of the Mary Joseph old age home approached Louis Roussel III soliciting donations for the repair of the roof of the facility. In response to Sister Mary Vincent’s request for a donation, Roussel made a deal with her in which in exchange for prayer he would donate a portion of the horse’s winnings. Initially, Risen Star did not win the Sport of King’s Futurity. However, despite the horse’s loss, Roussel contributed. Risen Star went on to win the Lafayette, finished third at the Kentucky Derby and won the Preakness.

Many jockeys and trainers wear or carry special talismans or good luck charms as an added form of “insurance” for the horse’s success. While trainer CL Daniels reports that a four-leafed clover and rabbit’s foot did little to aid his horse in a race, George Northrup wears a horseshoe ring with the opening pointing toward the tip of the finger so that the horse can “see” where to run.

While there are many beliefs concerning measures to be taken to ensure the horse’s success, there are several actions that trainers and jockeys perceive as negative and certain to damn the horse to failure. Many trainers will not take an old broom or open bag of salt to the track with the horse. To take an old broom from an old dwelling to the new one or to spill salt invites bad luck or misfortune. According to Northrup, trimming the bridle path, a four- to five-inch section of mane directly behind the horse’s ears, on race day is sure to invite disaster. The most egregious act that could “jinx” the outcome of the race is to urinate in the horse’s stall on race day, a belief shared by Northrup and Daniels. 

There will always be rituals and practices surrounding Thoroughbred racing that have some connection with superstition, faith, or folklore. However, the success of a horse ultimately is a result of the concerted efforts of the trainers, jockeys, and the horse. The reality of horse racing can best be summed up in the words of CL Daniels who said, “If a horse is gonna win, he’s gonna win.”

W. Charlene LeBrun teaches English at her alma mater Northwestern State University. She earned her BA in Liberal Arts in 2003 and earned her MA in English with Folklore and Southern Literature concentrations in 2005.

Lesson Plan: NH_MSF Lesson plan Salt Nails Prayer LeBrun

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