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Background photo: A hand-tinted linen postcard view of Three Sisters from Scott Lake, circa 1920.
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But he paid his bet and kept his mouth shut — until that evening, when Bunch Grass’s owners had gotten several drinks into their victory celebration. Then he made a suggestion: How would they feel, he asked, about a rematch? He had $500 that still thought Liberty was the faster horse, he told them. Maybe they’d like to take it off his hands?
They most certainly would. But this time, Swisher was more careful in selecting a jockey — and Liberty finished several lengths ahead.
“It paid me to keep my mouth shut,” Swisher told historian Hanley. “I made a profit of $400!”
Homer’s family attended the Oregon State Fair every year, and Homer was particularly interested in the horses. His ambition, in his youth, was to be a professional jockey; and he spent much of his boyhood hanging around the neighbors’ stables, where the neighbor, “Granger” Jones, let him exercise the stock.
At the state fair one particular year when Homer was in his early teens, one of Granger’s sons, Samp, set up a horse race. At that time, there weren’t enough good horses at the fair, nor enough interested bettors, to run a proper racing operation; so Samp set it up as a “boat race,” putting the family’s best horse in and matching it up with a collection of other ponies that were carefully selected to be sure and lose to it.
One of the horses they picked for their “sure losers” cohort was a mare that, although she had once been a really hot racer, was now too old to be a contender; they kept her around the stable to school colts. She still looked like a winner, though, so they put her in the race — and gave her to young Homer Davenport to ride.
“Innocent of the frame, he, of course, believed he was being sent out to win,” recalls former Oregon governor Oswald West, “And Samp, never giving the possibility of his winning a second thought, gave him the same instructions as he did the other boy (the one riding the picked winner) — ‘Get out there and win!’”
Acutely aware that this was his big break, and determined to make it count, young Homer urged his mount on — and he and the horse probably knew each other, so they had that teamwork thing going for them. They got off to a bad start, and were at the very back of the pack leaving the gate; but that soon changed. Homer’s horse surged ahead, passing the competition until she was neck and neck with the lead horse, and looked like she was actually going to take the lead.
Granger and his family were dumbfounded — and terrified. They had, of course, bet heavily on their picked horse. If Homer won, they’d be busted down to bedrock.
And Homer would have won, had it not been for the bad start he got. As it was, when he crossed the finish line, he’d taken second place by a head. Dejected, with tears streaming down his face, young Homer dismounted for the weigh-in. He’d been given his big chance, and he’d failed.
But he found the Jones family in great spirits, and very much disposed to forgive him for blowing it.
“Samp, with his pocket full of pool tickets on the winner, put his arm around the boy and said, ‘Never mind, Homer, you know the best of jockeys have hard luck at times.’”
That autumn, possibly partly to make up for setting poor Homer up for this disappointment, the Joneses took Homer with them on a trip to San Francisco. There, he met “Lucky” Baldwin, a well-connected horseman who regularly ran stock on the Bay District track. Baldwin showed the Jones party a gorgeous three-year-old horse, the pride of the stables, and happened to remark that he’d not been able to find an artist to draw him properly. Homer promptly asked permission to try it himself; and Baldwin was so impressed with the resulting drawing that he pulled some strings and got Homer his first job as a cartoonist, at the San Francisco Chronicle.