Choosing Horses: A Poem by Michael Ratcliffe

By Michael Ratcliffe

Choosing Horses

He chose his horses with precision;
read the Racing Form every day;
talked to trainers; kept stats on jockeys
in the small notebook
that he kept in his shirt pocket
with his ever-present pack of Winstons.
Recorded his bets, too—
how much he’d won, how much he’d lost.

horses 2The track in Shreveport was about as far
as he ever wanted to travel anymore.
The trip was comfortable—
same diner for coffee and donuts
on the drive down from Texarkana;
same diner for coffee and pie on the way home.
Maybe he’d had too much traveling
in those Depression summers
when he worked the harvest
from Texas up to the Dakotas;
or too much uncertainty
when he ran bootleg whiskey.
He was retired now, from the job
handling mail for the railroad—
a union job he could set his watch by,
that brought the certainty and comfort
that eluded him as a younger man.
Maybe routine was what he needed
to maintain some control over life,
and the lure of the bottle that
always threatened to derail him.

She had always wanted to see the world;
to go beyond Arkansas and the East Texas plains—
tourist travel, hotels, sightseeing;
not like trips to Kilgore and Corpus to see family.
She’d traveled some after her daughters left home,
married, had families, made their own ways in the world.
She always thought that after they retired
they could travel together; enjoy
some of the fruits from all those years of labor.
But he didn’t want to go any farther than Shreveport,
and she was afraid to leave him alone.

She chose her horses based on the colors
of the jockeys’ silks.  Oh, she knew
how to calculate the odds as well as he.
She listened to his reports from the trainers.
Maybe she just liked the uncertainty,
the element of risk in her method.
Maybe she just liked to hear him say,
as he recorded the results in his book,
Damn, if you don’t win more than me.

Michael Ratcliffe is a geographer who lives and writes between Baltimore and Washington. His poems have appeared in a variety of print and on-line journals; this is his second appearance in Fourth and Sycamore. His chapbook, Shards of Blue, which tells the story of his great-great grandparents’ lives on the Kansas prairie from the 1850s through their divorce in the 1870s, was published in December, 2015, by Finishing Line Press. He can be found online at


  1. If I was a marriage counselor, I’d read this poem to my clients, because it conveys so wonderfully matter-of-factly the push and pull of two people adjusting to the different arcs of their lives in a way which allows them to stay connected. The stroke of humor in the poem’s conclusion struck me as funny, sad, and so true and poignant. I want to read more of the work of Michael Ratcliffe.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Paul– thanks! In addition to the link David posted to the two poems of mine that appeared previously in Fourth & Sycamore, you can find some of my work on my website at, including one post with links to poems published in on-line journals.

    Liked by 1 person

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