Updated on 09/17/2011 10:56AM

From backstretch to bandstand

Email

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - When Gulfstream Park stages its weekend concerts, most of the performers are largely oblivious to the presence of Thoroughbreds nearby. But for the rocker who sang here last week, coming back to a racetrack had special significance.

Long before she won a Grammy Award, before she recorded hits such as "True Colors" and "Girls Just Wanna to Have Fun," before she even envisioned a career in music, Cyndi Lauper worked at racing's lowest-caste job - as a hotwalker on the backstretch at Belmont Park.

Belmont, of course, is one of America's grandest racetracks, home of the nation's most elite racing operations. But the Belmont backstretch, like all others, consists of two diametric societies, for many of the low-paid workers who do the menial jobs are social outcasts or misfits. And nobody felt like more of a misfit than 17-year-old Cyndi Lauper did in 1970.

Her home life was tough; her mother worked as a waitress to support three kids. Her schooling was a fiasco; she went to four high schools before quitting without a diploma. She left home ("with a paper bag") and tried to support herself with a variety of jobs. She worked as a waitress, as a door-to-door peddler of karate lessons. With her eccentric appearance - her hair might be dyed pink or blue or both - she didn't look as if she belonged in a conventional office, but she tried that, too, and recalled: "I was supposed to be a Gal Friday, but I was a Gal Friday the Thirteenth. I'd go into the filing room and forget why I was there. I had no skills."

The girl wasn't having much fun.

"I'd finally flunked out of every job and nobody would hire me, no matter how much I tried to look normal," Lauper said. "A guy living next door to me worked at the track and said I should go there, that you didn't need any skills. I went to the track and applied."

And soon, for $95 a week, she was walking hots - that is, leading horses around the shed row after their morning exercise - for trainer D.M. "Mike" Smithwick, then one of the nation's top trainers of steeplechase horses.

"The racetrack was beautiful," Lauper said. "I don't bet, and I didn't care much about the racing, but I loved the dawn and I loved the animals. The horses were really jumpy and high-strung; I used to sing a chant to one of them to calm them down. But back then I weighed 98 pounds because I was hardly eating, and if the horse got spooked, you were screwed. My shoes were ripped by the toes because of horses stepping on my feet. A couple of times horses jumped up and I fell. It wasn't safe."

Partly because of safety concerns, partly because of her own lack of stability, she stopped showing up at work, went on unemployment, packed up her few belongings and hitchhiked to Canada. Eventually she came back to the United States by way of Pownal, Vt., and got a short-lived job as a hot walker at now-defunct Green Mountain Race Track

"I was sleeping in the woods and then coming to work," she recalled. That was not a viable lifestyle, just as most of her other early choices were not. It was to be her last racetrack experience.

Four years later Lauper started singing with a band. After a decade of struggle that included bankruptcy and health problems, she made a decisive breakthrough in 1983 with the release of the album "She's So Unusual," which sold nine million copies worldwide. Lauper's flaky style became a professional asset in the age of MTV. Now she sported multicolored hair, wore wacky outfits with metal trinkets, used gobs of eye paint ("enough to deface a subway car," People magazine wrote) and instead of being an outcast she became a trend-setter.

Her work as a hotwalker merits only a short sentence in Lauper's lengthy bio, but the singer remembers her experience at Belmont Park as much more than a low-end job.

"That was a part of my life that shaped who I am," she said. "The people at the track were the underbelly of society. There were all kinds of interesting characters; they had an alternative lifestyle and they couldn't fit into a mold. And this group of people wound up in a net that caught them all."

Eventually she would find a home in the music business, but it was at the racetrack, for the first time in her life, that Lauper found a little world that accepted her and her eccentricities - pink hair and all.

(c) 2003, The Washington Post