Alfred Vanderbilt

   Alfred Vanderbilt enjoyed playing tennis with me. The reason he enjoyed it is that he was a very bad tennis player, and he sought the company of others of equal ability. I fit the bill. He liked ladiesin every sense of the word, I'm sureso it was usually mixed doubles at Saratoga. Typical of Alfred it suited him to play at public courts rather than the tonier Saratoga Golf and Polo Club, where very stylish grass courts were available.

   While the Vanderbilt name is synonymous with heavy brassstupendous wealth, Alfred never seemed terribly aware of it. If he was important, he was not absorbed with it. He was nice enough looking, with a casual, slouchy way about him. His countenance bore no hint of exuberance, and if he was burning with enthusiasm on some project (and he often was) you could not tell it. His pedigree was staggering; if he had been a yearling he would have definitely been a cinch for the select session of the sale. On the top he was New York Central Railway. On the bottom, Bromo-Seltzer.

Alfred Vanderbilt 1955

Vanderbilt with Arthur Godfrey in 1955

   When he was 21, his mother gave him a nice present:  the 600-acre Sagamore Farm (and 50 horses) in the lovely rolling hills of Maryland. From then on he dedicated his life to horse racing, and he made a monumental impact on the game. He made no bones about ithe simply adored every aspect of Thoroughbred racing. He devoted his energy to the farm, the breeding, training, racing; and also to the running of great racetracks and many of the important organizations of racing. He never wavered from his dedication to the sportrepeat sportof racing horses. He once said, "I have this wonderful feeling about racing. It's not just that I love horses. I'm like the person who goes to the circus and falls in love with the whole show, not just the elephants."

   Alfred Vanderbilt in his day was probably the most respected man in the racing industry of North America.

   He bred and campaigned one of the five greatest horses that ever lived. Native Dancer was undefeated except for when Eric Guerin got him in a blind switch and lost the 1953 Kentucky Derby. He also had Discovery, Next Move, Bed O'Roses, Find, Social Outcast, North Sea and many other slightly lesser lights.

   He was long-time head of NYRA, operating those three race tracks while simultaneously resuscitating and popularizing semi-moribund Pimlico. His presidency breathed life into that old place by staging the wonderful War Admiral-Seabiscuit match race. A controversial but logical move was to remove the picturesque hill in the middle of the racetrack, so people could see the races. He was the first racetrack operator to introduce the photo finish camera and the electrically operated starting gate. All of this, mind you, when he was in his twenties. His racetrack managerial career was interrupted by World War II, during which Alfred joined the Navy, captained a PT Boat and was decorated for bravery. After the war, he resumed his career.

    He was a clever, impish, whimsical, interesting  man, and he attracted such diverse pals as Oscar Levant, George Abbott, Ernest Hemingway, Hal Prince, Fred Astaire, the Duke of Windsor, and a wide variety of characters in every walk of life. He was comfortable in his own skin. For example, he once made an indelible impression on me when I spied him at a typically frenetic cocktail party in Saratoga. We all know that it is absolutely essential that at a cocktail party you must never be caught without someone to talk to. Unthinkable that you would not be screaming at someone! Not with Alfred. At one point I can see him, with his back to the crush of revelers, simply standing by himself staring out a window. He would have been glad to talk but it was not important either way.

   One day in the crowded paddock at Saratoga, he took great pleasure in pointing out to a friend (the Secretary of the Treasury at the time) that he had a hole in the seat of his pants. Conceivably this story is apocryphal, but when jockey Ted Atkinson was about to ride a Vanderbilt long shot in a mile and three-quarter race, Alfred showed up in the paddock with a sandwich, a flashlight and a compass, commenting, "It may be dark before you get back."

Alfred Vanderbilt 1965

   His later years literally proved dark for him. A degenerative eye disease made him close to blind. While he was losing his sight, his son was killed in a mountaineering accident. And Alfred was discouraged with the way racing was trending. Still, he kept a few horses, and each morning his driver took him to the racetrack for training. He stood on the apron and heardnot sawhis horses go by. He could hardly distinguish a large object. If I passed him I would say, "Good morning Alfred. It's Cot Campbell." He could then come back with a greeting.

   But late in the game he got "Derby Fever." He had some horses with trainer Mary Eppler, and he asked her to go to the sales and buy a colt "that could win the Derby." She made a good try. She bought a colt and Alfred named him Traitor. He won the Futurity and was placed in the Champagne. The racing world got excited that a Vanderbilt horse finally would complete that which Native Dancer soughtand deserved. Alas, he did not get to the Derby.

   Alfred Vanderbiltwhose birth was announced on the front page of the New York Times in 1912died in 1999. He passed while dressing for a trip to the racetrack. He was going there to sit while the races took place.

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