Ever mount the fold-up attic stairs in search of a receipt, faded photograph, or old 45 phonograph record?
It's easy to get sidetracked by old papers and scrapbooks, pleasantly reminiscing for an hour or two, then descending without finding what you were searching for.
I had that experience recently but couldn't come away without the obligatory check on the zippered garment bag to see if the moth balls were still doing their job on my old military uniforms, then pausing to spit in the pocket of an old baseball glove, pounding a fist into the pocket again and again: "Easy batter up; chance for two here."
I enjoy similar reverie checking on memorabilia in my prized walnut desk-the command post.
An apple-red phone that served as a "hot line" while syndicating high-end stallions; a clock set in Galway marble gifted by an Irish house guest while we grappled with $41-million champion El Gran Senor's fertility problems; and a dog-eared Rolodex.
The drawers are crammed with keepsakes, ranging from a sealed tube of cushion troweled from the finish line at Bowie July 13, 1985, the last day of racing at the jinxed oval best remembered for fires, train wrecks, and blizzards, to toffee tins full of track insignia, Northern Dancer and Halo halter plates, a Meylar stopwatch, and a horse tooth of undocumented origin. But why the bandage? Spectacular Bid's, perhaps.
There, too, are a half-dozen Robinson Reminder notebooks, including a black leather one with "Northcool" stamped in gold on the inside cover. Northcool was the name of Stanley Sagner's popular suiting that gave seersucker a hard run decades ago. Sager's namesake colt, Saggy, beat mighty Citation in a fluky 1948 renewal of the Chesapeake Trial Stakes at long-gone Havre de Grace. Sagner survived the 1956 sinking of the luxury liner Andrea Doria off Nantucket to revel in Saggy's son Carry Back's 1960 Kentucky Derby/Preakness double.
In a folder kept apart from other correspondence are several vintage letters of special interest, including one signed simply, "Bull," and another, "Fitz."
A.B. "Bull" Hancock Jr.'s letter, written May 3, 1957-Kentucky Derby eve-was in response to my query concerning his recollections of Bold Ruler and Round Table growing up together in the Camelot that is Claiborne Farm.
"They couldn't have been more different in their early days here," the master breeder recalled. "Bold Ruler was a very skinny foal with a large hernia, as had Nashua, and we had the devil's own time trying to get him to look good. He had a tendency to walk his stall, and I must say I was never really pleased with his condition. He, however, had a good disposition and never missed an oat.
"Round Table was one of the prettiest foals on the farm and was always as fat and sleek as a mole...he was perhaps the most difficult suckling to lead and after he was weaned took a great delight in tossing the men as well as myself around. He dragged me through the mud more than once, but when he finally found out what we wanted, he never gave us a minute's trouble. I must say that from the day he was foaled everyone on the farm had a high opinion of him."
As members of one of history's most gifted foal crops, Round Table and Bold Ruler finished third and fourth, respectively, in the 1957 Kentucky Derby, but Bold Ruler, bred and raced by Mrs. Henry Carnegie Phipps' Wheatley Stable, finished that season as Horse of the Year. Round Table, bred by Claiborne and raced by Travis M. Kerr, earned the same honor the following year, eventually retiring as the world's leading money earner.
Both heralded champions on the track, they returned to Claiborne, becoming leading sires, Bold Ruler topping the general sire list eight times.
The "Fitz" letter, from James E. Fitzimmons, was to thank me for press proofs of a magazine cover featuring his portrait. Written April 22, 1958, from his Sheepshead Bay Road address in Brooklyn, he praised the artist's work as a "fine job, considering the subject he had to work with."
The revered Hall of Fame trainer, so crippled by arthritis that he couldn't raise his head high enough to look Sande, Stoute, or Arcaro in the eye, maintained his Sunny Jim wit throughout his life.
Joe Hickey, who lives in Maryland, has been a publicist, writer, breeding farm administrator, and racing commissioner.