(Originally published in the December 25, 2010 issue of The
Blood-Horse magazine. Feel free to share your own thoughts and
the bottom of the column.)
Jack Zaraya retired as the Senior Ceremonial Resolution Writer for the New Jersey Legislature and lives in Freehold, NJ.
There once was a newspaper called The Morning Telegraph. Founded in 1833 and self-described in its masthead as “America’s Oldest Authority on Motion Pictures, Theater and Turf,” the “Telly” was essentially the horseplayer’s bible. Its offices were located in the Manhattan neighborhood known as Hell’s Kitchen at 525 West 52nd St. until the paper met its demise on April 3, 1972. On that date, management ceased publication following a typographers union strike and moved its operation to Hightstown, N.J., assuming the name of its sister publication—yes—the Daily Racing Form.
Freshly graduated from City College, I was hired for an editorial position at the Telegraph in the late spring of 1968. During my four-year tenure of service in New York, I rose from editorial assistant to slotman, or copy chief, of the editorial desk. From the day I started, my career was filled with professional growth and personal camaraderie, and I got to know a group of one-of-a-kind Runyonesque characters.
There was the out-of-the-clouds handicapper Danny Cohen, who made selections as Reigh Count and often chirped, “Just because I put ’em on top don’t mean I like ’em!” And Julius Schanzer, incongruously known as Longshot Gaffney, who was a master of the obvious. An utterly humorless man, he smoked long, thin, smelly cigars and was rarely challenged on his punditry—and only at one’s peril.
My initial period at the paper occurred in the summer of the great Dr. Fager-Damascus rivalry and prior to the inception of offtrack betting, Sunday racing, and simulcasting, when crowds of 50,000 were commonplace at Aqueduct and Belmont on Saturdays and holidays (national or Jewish). The Telegraph operated six days a week, and I would invariably spend my day off at the track. Nevertheless, I was able to place bets on all other days because of a convenient perk, the gratuitous services of an office bookmaker. The bookie, Ralph Pinto, was a gnome of a man who carried a thick wad of bills in each of his side pant pockets. Ralph was the Western Union operator assigned to the paper’s wire room, where teletype machines hummed incessantly with racing results emanating from track correspondents across the country.
Just about everyone in the office bet, including the copy editors, handicappers, statistical editors, printers, drivers, pressmen, administrators, and telephone operators. Ralph had a good thing going, and every day he provided refreshments for his large clientele.
One time I accompanied him to a grocery store where he picked up an assortment of coffee cakes and bagels (on Saturdays, he would “splurge” for cold cuts). On the way back to the office, he cautiously waited for all traffic to stop before attempting to cross wide Tenth Avenue.
“The light’s green, Ralph. What are we waiting for?” I asked.
After eventually getting across, he said, “My brother, who is also in the business, was once hit by a car crossing the street. He wasn’t hardly hurt, but the police insist he go on the ambulance to get checked out. He’s lying on a stretcher, when he thinks about his pockets. He slaps them hard, and they are flat as pancakes. Someone took all his dough!
“No way do I want to get run over.”
I was introduced to Ralph in a circuitous way. In my first hours on the job, I observed one of my new colleagues, Joe Rosen (whose dad, Sol Rosen, was the paper’s legendary editor), collecting money from the other copy editors. When he got around to me, he said, “We got a tip on a first-time starter by Bold Ruler out of Polylady named Power Ruler running today at Arlington Park. Do you want to get in?” And before I could ask how, he volunteered, “There’s a bookie in the wire room.”
Just to be genial, I handed him $2.
Late that afternoon—my head filled with journalism jargon “picas,” “fonts” and “heds” and the paper being “put to bed”—I again observed Joe approaching each colleague; only this time he was distributing money. When he got to my desk, he said, “The tip won,” and gave me $3.20. “Wow,” I thought, “that’s 3-5. These guys are sharp!”
As slotman, I designed the front page and wrote the Telegraph’s main eight-column banner—“Autobiography Wins Westchester”—on the final Saturday of its existence. The following Monday was indeed a sad day when employees approaching the ramshackle building encountered pickets. No one knew what the future held. Certainly not that I would spend the next 22 years on the editorial desk of the Daily Racing Form in Hightstown, N.J.