"Horseplayers" and Pioneer Days

Boy, am I being influenced by television lately. First American Idol spawns a column on Wise Dan and now “Horseplayers,” mainly Team Rotondo (Peter Rotondo Sr. and Jr. and Lee Davis) and John Conte, brings me back to a time long ago in my life; a time of smoke-filled busses and a cacophony of thick Brooklyn accents moaning about the double they almost hit and how “da faw hawse is a lock in da toid.” OK, that was a bit exaggerated, but effective nonetheless.

And, oh, the excitement of heading to the Big A on a Saturday afternoon. The Pioneer bus, which I would pick up on Flatlands Avenue (a two-avenue walk from my house) would drop us off at the far end of the grandstand, which was pretty much a parking lot for busses coming from all over the city – from Brooklyn to Manhattan to Staten Island and all points in between.

I step off the bus and inhale the cool fresh breezes blowing in off Jamaica Bay. No need to buy a Telly (The Morning Telegraph, the Eastern and main edition of the Daily Racing Form), because chances are I had already bought one the night before. This was a time of 24-hour entries, and the candy stores and newspaper shops would get the Telly the night before, as New Yorkers made their daily evening stampede to get an early start on handicapping the next day’s card.

And handicapping was pretty simple back then. There were no exactas, trifectas, quinellas, pick 4s, 5s, or 6s. There was one daily double on the first and second races and that was the extent of exotic wagering.

The Daily Double was a phenomena; a constant source of drama, especially to those who got there just in time to get their Double bet down. There was one guy who was late getting to the track and came charging in a flat-out sprint up to the mutuel window with zero minutes to go and saying to the mutuel clerk, “Gimme anybody.”

For each race, you could bet win place or show, and that was it. If there was a seemingly unbeatable 3-5 shot, tough luck. You bet place or show or hope it was a handicap, or you just passed the race. Unlike the bastardized version of handicap racing today, back then, handicaps were designed to bring the field as close together as possible, because there were no exactas and quinellas and trifectas. Nowadays, there really is no need for handicaps. It was mainly for betting purposes. But now you can incorporate odds-on favorites in your bets in numerous ways. With the conservative training methods we have now and the trainers’ and owners’ fear of losing, there is no need to try to get our top horses beat by having them give away weight to lesser opponents.

So, with Telly and program (there were no past performances in the program then) in hand, I walk up the stairs at end of the grandstand, where you can practically touch the quarter pole, and find a seat. It is still well before post time for the first race, as I would always catch the early bus. So, the grandstand was still empty and you could sit wherever you wanted. I liked sitting up the stretch and watching the action as they turned for home.

In those days, you knew every horse from seeing them every week or two weeks. Some of my earliest favorite horses were claimers. I remember falling in love with a near-black horse named Shakazu, who seemed to run every time I was there. He was simply gorgeous. And there were many others who I loved to follow.

As the first post grew closer, the people would start arriving in a steady stream, and by 12:30, the grandstand was packed. If they had less than 50,000 in attendance on a Saturday it was considered a small crowd. On holidays, such as Memorial Day and Labor Day, especially, it was not unusual to get over 70,000.

The feature back then was always the seventh race, and you could begin to feel the anticipation grow by about the fifth race. You got one stakes and that was it. But, boy, were those stakes special. New York was the hub of racing and just about every equine star ran there.

One of my most memorable days at the Big A was the Fourth of July, 1968. Racing fans finally were going to see Damascus and Dr. Fager clash for the first time since the previous year’s Woodward Stakes, in which the two superstar 3-year-olds met the great Buckpasser, reigning Horse of the Year, in what many called the Race of the Century. With Damascus and Buckpasser having “rabbits” to soften Dr. Fager, it took something away from the purity of the contest. But rabbits were a part of the game, and, in fact. Dr. Fager’s trainer, John Nerud, had used a rabbit for Gallant Man to soften up Bold Ruler in the 1957 Belmont Stakes.

It was now a little over nine months since Damascus had annihilated Dr. Fager and Buckpasser by 10 lengths. And once again, Damascus would have his rabbit, Hedevar, to run with the headstrong Dr. Fager. I was a huge Damascus fan, so I certainly had no problem with the rabbit, unlike most people, the majority of whom were Dr. Fager fans. Nerud was based in New York, while Damascus’ trainer, the cantankerous Frank Whiteley, was based mainly in Maryland or at Delaware Park and was considered an outsider.

As I sat in my seat, just soaking up the atmosphere, watching the people file in, and glancing occasionally at the Telly, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. It was the familiar, distinctive, high-pitched voice of track announcer Fred Capossela.

“Your attention please, ladies and gentlemen, in the seventh race, number 1A, Hedevar…has…been…scratched.”

You could hear the murmur sweep through the grandstand. Dr. Fager would be loose on the lead and Damascus was now on a solo mission, with no way of softening up the beast. What happened that afternoon can be read in one of several columns I’ve written on the ’68 Suburban. But I can still hear that announcement, and what resulted from it.

What many people don’t realize is that when you watched a race live back then, it most likely would be the only time you would ever see it, and you would have to have it ingrained in your mind for all time from that one viewing. Watching the replay of a race at the track was a concept still in its infancy, and you would have to take advantage of it by rushing back from your seat to one of the few TV monitors in the grandstand. And even then, the replay was designed for win, place, and show purposes only. If the winner won by daylight, the camera would leave him and go to the second- and third- place finishers. So, for example, even to this day, no one has ever seen Damascus cross the finish line in the Woodward Stakes or Travers, or even Dr. Fager in the majority of his races. All you saw was the winner galloping out after the camera had switched to the place and show horses.

Following the last race, you’d have to trek down to the opposite end of the grandstand, near the clubhouse entrance, to get the Pioneer bus back home. The moment you stepped on the bus, there was a din, as hardcore bettors rehashed their tales of woe and glory, with, of course, cigar smoke once again permeating the bus. I always got a kick out of watching some guy with his hairy belly protruding from under his beer-stained T-short, complaining that the losing horse he bet on had no class.

So it was in the ‘60s, when the sport was simple and pure…and popular. In fact, the three most popular sports in America back then by far were baseball, boxing, and horseracing. Racegoers perhaps were not quite as refined and there were no luxury suites and simulcasting and Pick 6’s and home betting. But the racing was alive, and the horses were right there in front of you, not figures on a TV or computer screen. There was fresh air infused with that intoxicating aroma of cigar smoke and beer and mustard that you only got at a baseball game or at Madsion Square Garden for a Rangers or Knicks game. It was the smell of sports.

Thanks to “Horseplayers” and Team Rotondo for reassuring me that those characters of old still exist. And, Peter, Sr., keep screaming at the TV and cursing your head off and bemoaning your fate. All the guys on the Pioneer bus would be proud of you.

This is a typical crowd scene at Aqueduct, as Braulio Baeza leads Dr. Fager into the winner's circle after the 1968 Suburban Handicap.

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