"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.

51 Comments

Leave a Comment:

SlewBeatsAffirmed

A recollection that warms the heart. Thems were the days.

07 Mar 2014 3:44 PM
sceptre

After all these years, there's still something new to learn, even about fundamentals. It had never occurred to me that the advent of "exotic" wagering impacted on handicap weighting. So, will the track handicappers admit to this?

07 Mar 2014 4:45 PM
malcolm lawrie 1

Great article! I was a little later, but still there. 9th race was a Frank Martin -  Angel Cordero thing. How can one forget Black Match!! There was of course many others. First time at Saratoga etc. Those were the days,  Woody Stephens and his favorite saying - You have to cross the Hudson to win championships, So much more. Winning the Met Mile and coming back to the Belmont. All gone, but we will always have our memories. Oh, I do enjoy the show, it does bring back memories.   Thanks

07 Mar 2014 7:15 PM
The Deacon

As each day passes there are fewer of us who remember those glory days of racing. The iconic smell of a hotdog and a program and a racing form. Just the smell of the racetrack, and all of the magic that stirs one's memory. Such a great story Steve.

I was going through some old racing forms and track programs the other day. My wife has been pestering me to do some spring cleaning.

I ran across the 1968 Californian Stakes program at Hollywood Park. I also had kept (my dad probably gave me this one) the 1959 Santa Anita Derby program in which Silver Spoon had won. My dad knew Robert Wheeler (trainer) so the program was special to him.

In all, I would venture to say I probably have about 15 boxes of old racing forms and programs. Why I kept them, who knows.................

Thanks for sharing a part of your memory with us.

07 Mar 2014 7:32 PM
txhorsefan

I love reading about all your memories, Steve!!  Keep up the stories, please as I was not watching races back then.  Well, mid sixties my family was into some quarter horse racing at the Texas bush tracks, but no comparison to TB racing in NY.  Thanks!!

07 Mar 2014 8:13 PM
Racingfan

I was a baby in the 60's so I did not get to enjoy all that you wrote about.  However since my favorite horse of all time raced in the 50's, I have spent many hours reading about what I consider to be the glory days of racing.  Wish I had been there to see it but since that is not possible, I thank you for sharing your memories.  With your incredible writing I get the chance to feel like I was there anyways!  

07 Mar 2014 9:32 PM
Deltalady

Love this retrospective, Steve. Your story comes on the heels of my watching the most recent episode of "Horsepayers".  "Horseplayers" is absolutely a home run as far as I'm concerned.  Gotta love Peter Rotondo, Sr., as he's telling the story about his wife asking him to quit teaching the horseracing stuff to Jr.  Jr. was asked by a teacher to use a sentence with the word "advantage" in it.  Jr. wrote, "It is a great advantage to have the outside post at the 1 mile marker at the Big A race track!"  Sr. says he was the most proud father ever! Mom was not pleased. Loved Michael Beychok's trying to buy a yearling! And, his story of buying the mare that won him the $1Million prize in 2012 and retiring her, saying she had done all she needed to, that was classy. My favorite part of this episode is when Christian Hellmers is trying to sell his "double bomb" idea to some of the others.  Michael Beychok is having none of it, which I loved, but Rotondo Jr. went for it. The more Christian tries to find others to join, the more he reminds me of P.T. Barnum! Cox, the long, tall cowboy, pooh poohs the whole scheme and drops a couple of expletives. Last race of the day, it all comes down to a chance at $100,000 on one horse in the last race. Christian is salivating, the horse looks like he's going to win, they are screaming "wire, wire, wire", and their horse gets caught at the last jump!  Classic, classic.  Those who haven't watched the show yet, you can go to the Esquire online site.  You may be asked to register or sign in, but no charge:

tv.esquire.com/.../183112259669

The most recent episode, Saratoga Spoiler, to me has been the best. Loads of fun.

07 Mar 2014 10:29 PM
Steel Dragon

I must've boarded that bus 300 times in front of Rainbow on Kings Highway. There was one that left from the junction, too. Anyone from Brooklyn knows what the junction is.

Malcolm: Black Match was usually coupled with Intensitivo. Seemed like Pancho entered and scratched them every other day,

07 Mar 2014 11:04 PM
Steve Haskin

Steel Dargon, if you lived in Flatlands or Canarsie or Mill Basin you couldnt get anywhere unless you took a bus to the junction (Flatbush and Kings Highway) and got the subway there. I did that every day when I started working for the Morning Telegraph in 1969. I also did it after we moved 1n 1963 and had to take a bus to the junction, then get the Kings Highway bus to James Madison High School.

08 Mar 2014 12:31 AM
Kelso1966

I wasn't "around" in those days to be a part of the action.  Your story makes me sure wish I had been.

08 Mar 2014 7:15 AM
Don from PA/DE

Thanks Steve, I too grew up on LI, in Garden City, and this year / time was just after my GCHS graduation and long before I got bitten by the horse fly bug, but wanted to mention that I recently was given a great gift, the May 17, 1948 (one year before I was born!)issue of TIME Magazine (v.LI No. 20) which featured cover story and illustration of Eddie Arcaro (who later lived in Garden City on Hilton Ave I believe, although this was common talk when I was growing up, title cover "Why is one piano player better than another?", perhaps you already have read or written about it, but it is a gem in my eyes, full of lots to share at the time, Citation had just won the KD and was on the way to Pimlico...EA was quite the story, even in 1948. Don

08 Mar 2014 8:24 AM
Dr Drunkinbum

Great article. Those were really magical and exciting days regardless of what bets we were making. I went to Santa Anita quite a few times in 1971 but then didn't go to the track again until the early 80's, then went a ton in the 80's and 90's mainly to GG and Bay Meadows. We were always going after big exactas and then the Pick 6 when it came out. We always tried to get the Daily Racing Form at a little store we liked to get it at because they were usually the first stop for the delivery guy. If they didn't have it yet we were frustrated and we had to go find something else to do for awhile. If there was a big problem and they didn't get it the day before then fear and anger set in.

  "What the hell are we going to do tonight with no Form to study and the race is tomorrow? Twiddle our thumbs? This is BS."  We usually studied The Form late into the night and traveled to the track excited, with great anticipation of hitting the Pick 6. Our work was done, now it was just up to the jockeys not to screw up. We had it down. Today is the day. Sometimes. We did get some good scores but we usually lost. A $350 profit day was huge in the old days. We were rich, and days like that always kept you going because of the memory of it but we lost more days than we won.

  "So we didn't win, we'll get it tomorrow. I'm going to start studying right after dinner. Tomorrow is the day for sure. Baze sure screwed us over today. He's going to get his butt kicked tomorrow." We were always trying to beat Russell Baze in the Bay Area. At SA I was always betting on Pincay. I was a rookie for about 30 years, losing more than I won. It takes a long time to learn this game and it's still tough but at least I have a profit this century. I know I didn't the last century. Either way, it's been a blast win or lose because prior to the race being run we are always a big winner, right?

08 Mar 2014 8:25 AM
derbylin

The Deacon:

Loved your post.  Your aren't the only one to keep old programs.  I have all the KY Derby programs from 1963 until the present.  Also, most of the Forms and wrist bands.  I love to see how the programs have evolved.

And Steve, I found a replay of Dr Fager and Damascus in The Suburban.  Great races and memories.

08 Mar 2014 9:46 AM
The Doctor

Com'on Steve you told me personally that the The Doc was your "All time fav" ! I know you had a lot of respect for Damascus early on, but to say that you were a "huge Damascus fan and you had no problem with the rabbit, tugs at my heart strings a little….Maybe you were that day, but obviously the result changed your mind…..Fabulous article as always! Please keep up the nostalgic strolls down memory lane…Thanks.

08 Mar 2014 10:30 AM
The Doctor

The Deacon:

Hope you wintered well….By the way who won the 1968 Californian??

08 Mar 2014 10:33 AM
Daniel Jividen

The thing I like best about this excellent article, Steve, is how you give the race track smells their due credit.  The rich, earthy, mingled smells of the track (even today), beer, tobacco, leather, mustard, horse , et al. are one of life's great pleasures.  All us railbirds are Proustians at heart, Steve.

08 Mar 2014 10:39 AM
Old Timer

Steve, what an articulate piece.  You are the king. It's like Guys and Dolls in print. I recall those days so well. Sometimes we'd take the bus from Staten Island and sometimes drive. There was also the "Aqueduct Special" subway train. It only made one other stop in Brooklyn, going from 42nd Street right to the track. The Morning Telegraph was obligatory.  What was the cost of the Telly back then, maybe 50 or 75 cents?  Like you said, back then the programs only had the horse's name, number, jockey and trainer. We'd often get a Grandstand seat, usually in Section 2K, which was fairly close to the finish line. I never went to the Clubhouse. I recall however standing on the apron right at the rail around the top of the stretch when Jim French won the Dwyer (which was the 70's). Do you remember a cheap roan horse named Jacques Who? He won many races at the Big A, usually it was one of the daily double races. There was also a fast sprinter named Wrong Card, who was tough to beat at 6 or 7 furlongs.

The smell of a cigar to this day brings me back to those times.  Talk about the daily double, you had to get on a whole different line to bet it. Then go back and get on another line to bet win-place-show. No computers or bar codes in those days.

It is sad, but if that photo above were taken today there would probably be a dozen or so people.  Then again, the only place at that time to gamble, other than the track, was Las Vegas.

As Edith and Archie used to sing "Those were the days."

08 Mar 2014 11:47 AM
Steve Haskin

Thanks, Old Timer, when I started buying the Telly it was 60 cents. And you got entries for every track. and dont forget page 2 was devoted to Movies and theater. They had their own critique.

Doctor, I never said that. I've written numerous columns on how it was Damascus who got me interested in racing and I was a fanatical Damascus fan, who had tremendous respect for Dr. Fager, who I came to love equally as much over the years.

08 Mar 2014 1:27 PM
Pedigree Ann

Tell the caption maker that Braulio Baeza was more likely on top of Dr. Fager and someone else is leading the horse. Please.

When I first started going to Santa Anita as an undergrad, I had to walk four long Pasadena blocks up to Colorado Blvd. to catch a bus. Always full by then; sometimes they were so full, they passed me by and I had to wait for the next one. Then there was the problem of convincing the ticket takers that I was old enough to go in alone (thanks to the family baby-face). Then to stake out my position on the top step of the riser-like steps at the top of the apron.

You all know WHY there were no exactas, trifectas, etc. in those days, don't you? Computers were not small or cheap or fast enough for the tracks to use them for keeping track of bets and calculating payoffs. Pocket calculators that did more than add or multiply, etc., didn't come out until a was a senior. Oh, and to prevent counterfeiting of winning tickets, your actual ticket was minor work of art, with many different sorts of symbols, letters and numbers around your actual bet. Not this flimsy paper we get these days, either - sturdy pasteboard that made nifty bookmarks when your bet lost.

08 Mar 2014 1:30 PM
Steve Haskin

All those old programs and Forms are priceless. When I first got hooked on racing I would go the "Midtown magazine shop" off 42nd Street and 6th Avenue, which sold only old magazines, and buy up all their old issues of Turf and Sport Digest.

I'm wondering if anyone who has commented on here is under 60 :)

08 Mar 2014 1:32 PM
Steve Haskin

Pedigree Ann, I wrote the caption. If its about semantics, it was Baeza who brought him back and made a left turn into the winner's circle. I guess I could have said "brings him into the winner's circle" or "steers him in the direction of the winner's circle," or to be more precise "assistant Spasoje Dimitryevic leads him into the winner's circle." But I think people know what I mean.

08 Mar 2014 1:44 PM
TRADEADS

Hi  Steve...the newsstand that you are referring to where you acquired all of your vintage turf periodicals and so forth was called Hotalings.....located on West 42nd Street (South side of 42nd Street) and Broadway..Times Square...they were there for decades and decades prior to relocating to the rear of the Armed Forces Recruiting Center....in Times Square...diagonally opposite of their location... then regrettably....just faded away....they sold in addition to turf pubs....every daily newspaper in the country...and the world...in addition to virtually magazines of all titles....It was an landmark for those of us whom had an fervent interest on out of town news....Obviously all prior to the advent of the computer.....Nothing like waxing nostalgia and yes...they were the days......take care always.....Steve Stone

08 Mar 2014 2:32 PM
Steve Haskin

I used to go to Hotalings all the time for newspapers around the country. The place I was referring to was called Midtown, which sold only old magazines.

08 Mar 2014 3:11 PM
sceptre

Steve,

Morning Telegraph was 50cents when I started out. It would drive my father crazy to see me spend so much on a newspaper. I would also save all my lunch money (in HS) and eat only a 5 cent roll each day, thus enabling me some betting money for Garden State on the weekend. I also have a similar story to yours about the Turf And Sport Digests. In Philly, at 13th & Filbert, accross from the Trailways Bus terminal was an old magazine store. They had a horde of old T & S Digests, deep into the 40s, etc. Gradually I bought up almost all of them, but years later all were lost in a flood in my parents' garage where I had them stored.

08 Mar 2014 4:09 PM
BelmontBarb

Wow.....I can feel the energy, the smells and sounds of this glorious time! and I am overwhelmed. What a great article and what a great time! You know Steve, today is so different (it saddens me).....cool and definitely technical and very much advanced and very much insensitive. I'll bet there is a good majority today that can't recall the names of current horses and jockeys or trainers because of the technical takeover.  It's like a cell phone - no-one remembers anyone's numbers today -lost!  No doubt the technically advanced world is great to do this (I can deal with that part, it is controllable) and to get the job done but certainly not to replace a touch, a smell, a sound, laughter or a tear!

I loved to get in the car with my dad, family and friends....(sometimes my Dad made me take the car myself if he was tooo tired) we drove to the "El" (train station) at Pelham Parkway - White Plains Road in the Bronx for the Telly on Friday night at 11:00pm and if Sal was out we went to Tony at the Allerton station and pick it up there or to the next station...Everyone came to my house and into the night with my Mom's great food and constant coffee, No fear of smoke, we talked and laughed and planned our departure time to get to the track next day! Everybody up!!! Binoculars in hand....

and we were off.......

We must remember too that in the earlier days,patrons were hard workers with rugged hands and after a week of labor they couldn't wait to cheer their four legged icons on and thank the jocks aboard.  Oh yeah! they gave some hard criticism to those guys too but harmless they were and remember the one's who attended in the week quietly in serene like atmosphere dressed with hats and coats of class with that beautiful telly - large and folded under the arm - and when opened~a snap when the breeze would come across desparate meneuvers to hold the page for the upcoming race or the one you just lost.

What a Day at the races!  

Recalling the Doc and Damascus, Buckpasser, Fred Caposella is irreplaceable as is your descriptive article(s) that surely show the heart of a sensitive and special man - you!  I can't thank you enough!

Yhank you - heartfully!

08 Mar 2014 9:37 PM
Steel Dragon

Steve: I'm sure it was a typo, but you know the junction was and is Flatbush & Nostrand, not Flatbush & Kings Highway. Sorry, Jentz is long gone...

Old Timer: Jacques Who was notorious for finishing 2nd and rarely winning.

As far as the Horseplayers crew, I don't find anything particularly compelling or likable about any of them. A lot of tired jokes, worn out sayings, dopey hats and annoying cockiness. Who would want to hang around any of these guys?  

09 Mar 2014 12:42 AM
Steve Haskin

Yes, I was mixing two intersections. Fratbish and Kings highway is where I got off the bus to switch over to the Kings highway bus to go to Madison High School. Flatbush and Nostrand was farther up Flatbush where the subway station was. Good catch. Cant believe I blew that because Flatbush and Nostrand is what rolls off the tongue.

09 Mar 2014 9:38 AM
Old Timer

Deacon, I am jealous of your program collection. How I wish I had kept some of those!

09 Mar 2014 10:12 AM
Pedigree Ann

The record shows that Steel Dragon is correct:

1970 Jacques Who, gr c Grey Dawn II

     In North America         117  6 24 18  $186,740

A tidy total for a horse who made most of his starts in claiming company, although he did go out of town and pick up some black-type. A couple of reliable claimers who came back every year out west included Canal Street and Sand Canyon and the mud-loving Wingover. The latter two had been SWs at 2, before I arrived in SoCal, but even with their glory days behind them, were always in there punching. For modern day reference, think of Spooky Mulder.

Yes, Steve, I'm in the over 60 crowd. I remember having to get up at 6am to walk over to the drugstore a half-mile away to get my 50 cent DRF on Saturday mornings during the SA season. None of this 2-3 days to do your 'capping - one morning, that was it. Yeah, and I walked to school in 4 feet of snow - I DID grow up in Minnesota, after all. But the streets were always plowed; they used road graders, not some dinky trucks with blades on the front. The type of salt they used back then turned the slush green; very weird. I still get warm, fuzzy feelings at the sound of tire chains going by.

09 Mar 2014 11:07 AM
Love 'em all

And I got a big kick out of the following ....

>I always got a kick out of watching some guy with his hairy belly protruding from under his beer-stained T-shirt, complaining that the losing horse he bet on had no class.<

Haven't stopped giggling about that one since reading this marvelous story yesterday.  You're the best, Mr. Haskin.

09 Mar 2014 1:17 PM
Secreteriat

Steve,

In the late sixties 1964 I was introduced to horseracing at Woodbine in Toronto. I was 19years old earning a$1 an hour. My friends took me to Greenwood racetrack. I bet $2 to win On Be Lika Me at 37 to one and collected 66.00.I thought making a living was going to be easy betting horses. It took five Saturdays to loose it back and I was hooked. In the Next 3 years I saw Victorian  Era and Northern Dancer who won the Kentucky Derby. Lucien Lauren and Ron Turcotte were among the top trainers and jockeys in Toronto. In July 1967 I got married to my wife of 46 years who lived on 10 street in N Y C and I moved there. I got a job at White Weld were you also worked before getting in the horseracing business and six months later I moved to Bayside were my neighbor was the wife of a horse trainer and we used to go to Aqueduct and Belmont on most Saturdays. Her betting strategy was to bet Mr Nerud and Pancho Martin  horses and doubled the amount of the bet until they won. On Belmont days we would park all the way where the back stretch was and had to walk 3/4 of a mile to the Grandstand. My favorite place to sit was way up on the 3rd floor next to the CBS cameraman and he would freeze the frame at the wire and tell me who won all the photo finishes. I saw the 3 triple Crowns as well as Damascus Dr Fager Spectacular Bid. Cannonero and many others. My most memorable days were Secreteriat's Triple Crown, The Jockey Club Gold Cup the following year when Secreteriat and Riva Ridge finished 1/2 the following year and who could forget the Ruffian Foolish Pleasure Match Race. I still have tears flow down my face when I saw her run into the hedge after she snapped her leg. The two mementos that I have left are the Ruffian Foolish pleasure Program and Secreteriat's photo signed by Lucien Lauren and Ron Turcotte. In 1981 I moved to Houston but I always go visit Belmont and Saratoga when in N Y.

Thanks for the memories.

T. C

09 Mar 2014 2:51 PM
Steel Dragon

Another small detail that I preferred from the old days was the natural sound and acoustics of the bugle without a microphone. So much better...

09 Mar 2014 8:55 PM
The Deacon

The Doctor:  Hmmm, the 1968 Californian now that's a tough one :))

I do recall Steve saying many times that Damascus was his love (forgive me Steve if I miss-quoted).

I know he loves and respects John Nerud, Dr. Fager's trainer. In fact, who doesn't. Mr. Nerud is my all time favorite trainer, what a horseman.

Thanks to all for the nice words. Keeping programs and racing forms was just a hobby. I actually stopped saving them after 1980. I think Spectacular Bid retiring may have had something to do with that.

I used to have a few shoe boxes of old baseball cards but my wife mistakenly tossed them one day many years ago.

I had rookie cards of Sandy Koufax, Mickey Mantle, Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and so many more. Oh well, I try not to think about it.

My racing passion has waned over the years. Seeing Hollywood Park go just broke my heart. So many great memories there. Not the least was watching Native Diver win 3 consecutive Gold Cups. I watched greats like Prove It, Kennedy Road, Ack Ack, Quack and so many others. When one is young, horses like these leave a lasting impression.........

Thanks again Steve for a wonderful blog.

10 Mar 2014 3:56 AM
Dr Drunkinbum

Nostalgia is very powerful especially when connected to our youth and a completely different time period but what we are seeing now in the older male division could rival what happened in the good ol' days. It started with the 2013 Classic and hopefully will continue through 2014 so saddle up and enjoy the ride. What we saw from Palace Malice, Sahara Sky and the Game On Dude, Will Take Charge duel were amazing races Saturday. What did you eat at the race track in 1968 and how much did it cost? I sure wish I had kept my old programs and racing forms. Don't throw them out !!!!  

10 Mar 2014 7:32 AM
The Deacon

Dr. D:  I ate hotdogs and usually 3 or 4 of them and paid for it later, ha ha.  After a beating at the track it was all I could afford. I think dogs were 75 cents back then...........

10 Mar 2014 1:02 PM
Bill Two

Ah, yes, I remember those days with fondness. I think that racing was more eagerly awaited because of the reasons you mention.  There was less of it and you only got to see a race once.  No simulcasting meant the only races you would see were the ones at the track where you were situated.  I would run races over and over in my mind after seeing them, trying to put some perspective on what I just witnessed.  Memories tend to embellish the facts at times and I often wondered whether I really saw what I thought I saw.  You had to save the charts for future reference.  I used to savor Harvey Pack's analyses - which unfortunately - were only available live at whichever New York track was running.  If you want to get a taste of what that was like try to find one of his books like Pack At The Track. Harvey had a cult like following and was quite entertaining in his own way.  Thanks, Steve, for the memories.

10 Mar 2014 2:59 PM
michelee

Boy, do I miss those old days! My daughter, going to visit a friend in San Mateo, hopped on the 10 o'clock train out of San Francisco. "Mom!" she said. "I thought I was in the Hall of the Mountain King! All these old men hunched over a newspaper, car so full of smoke you couldn't see. . .They all got off at Bay Meadows."  And then buses going east over the bay to Golden Gate--what

sartorial splendor! What grand, glorious, tough-minded

fans, speaking a weird, wonderful language -- it's an honor to have known them. My age? 86. My favorite long ago horse? Silky's Nurse who did the same thing her granddaddy did, give them 50 lengths and swallow them all. . .My favorite horse of all time? John Henry: I loved the way he kicked everyone out of the winner's circle!  My Derby '14 horse? Tapiture, all the way. Of

course I might change my mind. . .Thanks for a wonderful column, Steve.

10 Mar 2014 4:38 PM
Dr Drunkinbum

The Deacon

    I cringed and got a sick feeling when you talked about the baseball cards. It happened to me too, about 40 years ago. I'm almost over it now. What I hated was the days that we were so fanatical at the track that we didn't even eat, thinking it was a waste of money that was better spent on bets. It was rough on losing days when we left the track broke and starving. We usually ate before the races started, usually a sandwich. We didn't have time to eat after the races started.

michelee

   Loved your post. Congratulations on 86. One of my heroes that has had a very positive influence on my life lately is 91. I haven't met him but he is a world record holder marathon runner, setting records in his age group. He has been a big inspiration to me in my diet and exercise and I am doing some running again which not too long ago I thought would be impossible. His name is Mike Fremont.

10 Mar 2014 6:22 PM
The Doctor

Ok Steve, I'll accept that response…Thanks for the clarification...

10 Mar 2014 8:51 PM
LAZMANICK

Secretariat:

Do you remember the rivalry between Titled Hero and Stevie B. Good?  Titled Hero was a black colt and the ’66 Queens Plate winner.  Stevie and Victorian Era traded wins in the Dominion Day and Jacques Cartier.  There was also a horse named Chillicoot who in ’65 led all N/A horses in wins with 15.

Steve:

Great article as always and you sure no how to stoke the nostalgia fires and bring back the memories.  One thing you mentioned that really hit home and that was the fact that you knew all the horses.  That’s a big change for now compared to back when.  Back then I remembered every horse on the circuit.

10 Mar 2014 9:42 PM
sunfire65

Steve,

I recently read your book on legends, DR Fager.  I knew very little about him and enjoyed it.  

I would like to have more information on his sire, Rough and Tumble.  Could you point me somewhere?  I find Horseplayers very interesting.  As has been said before and I echo, those were grand days at the tracks! also

11 Mar 2014 1:16 PM
Cynthia Holt

Steve, I clasp you to my withered bosom.  Perhaps no one under 60 has commented here, but I guarantee that not one of us looks a day over 50.

I over-loved this piece.  It doesn't matter if you were growing up on the east or west coasts or in-between, if you were attending the races during the 1960s, there is instant bonding and a very special feeling of kinship with your peers.  My childhood/teenaged racetrack memories revolve around Saturday sojourns to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita (always by car), and the nostalgia for those days waxes greater with the passage of time.  As grateful as I am for these "heart memories," and I wouldn't trade them for any others, I confess to having harbored strong feelings of east coast envy.  As far as I was concerned, New York was the center of the racing universe, and I longed to join my contemporaries on a Brooklyn bus bound for the Big A to see first-hand the stars of the day, and to savor the salty witticisms of my fellow passengers.  I can still hear the murmur and sometimes gasps of acknowledgement which would wash over the crowd at Hollywood Park in a soft wave, as Harry Henson would relay the results of the major races from the East in his dulcimer tones.  I was happy to be where I was, but longing to be a part of that far-away world, too.  That wish was a long time in coming, but I was to spend several years living in New York City during my 20s, and was finally able to become a part of that place which had been the centerpoint of my dreams.  I also learned that taking the local to Aqueduct could be credited towards any owed time in purgatory.

And-oh!  The wondrous discovery of the riches of The Turf and Sport Digest, and the huge anticipation of its monthly arrival at The Bungalow News in Pasadena.  I still cringe when I recall the agony of daring to invade such forbidden territory, having to siddle past the girlie magazines and smoking paraphernalia in my St. Andrew's High School uniform, and then trying to stuff the racy merchandise under my blazer as I made a hasty exit.  I later discovered a musty Aladdin's Cave of old racing periodicals in a small shop near the corner of Colorado and San Gabriel Boulevards, and spent many a sublime hour sorting through its treasures, totally immersed in the past.

You see what you have started here, Steve?  Stirring the cauldron of your memories has inspired our own pots to over-flow.  It is a gift.  I relished walking alongside as you visited the people and places of your past.  Thanks for a great ride!

11 Mar 2014 1:44 PM
Secreteriat

Laz,

Yes I do remember those races.

Were you in Toronto at that time?

I didn.t know much about horses at that time so I relied on my friends and The Toronto Star for my betting. I've been to the Queen's Plate several times and saw some great turf prep races for the Breeder's cup.My son became General Manager for a racing outfit in Houston and bought a fillie from Argentina named Miss Linda. She raced her first race In the U S at Aqueduct and then went on t0 win the Grade 1 Spinster at Keenland. She was supplemented to the B C Distaff at Belmont in 2001. We had high hopes for her to finish in the top . Well Exogenus the 3 horse reared up in the tunnel in front of Miss Linda and had to be put to sleep. Miss Linda lost her race right there and then and got slammed out of the gate. Spain won the race and Miss Linda finished 6th.Quite an experience from a $2 dollar better in Toronto to be associated with owners who ran on Derby Day in the Preakness and Breeders Cup

11 Mar 2014 8:41 PM
LAZMANICK

Secretariat

That is quite a story.  I remember Miss Linda.  She won that Spinster at good odds and was always a competitive filly.  That incident in the tunnel was too much, especially on what could have been her biggest racing day as well as your son’s.

I was in Toronto in those sixties.  What a time for horse racing in Canada.  The decade started with Victoria Park who ran well in the TC races.  Then Northern Dancer and later in the decade the unfortunate Cool Reception and of course Dancer’s Image.  Dancer’s Image won all 7 of his Canadian based starts as a two year old and most of them by many lengths.  He went into the Derby off a win in the Wood.  It is unfortunate what happened to him in the Derby as I believe that Bute was legal in Kentucky racing the year before and the year after his Derby disqualification for having traces of it in his system.  His trainer Lou Cavalaris, an ex-marine, was as honest as they come.

Cool Reception was another unfortunate story.  He had a length and a half lead on Damascus in the ’68 Belmont when he broke down.  He actually finished the race second, but broke his right foreleg in the stretch.  They operated and the operation was a success but he did not come out of the anesthesia well and thrashed about and shattered his leg and had to be put down.  Ver, very sad as the irony was that Lou Cavalaris was his trainer too.

I was in Toronto in the sixties and seventies and I really enjoyed the racing, and at all levels.  I knew every horse on the grounds and more often than not, I knew and liked the claimers, even the cheap ones, better than most of the stakes horses.  I worked on the back stretch for a while with a trainer named Jerry Meyer and the first person I ever met on the back stretch was a jockey named Chris Rogers who was a leading jock in Canada and did well at many of the American tracks as well.  After a short time on the backstretch I worked the mutuals (part time) for a few years and was working on the first ever million dollar day at Fort Erie.

This blog sure brings back the memories and it makes you think of how much you miss those good old days.  

11 Mar 2014 11:35 PM
bigred

Great memories Steve, and you are right on about the unmistakable aroma of the track, used to park my car near the big oak in the northeast parking lot at Bowie ( for karma of course) walk up the hill, pay a buck and a half  for a telegraph and watch Leatherbury, Dutrow  and  Delp duke it out for the leading trainer each meet. And you would get a fistful of tickets for 20 dollars because of the machines back then.  Occasionally a horse would ship up to the Big A to take on the big boys,usually with not much success.  Great memories!

12 Mar 2014 8:17 AM
Gene Of Ballston Lake

Your article brought many pleasant memories.  My first visit to Aqueduct was 1964 for the Wood Memorial.  I bet on Quadrangle who won and I was hooked for life.  My biggest complaint about horseracing is the fact that owners and trainers are reluctant to run their horses.  Are they really that fragile that they can only race seven or eight times in a year?

12 Mar 2014 7:38 PM
Gin

Laz,

There is a documentary that HRTV has done on Dancer's Image.  If you get a chance to watch it you really should. There was a lot of speculation as to what and really happened.  Sad, and unfair.

I went to Woodbine this past summer.  A gorgeous track, with alot of history.  Unfortanately it has fallen to the VLT's and not the true racing fan. It was still fun to go and see that gorgeous turf course, the longest stretch run in North America.

12 Mar 2014 7:42 PM
Gin

Steve,

Wow this was really epic.  Great piece for sure!

12 Mar 2014 7:42 PM
Aluminaut

Steve, I'm under 60, a couple furlongs shy of the finish line at a Classic distance:)

The Deacon:

When I was a teenager I had a couple boxes of programs and indy mags, notably Thoroughbred of California.  There's even a pic of me showing a yearling at Hollywood Park after the sale moved from the forum to the backside. When we got out of horses, my mom gave away all my stuff when I was gone to college. Boy, was I angry:)  I was at Del Mar when Native Diver won his last race.  Before that there was a gelding I used to follow named Lava Flow. My Dad worked at the track and I practically grew up there. I remember the smell of beer & cigars when moving sideways through the crowd.

There were always long lines waiting to get in and people rushing to bet.  Getting "shut out" a big fear for most.

I used to hang a transistor radio on the fencepost when I cleaned corrals in the afternoon near feature race time, when my Dad was away working at HP, Santa Anita, or Pomona and I was stuck in school.  I remember Biggs, Princessnessian, Gamely, Quicken Tree and many more and I could tell you their pedigree & stats at the time.

It's been a long cherished road.  There's still nothing like walking across the backside to Clocker's Corner in the morning at SA.  

13 Mar 2014 1:41 AM
Pedigree Ann

Sounds like a theme here. I had a big box of 1960s comics - Superman, other DC, plus a bunch of Classics Illustrated (remember those?). At least my mom took them to a dealer to try to figure out whether they were worth anything, but she then forgot about them entirely. I was out in SoCal at university, and they were moving, so..., lost in limbo. I still have a selection of my old Telegraphs and DRFs in the attic, but again, because of space considerations at various times, I had to prune my collection. Mostly big race days, Kentucky Derbies, etc. I am something of a pack rat - have Blood-Horses from 1974, Thoroughbred Records from '73 to its demise. And I am the keeper of the family National Geographic collection, that started when my grandfather joined in 1911.

14 Mar 2014 8:57 AM
Aluminaut

Pedigree Ann,

I still have most of my comics from the 60's, however, it was Marvel for me:) I continued to read comics off & on through the mid-90's. I do remember Classics Illustrated--my sister ended up with most of those from my collection.  About 15+ years ago I bought a few boxes of old auction catalogues and mags from the 50's,60's and 70's from an add in the Recycler.  This purchase was a reaction to my large collection of Blood Horse magazines recent ruin from a leak in my garage. It was dismaying to go through the old catalogues and see some of the hot Cali sires of the time like Berseem, nearly absent from current pedigrees.  

I also am the keeper/owner of the bound family Geographic Collection. I think it's aprox turn of the century and a family  friend gave it to my Dad.  It's amazing to see the Passenger Pigeons and Carolina Conures in photographs. Very sad.

Crowds at Santa Anita are improving occasionally, especially week-ends. March 8th was great racing even though the track was too fast.  I watched California Chrome wire the field, then went backside to help a friend hook up his trailer to take a horse back to the ranch post racing.  Got back in time to get to the box for Game on Dude's victory. We were all yelling for him. Felt bad for MMM coming up to The Dude, who just pulled away.  WTC was gallant down the stretch. The was that beer & cigar smell in the air.  A bit of a time warp:)

15 Mar 2014 2:23 AM

Recent Posts

Recommended

Video

Social Media

More Blogs

Archives