With the announcement June 15 of Steve's resignation from Blood-Horse to pursue other opportunities, I found the first column he did for the magazine. In this "Final Turn" column from the Dec. 26, 1998, issue, Steve talks about his transition at the time from his longtime association with The Morning Telegraph and Daily Racing Form. It seems appropriate to revisit this piece.—Eric Mitchell, Editorial Director
The Pequod as I knew her lies at the bottom of the sea. As I drift along, waiting to be rescued by the Rachel, I can't help but think of Ishmael's final words from Moby Dick: "The drama is done. All are departed away. I am only escaped alone to tell thee."
And tell thee I shall, of a place and a cast of characters that remain to this day frozen in time. The young innocent lad of 21 who first walked into the hallowed halls of The Morning Telegraph (the Eastern edition and main office of Daily Racing Form) on West 52nd Street in New York City to begin work as a copy boy admittedly had not yet exhibited the maturity of his years. There was little of his cloistered world that did not revolve around Thoroughbreds. Even two years as a stock trader on Wall Street did little to introduce him to the outside world.
Therefore, it would have been beyond all comprehension had he been told on that day in October of 1969 when he started as a copy boy that of the hundreds of editors, writers, handicappers, printers, and other employees at the New York office and all the other Daily Racing Form offices at that time, he would one day be the last remaining survivor.
But it was true. And now, he too has departed.
How does one capsulize nearly 30 years of memories? How does one briefly skip over an assortment of jobs ranging from copy boy to statistical clerk, assistant librarian to head librarian, feature writer to national correspondent (covering the Triple Crown, Breeders' Cup Classic, and other major events)? But most importantly, how does one make the names and faces of Runyonesque characters such as Ralph the bookie, Longshot Gaffney, Danny "Reigh Count" Cohen, Jesse Friedlander, and Nick Sanabria come to life?
Ralphie worked in the wire room, and was one of three bookmakers who operated out of the Telly's three floors on 52nd Street. He was so laid-back as he flashed his large wad of bills, you never felt bad taking money from him. Most of the time, Ralphie would forget the size of a bet you made or the odds he quoted you, and you could tell him just about anything you wanted. That's the way things were back then. Everyone trusted everyone, and no one was ever taken advantage of.
The sounds of the wire room still have not faded, nor the scene of all the editors huddled around one of the teletype machines waiting for a race result. It was as if the teletype machine would suddenly come to life, erupting into its familiar rapid-fire cadence -- 7th Aqueduct, off 4:36, time 1:48 2/5. We didn't even have to wait for the name of the winner. All we needed to see was the number and we knew whether we had won or lost. From the huddled mass would come a "That's me!" Then you waited for the price. Following the full result to see if you finished in the first three, everyone would disperse, returning to their desks...until the next race.
Then there was Longshot Gaffney, who handicapped under the name "Sweep." Gaff rarely touted you on a horse who paid better than even-money and was never seen without a large wet cigar butt protruding from his mouth. He had the ability to "sweep" the card at Aqueduct and still barely have enough money to get home.
On the other hand, Danny Cohen, known in the Telly as Reigh Count, would never pick anything resembling a favorite, and most of his selections bordered on the outrageous. Cohen's favorite line was, "Just because I picked him don't mean I like him."
Every winter, the great Charles Hatton would spend his days in the library writing his brilliant horse profiles for the American Racing Manual. Charlie still pecked away on his old 1930 Underwood typewriter and would constantly ask me or someone else in the library to get him a cup of coffee from the cafeteria. It had to filled to the very top and had to be scalding. Ten minutes later, with his coffee virtually untouched, Charlie would have you get him another cup because this one no longer was scalding. Charlie was cantankerous and quirky, but, boy, could he write.
When the Telegraph closed down in April 1972, and DRF opened its new Eastern edition office in Hightstown, N.J., many were left behind. Fortunately, they needed a librarian, so I was asked to go, along with many of the characters. One of those who no longer was needed was Felix, who ran the cafeteria. Never again would anyone order their lunch with hundreds of dead flies, which were stuck to Felix' numerous fly strips, hanging directly over the food. Also gone were the wild poker games aboard the train to Delaware Park's annual pre-opening party each spring.These once-a-year games were replaced by all-night poker playing in Lakewood, N .J.
For the next nine years, my buddy Jack, one of the copy editors, and I commuted from New York (Jack in Queens and me in Brooklyn and then Queens) to Hightstown, sharing the driving on the one hour and 40-minute trip each way, picking up three others along the way. Jack and I bonded immediately thanks to our love of Damascus. When most of the editors moved to Hightstown to start up the new DRF, Jack pretty much ran the copy desk in New York until the Telly closed its doors. I stayed until the very end to help move all the books, photos, and bound volumes to Hightstown. I worked in virtual solitude, with only the wire room employees manning the teletype machines.
After nine years of commuting to Hightstown, with Jack and I often playing racing trivia along the way, I eventually moved to New Jersey when my wife Joan got a job as communications director at Robert Brennan's International Thoroughbred Breeders, located about one minute from the Racing Form office.
Among those who moved to Lakewood, N.J. was Jesse Friedlander, a true phenomenon of nature. Jesse, who worked on the copy desk, previously had edited a paper in Alaska, been a stringer for Pravda, and provided horses for his aunt's tout service. One of the most affable chaps you'll ever meet, Jesse loved to eat every type of food imaginable despite a series of ailments that could fill an entire season of "E.R." He owned the unofficial Guiness world record for having the most serious illnesses that failed to kill him. During his years in Hightstown, Jesse was carted out of the office on a stretcher, a gurney, a fellow employee's shoulders, and once was wheeled out in his own chair.
And then there was Nick Sanabria, a handicapper who loved running contests, then stacking the deck by entering his five Afghan hounds and a number of fictitious characters, such as Anthony Stunning. Nick spoke fluent Spanish and served as interpreter for the Venezuelan connections of Canonero II during the 1971 Triple Crown. Nick had a unique way of reacting to race results at the teletype machine. When the result came in, he would pump his fist and utter some cryptic phrase, like "Dewey Takes Manila!" Nick never said he actually had the winner, but led you to believe he did. It never occurred to him that no one cared either way.
The Form also has served as a springboard to bigger and better things. Barry Irwin, a former Southern California columnist, is president of the successful Team Valor syndicate; Dan Kenny, who worked on the copy desk in New York, became a noted bloodstock agent; and Dick Hamilton, a statistical clerk in the same office, became a steward for the New York Racing Association and eventually headed the National Museum of Racing. Handicapper Steve Davidowitz went on to author one of the three iconic books on handicapping, along with Andrew Beyer and Tom Ainslie. Copy editor Carroll "Mac" McBride currently heads the communications department at Del Mar Racetrack. And statistical clerk Lauren Stich became one of the sport's foremost pedigree experts, writing for various publications.
No one taught me more about writing and reporting than Morning Telegraph copy editors George Bernet and Joe Rosen, who became close friends of mine. George was my mentor, and in my early freelance writing days, when I was still insecure about my writing, I would never submit a story until I got George's OK. George, who was the best deadline writer I ever saw, went on to serve briefly as editor of the Daily Racing Form. Joe became managing editor, then would go on to have a lucrative career at Travel Weekly, traveling all over the world. When I was exiled from the library and began writing for DRF in 1991 the great Joe Hirsch took me under his wing and taught me about class and always having a positive outlook when writing about racing. Who could have ever imagined that one day I would be in the Racing Hall of Fame as one of only a few writers, past and present, elected to the Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor.
Former DRF employees Ray Paulick (Los Angeles office) and Dan Liebman (Lexington office) became editors in chief of the Blood-Horse, and copy editor Evan Hammonds (New Jersey office) currently is managing editor of the Blood-Horse. Jay Hovdey, one of the sport's top writers, and now executive columnist for DRF, also got his start working on the desk of the L.A. office.
But the epicenter of the DRF empire for many decades was the Telly, where editor Saul Rosen, one of the most respected journalists in the country, and to me racing's version of Ben Bradlee, ran the entire operation, surrounded by the most colorful group of characters I have ever been around. Joe was Saul's son and inherited his father's keen sense of how to put out a newspaper. If Joe approved your story you knew it was good. Each morning we would sit in his office and go over the previous day's Form, where Joe would mark off all the good points and bad points and how we stacked up against our newly formed competitor, Racing Times. He and Harold Tannenbaum ran the copy desk, and for the most part we got along well except when they chased me back in the library for talking Islanders hockey with Jack.
So many memories. To me, my life began on that October day in 1969 when I first walked through the doors of the Morning Telegraph and into a world I had only dreamed of. Now it is time to board the Rachel once again. But as I bid farewell to the Racing Form I shift gears from Melville to Rodgers and Hammerstein, who once wrote of another place long gone, just like the old Telly: "Don't let it be forgot that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot."