Turf and Sport Digest Days

I can still smell the mustiness of the old magazines, strewn haphazardly around the Midtown magazine shop on Eighth Avenue, just off 42nd Street in Manhattan. This unique store sold only old magazines, and the vast volume that came in on a daily basis prevented the owner from putting the magazines in any semblance of order.

So, there they lay on the floor, pretty much designated to a certain area, so at least customers knew where to look. What better place to spend one’s lunch hour or an entire afternoon. Imagine rummaging through piles of old copies of Sports Illustrated, Sport Magazine, and Time.

But, except for a few special copies of Sports Illustrated, like the one covering the 1967 Woodward Stakes, my interest was in only one magazine, whose copies were scattered about near the back of the store. That magazine was Turf and Sport Digest.

Having recently become interested, no make that obsessed, with horse racing, my thirst for knowledge was insatiable. I knew not of The Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Record. They were not for sale on newsstands and I needed my steady intake of racing. I also happened to be unemployed during a good portion of that time, my brief career on Wall Street all but dead and buried. I had discovered my passion in life and it did not include trading over the counter stocks, selling short, and cursing out fellow traders over the phone; something I was prodded to do by supervisors in this dog eat dog world of constant high tension.

So, when my company was bought out by another and the over the counter department was disbanded, I found myself out of work, with no desire to return to this frantic life. I had also lost interest in my childhood love, baseball. Phillies’ third baseman Richie Allen no longer was a God-like figure to me, and there were still memories of Cardinals’ first baseman Bill White refusing to give me an autograph. I was pretty much done with baseball, too.

In early 1967 I reluctantly went with my best friend Murray and a friend of his to the “trotters” at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island. At first I refused, but I had nothing else to do. I immediately fell in love with the concept of handicapping horses; that you could actually tell how a horse was going to run by looking at a bunch of confusing numbers and symbols called past performances. It was there that Murray’s friend, named Fred, told me his real love was Thoroughbred racing and he had fallen in love with a horse named Damascus. That began my close friendship with Fred.

All I knew about horse racing was that there was once a horse named Tim Tam, which sounded very much like a cracker we used to eat called Tam Tam. I knew of a horse named Carry Back who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown by coming from far back and saving his speed for the end. “Why don’t all horses run that way?” I asked as an ill-informed 14-year-old. And then there was drawing a horse named Chateaugay in a Kentucky Derby pool in high school and trying in vain to trade him for No Robbery, because he was owned by the owner of the New York Mets, while I couldn’t even pronounce my horse’s name.

And I did have fond memories of a simple game my parents bought me, in which the same five famous horses raced against each other, dictated only by which matching color came up on the spinner. It seemed Citation won almost every time, despite its randomness.

And of course there were all those Sunday papers in the 1960s in which there was a headline every couple of weeks about Kelso winning some race in New York and the name Buckpasser dominating the Sunday papers in 1966.

So, there I was, out of work, not wanting to return to Wall Street, sitting in Battery Park feeding the pigeons and reading the book “Crazy Over Horses,” by Sam Toperoff over and over.

But my fondest memories from 1967 through the next few years was going to 42nd Street and walking to Midtown magazines to buy as many issues of Turf and Sport Digest as I could find. As fast as they came in, that’s how fast I snatched them up.

Ah, the beauty of each issue, with a color photo or drawing on the cover, usually of a horse, but occasionally a jockey. It was the only color images of horses at the time, as Blood-Horse and Thoroughbred Record were all black and white. On the table of contents page was a one column synopsis of the horse’s career.

Turf and Sport Digest was my bible. I absorbed every word, every photo, every feature. I remember cutting off the cover of one issue that had a color photo of Dr. Fager walking on to the track and using it to start my Dr. Fager scrapbook. Of course, my first and only other scrapbook was of my first love, Damascus, who Fred and I followed with a fervor that may have bordered on abnormal. But I also was smitten with his arch rival Dr. Fager, because I loved his name and admired his amazing speed. The anticipation leading up to their epic confrontation in the 1967 Woodward Stakes was exhilarating, even though I was a wet-behind-the-ears newbie who was being lured to a new world and a new existence by the racing sirens.

These were the closing days of my Wall Street career, which would end in February of 1969. This was the beginning of my new lifestyle of doing nothing but inhaling everything horse racing and collecting unemployment. That would last for nine months until I lucked out and managed to get a job at the Morning Telegraph as a copy boy; a dramatic salary plunge from my budding career as a stock trader. But it put me in the world I longed to inhabit.

All through those years in the late 60s, whether it was escaping the stress of Wall Street or later dealing with an unproductive life of unemployment and zero skills, my haven, my one place of true happiness, was Midtown magazines and collecting new Turf and Sport Digests. I remember those covers, of horses such as Bally Ache, Dr. Fager, Damascus, Buckpasser, Quill, and Crewman and so many others, just bursting with color through the dusty floors of Midtown.

The editor of Turf and Sport Digest was Raleigh Burroughs. Boy did I love that name. How can anyone named Raleigh Burroughs not be an editor and columnist and humorist?

He wrote with great wit and took his readers behind the scenes and introduced them to the grooms, hotwalkers, and exercise riders, and told wonderful human interest tales of the racetrack. Burroughs seemed to have a joke for every occasion. During his career he also wrote for other publications and chronicled the year in racing and all the equine stars in a hard covered book called American Racehorses, put out each year by the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. Burroughs, in 1977, wrote a popular book titled “Horses, Burroughs, and Other Animals.”

Turf and Sport, which was founded in 1924, catered to the racing fan as well as the $2 bettor. Their features included Horse of the Month, Stars of the Turf, Pictorial Highlights, Around the Turf World, the Hossword Puzzle, Know Your Turf, Query Man, The Top Twenty, Horses For Courses, Horses to Watch, Tales of the Turf, Bettors’ Surveys, and there was a fiction story as well. They would have guest editorialists, such as Alfred Vanderbilt.

Other regular features included Racing Dates, the Scale of Weights for that month, Stakes Dates, Thoroughbred Sales, Readers’ letters called Our Readers Write us, Racing Rarities, Track Records and Best Times, and Horse and Jockey Ratings. They even had their own fans’ Horse of the Year and Champions poll, in which one issue contained a ballot for readers to select their top three horses in each category. Then they would feature the Horse of the Year and the other champions in the next issue.

There was nothing as exciting as thumbing through issues of Turf and Sport Digest for the first time, even though most of them were several years old. What a way for an obsessed racing novice to catch up on the past, as well as keep up with the present.

Turf and Sport Digest not only fueled my quest to learn everything I could about the Sport of Kings, it became like a good friend you could always count on that would bring many moments of comfort in a stressful life, whether working or unemployed. One night, my father asked me what I wanted to do with my life; what I loved more than anything, and I told him horse racing. “So try to get a job in horse racing,” he said. The thought of converting one’s hobby and passion into a career never entered my mind. It just wasn’t done. But through a set of ironic twists and timely occurrences I did just that. And it was Turf and Sport Digest that helped fill the well of knowledge needed to pursue such an improbable dream.

As I made my way through life in racing and eventually began writing, I was mentored first by Daily Racing Form copy editor turned editor George Bernet and then managing editor Joe Rosen, who had as sharp an editorial mind as anyone I ever worked with and who taught me every facet of putting out a first-class editorial product, something he no doubt learned from his father, the longtime DRF editor Saul Rosen, who was a pillar of the industry for decades and respected by everyone.

In the beginning I was insecure about my writing and would never turn in a story until George read it and approved it, often providing invaluable suggestions or corrections. Once I was established, it was the legendary Joe Hirsch, who took me under his wing and eventually passed his signature feature “Derby Doings” on to me after some 37 years.

Those days spent at Midtown magazines seem like another lifetime ago. Here I am 48 years later joining none other than Raleigh Burroughs in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame’s Joe Hirsch Media Roll of Honor, becoming only the 14th and 15th journalists honored. To say I am humbled by this would be a gross understatement. It still seems surreal, especially thinking back to where I began and those early child-like days discovering Turf and Sport Digest and admiring its editor Raleigh Burroughs and then learning from Joe Hirsch. Sometimes, life is not meant to be explained. You just marvel at it and give thanks for where it led you.

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