Jack Zaraya, retired as the Senior Ceremonial Resolution Writer for the New Jersey Legislature, lives in Freehold, NJ.
With a big Memorial Day weekend of racing on tap, I am reminded of a bygone era when both media and horses were treated differently. One of the perks in working for The Morning Telegraph back in the late ’60s was an invitation to the annual press junket to bucolic Delaware Park. This event took place on a Sunday prior to the start of the Delaware race meeting that opened on Memorial Day. Racing journalists from the region were given a complimentary train ride to Wilmington, where they were picked up by Delaware Park publicity staff and transported to the Stanton track.
Upon arrival, they were led to an area where tents and canopies along with picnic tables were situated. After exchanging pleasantries with new and familiar colleagues, they lined up for a mouth-watering buffet: filet mignon, steamed lobster and lobster tails, and an assortment of verdant salads.
After lunch, trainer Buddy Raines, a Delaware Park fixture and conditioner for Brandywine Stable, would unveil a few of his promising 2-year-olds that were brought in from his nearby barn. If you loved racing, it was hard not to have a good time.
For me, one of the best times was my first invite, in May 1969. On this occasion I was introduced to my paper’s Delaware correspondent, Teddy Cox, whose copy I had been editing for the previous year since I began working for the Telegraph. Cox filed stories from such diverse locales as the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Hawthorne Race Course outside of Chicago, and Pimlico in Baltimore, to name a few.
Teddy was yet another of the Runyonesque characters I had recently gotten to know in New York, albeit this one with a Maryland drawl.
We talked racing, and I lauded Damascus, who had been retired the year before. My first and foremost equine hero, Damascus was the focus of my only prior visit to Delaware Park, which took place July 8, 1967, when I was still a student and working nights in the sports department at the Associated Press in Manhattan. On that date, a buddy and I drove the length of the New Jersey Turnpike to see Damascus run in the William DuPont Jr. Handicap, his first race against older horses just one month after winning the Belmont Stakes. He was beaten a nose at 1-5.
A far cry from today’s conservative racing regimen, Damascus was not babied: Two weeks after the Belmont he ran in and won the Leonard Richards at Delaware and came back a week following the DuPont to win the Dwyer Handicap at Aqueduct under 128 pounds. The Dwyer was his 10th race in 18 weeks.
The loss in the DuPont was devastating to a young racing fan, and from the lower grandstand I watched as trainer Frank Whiteley unsaddled Damascus, said a few words to jockey Bill Shoemaker, and briskly followed his horse up the homestretch to the stable area.
Back at the Delaware party, Teddy Cox mentioned that Whiteley was, in fact, stabled right here at Delaware Park.
“Do ya wanna meet ’im?” he asked.
So, after lunch, the Telegraph group climbed into Teddy’s Cadillac and drove through the collection of stables until we reached the designated one.
I caught sight of the lanky, graying trainer, a native of the Eastern Shore of Maryland who was enigmatically known as the “Fox of Laurel.” He was leaning back on a chair against the barn while hosing down the legs of a delighted Thoroughbred.
Whiteley watched suspiciously as we emptied out of the car, until he spotted Cox.
Clearly, they were friends.
Teddy introduced us as editors from The Morning Telegraph, and the first thing Whiteley asked was, “Is Charlie Hatton your boss?” referring to the brilliant columnist.
Decidedly, those two were not friends.
“No,” I answered.
Despite his reputation for being less than candid with the press, Whiteley soon was talking in great detail about the horses in his stable to perfect strangers and even allowed us to take his picture. Then I ventured to bring up Damascus, whose superb career came to a sad close when he bowed a tendon in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. As I gushed about his performances, Whiteley, proud as a father, listened patiently to a history he had helped create.
When it was time to leave, we thanked Whiteley, who picked up the hose and resumed his chores on a late Sunday afternoon.