Broken Downs, 1978

            

Jack Zaraya retired as the Senior Ceremonial Resolution Writer for the New Jersey Legislature and lives in Freehold, N.J.

Beginning in the early 1960s, a year-long handicapping contest known as “Broken Downs” was held in the offices of The Morning Telegraph/Daily Racing Form. Conducted under the auspices of the fabled “Broken Downs Racing Association,” the competition attracted participants from the paper’s eastern region staff.

The event consisted of handicapping stakes races that fulfilled a certain purse criteria and whose past performances were readily available in the Telegraph or the Form. Win payoffs only were accepted and totaled in the weekly standings that were compiled by the racing secretary.  Traditionally, the contest began with the Tropical Park Derby in early January and concluded with the last stakes race of the New York racing season, the Display Handicap in December. Entrants paid a $6 monthly fee and, depending on the size of the field, monetary prizes were given to the top four or five places. In addition, PEB, the paper’s world-renowned cartoonist, sketched the Broken Downs champion.

Over the course of a year, players would make selections in more than 500 races. For the results, we gathered in the wire room where tele-type machines intermittently spit out the payoffs from racetracks across the country. On special occasions, we would get a private call of the race on the telephone from our press box correspondent.

There were some very exciting contests, including a few that went down to the last day of the season. One singular campaign took place in 1978. On opening day, the The Blood-Horse’s very own Steve Haskin, then the head librarian at the Daily Racing Form in Hightstown, N.J., picked the winner of the Tropical Park Derby, Dr. Valeri, to the tune of $235. Now Steve, already a Broken Downs champion, was always one of the pre-season favorites to win the event, and I can still visualize a collective drop of mouths when the payoff was posted.

“HE had to pick it?” “It’s all over!” “Wait till next year!” cried the discouraged pundits.

Except for one, Frank Sica, an editor on the Form’s statistical desk who was undeterred by the mountain that needed to be climbed in the ensuing year in order to catch Steve. Indeed, as the season transpired, many in the field handicapped the races as if they were just going through the motions. Frank, however, patiently and inexorably cut into the enormous lead that Steve, who by no means eased up on his knack for picking winners, had built.

Well, 11 months later, the final weekend of the 1978 Broken Downs season was at hand and Steve led Frank by less than $50 with the rest nowhere. That weekend was a special one for Steve, who was courting Joan, his future wife, in a romantic New England hideaway. Absent from the Daily Racing Form office, he left his selections with the Broken Downs racing secretary.

Thus, he was not present when Frank went on his final tear, capped off by the victory of the 8-1 Seaney Bear in a division of the split Display Handicap. The Broken Downs title was his.

The following workday, I picked up Steve at the usual location near King’s Plaza in Brooklyn on our way to Hightstown. (Beginning in 1972 and throughout a decade, we traveled to work in a car pool along with several other “I-refuse-to-move-to-New Jersey” DRF employees.)

I asked him about his weekend and he glowingly described the accommodations, the food, and the ambience. He was clearly in love.

There was a silence, and five minutes into the trip, as I was about to drive onto the entrance ramp of the Belt Parkway, I sensed a sidelong glance from Steve.

“I didn’t win, did I?” he asked in a low, dispassionate voice.

Until then, I hadn’t realized that by not bringing up the subject of the contest, the answer to his question was self-evident.

“No. Sica went bananas.”

Broken Downs was still one of the most important events in my life and had been in Steve’s, too. The reigning Broken Downs champion swaggered around the office for a year, knowing he was carrying the mantle as “the best” handicapper. In racetrack press boxes throughout the region, the Form’s scribes all knew the identity of the winner, whom they consequently regarded with reverence.

Hence, Steve’s loss would have been devastating had it not happened when it did. And it all started with a horse-cum-albatross named Dr. Valeri.

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