There have been so many key players in the Thoroughbred industry who have passed in the last several months it’s hard to keep pace. While not a breeder, owner, or trainer, the late Morton Cathro was a keen student of the game and loved it dearly. A good handicapper but a much better historian, our man Mort died a few months ago at the age of 94.
We met Mort and his delightful wife, Jean, while on vacation at Del Mar in 1993. Checking into the Inn at Rancho Santa Fe, the Cathros had shipped in from their home in Moraga, Calif., and were in the lobby inquiring as to where to purchase a copy of Daily Racing Form. There was an instant bond, and a weekend at the races yielded a long and loyal friendship.
The Cathros would later squire us around Napa Valley in their 1980s Buick Regal, and at Christmas time we’d enjoy the couple’s handwritten notes complete with plenty of line-drawn artwork of the top horses of the day. We’d burn up the phone lines handicapping the Derby and Breeders’ Cups. Mort always played the Europeans on the turf.
Come to find out, Mort was a “newspaper man” back when that was a burgeoning profession. Starting as a copyboy for the Oakland Tribune at the age of 17 in 1941, he became the paper’s first travel writer and his column “Travelin’ Light” was one of the longest-running columns of its day. We asked Mort, a lifelong fan of racing, to contribute first to DRF, then to The Blood-Horse where he dusted off chestnuts about characters, racetracks, and big scores from his youth and shared in our old “The Final Turn” columns. His writing style was as warm as his smile.
He dropped a lot of names, but that was one of the great things about his writing—he had personal insight into jockeys, trainers, and owners who have long since become footnotes.
He wrote a column in 2000 about Bay Meadows, where, in 1938 “I, as a teenager, first laid eyes on a Thoroughbred. The following year I witnessed probably the most suspenseful race in 65-plus years of following the sport of commoners and kings,” he wrote.
On a memorable Armistice Day in 1939, Cathro cashed on Anhelation in the four-mile Thornton Stakes.
“Slowly, almost imperceptibly, he inched forward, urged on by the growing crescendo from 25,000 imploring fans. He got up in the final strides to prevail in a desperate three-horse blanket finish in a spellbinding 7:17 3/5, rewarding his backers with a $9.20 mutuel and memories to last a lifetime.”
In a 1999 piece on championing Jackie “The Rope” Westrope for the Hall of Fame (he would enter in 2002), Cathro wrote:
“I was 17 that summer of ’41, an after-school newsboy awaiting a call to go to work as a $16-a-week copyboy…I had hopped a Greyhound to Southern California to see the fourth running of the Hollywood Gold Cup.
“On the backstretch I got close enough to wave and holler ‘hi’ at Westrope, astride a steed about to breeze. The Rope, natty in a wool cap, sweater, and riding breeches, waved and hollered back, then galloped off.
“Giddy at the thought a champion jockey had acknowledged my existence, I should have bet my two bucks on his Gold Cup mount that afternoon. Instead, I made a hunch bet on Paperboy, who ran second. Big Pebble, under a determined ride by Westrope, got up for the win.”
On a trip to Kentucky in the 1960s, he befriended Mary Jane Gallaher, the first woman journalist allowed in the press box at Churchill Downs in the 1950s.
“As a visiting newspaper columnist in the ’60s, I was guided through a labyrinth of Bluegrass politics (and introduced to premier stallions Bold Ruler, Round Table, and Raise a Native) by this petite lady to whom there were only two kinds of people in the world: those who can spell ‘horse’ and those who can’t.”
Finally, Cathro began a column in September 2000:
“It has been said that all men are equal on the Turf and under it. Regardless of size, location, or caliber of horses, racetracks have long served as a microcosm of society, holding up a mirror to mankind. They play no favorites.”
We beg to differ.