A Dark Day For Racing
The Needle & the Damage Done
Definition of a Handy Workout
Definition of a Breezing Workout
Rolling with the Wiseguys
Mucho Trabajo, Poco Dinero
The Day the Music Died Biography
The first of my twenty consecutive horse racing summers at Saratoga, in upstate New York, ended with Ruffian's Spinaway Stakes win on Friday and Foolish Pleasure's Hopeful Stakes win on Saturday. Yet, it was the warmth exhibited by the people of Saratoga, the spring waters, the trees, the pizza, the sweet corn, the Hand melons, the Philly Orchestra, ascending the creaky wooden clubhouse stairs days before the race meet is to open to see that hedged grass course; that kept me heading back. For a gambler, horse racing is a hard game to find warmth in.
Several racing summers later, I stood between "Apples Taver" and "Grandstand Jack" looking in on Ancient Title, who was being saddled by Trainer Keith Stucki under the trees in the Saratoga paddock. It was one of the few times that Grandstand Jack had left his seat in the grandstand to visit the paddock. Apples,who worked as Grandstand Jack's paddock leg man, would normally walk to Jack's seat at the end of the grandstand after he inspected the legs of the horses being saddled under the trees and confer with Jack. Later, I learned that a big bet by Grandstand Jack was brewing in the Whitney Stakes, so he wanted to get the paddock inspection out of the way and keep Apples out of his area in the grandstand because Apples talked constantly, and it is hard to tumble all the factors of placing a bet into a line while Apples is talking to you.
Now at this moment in horse racing, west coast horses were not highly regarded by the New York racing establishment. Thus, Ancient Title, who had raced solely on the California circuit, was lying around 9-2 in the odds as the horses entered the paddock. Quite high odds for the heavyweight in the Whitney Stakes, who had shipped in early enough to work six furlongs at the Spa as reported in the DRF's Whitney advance on Saturday, Aug 2, 1975. Head DRF's Clocker "Frenchy" Schwartz's was quoted as saying about Ancient Title's 6f workout in 1:12 1/5, "I was especially impressed by the horse's action. He has a smooth, rhythmic way of going, which probably is the reason he is such a fine weight carrier. Most horses with poor action are poor weight carriers."
I knew Grandstand Jack was real cozy to DRF'S Head Clocker Frenchy Schwartz's views on Ancient Title and other horse's workouts, since Clocker Schwartz rented an apartment for the Saratoga racing season atop a steak house on Union Avenue across the street from the track, while Jack rented a room next door at a boarding house. Jack treated Schwartz to dinners at the steak house. Nothing loosens an older clocker like someone buying him some beverage and a steak. Apples Taver bellowed to Grandstand Jack that, "Ancient Title, being a west coaster, looked uncomfortable in the Saratoga heat." Ancient Title was wet and washy prancing the circular path around his saddling trees. Now I countered that three earlier winners on that day's card had left for the post parade wet. It can get hot and humid in the Saratoga summer. Grandstand Jack munched on his cigar stub, spat, and headed for his gray seat at the end of the grandstand so he could contemplate all this while seated and peering through his binoculars at the runners for the Whitney Stakes, as they wheeled their taut buttocks around and slowly started to gallop away from him as the columned post parade broke back towards the finish line.
Grandstand Jack never liked anyone seated to his right. He kept that seat empty by placing his overcoat, binocular case, or racing form there. Grandstand Jack sat at the end of the grandstand at every track he attended. Well attired, he wouldn't keenly watch a race through his binoculars until the field was past the quarter pole at the top of the stretch. Then he would shift right in his seat and pick up his binoculars to watch the back of the pack steaming to and past the finish line.
Jack maintained that winning at the races is like shopping for value in a clothing store. One had to know how to pick out a garment with a good label like 'Brooks Brothers', and then get it at a good price. Thus, he would often recommend a wager on a horse that had finished at or near the rear in his last race, ensuring good value. He also steadfastly preached that the trainers "would do anything to get a price" if anyone ever question Jack's betting confidence in a horse whose running lines were dismal. I think of Grandstand Jack's influence on me anytime I bet on a horse that goes from finishing last to finishing first, the hardest handicapping movement to do with confidence.
Ancient Title was bet down hard in the final click, slipping two pegs lower in the odds pay table and won. Now, Grandstand Jack dined with DRF's Head Clocker Frenchy Schwartz at the steak house across Union Avenue that Whitney Stakes evening. Apples and I dined in the Italian section of town at a restaurant that had just opened for the racing season. Sitting under a white thatched grape harbor behind someone's home, one could smell and see food being prepared by looking through the back screen door of the house into the kitchen of the Italian ladies preparing the meals. The eggplant was stacked like pancakes and was the best I've ever eaten. Apples told me he was going to give me some advice just in case I needed it someday. This was, "Only tell a gambler what you know. You see, as a clocker you can get asked to take a stance on numerous propositions by a keyed-up gambler." Apples told me, "It is better to walk away than try to answer every question. Only advise a move when you're sure. Otherwise keep your mouth shut."
This proved good advice when I found myself clocking and occasionally steering "Primo" in the clubhouse box seat section at Hollywood Park in California. Every so often, Primo couldn't wait until I felt strongly about advising a wager. I would be seated in the front row of Primo's box. The scent of Primo's cigar would strengthen as he leaned forward. Primo's questions would bounce off my back. I would be pelted with probing inquires concerning the horse's workouts in each race ("Did you see this half mile work? What about this short blowout two days before the race? So who do you like here?") and when the questions started to increase dramatically with each race, I then knew Primo's steady diet of betting heavily on horse racing in the afternoon and picking the fillies and sports at night was running sour. He'd need then a Gorilla biscuit to calm him down. So I would wait, under steady urging, until a horse came sauntering onto the track in the post parade and I could visualize the scintillating finish of his last workout (which would have had to occur 2 to 7 mornings past and thus supersede a hundred selected workouts that had been viewed, timed and stored internally by me). Then I would move one chair back in the four-seat box and tell Primo I'd liked this horse's last workout. Somehow, he always had enough ammunition left from a downturn in betting the horses all day, and women and sports in the evening, that the odds board would wink downward on the horse's number I'd advised a wager on shortly after Primo left his seat in the box section to bet.
The next Saratoga racing day, Monday, I was standing under the trees when Grandstand Jack visited again, telling me he did well on Whitney Stakes day. He handed me a Lemania stopwatch and told me to go see Frenchy Schwartz in the press box the next morning about becoming a clocker. That next morning, I nervously mounted the stairs to the press box door. I saw Schwartz sitting not in the press box, but instead outside on the graded steel platform that was the top of the press box fire escape. I knocked because the door was locked. He looked, but then waved me away. So an hour before first post that day, I visited with Grandstand Jack in a rocking chair on the porch of his boarding house and he promised that he would straighten things out over dinner that night with Frenchy Schwartz. So back up the stairs I went early in the next morning and I landed in the press box chair closest to the fire escape perch where head DRF'S clocker Frenchy Schwartz sat and clocked.
Several days later I had my first serious interaction with Frenchy Schwartz. One of the perks of the press box is a complimentary fresh Daily Racing Form lying on the counter in front of everybody's seat when you enter in the morning. Near the end of the morning workout session (5:30 a.m. to 10:00 a.m.) there was a lull in the workout activity and I stopped scanning the track below for a horse getting ready to break off at a pole and started reading the Daily Racing Form instead. Frenchy's walking cane slammed down on the counter in front of me and he yelled "Son, keep your eyes on the track at all times!"
Otherwise he would just sit out on his perch and famous trainers on their ponies would come beneath him on the racetrack and request that he clock their stake horses. He would do that then shout over me to the tab writer, "I got Woody's horses a half in 47." The tab writer, responsible for keeping his head down and taking notes while clockers were shouting the names and times of horses they had just clocked towards him, would ask sheepishly, "Mr. Schwartz, what was the name of Woody's horse that you clocked a half in 47?" and Frenchy Schwartz would yell back, "It was the big horse in Woody's barn." And that was that.
Another time that summer, I clocked a horse stepping quickly for six furlongs. Nobody knew the horse's name or trainer because the horse was adorned with an exercise rider, saddle towel and rigging unfamiliar to the New York clocking crew. A trainer from Delaware was then spotted on his pony to the far right of the press box at the entrance to the paddock, looking at his stopwatch after the rapid six-furlong move. The NYRA's appointed clocker said, "I'll go down and get the name from the trainer."
Oh boy! I thought I liked the move and the NYRA's appointed clocker thought enough of the move to make a quick long dash down the stairs to ground level to get the name of the horse that just worked. I'll put that horse from Delaware in the selected bold faced highlighted workouts, I thought. Ten minutes later, when he returned to the press box, I asked him for the name of the horse from Delaware I had just clocked working a sparkling six furlongs. He said he would tell me later in the morning. Being green, I asked later in the morning. He, realizing that I was green, then told me he would tell me the next day. Frenchy Schwartz just sat outside.
Most of the clockers in the crew that summer at Saratoga had betting clients, so when it came time at the end of the mornings to determine which horses' workouts would get a dark highlighted written mention below that day's workout tab which would appear in the DRF, I was given the honor (despite being green) since no one wanted to give the public what they felt were workouts worth selling.
When I asked about continuing with the crew downstate at Belmont, Frenchy Schwartz startled me when he said, "I want the next clocker I start to have had a shank in his hands." (This translated to leaving the press box to work on the backside of the racetrack as either a horse's hotwalk or groom).
On the final morning that Saratoga summer, one young clocker who had fattened his betting client the previous racing afternoon was admiring my new Lemania stopwatch. (They didn't make inexpensive electronic watches then and a new Lemania cost $200.00). He told me that with my stopwatch, I could go to any track in the country and make money clocking. Then someone bellowed from outside: "Yeah, you can sell the stopwatch!"