|random thoughts and thoroughbred selections|
|"All life is 6-5 against" - Damon Runyon|
Thursday, June 17, 1999
“Coors Light Tommy?”
“Yep, thanks Harley.”
I guess that makes me a regular.
Starting somewhere between the end of the summer and the start of the fall meet at Aqueduct, I’ve made it out most of the Saturday afternoons since October to Great Lakes Downs’ off track betting bar for some action. Today, despite the bitter February cold, I’ve managed to secure the same perch at the same bar talking to the same weather-beaten bartender drinking the same beer and looking for the same overlays as I did last Saturday.
And the Saturday before that, and most of the Saturdays preceding since summer gave way to fall.
“Run a tab for you today?”
“Absolutely. Who’s looking good out at Aqueduct today?” It was the usual question. If there was one thing Harley was good at, it was keeping her radar on, gathering info from the degenerates and horseplayers to which she was slinging beers and bloody marys. She didn’t have the luxury, even on a slow Saturday afternoon in the dead of the off-season, of picking through the programs like the rest of us. If she was looking for a score, she was interpreting smoke signals to do so.
“Fragoso won three yesterday, but so did Chavez,” no surprise, really, they were neck-and-neck for the meet lead, “but Roger,” she gestured to one of the regulars across the bar, “thinks it’s Galliano’s day. He’s picked up some good mounts apparently. Roger also thinks he’s got a line on the four in the second.”
I rolled my eyes, and Harley shot me back a knowing smile. As often as I’ve been sitting atop this barstool recently, I’ve come to know some of these regulars as well as I could without ever having actually spoken to most of them. Roger, a guy I had nicknamed “Toup” because of his ridiculous, and probably discount dollar-bin toupee, was one of the degenerates. It was apparent to anyone watching that Roger desperately wanted everyone to know he was “connected” somehow to the back barns of all the important tracks. Of course, sitting here in the upper Midwest and never seeing the guy so much as take a cell phone call pretty much indicated he didn’t have any better finger on the pulse of the big barns than anyone else in the building. His style was that of the riverboat gambler with a subconscious degree of self-flagellation built right in. Countless times you could hear him rooting a longshot down the stretch to fill out what had to be impossibly improbable trifecta bets on which he had carefully constructed his house-of-cards strategy.
We’re all here for our own reasons, I suppose.
I took a look at Roger’s pick in the second, and it was obvious to anyone who could read a form that the only chance this nag had of crossing the line first was for a variety of scratches, inquiries, and disqualifications to befall every other horse in the field.
I think I’ll take a pass on that “hot tip,” thank you.
Looking around the room, I could see most of the usual Saturday afternoon crew was in attendance. “The Chan Brothers,” or so I had them nicknamed, were at a nearby table in a heated discussion in (presumably) Mandarin, no doubt discussing who was going to be the one today to run out for more cigarettes after they chain-smoked their way through their collective stash. The older of the two, like me, showed up in the same hat every week. Unlike me, I’m guessing it was because he didn’t have another hat to replace the distressed and dull yellow Abercrombie one he was always wearing, not as a good luck talisman.
“FDR” was hunched over his programs on the other end of the bar, easily on his third cup of coffee this half hour. I called him “FDR,” as he was old enough to have voted for Roosevelt all three times. Hell, he probably voted for Teddy too. Harley had an obvious disdain for FDR, as the guy sucked down coffee all day long like a machine, and either snapped his fingers or dinged his spoon repeatedly off the side of his cup in order to indicate that he was ready for another refill. I tried to crack a joke to him once about making sure he didn’t blow that whole Social Security check on the 3/5 favorite he was rooting on that was upset in the final strides by a 25/1 spoiler. FDR was not amused. Either it was because I actually had the spoiler keyed in my exacta, or because he did in fact blow his entire Social Security check. He grunted back unintelligibly and put his head back in his programs. We never “spoke” again.
If you ever wondered what some of the workers who worked as grooms during the live meet did with their off-season, you had to look no further than the bunched together tables of young Hispanic guys in the back. They were always here six to ten strong, always drinking pitcher after pitcher, and their Spanish conversations and laughter constantly threatened to drown out the piped-in sounds of the track announcers from across the country. The guy I always noticed, who I had dubbed “Speedy Gonzalez,” was a sullen-eyed defeated man of no more than twenty six. “Speedy” was an ironic name more than anything, as there was never any extra movement or wasted emotion with him. He was the definition of laconic distress. While nothing seemed to move him – not a longshot killing his trifecta, not a lewd joke that seemed to kill with the rest of his crew – his eyes carried tremendous weight and sadness. The rest of the group? Gleefully rooting on the Mexican jockeys and boldly proclaiming in expletive-laden tirades either their handicapping prowess or the inability of the rider to provide the proper trip, depending on what their tickets read at the conclusion of each race. All this bravado only brought polarity to Speedy’s plight. His depression was enough to balance the drunken glee of ten men.
What I hadn’t yet heard this afternoon was the unmistakable sound of Monte making his arrival.
I had originally started coming out here on Saturdays as a sort of solitary activity. For the most part, I would just bury my head in the program, derive my wagering strategy, watch the races unfold on the big screen, and repeat the process ad infinitum throughout the afternoon from my seat at the bar.
My assumption about gamblers held true – everyone pretty much leaves everyone else alone. If that’s what you’re looking for, solitude in a somewhat social setting, the OTB bar is your place of preference.
Some early November Saturday last year, sitting in the same stool, drinking the same beer, making idle chatter with the same bartender, looking for the same overlays, I got to know Monte.
As is my habit with the regulars, I had nicknamed the old guy who came in from the cold in trench coat and fedora “Wheezy.” Constantly clutching a well-worn handkerchief in his left hand, Wheezy was in a constant state of ague, racked by coughing fits and asthmatic attempts to reset himself in their wake. Immediately noticeable on my first few visits, Wheezy’s coughing was abrasive and violent, but soon became part of the scenery, white noise at the track only conspicuous in its absence.
Harley assured me the old man was alright, or at least as right as a man can be who hasn’t had the opportunity to take a deep breath in years.
A few weeks back, I was returning from the teller windows to my spot at the bar, when I noticed Wheezy had moved from his usual table across the room to a stool just a couple down from mine.
That was surprising. The regulars here, myself included, are creatures of habit. I’m wearing the same baseball cap in this room that I did on the day I hit that $175 Daily Double at Arlington. I’m sitting in the same stool and drinking the same brand of beer I have since I scored my first day breaking a five hundred dollar profit. Judging by the collection of random talismans and lucky shirts I could count on seeing in precisely the same spots on a week to week basis, it was apparent the rest of the room wasn’t doing anything to upset the apple cart.
Wheezy cocked his head to the left to acknowledge my approach and mustered a brief, but brave grin before collapsing his lungs into that sorely insufficient piece of fabric he was constantly polluting. As he struggled gamely to regain some semblance of rhythmic breathing, the handkerchief went from his mouth to his wrinkled forehead, blotting the beads of sweat from his brow.
As a friendly inquisition I said, “Can I buy you a glass of water my good man?”
While clearing his throat and nodding his assent, he motioned to Harley, “And a bourbon, neat, two fingers.”
I signaled to Harley to toss it on my tab, and the old man was appreciative. “Thanks kiddo. There’s only three things left for an old man like me to feel good again.” Harley slid the bourbon right into an ancient and waiting hand, which mustered every muscle possible to make it to his lips and tilt without accident. One solid gulp, and more throat clearing while I awaited Wheezy’s secret. “Oh yeah… Bourbon would definitely be on top of that list.”
“What’s number two?”
Wheezy’s left hand dropped the napkin and slipped inside his blazer pocket, withdrawing a pack of cigarettes. Unfiltered Pall Malls. Probably what his Granddad and his Daddy used to smoke. “These, my friend. These are what keep me going.” One abrupt blow to the bottom of the soft pack expertly popped one solitary cigarette from the bunch an inch above the rest. He brought the whole pack to his lips and withdrew the lone smoke. In what had to be the most gingerly peaceful action he was capable of making with arthritis ridden joints, the Zippo opened with that sharp PING! and he sparked the flame to the end of the cigarette, puffing solidly to get it lit.
Impressively, that first true slow draw from the Pall Mall was the only breath he took all day that wasn’t pockmarked with difficulty.
“Mind if I join you?” I asked. He nodded and smiled vacantly, still happily lingering over that first taste of tobacco to his lungs. I lit up an American Spirit in communion. “You said you had three things that made you feel good. Your bourbon, your smokes… that makes two. Wanna tell me about number three?”
His eyebrows peaked and then fell low over his eyes, which had a childlike devilish gleam for just an instant. “How about getting away from that bitch wife of mine, that good enough for you?” He pounded the table once in comedic satisfaction and got a solid chuckle out before the hacking and wheezing returned, as did the handkerchief and the reminder that this was a man who had been on his last legs for years.
“I’m Tommy, I promise not to ask you about your coughing fits if you promise not to ask me how far I’m down already today.”
“Monte. Pleased to meat you kiddo. And you got yourself a deal. Don’t ask me where I’m at either.”
“Sixth race loading up at Aqueduct. Did you get your money down on this one Monte?”
“Absolutely,” he said, grabbing and waiving the ticket from the six or seven he had laid out in front of him on the bar, “I’m looking for the seven to finally do something here.”
I, too, had my money on the seven. Maiden special weight race, lots of potential, not a lick of it realized on this track. But for a grandson of AP Indy and a half-brother to Funny Cide, I was thinking one mile wouldn’t be a stretch for a horse that had trailed badly in his first three races – all sprints.
“Great minds think alike Monte. I’ve got $20 on the seven. With Chavez aboard, I like his chances. And 12/1 was screaming my name.”
The gates opened and the horses streaked out wildly, all pushing for the coveted spot about one wide of the rail in the front. All of them except the seven, Disturbed Indy. After a blazing twenty two second quarter with six horses of the seven pushing and testing each other, sharing and snatching the lead, Disturbed Indy was rating carefully three back, then five, and finally after the first quarter was a distinct eight lengths from the leaders.
I glanced over at Monte, who was at the same time puffing hard on his Pall Mall and fiddling idly with the brim of his hat. Not a look of worry in his eyes, he’d seen it all before.
As they approached the half pole, it was still eight lengths, but Disturbed Indy still looked as comfortable as he did in the early fraction. Ears pricked, surveying the field ahead of him, and not letting the pack get too far out of reach. Without turning his head from the action, Monte said, “Watch this, if he’s a true Distorted Humor colt, at about the three quarters pole, he’ll blow right by everyone else.”
Just shy of that mark, Chavez nudged the colt forward with a nearly imperceptible flick of the wrist. Disturbed Indy, from about seven lengths behind the maiden field, began to close on the pack. Four wide he clipped past one tiring rival, cutting smoothly through the turn to pick off two more on an inside route. Indy was gaining steam through the turn and shot into the homestretch with amazing momentum for a two year-old. Still two lengths to close on the leaders, Chavez steadied Indy on a line six wide of the rail, clear of any interference, and pointed him to the line.
It only took one snap of the whip against his flanks, and Chavez was riding a rocket. Two more colts collapsed in his wake, and the front-running duo who had pressed the pace for just over seven eighths of a mile were mere strides away. Disturbed Indy, head down, driving with a strong hand ride from Chavez, eclipsed the final two colts, pushing through the finish line well wide of the rail, but a solid half length in front of the surprised horses sucking for air on the inside.
“You know kid, if this was the Derby, that horse would have beaten the pack by ten lengths.” Monte was right, stretching out an additional three sixteenths against these maidens would have resulted in a major massacre.
As it was, the scalps on this one were ours. With a $25.80 payout in the Win pool, I had cleared $258 thanks to this half brother to a Derby winner. For the day, that brought me just north of even. I rather enjoy being anywhere north of even.
“Nice catch on that one old timer. Did you see how he came off the rail, moved back in, but still drove out wide around the turn? Whatever it took to catch the rest of them. Great trip, Chavez should get a bonus.”
Monte shook his head, coughed once or twice into his hand and said, “That wasn’t Chavez. That was the colt. That was all horse right there. The light came on for him. He knows what he has to do to win now. I think you might have just seen something special just now.”
Three Saturdays later, Monte proved to be a sage prophet. Entered in tough Allowance company at Aqueduct, but still under Chavez’s ride at a mile and seventy yards, Disturbed Indy, still a two year-old colt, but a lot less green than before, found his way to the finish line first by five lengths, absolutely destroying some pretty solid three year-old company along the way.
Unfortunately, he did so at 3/1 odds, so it was obvious the rest of America’s gambling public knew that Disturbed Indy had been gifted with some of the talent of his grandfather, and much of the heart of his New York bred half brother.
Still, with $50 on the young colt to win, I managed to cash a $200 ticket with a smile on my face.
So did Monte.
Over the weekends since I met him, Monte continued to meet me at the bar, I continued to buy him his first bourbon (two fingers, neat) each day, and I continued to win.
Well, no one wins every time out, but with Monte there to help me get my handicapping together, I wasn’t taking as many risks, and wasn’t making as many mistakes.
“Hey kid, did you notice anything interesting about the next turf race out at Calder?” Monte was testing to see if I had been picking up on his instruction. “Who do you like here?”
I scanned the program thoroughly, and carefully formulated my response. “What about the four? Bred in Europe, ran on the turf over there, contested three straight claimers on turf here at a higher price, and then I can’t figure out what the trainer was doing here…”
Monte smiled, amused that I was confused by the charts in the same way he was intrigued by them. “Last three all on the dirt - one sprint, one route, one mile? All garbage. Never better than sixth. Horse hasn’t run in 45 days since.”
“Why in god’s name would you take a European turf horse and run him on the dirt like this?” I was puzzled.
“Either you’ve got an amateur trainer who doesn’t know what he’s doing, or you had a horse you might have been trying to get back in shape under the radar by letting him run in races he couldn’t possibly win.” Maybe Monte had something there. Sometimes there was an agenda. And, at 22/1, sometimes you looked for the reason to say yes rather than the multitude of reasons to take a pass.
I nodded in agreement. “I get it. How’s about we pretend those last three races never happened?”
My $20 and Monte’s $10 votes of confidence paid off, as the horse magically regained his form, and eked out a victory with a solid run.
Even more so than my lucky green ball cap with the shamrock on the front, Monte had become as much a good luck charm and Saturday routine for me as anything.
At the same time, Disturbed Indy was scratching and clawing his way through December and January at Aqueduct, hanging Allowance and Stakes victories on all who came to challenge. This was a colt bred for distance, and I think Monte and I both knew that this was a colt that believed in his own destiny. That destiny, of course, was the holy grail of horse racing – the Kentucky Derby.
Today was Disturbed Indy’s first big step in that direction. They had shipped the colt out to Santa Anita for the San Vicente Stakes, a Grade II race that was a precursor to most of the bigger Derby prep races over the next ten to twelve weekends. With any luck, and under Chavez’s steady hand, Indy had a sincere shot to run the table, probably ending the prep race circuit with a triumphant return to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial in a couple of months, and then the inevitable trip to Churchill for the Derby.
I hadn’t missed a race of Indy’s since he broke his Maiden back in November, and neither had Monte.
But today felt different.
Almost everything was in the right place. The Chan brothers at their table, FDR with his coffee, Speedy Gonzalez seemingly detached from the bombastic machismo of the rest of his crew.
But no Monte.
Even by an old man’s standards for a winter’s day, he was late. Hours late. The San Vicente was on the clock, ticking down to post, and the rough rumbling of Monte’s throat and lungs was nowhere to be heard.
Disturbed Indy was the class of his field, and I watched his morning line odds of 4/1 tumble lower and lower in this ten horse field, settling somewhere in the 8/5 neighborhood with about six minutes to post.
Still no Monte.
Disturbed Indy was loaded into the fourth slot in the gate, and the rest of the field slowly took shape around him. As the gates released and the horses grabbed instantly for that first taste of dirt under their hooves, I took one last look towards the door, and didn’t see the old man in the blazer with the fedora, choking violently into his handkerchief.
Indy broke sharply, and settled back in his usual position, three lengths from the horse that would otherwise be trailing the field. He tracked the field faithfully through the first turn and down the backstretch, and again near the three quarter pole was nudged by Chavez to kick it into gear.
Disturbed Indy didn’t fire.
He picked off a few of the horses in front of him, but even though the line read, ”Rallied late 5W for fifth,” it was apparent that there was no rally in this horse. Not today.
It was as if he was running with a heavy heart. Somehow, that’s how I knew.
I grabbed the local paper the next morning, and fully expected what I saw on page three. Monte passed Friday night. Lung cancer.
I don’t do funerals. I did, however, take a copy of the form from the San Vicente, put my losing ticket for Disturbed Indy inside, and took it over to the funeral home. I asked the mortician, or director, or whoever it was I talked to if it would be OK for them to put this in Monte’s coffin discretely before they buried him.
“Are you family?”
“No sir, just… he was my good luck charm.”
The guy in the dark suit with the pallid demeanor evaluated the disheveled young man in the green baseball cap and replied, “I don’t normally do this without the family’s approval, but how about if I put it underneath the pillows in there?” He gave me the pity smile I’m sure he had given thousands of times to grieving widows, old army buddies, and the grandchildren of the ghosts that passed through this sanctuary. “You wouldn’t happen to be Tommy, would you?”
I was taken aback slightly, but manage to mumble to him that I was.
“Violet – that’s his wife – wasn’t sure if she’d see you. She said she didn’t even know you, but she said if a young man were to stop by named Tommy, I was to give him something. Hold on.” With that, he spun on his heel and walked briskly into the back. He walked out of the room with something familiar. I just had to smile.
“She wanted you to have this.” It was his fedora. Tattered brown felt with a subtle peacock feather in the band. I was nearly giggling to myself as I took it from the solemnly dressed man. He wasn’t sure weather to give me the reassuring smile, or to laugh along with me.
“Thanks. And tell Violet thank you as well.”
The very next Saturday, I replaced the shamrock hat and flannel shirt I usually wore with Monte’s fedora and one of my dad’s old tweed blazers from a few dozen years ago. As I sat down at the bar, Harley smiled, and then realized instantly what had happened.
Without saying a word, she poured me a bourbon, two fingers, neat. Slid it into my open palm, and watched me take a pull from the glass.
She never let me pay for my first bourbon again.
Bill Simmons @ ESPN
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