Tuesday, August 30, 2016

American Pharoah, Part II

Another tale from Joe Drape's book singing last week was the story of Tom Durkin's frustration at not seeing a Triple Crown, that was also Mr. Drape's because the 2015 Triple Crown of American Pharoah was his first in attendance.

I knew fom other aspects of Mr. Drape that he is younger than I am. He missed the 70s at the Belmont Stakes when three horses won the Triple Crown. Two in consecutive years! Look it up. There would have even been one earlier than Secretariat's 1973 achievement, if in 1972 Riva Ridge doesn't meet a muddy Preakness Pimlico and get upset by Bee Bee Bee, a horse with fantastic mud breeding from Better Be. I did not have Bee Bee Bee that day. My uncle did, however

A Riva Ridge Preakness victory would have started Meadow Stable, trainer Lucien Lauren, jockey Ron Turcotte and owner Penny Tweedy on consecutive Triple Crowns. Penny Tweedy's heart was conflicted when Secretariat defeated the older Riva Ridge in the 1973 inaugural Marlboro Cup, her horses running 1-2 against an absolutely stellar field of older horses in the Marlboro Cup, a now discontinued race.

So, in 1973, Mr. Drape probably doesn't have his Missouri driver's license yet in order to roam from home and follow the starting gates. But once he did, he surely caught the bug, watching races in Nairobi where there are so many starters they collide with other and the jockeys fall off, and where you can hit a bush track where nooo one hits the exacta, including Mr. Drape. Imagine, a consolation exacta.

That tale reminded me of once being at Greenwood Park in Toronto in the mid-70s, another track that is no longer there. Betting had commenced on the races and I was somewhat dumbfounded that even minutes before post, some horse had no money in their show pools. I took a picture of the tote board showing the zeroes. Imagine a consolation show bet?

But the Durkin Triple Crown story went that Tom, upon being at the track as a "civilian," not the track announcer, walked out of the track when American Pharoah won, likely to collect his thoughts on being a year away from calling that race, since he retired in 2014.

The New York wiseguy offered Mr. Drape a story to match, that he wound up telling the audience at Joe's invitation.

We callow fellows started going to the track in the late 60s, the 1960s I like to remind people, starting on the day Stage Door Johnny won the Belmont Stakes, upsetting a bid by Forward Pass to be a Triple Crown winner with a huge asterisk next to his name. (You'll have to look up the Forward Pass/Dancer's Image story separately.)

We became tutored in the art of handicapping by an older fellow, perhaps by 25 years, named Les. Les was a student of what was then The Morning Telegraph, available for 75 cents, a then outrageous price for a broadsheet.  Les was a proponent of "pace makes the race." We eventually took to calling him Mr. Pace. I kept his home phone number in my wallet under Mr. Pace. A TRafalger number.

Les had been going to the track for so long he could claim that Citation was his favorite horse. We often joked Les may have slept with Citation, the winner of the 1948 Triple Crown, and the owner of a 16 race win streak.

We always saved a seat for Les, because he liked to arrive after the Daily Double, the only exotic bet there was then, in a total exotic bet wasteland.  Les explained that pursuit of Daily Doubles sometimes meant Tap City for Les, and an early trip back into Manhattan, where Les lived with his wife and son, who we never met.

In 1971, when Canonero II was going to be perhaps the next Triple Crown winner, Les was one animated figure. His previous night's handicapping and system of assigning numbers to horses based on pace and weights (then a more important part of handicapping) gave him a horse named Pass Catcher, a horse that had run second to Bold Reasoning in Monmouth a few weeks before. Bold Reasoning was then one of the best three-year olds, but was not in the Belmont.

Les could not stop talking about Pass Catcher. All day, and to anyone who looked his way, he'd pull the Telegraph out of his pocket and show anyone who gave him their attention, how Pass Catcher had a phenomenal number to win.

We didn't bet Pass Catcher that day, but Les did. Modestly, but when a horse pays $82 to win, you don't need a lot of money to make some serious coin. The jockey Walter Blum even dropped his whip before the finish line.

Les was an ecstatic crazy person. We thought he might have to be tranquilized. He owned the section we were in. To this day, it's one of my favorite stories.

But the story that came out about Les at the Northshire 'American Pharoah' book singing was one that I was reminded of on hearing about Durkin walking out of the track to collect his thoughts as the place went bananas. (I wasn't there, long ago having stopped going to the Belmont due to crowds and poor transportation handling by NYRA.)

We always saved a seat for Les, and the Belmont of 1973 was no exception. We saw Les before the feature race and told him we had a seat for him. Come on up. Les hung around the paddock and never did join us for the Belmont. He walked out of the track before Secretariat's race.

Secretariat had already been on the cover of three news weeklies, Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, before the Belmont. He was already being given the crown, and Les could not contemplate a world where the 25-year span of no Triple Crown winner, going back to his love, Citation in 1948, was going to be put to an end by the new champion of the people, Secretariat.

(We were at the track when Secretariat broke his maiden as a two-year old. As Secretariat ran out after finishing first, Les then informed us that "they're expecting great things from that horse." They were right.)

I eventually emulated Les's system of assigning numbers to horses that have raced, based on an 11 point system to assess their conditioning. Les's system was heavily predicated on weight, because in those the days of handicapping weight assignments were greatly scrutinized. Racing secretaries assigned weight with the purpose of penalizing winners. Thus, when the great Dr. Fager was in the Vosburgh handicap in 1968 he was assigned 139 pounds, in the hope that that was enough weight to put the entrants on a level playing field.

The track was level that day, but not the playing field. The good Doctor set a 7 furlong track record at Aqueduct that stood for decades, demolishing the other six horses in the field with a 43 and 4/5 half! and finishing in 120 1/5.  I keep a chart of the race on the wall in the room where I'm writing this.

I thought it was almost fitting that Mr. Drape mentioned Johnny Nerud, the Hall of Fame trainer who trained Dr. Fager. Dr. Fager wasn't mentioned, but a quote from Nerud was. He told people that they, the trainers were running a hospital on the backstretch, keeping horses fit enough to run and hopefully win, nursing them through their aches and pains. Johnny Nerud didn't need too many hospitals for himself, for he only fairly recently passed away at 102 in Old Brookville, Long Island. Nice territory.

Mr. Drape talked of how American Pharoah ran to the front, and that most great horses do run to the front, intimidating their competition. Dr. Fager certainly did. The saying then was that no horse could look him in the eye and expect to be around at the finish.

Consider that this all went on on the Tuesday before the Travers. Somone asked if Mr. Drape was going to be there for the draw, which apparently he was missing part of. It was being held at some Saratoga Springs bakery across the street,

Upon signing my copy of 'American Pharoah and exchanging some chat, Joe asked me who I liked in the Travers. I told him I had no idea at that point. I'd figure it on the way home, since we were leaving Saturday morning, not wanting to be part of a massive crowd.

I did figure out who I liked by doing my numbers back at the motel on Friday night, using the advance past performances provided in Friday's Daily Racing Form, now at the astounding prices of somewhere between $8.00 and $10.00! depending on your purchasing point and which edition you select. The Form is however indispensable, and compared to the information it once held to what it provides today, it's like suddenly being exposed to calculus vs. simple arithmetic.

My numbers gave me the Baffert duo, We know how that turned out. Quite well, especially when you played exactas. I know not at all what "system" Mr. Drape uses to inform us of his pick, but when I got home and picked up Saturday's Times I saw that Mr. Drape boldly had Arrogate on top. A gutsy public pick, But to perhaps a student of "pace makes the race," a very logical choice,

I Tweeted my boxed exacta (1-2-10) to Mr. Drape shortly before the race went off. No red boarding there. Money won is always twice as nice as money earned. Maybe 10 times better.

That's why we show up in jeans and an untucked dress shirt, with reference material rolled up in our back pockets.


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