Saturday, October 27, 2018


I met a good friend I used to work with for lunch the other day, and since I'm retired and she's still working, the conversation drifts at points to what all people who are still working talk about: other people at work.

There were several threads touched on, but one was about this person, another female I think, whose last name is Wang, or at least is spelled Wang, but who insists on having it pronounced as Wong. Frankly, I never heard of such an insistence.

It reminded me a bit of the character Hyacinth Bucket in the Brit comedy 'Keeping Up Appearances' who insists her name is pronounced with an upper crust flourish as Bouquet. Her name is spelled as Bucket, and is really meant to be pronounced as the synonym for pail, but from the lips of the status conscious Hyacinth it comes out Bouquet.

Another co-worker told my friend that So-and-So Wang insists her name is pronounced Wong because it denotes better breeding. "Really. Who does she think she is?"

I truly didn't think too much of the story until I read the obituary that appeared a few days later for Charles Wang, a founder of a very successful software company and a majority owner of the NHL's New York Islanders, a role he was most closely associated with later in life.

Quickly into the obituary, Steven Lohr informs the reader that Wang is pronounced Wong. Okay, there really might he something to this Wang/Wong thing after all.

I remember the early days of desktop publishing and word processing at work when Mr. Wang's software was being used to create coding manuals for the examiners at the health insurance company I worked at.

As for myself, I wasn't at the time at all familiar with the software, but found myself laughing heartily to myself when I passed the 'Wang Room' where the software was used on one of the few dedicated mini-computers in existence at the time.

I associated the word Wang with jerking off, and laughed at the idea that work would so visibly admit they created a room dedicated to it. And leave the door open, at that.

So the woman who insists her last name that is spelled Wang should have it pronounced as Wong wasn't alone. Here was Charles Wang, a well-known business figure who it seemed would insist on the same thing. The woman gained some credibility and some sympathy.

The on/off ramp connections didn't end there. I had tickets to see and hear Yuja Wang at Carnegie Hall last night in what would be an evening's program of percussion pieces played with a percussion ensemble lead by Martin Grubdinger, with Ms. Wang at the piano. The program was thoroughly enjoyable, and was an arrangement of music I had never heard before. A complete success.

Now anyone who knows anything about Yuja Wang may not care at all about how her last name is pronounced, but probably cares more what outfit she is wearing. And I would think this might be as true for female observers and well as male observers.

She is an internationally acclaimed pianist you would listen to even if she were covered in burlap, but who in addition to her captivating playing wears short dresses and skirts so figure hugging that she can be viewed as the cutest Kewpie doll streetwalker who ever sat on a piano bench and reached for the keys. She is something to behold in those outfits and five inch heels that leaves you wondering how do her feet work the pedals?

I always though her name would be pronounced as it looked: Wang. But when I considered the lunch conversation with my friend and the obituary for Charles Wang, I had to wonder if I've been wrong all these years and Yuja Wang's name is pronounced Wong.

No phonetic aid printed in the program, and certainly no chance I'm ever going to get to ask her how does she pronounce her name. And since she's 31 and in profoundly looking good health, a helpful obituary is not likely to appear anytime soon. Wang, or Wong?

Google to the rescue. A short audio burst tells me, and anyone else who might be interested, it's Wang. Yuja Wang.

Wang, Wong, or by any other name, the music and the clothes would be just as sweet.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

An Uncomplicated Life

My obituary has yet to be written, basically because I'm still alive. And I'm not famous enough to have an "advance" one waiting in the wings to be updated and polished when the moment for its need arrives.

Whenever the time comes it will be revealed I've led a rather uncomplicated life. At least compared to some of the people I read about who have passed away. Uncomplicated is an understatement when you consider some of the tales of the deceased just in today's paper alone.

Take Cornelius E. Gallagher, 97, a Congressman from New Jersey. The photo accompanying his obit is from April 1972 and shows an unmistakable Irish choir boy face. Surely Neil was an altar boy in the parish. But it goes unmentioned, either because he wasn't, or because there are more exciting things to mention that occurred in his life.

I would classify these exciting things as definite complications.

Take the 1968 Life magazine report that wiretaps lead to suggestions he was protecting a Mafia boss, Joseph Zicarelli and his gambling operation. After all, there were intimations in the recorded conversations that Mr. Gallagher enlisted Mr. Zicarelli's help in disposing the body of a loan shark who died in Mr. Gallagher's home.

This had to complicate Mr. Gallagher's life immensely. A loan shark passed away in his home and he needed a Mafia boss to help dispose of the body. Apparently, calling the police was not an option. There will be nothing to match that in my obituary.

And that's not the only complication we read about. Take April 1972 when Mr. Gallagher was indicted on charges of committing perjury, attempting to evade $102,000 in income taxes. A $102,000 in taxes means there was a much higher amount that was in dispute, that according to the IRS, if reported properly, would result in owing $102,000 in taxes. Again, I'm going to fall way short on that one as well. Those kind of amounts to the left of the comma have never been found on my returns.

In 1978, well after Mr. Gallagher was no longer in Congress, the House Ethics Committee reported a South Korean businessman, Tongsun Park, gave Mr. Gallagher $74,000 in cash for his help in restoring Mr. Park as a middleman for the Korean purchase of American rice.

Think of how complicated that must have been. Mr. Gallagher benefits to the tune of $74,000 in cash for getting a Korean installed as a middleman for the purchase of American rice that was being purchased by Korea. American rice is being sent to Asia, the complete opposite direction of what the "survey" would say the trade direction of rice is.

There is no mention of the $74,000 in cash getting Mr. Gallagher in trouble with the IRS. Perhaps the statue of limitations had expired on unreported cash. But think of what it took for Mr. Gallagher to hide the transaction from investigating eyes until it was too late to do anything about it.

Again, I will have no tales in my closet that match financially benefiting from American rice being shipped to Korea. When I eat rice, I don't care where it comes from. A clean kitchen would be my hope.

Live a long life that expires when you're 97 and there should be no surprise that in 1995, when you're 74 years old, you finally plead guilty to tax fraud for failing to report $90,000 in profits from the sale of your villa in the Dominican Republic, and to bank fraud for your help in securing a loan for your son-in-law.

To prove that no good deed goes unpunished, Mr. Gallagher was sentenced to 10 months in prison on both charges. Again, despite not having achieved 74, there is nothing in my background that will increase any probability that I'll be faced with the same charges as Mr. Gallagher.

The photo of Mr. Gallagher that accompanies the narrative of his life by Sam Roberts in today's NYT, shows Mr. Gallagher on the phone, a device that he must have had constantly pinned to his ear having discussions with his lawyers.

There will be no photo of myself on the phone. I'm seldom on the phone, landline or otherwise. I have no lawyers on speed dial.

I will pass through life without the complications of Mr. Gallagher's life. And I'm not at all unhappy about that.

Monday, October 15, 2018

Bertie's Adventure At the Beach

Just because you vacation back at the same place you vacationed last year doesn't mean you're going to have the same experiences. It's not Ground Hog Day.

Take the visit to Chatham my wife and I made last Monday on the first full day of what has become a bit of an annual trip to see her cousin in Centerville, that otherwise takes in some favorite Cape Cod places where we spent several summers when the kids were growing up.

Chatham looked the same. Some places were closed because it was Monday. The Focus Gallery wasn't open and the place we had lunch in last year wasn't open this year for lunch. There were no seals on the sand bar at the beach. I brought my binoculars this time to see them closer, but all I got was a closer look at sand and water.

The Chatham lighthouse was of course still there. Lighthouse generally are, unless they're headed for the cliff and the drink below, and then they're saved by donations and engineers and moved back a bit. Highland Light in Truro is an example. So, no need to take more photos of what I probably hadn't downloaded from the camera from last year. But there was this fellow on a beach chair sitting at a table in front of a church with some books piled up. Children's books it seemed.

His vantage point was at the edge of the church's front lawn at the base of the sloping grass adjacent to the sidewalk, where his quiet greeting reached out to all passersby, directing their attention to the books on the table. It turns out  they were his books. He wrote them, and his daughter illustrated them. His name is John Hutchinson, as solid a New England name as you can come across.

I'd like to think his great, great—I don't know how many greats—grandfather grabbed a musket off the wall and took part in a close order drills for the Chatham Militia during the Revolutionary War. Maybe even fired the musket at a Red Coat in a skirmish, popping out of the beach plums and surprising a detail of the British high-stepping it through town, then running like hell to evade capture. Or, maybe his family were Tories. I don't know.

As we passed this amiable septuagenarian recovering from hip surgery, we politely told him we'd take a look on the way back to the car. And even though we were walking back on the other side of Main Street we crossed over and took a look at what he was about.

Two books wee on display, 'Bertie's Adventure At the Beach' and 'Bertie and the Lost Treasure of Skull Island.' Bertie is a mouse.

Of the two, 'Bertie's Adventure At the Beach' was the slimmer of the two volumes. But both books were glossy hardcovers, printed on vellum paper, and nicely color illustrated. Everything you'd expect a children's book to be.

A transaction without conversation would have been impossible, and good thing it was. John told me the story of Bertie is the story of what his mother would tell him as she showed him the beach when he was little, and all the things she pointed out, animals, water, sand and plants.

He mentioned a series of books he read that I wasn't familiar with. I told him of my reading probably every Hardy Boys book there was, with Joe and Frank Hardy and their pal Chet. I told him I was incredibly disappointed when I grew up and found out there was no Franklin W. Dixon, the author who I wanted to me meet when I got older. He said, "of course you found out..." "Yes, a pseudonym for a stable of authors who wrote the stories. There was no Franklin W. Dixon."

I told him of the Random House Landmark series of books that highlighted events and people in history. I distinctly remember one written by Elizabeth Janeway, a real person he knew of, and someone who was famous for producing young adult literature.

I mentioned to John that my daughter Susan was planning to write a children's book when her academic workload decreased a bit. I'm going to help. So far there's a working title and perhaps a first page. Not much. An orange tabby named Cosmo does something, but she and I haven't gotten very far. And then there would be the need for an illustrator. John mentioned it's probably not too hard to find an illustrator. "Go for it."

John mentioned "To Kill A Mockingbird," a book we agreed would never go out of print. He told me of his daughter Christine who was in elementary school when she read the book. One evening when John and his wife went to a parent/teacher night to learn of Christine's progress the teacher was puzzled. She didn't recall anyone in her class with that name.

Last name and description jarred the teacher's memory into telling them, "Oh, you mean Scout." It seems Christine was so smitten with 'To Kill A Mockingbird' that she just changed her name. And so it has remained. The illustration credits are for Scout Hutchinson.

I mentioned something similar when a friend of mine would refer to his son as an infant as Boo, for Boo Bradley.

John was all charm and inscribed the copy I bought ($20) of  'Bertie's Adventures At the Beach' to my youngest granddaughter in a script with such a flourish that I'm now convinced his family had something to do with the Declaration of Independence.

My email. name and address in his loose leaf binder netted me an e-mailed excerpt from his next Bertie book, a tale with Bertie and his cousin that takes them to Monomoy Beach. This is a wildlife refuge barrier beach that sits off the coast of Chatham. It is also the name of Monomoy Stables, the very proud owners of Monomoy Girl, a very talented 3-year-old thoroughbred filly that will likely be co-favored in their Breeders' Cup race coming up in November at Churchill Downs. Perhaps Bertie will make a wager.

'Bertie's Adventure At the Beach' is an adventure. The book is appropriately dedicated to John's mother, Harriet Jaqueth Fitz Hutchinson, further solidifying in my imagination that John's ancestors might have known some of the Pilgrims. Maybe were the Pilgrims.

As I was talking to John a mother with a babystroller and a baby, along with a young boy, approached on the sidewalk and got John's affable greeting. The young boy was excited, picked up a book and asked if he wrote it. "Yes, I wrote these."

The mother was headed in the direction we were when we first passed John at his table. She said what we said, "Maybe on the way back..."

I do hope she stopped.

Friday, October 5, 2018

Dave Anderson

The entire class has been pretty much called up. Nearly every sports writer I ever looked forward to reading when I picked up the paper has now departed. All stopped writing for the paper some time ago. Six have stopped breathing, the latest in today's announcement that Dave Anderson has passed away.

My roll call has been Red Smith, Arthur Daly, Dave Anderson, Ira Berkow, Joe Nichols, Steve Cady, Robert Lipsyte, Gerald Eskenazi, Steve Crist, Leonard Koppett and even George Vecsey, if only to get mad at.

Today's obituary for Dave is not on the front page, is not at the bottom of the front page with a teaser, but on the sports page, where he belongs. Forever.

The last time Dave wrote for the NYT on a regular basis was 2007. I have missed him every day since. Only occasionally did a column appear, but retirement is justly earned, especially for a journalist who wrote for The Journal-American. I remember JFK and I remember The Journal-American, The World-Telegram and Sun, The Daily Mirror, The Star Journal, The Long Island Press and The Herald Tribune. Dave's colleague Red Smith came to the NYT from The Herald Tribune. All gone. You don't write for a newspaper for 50 years and not see some changes.

A glance at the pages of today's sports section shows us all what we've been missing. A fair-minded man who had a way with words, and who was liked by all for his class and wit. Grace with a keyboard. We're missing those who earned the right to have their words appear in the 'Sports of the Times' column, first sports page, lower left,

Just read the reprinted column on Reggie Jackson when he was with the New York Yankees. Anyone who remembers the era of George, Reggie and Billy can appreciate the words, "Some people, notably George Steinbrenner, the only ship builder who enjoys storms..." is absolute poetry set to type.

The column is about Reggie Jackson and the burden of being called Mr. October and not producing enough firepower in the current series against the Kansas City Royals. Dave closes by calling George Steinbrenner Mr. Obnoxious. It is a gorgeous piece, worth reading not only for who wrote it but to also be reminded we always thought ballplayers were making too much money, when in the late 1970s, early 1980s, Reggie was making $600,000 a year. There wouldn't be fan alive then who didn't think someone was being overpaid. Not Dave. In Dave's opinion, Mr. October deserved to get a new contract for $1 million a year. There are some people who could put those numbers on their charge card these days.

Boxing, hockey and baseball were Dave's forte. Anyone who grew up in Brooklyn, despite coming from Troy, NY, had to experience a seasonal onslaught of opinionated people who followed baseball. I met Dave Anderson once, sometime in the latter part of the 1990s. Brooks Brothers, of all places, sent me a promo notice that Dave Anderson was going to be speaking there on a certain weeknight. RSVP. Of course I dd.

At the podium, Dave told the few in attendance on folding chairs set up in men's suits, that growing up in New York in the 50s you had to appreciate how baseball ruled the town. The Dodgers, the Giants, the Yankees; three teams in three boroughs. It was a golden age, Everyone was a fan of one team, and a naysayer against the others. Sports talk radio before talk radio.

Dave's passion for golf was revealed when he told of getting any golf assignment there was at the paper. He was headed for the upcoming Masters. He described the atmosphere at Augusta as being just a bit "too plantation" for him. He also described how during the practice sessions the pros would have their caddies stand out on the course and they would then try and direct a golf shot into their baseball mitt. Accuracy counts in a tournament.

Another of the takeaways (literally) from Dave's talk after I introduced myself was a copy of either a column he wrote, or the text of the Abbot and Costello routine "Who's on First?" To me, it is still one of the funniest routines I've ever heard. I heard them do it on their WPIX show when I was a kid. Dave told me it is in the Baseball of Fame, a place I still have yet to journey to. Time is fleeting. I better get there.

I didn't know Dave's autobiographical background, but now knowing his grandfather was the publisher of the Troy Times and his father was the advertising director, it was understandable that Dave was going to get a Social Security card and a press pass in his life.

I remember one of Dave's columns in the early 80s when he wrote about Gerry Cooney, a large white, heavyweight from Huntington, NY who was being groomed with over-matched opponents so he could soon challenge Larry Holmes for the title and be the next 'Great White Hope.'

Dave of course didn't call Gerry that, but there were enough people who did. Gerry's early fights didn't go the distance. His opponents were fairly quickly rendered unconscious and laying on the canvas before all the scheduled rounds were fought. Leatherbacks.

In fact, Gerry Cooney's accumulated ring experience was such a low number that Dave wrote that while in the elevator going up in the World Trade Center that the blinking lights for the floors quickly passed Gerry's total number of rounds fought. And you didn't need all of the Trade Center's 110 floors to pass Gerry's accumulated total. In fact, a rather short, undistinguished building's top floor could do just as well.

When I abandoned college twice and was just 19 looking for work, I went to see a high school guidance counselor, Mrs. Bittkower. It wasn't even the high school I graduated from, Suyvesant, but Seward Park, where it turned out later a colleague graduated from, who knew Mrs. Bittkower. He got his job from her as well.

If Mrs. Bittkower had sent me the a newspaper I probably would have stayed there, but she sent me to a health insurance company, where I worked for 36 years, then left to work seven years more doing the same thing for a consulting company. But writing was an avocation, and one day feeling thoroughly depressed about the concurrent strikes in baseball (no 1994 World Series) and hockey I composed a letter to Dave Anderson.

The letter was dated December 2, typed on a nice piece of paper—one page. I basically predicted attendance was going to lag in future years (it did, for a while) and that fathers were not going to be taking their kids to games, the generational continuity would be broken. I recounted some of the connection with my father that being taken to games had for me.

My phone ran on December 24 and it was Dave Anderson. He said he wanted to use the letter in his next column and was just fact checking a few things. He said it was one of the best things he's read about the strikes.

Christmas Day, a Sunday, my letter in its near entirety, along with my name and the town I lived in were part of his 'Sports of the Times' column titled 'It's Not Going to Be A Baseball Christmas.'

At the end of today's obituary Richard Goldstein does what good obituary writers do: they close with a quote from the departed, something that can reveal their life's philosophy.

The anecdote from Dave's life comes from Dave himself, when he describes how his newspaper account of a 1956 Montreal-New York Ranger game made it into the morning paper.

The story is not even called in, but typed by Dave. He tells of standing between the cars on the train headed back from Montreal that night, and tossing the copy onto a train platform at the New York border at Rouses Point as the trained slowed so it can be teletyped into the morning edition of The Journal-American.

On arriving at Grand Central Terminal Dave picks up a fresh copy of the paper and finds his bylined story. "It was exciting. Even now when I'm writing, I wake up on a Sunday morning and still get excited if I'm in the paper."

And for one Sunday in 1994, Christmas Day, I got the same feeling.


Thursday, October 4, 2018

It's Over

The competition for the World's Most Photographed Woman is now OVER.

It ended quickly this morning when the above photo appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal. The caption tells us she bopped onto the stage at the Conservative Party's annual conference in Birmingham, England to Abba's tune of  'Dancing Queen.'

The Prime Minister is not the Queen, but she was having fun with herself over the attention she got when she was videoed boogieing with some South African dancers recently.

I have no idea, but my guess she was lambasted for bustin' a move. I also guess the press in England is even more polarized than here.

The Prime Minister is on a bit of shaky ground and is hearing footsteps from Boris Johnson, her former foreign secretary, who is now seen as someone who will challenge her for the top spot.

Boris of course is an unmade bed who needs a haircut. No doubt he'd be colorful as well, just not in the same way. Whatever happens in British politics, just like Rick and Ilsa always had Paris, we'll always have Theresa defeating Chancellor Merkel for the crown of World's Most Photographed Woman.


Tuesday, October 2, 2018

A Bernie Gunther Novel

Move over Sherlock, contemporary and Edwardian. Move over Sam Spade, Philip Marlowe, Kurt Walander, DCI Banks. Inspector Lewis, Inspector Morse, Hercule Poirot, Mike Hammer and any other police procedural you can add to the heap, because with any luck we will soon be treated to a min-series, or a movie using Bernie Gunther, a Berlin gumshoe who survived the Battle of Verdun, saw uniformed police and later detective duty at Berlin's equivalent of Scotland Yard in 1939—the Alex—who solved crimes for Nazis, but was not himself a Nazi, who respected Jews and who didn't like the direction the Hitler winds were blowing. If Tom Hanks gets his project going, we will have the screenplay version of Commisar Gunther's exploits.

I had never heard of the Bernie Gunther series. It wasn't until the author Philip Kerr passed away in March of this year and I read about him on the obituary page that I decided to try one of the books. His kind of crime novels were right up my alley.

Bernie doesn't do crossword puzzles with lightening speed like Inspector Morse, but he does possess a knowledge of German opera, music and mythology. For a cop, he is an amalgam of street sense, common sense and scholarly sense. He is not without drink, smoke, and an occasional tryst with a female. He fits the mold of the cerebral detective passing through life as if it is an obligation he has to go through with to get to nowhere. But he is more than willing to put up with it, and put up with it with integrity.

Kerr was prolific. and his death at 62 from bladder cancer has put a full stop to any more tales about his favorite detective. Somewhat like Canon Doyle, Kerr tried to stop writing about Bernie, but his fans wanted more. He delivered.

To me the amazing thing about Kerr is that he was Scottish-born, but put Bernie in the thick of Germany as it moved from post WW I, to the Cold War post-WW II era, and the era of the Ivans, the Russian occupation of Germany,

Through the magic of the Internet I watched a Philip Kerr interview with Late Late Show host Craig Ferguson. Mr. Kerr explained how he would spend a great deal of time in Germany to absorb the details which made their way into his novels.

My guess is as fiction his Gunther works are novels. But I would really classify them as historical fiction since he inserts his character into the narrative encountering the real deal: The brothers Albert and Martin Bormann; Gerdy Troost, Hitler's decorator who took over after her architect husband Paul passed away; Grunther's boss, Reinhard Heydrich, who reported to Heinrich Himmler, both architects of the Final Solution.

The obituary mentioned 'The Berlin Trilogy' a book that has three novels between its covers. Each one is a bit of a short novel. They give you the flavor for what the Nazi-hating and honest cop is up against. Also, the atmosphere as Germany heads into war with Hitler at the helm.

There is a history lesson to be learned about pre-war Germany and how most people in Germany were not Nazis, and despised Nazis. Of course the Nazis loved themselves.

After WW I there was an absolute alphabet soup of political parties,German military forces, and civilian and military police. Gunther works out of Berlin, but Berliners are not liked at all by the rest of the German people. Hitler, an Austrian, doesn't like Berliners. He prefers Bavarians, and this is reflected in the people he has surround him. The country is a federation of states, much like the United States, with each state as different from the other as if they were separate countries.

Borders between countries were elastic, and Poland was viewed as an enemy. Hitler's rise to power was sown as early as the 1920s. Gunther, born sometime in the late 1880s, early 1890s considered the Weimer Republic the good old days. But they were not to last.

When I bought 'The Berlin Trilogy' I failed to realize I has purchased three books. The size of the paperback looked daunting to me. Only once I dove in did I realize I was getting three for the price of one. And I finished it quickly.

This gave me confidence to read 'Prussian Blue,' a singular novel that is as big as the three novels combined in 'The Berlin Trilogy.' In 'Prussian Blue' Gunther is plucked from his job in Berlin to look into how a member of Hitler's inner circle. Dr. Flex, was assassinated with a long range rifle  as he stood of the balcony of Berghof, Hitler's residence in Berchtesgaden.

Martin Bormann has reached out to Gunther's boss because he wants the best investigator there is to solve the case before the Alpine compound of buildings becomes host to the Leader's 50th birthday in April 1939.

Martin Bormann is Hitler's right-hand strongman, whose power is immeasurable and grows with each sunrise as war approaches with Poland. The book toggles back and forth between April 1939 and October 1956. There are way more April 1939 chapters than 1956 chapters, but the presence of the 1956 chapters are a sure clue Bernie makes it off Hitler's mountain. But what happens along the way?

Hitler is always referred to, but not really introduced to the narrative directly. We learn of the Leader's dislikes: cats, cigarette smoke, women drivers and Berliners. He likes nature, trees, birds, wildlife, fresh air, fresh fruits, tea (never British) and vegetables. Without knowing more about him, you might even like him.

Gunther fairly quickly gets to work, aided by the buzz of methamphetamines, drugs it seems that are widely used by the populace of Hitler's mountain. Hitler it seems likes to rise late in the day, but work through the night. Those around him have thus adopted an almost  24/7 wakefulness in order to accommodate all that the Leader wants to have done.

The Leader is not aware of the assassination, so Bormann puts Bernie on a strict deadline: results before the Leader gets to the mountain for his birthday bash. If not, Bernie understands his own expendability. Results come fast.

Bernie gets help from Gerdy Troost, Hitler's personal decorator/designer. This is a woman who believes deeply in Hitler and the "New Germany" but who can also see the outright shamefulness of Martin Boormann. She helps Bernie.

In real life there is a Gerdy Troost and she is every bit the Leader's chief designer, professionally critical of anything Albert Speer builds. Gerdy is described as being with a decent figure, but of a fairly plain face. Pictures of Gerdy support the description. Philip Kerr does his research as if transported back by a time machine.

Gerdy Troost passed away in 2003 and was 98. It is almost hard to believe that someone who so prominently occupies time with Bernie and Hilter could possibly live into a the 21st century.

But then again, that is the appeal of Philip Kerr. His characters did exist.

Monday, October 1, 2018

The Long Shot

All horseplayers have amnesia—except when it comes to the memory of the long shot they hit. When that happens, there is no detail too small to remember to bend the ear of listeners, years, decades, from the hit.

The definition of a long shot is subjective. But all horseplayers will agree a boxcar payoff is a long shot. And what is a boxcar payoff? A payoff so large that high numbers, and perhaps three or more numbers to the left of the decimal are needed to state the payout. If anyone has looked at numbers on a railroad's boxcar, they will see a string of numbers that identify the ownership. Hence, boxcar number.

I wasn't at Saturday's Belmont card. Despite the quality of the card I didn't even download the Form and bet from home. I might have gone—there was a baseball cap giveaway,and anything free at the track is worth showing up for— but there was a granddaughter's birthday party to attend. She's seven now, by the way.

I did manage to get the TV turned on in the kitchen with the sound low, while the large screen family room TV was in use by the other male guests who are not horseplayers—college football, Yankees, and even, if you can believe it, Ryder Cup results! Jesus, they would even watch golf!  I got to see the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic and the upset of Robert Bruce by Channel Maker, a horse I feel I might have had if I was applying myself to the card.

Eventually, the family room cleared because it was a nice day, and I had control of the remote myself. There are no buttons more pleasing to control than the buttons on the remote.

The much talked about Jockey Club Gold Cup was coming on and I had the place to myself. I already knew the field, and barely would have needed a Racing Form to form an opinion on possibilities. Nevertheless, the talking heads can be interesting to listen to, even if one of the mouthpieces is Andy Serling.

The racing tactics of Diversify, who was going off at 3-5 in an eight horse field, and Mendelssohn a three-year-old, were no secret. Mendelssohn was a Derby horse who fell out of the gate at Churchill, and who set off in front in the Travers, only to be caught and buried by Catholic Boy. The Jockey Club Gold Cup was at the same 1¼ mile distance as the Derby and the Travers, and was seen as a great race to be in before the Breeders' Cup Classic in early November at Churchill.

The other decent possibility in the field as Gronkowski, another three-year-old who was second to Justify in the Belmont. There is an observation I've come to after 50 years of watching horse racing that looking good in the Belmont, or even winning, usually doesn't mean anything in racing afterwards. Those horses usually go on to do nothing. And Gronkowski it turns so far is no different.

Mendelssohn is trained by Aidan O'Brien, the legendary Irish trainer. Mendelssohn is owned by connections that race on both sides of the Atlantic, and Mendelssohn flies back and forth across the pond after a race in the United States. His breeding rights should come with frequent flyer miles.

The talking heads talked. Diversify was seen almost as a slam dunk to win the thing. And at 3-5, the money was certainly saying the same thing.

But you have to understand that money on the board can come from only a fraction of the people making bets. It is almost the 20/80 rule—80% of the pool is made up by 20% of those betting. You don't have to follow the leaders. There are plenty of other choices that can be made.

The more hard-bitten the horse player the more they will tell you they "don't play favorites." At least not straight out. They might even quote the doggerel, "there isn't a man alive who can stay alive at 3-5." Of course these days, a 3-5 shot makes for a convenient "single" in the multi-leg wagers that are so popular. Multiple by 1 and you still have 1. The singles throw a blanket over the permutation count, helping to keep the overall cost of the wager within some boundaries.

Not having the Racing Form in front of me, I don't really have a clear picture of the reasonable possibilities of all the entrants. With two established front-runners like Diversify and Mendelssohn you can guarantee they both will be out there, and that when that happens, one, or both usually grinds themselves out, and something else comes out of the trailing pack and scores. In simpler terms, "they're going to bury each other."

I forget who joined Paul Lo Duca and Andy Serling on the talking head platform at Belmont, but through all the noise of people yakking it up in the kitchen and coming in and out, I could faintly hear what I thought was Lo Duca making a case for Discreet Lover, a horse trained by Uriah St. Lewis, who has been in races with this competition, but has done nothing to seal the deal.

Apparently Discreet Lover's last race was a cropper. But Paulie is making a case that the horse throws in a clunker and then runs well, throws in a clunker, then runs well.. They could certainly run well today since the sequence says so.

This is what a decent horseplayer who studies the Form does: sees a patterns, there or otherwise. An alternating performance cycle might not be as predictable as a Fibonacci progression, but it can be the magic that produces a long shot payoff and a story to tell the grandkids, or anyone else you can make listen to you.

And at 45-1 I was almost tempted to yank my phone out, call Xpressbets, and gets down for a deuce on Discreet Lover. It didn't happen. Horseplayers, aside from amnesia also suffer from inertia. I didn't feel sufficiently prepared to play the race. So I didn't. Even for a deuce.

As expected, the gates pop open and Mendelssohn and Diversify put on a front-running show. They go at each other hammer and tong. Diversify races out of the gate to catch Mendelssohn's great start, collars him just before the mile pole, opens up a 1½ length lead and causes the first quarter split to be  :22 2/5, a suicidal pace for a 1¼ mile race. Somebody better slow down.

They don't. Diversify continues the hard-charging front running tactics and records a :45 3/5 half, two lengths in front of Mendelssohn. That's not much slower than the first quarter, In horse racing, the intervals between quarters generally reflect slower times than the quarters before them. They all, in effect, start running a bit slower. Not here.

The three-quarter split? 1:09, with Diversify now two in front of Mendelssohn by a solid two lengths.  Is it now over? Are we watching Secretariat bury Sham? The mile split: 1:33 4/5, with Diversify now in front by only a length over Mendelssohn. Shrinking leads are never good.

Having run a mile into a 1¼ mile race there is now a ¼ mile left. That is 440 yards. That is at least further than they're hitting golf balls these days. In racing, it is a significant distance.

To no one's surprise, Mendelssohn is now is front at the stretch call by a head, with Diversify having slipped to third, about 2½ lengths back, with Thunder Snow now making a bid in second.

One thing charts do not show you is the running positions in between the stretch and the finish. And in this interval, a lot can happen. And on Saturday it did.

"In the shadow of the wire" Discreet Lover pulls ahead of Thunder Snow, who looked like the sure winner, and wins by a neck at 45-1! A neck is enough of a margin of victory that you can tell from the stands, or TV who the winner is. They always take photos, but Manny Franco on Discreet lover knew where the wire was and celebrated as soon as he was over it. He won.

At the track, unless you're with a group of friends, you are anonymous. People might talk to you, and you might talk to them, even hold lengthy conversations about a horse's possibilities, but you're never going to learn their name, shake hands, introduce yourself and be best buds afterward. It is always a fleeting encounter.

But when one of your number bets $100 across the board (that is $100 to win; $100 to place; $100 to show, a $300 bet) and their horse wins in deep stretch at 45-1, they're going to fly down the stairs to the winner's circle.

Huh? Long shot winners go to the winner's circle? Not usually, but when the holder of the $100 combo bet is Uriah St. Lewis who owns and trains Discreet Lover and this is your first Grade I victory, you tend to leave earth.

Even with baseball cap giveaway I can picture the "crowd" at Belmont. Bigger than usual, but not big by any standards. But one nice thing about the telecast, they've got A LOT of hand-held cameras covering the races and the interviews. There are backstretch shots from the turf courses and starting gate shots that I've never seen before.

So, when it was obvious Discreet Lover won, a woman connected to the owners (turns out to be a Godmother) came racing through the aisle of the box seats, and the trainer, his assistant trainer (son), wife and daughter were making their way to the winner's circle as if Bob Barker told them all "to come on down." Their joy was infectious. If you ever need to be reminded that there can be happy people on this earth you only have to replay the image they provided when their 45-1 shot wins a $750,000 Win And You're In Breeders Cup race and you hear from a barely contained Uriah St. Lewis that he had a $100 across the board on the horse. If you yourself don't have the long shot the next best thing is to watch those that do.

The payout math of such a bet is large when the horse pays $93, $25.40 and $10.20. For those who might be in need of help, this translates to a $6,130 profit. Certainly not bad. Add to that the 55% of the $750,000 purse and the fact that since the owner is the trainer there is no cut that has to go to anyone other than Manny Franco, you have a very pleasing afternoon.

Uriah admitted to the bet quite on his own, such was his glee. But there is even more good news for those bettors who might have followed Paul Lo Duca's thinking and played a winning exacta. The Disceet Lover/Thunder Snow exacta paid $598 for $2, just $2 under the $600 threshold that would require IRS reporting and window withholding. You win twice.

Anyone who knows Uriah St. Lewis knows he's black. He's from Trinidad. He's not big on the NYRA circuit, but does most of his business out of Parx. He bought Discreet Lover, a pedestrian Florida-bred for a bottom price of $10,000 at a Fasig-Tipton sale. The horse has now earned $1.3 million in purse money. His wife says not too many people give them horses to train, so they buy and race their own.

The result of the Jockey Club Gold Cup reminded me of my $50 win bet on Forego in the 1974 Metropolitan Mile. I never $50 on a horse before, and have never bet $50 on one since.

It was probably a good thing for me to lose my bet. I started as a $2 bettor, and I've only since ramped up all they way to $2 to $8 in 50 years. But in 1974 I was so in love with Forego that I made up my mind that I was going to bet $50 to win if the odds were above even money. And they were.

In that era, you had separate seller lines for different denominations. There were $2, $5, $10, $50 and $100 and up. Tickets were color coded to match the denominations. Two dollar seller lines were always the longest, but $5 and $10 also attracted a crowd. Not so much the highest denomination windows. I wanted to go there and get a cream-colored $50 ticket. Forego's odds were settling in at 6-5 and 7-5, so my $50 bet was a go. He went off right in the middle: $1.30-$1.

Forego was carrying the now unheard-of 134 pounds. My heart was in my throat, but when he took the lead I thought it was all over. Well, it was all over. All over for Forego.

Heliodoro Gustines, his now regular jockey, and who remained his jockey for quite a while after, took the big guy through a 1:09 for six furlongs. Now six furlongs is a ¼ mile from the finish of a mile race, but the weight was taking its toll. More races in that era were true handicap races, no watered down allowance conditions shifting two-four pounds here and there.

Arbees Boy ranged up alongside and took the lead, finishing the mile in a not-so-spectacular time of 1:34 2/5. He would pay something like $109 to win. A boxcar if ever there was a boxcar. 

Goodbye $50 ticket. When the prices for place and show were flashed I was even sicker. A smarter bet that was hedged and not all "on the nose" across the board, or even just win and place,  would have softened the blow. Because of the long shot, place and show bets were decent, with place above even money, the same payout I risked $50 to win on. Lesson learned on many fronts.

So, even though I didn't have any money on Discreet Lover, I have a feeling I'm going to remember where I was when he won the 2018 Jockey Club Gold Cup and what he paid.

Olivia was seven.