How I got my start
I’m often asked how I became involved in horse racing and thought answering that question would make for a decent column.
My grandfather was born in 1906 in Queens, N.Y. and 12-years later found himself laying in the hay, listening to several drunk jockeys playing cards in a back barn at Jamaica Racetrack. There was no T.V. back then and kids had to do something to stay out of trouble and earn a few pennies. He found his new source of income and entertainment entirely by accident when a friend told him that the jockeys often left small treasures around the barns after these late night games. My grandfather and his friends would scour the hay in the late mornings and some of the bounties consisted of one cent deposit bottles, packs of cigarettes and small change. But once in a while, a dollar bill, gold chain or a watch could be found. But my grandfather was always more intrigued by what joyous event had transpired in the previous evening that would cause you to leave your watch or money behind.
You’ve Got My Attention
One day, the 12-year-old decided to head to the barn at 4 a.m. and see what was happening firsthand. He crawled quietly through the hay and observed five very loud and drunk jockeys sitting around a table made of hay bails and a large piece of slate. These card playing, little fellows fought each other constantly. If one guy mentioned he did something great, another jock would state how he accomplished the feat first, only better and faster.
They would fight for a while until someone noticed they weren’t playing cards anymore. When the game kicked back in, the severely buzzed jockeys would then fight about where they had left off in the game, or who didn’t put into the pot. They would sometimes punch each other in the head and then sit back down and continue playing cards while bleeding or crying.
This was absolutely amazing to my granddad and he couldn’t get enough of the show! The riders would also argue on occasion, about who was going to win, and, on which horse in a given race. At first, my grandfather didn’t pay it much attention but after a few weeks of taking in the games, he noticed the jockeys celebrating the wins they had predicted while splitting up large amounts of money. And this, certainly, did get his attention.
Nice Guys in Nice Suits
At that time in Queens, there was sort of a neighborhood watch group in the Italian neighborhoods. These nicely dressed men would escort little old ladies across the street, sweep and hose down the sidewalk and keep the peace in the area. The men would also pass out candy to the children and one day my grandfather made conversation with one of the nice guys.
As they spoke, the man was rather entertained by Granddad’s nervous chatter and called over the members of his crew. My grandfather told the men that “Bold Betsy” was a sure thing in the 4th race today at Aqueduct. They laughed, gave him a quarter and went on their way. When my Granddad found his way to the local corner the next day, his new and exciting friends were already waiting.
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It seemed Bold Betsy had won at odds of 15/1 and the men were anxious to converse a bit more. The next time my grandfather gave them a winner he received $10, which was a large amount of money in those days for anyone, much less a twelve-year-old. He couldn’t wait to get some fresh information from the jockeys and pass it along to his new partners.
Over the years, the ten dollar bills turned into hundreds and my grandfather was a star among the nicely dressed men. Eventually, he got to know the jockeys, trainers and people around the barns and now owned a seat at the card table instead of hiding in the hay. He was promoted to a “runner” and eventually a bookmaker. I can tell you, he wasn’t in “The Mob,” but at that time, in that area, you surely needed some one’s blessing to conduct that type of business. My grandfather’s enterprise was successful for many years in the area surrounding Aqueduct racetrack in Ozone Park, N.Y.
Pick A Horse, Any Horse
My earliest memory of any horse related incidents was of my mother and grandmother being disturbed because of getting “shushed.” The N.Y. races were broadcast every 1/2 hr. on the radio and when the race started, it was time to be quiet. My grandfather had no problem firmly escorting someone out of the room or telling his loved ones to “shut up.”
At 10 years old, I knew a horse race was a rather important thing. I constantly saw my grandfather combing through paperwork and jotting down numbers and one day, I sat down and watched. He seemed impressed at my interest and asked me to pick a few horses from the next days entries. I picked two winners out of nine races and it earned me a trip to the racetrack the following week.
First Time at the Racetrack
My first impression of the racetrack was that this was some serious stuff. People constantly looked at their watches and organized their money and paperwork. It wasn’t like the carefree event of a kid’s birthday party or a movie. But it was like a cross between the zoo, the circus and a carnival. The action seemed intense and the passion these people showed while losing their money was impressive. I had been to a couple of Met and Yankee games before but this action was way different. I also fell in love with all the horses, even the slow ones, and I knew immediately horse racing would become a passion.
There’s Nothing Like It
Almost 50 years later, I can hardly contain myself while watching a race, whether I’ve wagered $2 or $2,000 on the contest. I’m still astonished on a daily basis at the speed, agility and power of these beautiful creatures. I get a warm and fuzzy sensation when the gates open and these horses pound the earth at 40 m.p.h. while spewing up divots of turf and dirt, while our little friends guide them from above. There is absolutely nothing compared to Thoroughbred horse racing and there never will be. I’m grateful to my grandfather for introducing me to this great sport, as well as all the hard working people that provide this unique form of entertainment for us to enjoy. I can only hope, that “The Sport of Kings” will be around forever.
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