All afternoon we sat together in the million room at Arlington International Racecourse, flavoring the iced tea with lemon wedges and the present with visits to the past.
This is an article from the Sept. 18, 1989 issue
"What do you think of Paris Nights?" my mother asked, as she looked over the past performances of the horses in the second race. "Dad would have picked him, I'm sure of it."
I glanced up from the Daily Racing Form. She was smiling. "Paris Nights is hurting," I said. He had broken his maiden in his only start last year and in his only 1989 race, at Belmont Park on July 12, he finished ninth, beaten 21¼ lengths. "Something's wrong with the horse," I said.
She shrugged. My mother, Betty, is 83, and she reads Luke in the Bible and Mike Royko in the Chicago Tribune every day, so she's not without an opinion on both ancient and current events—particularly at the racetrack of a soft July afternoon. She persisted, gently. "He's coming down in class," she said. "He ran for $17,500 in New York and he's running today for $5,000. Dad would have bet on him for that. And he was a hunch player. Remember? He bet on names, and he would have liked Paris Nights."
I should have listened, as it turned out, as I often should have listened to my father. I bet $2 on Forli Joy, who had all the speed, but Paris Nights ran him down at the half-mile pole and dashed off to win by 2½ lengths.
"See what I told you?" she said, laughing.
I had to laugh, too, listening to her talk and think like my father. She looked very sweet and innocent sitting there, in her pink-and-white print dress and white jacket—her reading glasses tipped on the bridge of her nose, her gray hair framing the delicate bones of her face, and the Form and the racing program set out on the table in front of her. I had made a promise to myself, months before, that I would take her to the new Arlington when it opened this summer, knowing what the old place had meant to her back in the days the family spent there. The old Arlington Park, on the same site in Arlington Heights, Ill., burned down on July 31, 1985, collapsing at the age of 58, and its only survivors, I imagine, were a few hundred ghosts and my mother and me.
Now here we were, on July 27 this year, at the new Arlington. It had opened on June 28 to perhaps the longest, heartiest cheers that ever attended a track's unveiling. "Prettiest racetrack in the world," veteran California trainer Charlie Whittingham said. Better than Santa Anita? Saratoga? Belmont? "Nothing else is even close," Whittingham said. "You've got to see this place to believe it."
Chicago businessman Richard Duchossois, the track's owner, is not saying how much the rebuilding cost, but the tab was reportedly between $120 million and $200 million. And Whittingham was right. It's a summer palace fit for a czar, with a sunken walking ring behind the grandstand, flanked by sweeping lawns and beds of impatiens and wax begonias. The rear of the clubhouse and grandstand rise above all this, in tiers of balconies along which bettors can stroll and look down at the paddock below. At dusk, from a distance, the enormous white grandstand with its lights and glass windows resembles a great, luminous ocean liner marooned on an Illinois plain. And inside, my mother and I, passengers from a more distant shore, were trapped in the past.
The afternoon was an evocation of echoes, a return to some kind of youthful grace, with those old names playing in the ear, one after another, like wind chimes faintly heard. "Remember Summer Tan?" my mother asked, glancing at the pedigree of Maram in the sixth. He was out of a mare by Summer Tan. Why, of course! In a furious, whip-cracking drive to the wire in the 1956 Arlington Handicap, Summer Tan yielded the lead to Mister Gus as if it were life itself, only to lose by a length at the wire. Remember Abbe Sting and Fleet Argo? Remember Doubledogdare and The Warrior? Delta and Sir Tribal? Queen Hopeful and "Greek Game? Bardstown and Leallah?
"Remember Swoon's Son?" she was asking now. The first time I ever went to a racetrack—Aug. 24, 1955, when I was 14—I saw Swoon's Son win the $15,000 Prairie State Stakes for 2-year-olds at Washington Park, south of Chicago. The next summer he won the $100,000 Arlington Classic at a flat mile, whipping Ben A. Jones and Doubledogdare and Fabius, the Preakness winner, and thus stamped himself as the swiftest 3-year-old in the land. Swoon's Son was a stylish little bay colt with terrier courage. Challenged in a drive, he would pin his ears and cock his head slightly—as if to say, "Come and get me!"—while stretching out and lowering himself in an attitude of surpassing determination.
All those horses ran in the summer of '56. For me that was the beginning, the year my mom and dad and I first went to the track together. Arlington became our family picnic place, and so it remained through the early '60s—a pleasure dome smelling richly of cigars, where we staked out seats in the wooden grandstand and prowled the paddock out back, watching trainers saddle their horses under the prettiest stand of elms in northern Illinois. When most of my friends were out cutting grass with five-irons, or making off to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs chasing line drives deep to ivied walls, I was sitting in the front seat of my father's chartreuse De Soto, handicapping the 'day's races. Every Friday night I would drive from our house in Skokie to the newspaper stand at Chicago Avenue and Main Street in Evanston, and buy Saturday's Form.
Unable to wait to read it, I would park under a streetlamp, and like a squirrel with a big nut, crack it open and begin devouring it, page by page, first reading the news stories and the columns. Then, looking for the next Derby winner, I would scan the Belmont or Saratoga entries for the big names, like Nashua and Traffic Judge, and the pedigrees of all maiden 2-year-olds. At home that night, I would spread the Form out on the dining room table, and for the next two delicious hours attempt to divine the inscrutable secrets of its glyphs and scrolls.
For years not a Saturday went by—except when we were vacationing in the woods of northern Wisconsin—that we did not pile into the car and head the 16 miles northwest to the racetrack. Spending holidays at Arlington was as much a part of our lives as French toast and maple syrup, piled on plates under snowfalls of powdered sugar on Sunday mornings. With my sister, Dorothy, I had grown up around horses, riding in little shows from southern Wisconsin to northern Indiana. In the summer I spent most of the time around walk-trot and five-gaited saddle horses, learning how to groom and feed them, put on bandages and apply all the esoteric balms and salves that lined the shelves in the show-horse barn at the E.J. Holdorf Riding School in Morton Grove.
The moment I saw Swoon's Son win the 1955 Prairie State, I began to lose interest in the highsteppers and fancy tails. The horses were all right, but the judges could be arbitrary; the lines were cleaner in horse racing. The race usually went to the swiftest, the first horse to get from point A to point B—a horse like Swoon's Son or Round Table. And so I started buying the Daily Racing Form and luring my parents into the sport.
My father never learned how to read the Form; he simply didn't care. He was an electrical engineer, a schooled reader of blueprints that were unfathomable to me. He would glance at the Form now and then, looking for that drop in class, but mostly all he needed was a program, with the names of the horses and their jockeys. The first time we went to the races together was at Arlington. A neighbor of ours, Bob Farnham, sat teaching me how to read the Form, what to look for in the array of numbers, how to read the patterns of workouts. My dad wasn't interested in any of that.
That first day, in the very first race, he bet $5 on Thunderbird, a $3,000 selling plater who went off at almost 6-1. I can still hear the voice of Harry Henson, the track announcer, as the field raced through the stretch: "And here comes Thunderbird on the far outside!" Behind me, Dad was yelling, "Come on, Thunderbird! Get up there!" He won by half a length and paid $13.60, returning Dad a profit of $29.90. He beamed in triumph.
"Why did you bet him, Gordon?" Farnham asked.
"I liked his name," he said.
Ten days later he was back at the track, looking for the names that sang for him. He put $5 to win on Blue Eternal and she paid $17.80. Two races later he bet $10 on the nose of Special Style. She paid $24.60. The two races netted him a profit of $152.50. As Special Style's payoff flashed up on the board, Dad threw his arms in the air and turned, like Midas surveying his riches, and said, "Special-l-l-l-l Sty-y-y-yle! We've got enough money to go on that vacation to the woods now."
That day was all it took. My dad was 53 years old when he first walked into a racetrack, and Blue Eternal and Special Style set the hook in him. He was never a big bettor—it was the action he liked more than the prospect of making money—but racing became the central recreation of his life. One summer he met Peaches Morton, a blind old man who sat by the back gate and handed out the next day's entries as you left the track. Trainers used to whisper tips to him, and Peaches would whisper them, in turn, to people like my dad, touting them on this guy's or that guy's horse. Dad would slip into a chair next to Peaches and whisper, conspiratorially, "It's Gordon." Peaches would lift his head, his eyelids flickering, and lean over and mutter something sage, such as "Charlie's Song today, in the ninth" or "Wise Eddie is ready in the fourth" or "The trainer likes Belleau Chief."
Not all of Morton's tips panned out, but those three did, and my father always handed him a $5 bill for every winner on his way out. Over the years, Morton became my father's oracle. My father loved tips, loved inside information, the whole idea of having an edge that the Form could not reveal—of being in the know. He loathed and avoided favorites, no matter how dominant they looked, and so he never bet on Swoon's Son, at least not until that glorious Saturday afternoon of Aug. 9, 1958.
The horses were parading to the post for the $100,000 Equipoise Mile on the Arlington dirt course. Swoon's Son was five, and for two years he had been the most popular racehorse in Chicago, where Arlington had become one of the fanciest racing meets in America. Bill Shoemaker led the jockeys' colony when Bill Hartack wasn't in town, and some of the strongest stables in America made Arlington their summer home: Calumet Farm and Ada L. Rice, the Kerr Stables and Dixiana, Claiborne and Hasty House Farms. For this Equipoise Mile, most of the fastest guns in the land were on hand. Besides Swoon's Son there was the great Round Table, who would be named 1958 Horse of the Year. There was hard-running Bardstown, a son of Alibhai out of Twilight Tear, one of the greatest race mares of all time. Clem, who had just gotten beaten a nose by the fleet Bold Ruler in the 1¼-mile Suburban Handicap at Belmont, was in Chicago for this one. And there was Indian Creek, the horse my dad wanted to play because, you know, he liked Indian names and the odds were 13½-1.
Sitting with him, I was so engrossed in the past performances that I missed what was happening on the board. "Am I seeing that right?" my father asked. "Is Swoon's Son really 8-1?"
I looked up and was struck dumb. The board flashed. He was 8-1. Round Table—at his best running long on the grass—was going off at odds-on in a mile race on the dirt, which was Swoon's Son's game.
Swoon's Son was carrying 129 pounds, but he was getting two pounds from Round Table, and all at once he began looking like the most attractive 8-1 shot that ever lived.
The horses were nearing the post. "What do you think I should do?" my father asked. "I think ten bucks to win and five across the board." That was a plunge for him.
What a sublime spectacle it was! Bardstown went to the lead through an easy first quarter, in 24 seconds, with Indian Creek lapped on him a nose away, but as they flashed past that pole, Indian Creek stuck his head in front and together they began firing through the second quarter, which they ran in :22[3/5]. Swoon's Son slipped into third, a length and a half behind, while up front, Bardstown and Indian Creek went at each other, bit to bridle, through three quarters in l:10[1/5]. As they came off the bend for home, Bardstown thrust his head in front and then suddenly, as they charged down the straight, Swoon's Son dug in, lowering himself like a cat, and began coming to them.
My dad and I were on the apron, up by the grandstand doors, when we saw them coming to the eighth pole, all three of them just heads apart, with Swoon's Son third on the inside but gaining, and we swept toward the rail, yelling for the bay. In the final yards he seemed to stretch for the wire, inching away from Bardstown to finally win by half a length. Indian Creek was third, Clem fourth, and a listless Round Table fifth. Swoon's Son had raced the mile in 1:34⅘ only two fifths off Equipoise's 26-year-old track record, and my father positively gloated.
"He showed 'em who's boss, didn't he?" he said. Swoon's Son paid $18 to win, $9.80 to place and $6 to show, yielding a profit to him of $149.50. It was the greatest horse race I had ever seen and that summer, for the first time, the game really began to own me—not the betting but rather the rhythms of life on the racetrack: the hustlers on the make in the game and the early morning hours, with those wondrous, graceful creatures moving to and from the track in files.
By that summer of '58, I was working at Arlington Park, in my first job at the racetrack. That May, my mother's brother, Ed Feeney, a sports photographer for the Chicago Tribune, had gone down to shoot the Kentucky Derby and had invited me along. We watched the race just inside the rail, not 20 feet from the finish line and 200 yards from where Tim Tarn came bounding off the pace to win by half a length over Lincoln Road. That night, at a party at Churchill Downs, I found myself reciting from memory all the Kentucky Derby winners, from 1875 through 1958, for a handful of racing officials. I had been studying the sport with the intensity of a monk for more than two years, poring over the Form and old records and racing magazines. One of the men, a Pimlico publicist named Charlie Johnson, asked me if I'd be interested in a summer job at Arlington. He said he knew Marje Everett, who ran the place.
I told him I would be home all summer, but I didn't think anything would come of it until the July morning Marje called. Two days later I was working for track photographer Lou Hodges, taking pictures of the horses in the morning and working in the darkroom in the afternoon. Nothing I took ended up in a gallery, with good reason. One day I stationed myself at the far turn and nearly got trampled by a runaway horse. Still, I took about a hundred shots of horses racing and galloping by, all for the purpose of peddling them for $2 apiece to the grooms and exercise riders. Lou grew wide-eyed with astonishment as he developed the film in the darkroom.
"You nincompoop!" he cried. "It's all blank. What have you done?" Grabbing the camera, he looked at it and turned it toward me, pointing to the front: "The lens cap! You forgot to take off the lens cap!"
Things worked out in the end, drawn as I was to the barns and to the horses. That summer I made a few friends at the Kerr Stable, Round Table's barn, and by the time I went back for my senior year in high school in September, trainer Bill Molter had promised to put me to work as a hotwalker when the stable returned to Chicago in the spring.
The day after graduating, I charged off to Washington Park with my oldest friend, John McGinnis, whom I had talked into walking hots with me. Arlington was to open on July 6, just a few weeks later, and that was what we were waiting for. As for my father, he had a son who was going to be working out there, in the know, his own Peaches Morton listening to the heartbeat of Chicago racing, inside the big Kerr Stable.
"Keep your ears open," he told me. "If you hear about anything good, let us know."
I heard sooner than I had expected. Late one night in mid-June, we were drinking beer and playing cards in the room of Juan Alaniz, the groom for both Round Table and a maiden 2-year-old filly named Our Special Jet. Juan got a few beers into him, and he started talking about this filly as if she were Twilight Tear herself. "She a good, good filly!" he said, with his heavy Argentine accent. "She run on Monday and she win. Big!" She had run poorly in her previous starts, showing little, but Juan waved the record away as meaningless. "Too fat!" he said. "She lose 90 pounds. Now she ready."
Excusing myself, I ran to the phone. I called my father and told him all about the filly. The next day, at the restaurant where he ate lunch every day, he whispered the name Our Special Jet in the bartender's ear. The guy was a heavy player. That Monday, Our Special Jet was entered in the fourth race. My mother and brother, Mike, drove out. They bet $25 to win on the filly at almost 15-1. We all watched, in horror, as she dropped back to seventh, looking hopelessly out of it, but at the top of the lane she took off like a flushed deer, slipping through on the rail. She chased down the leader in the final strides to win with a flourish. I danced with my mother in the grandstand.
Our Special Jet paid $31 to win, and my mother and Mike went home immediately, with a profit of $362.50.
My father was feted at the restaurant, the bartender greeting him on Tuesday as if he were visiting royalty. It was a heady time for me, with my father bragging around that his kid knew how to get the inside stuff. Every boy, for at least one brief time in his life, ought to be his father's hero.
This was the summer of summers of my youth, when the days chased one another like puppies in a litter, and it seemed at times as if the world were standing still. The insular world of the racetrack has a way of slowing the passage of time. At Arlington, McGinnis and I shared a room above the office of the stable foreman, a quiet, pipe-smoking European immigrant known to us only as Mr. Hack. He kicked on our door every morning at 5:30 and hollered: "Come on, dair, boys, da barn's on fire."
Rolling out of our cots, we wandered sleepily down the wooden staircase to the shed, there to pick up a leather lead shank, attach it to a horse's halter and begin the timeless circuits of the barn. We led horse after horse on half-hour walks around the shed while the grooms, pitchforks in hand, mucked out the manure-laden, urine-stained straw from the empty stalls and filled them with fresh beds.
Alaniz and Round Table had their own private hotwalker, but there were other grooms to walk for in the morning. There was Frenchie, with the withered arm, a Jew who survived a Nazi concentration camp and mumbled to himself all morning; Les, a lanky former sheep-herder who rubbed a big gray stakes horse named Tall Chief II; Rafael, an illegal alien from Mexico, who broke down in tears when immigration officers led him off in handcuffs one morning; and Paul Parker, the groom I worked for, whose mashed nose suggested a retired prizefighter, which he was not.
There were a lot of fast horses in that barn, stakes winners like Milly K. and Demobilize, and some 2-year-olds with promise. Prince Blessed, a beautifully bred son of Princequillo, was a maiden juvenile who occupied the corner stall, next to Round Table, in the early part of that summer. Owner Travis M. Kerr had paid $77,000 for him at a sale, and trainer Molter babied him along. He could be an ornery, savage little rascal, waiting for you to drop your guard around him. McGinnis was walking a horse past his stall one day and the colt lunged out the door and grabbed him on the arm. John took a swing at him.
"Don't hit dat horse!" yelled Mr. Hack. "He's wort more dan you are."
Prince Blessed turned out to be a nice racehorse, a stakes-winner, but that is not how he is remembered now. He was not much as a stallion, but he did beget a decent horse named Ole Bob Bowers. And Ole Bob made history as the sire of John Henry.
The class of the barn was Round Table, who used to stand for hours with his head out of the stall, swaying side to side incessantly, like a fighter warming up. He was already on his way to the Hall of Fame as perhaps the greatest grass runner in history. He would retire at the end of the year with lifetime earnings of $1,749,869, a record at the time, and at stud he would eventually sire 83 stakes winners, seven of them European champions. It was a wonder, with John and me in the barn, that he made it through the season.
One afternoon we were sitting around the tackroom behind Round Table's stall, and I had one of the most harebrained ideas in my life. Even today, 30 years later, I wince when I think about it. We were talking about jockeys and race riding, how they whoop and holler coming out of the gate. There was a sawhorse in there. So I took a saddle, put it over the horse and climbed aboard to demonstrate. I hitched up the stirrups, reached over and took some reins of a bridle in my hands. I told John to take that stirrup off the wall over there and bang the inside of it with that screwdriver, so as to make the sound of a starting-gate bell. Hunching over, I said, 'Go!' "
McGinnis banged on the stirrup as if he were calling the whole racetrack to dinner. I started yelling and slapping the sides of the sawhorse. And all of a sudden, it was if the barn had gone up in flames. There were horses screaming all over the shed, and I looked up and saw Round Table's forelegs reaching over top of the stall. Terrified, I fell motionless. John froze. Mr. Hack bounded into the tack room. He was white. "What in da hell are you boys doin'?" he cried. "You wanna kill every horse in da barn? Now get outta here!"
Slinking away, I never felt a bigger fool. And I never told Paul Parker, fearing what he would think and say. He had become a kind of mentor for me, not only in the care and feeding of horses, but in other things, too. He knew I had been accepted at the University of Illinois for the fall term, and he knew I loved to play the horses, and he warned me against it. "Save your money for school," he said. "You'll get down to school and wish you had the $20 that you lost in the double."
But there was no stopping me that summer. Our Special Jet had put $100 in my pocket, and I had made a big score at Arlington. In my saddle horse days, I had met a man at the riding school who exercised horses at Arlington, and one day I saw him in the grandstand. We talked about the old days, then the new. "I'm galloping a horse who's a cinch the next time he runs," he said. "He can't lose." My ears pricked. "What's his name?" I asked.
"Clandestine," he said.
The horse was in the seventh race on July 21, a sprint for some of the fastest horses on the grounds, and I called my father. He galloped to the races that day. The colt was 5-2, and I bet $50 on him to win. So did McGinnis. What a score! Clandestine sailed to the lead, through a blistering half in : 44⅘ and laughed all the way home, winning by 3½ lengths. He paid $12.40 to win, and McGinnis and I each pocketed a $260 profit. My dad made away with $125.
I was master of the universe, king of the world! Eleven days later, the colt's exercise boy gave me the thumbs up, and this time I put $200 on Clandestine to win, the biggest bet I ever made in my life, then or since. It was nearly all the money I had, and it was the bet that turned me into a $2 player forever. Once again Clandestine raced to the lead, opening five lengths after a half-mile, and he looked like Man o' War until he came to the eighth pole and began to shorten stride. In the last 200 yards, a horse named Etonian cut into the margin, and in the final few jumps he caught Clandestine to win by half a length. Back at the barn, I nearly got sick. "It serves you right, you damn fool!" Parker scolded. "What are you doing betting that kind of money. You better go home and go to school."
There was one more thing to do. When Rafael was deported to Mexico, I took over the grooming of his four horses. One of them, a chestnut filly, was named Queen of Turf. The word was out on her. The daughter of Alibhai, out of a mare by Count Fleet, could flat fly. She was still an unraced maiden at age three, a consequence of two bad ankles. Every morning in early August, Molter knelt beside her and felt them for heat. "I may run her soon," he said one day. "Take good care of her."
Naturally I had already told my father about her. This was going to be the big hit of the summer. On Aug. 10, I picked up the next day's entries and found her in the sixth race, a six-furlong sprint for maiden fillies. I called my parents and told them to be there the next day, by the tunnel leading out to the track. "I'll know more then," I said.
No one seemed to know if Molter planned to give her an easy one or let her roll. I asked Parker, "Is it a go?" He said that one of the exercise riders had told him, "He ain't gonna let her run today." I bridled her and was dusting her off when Mr. Hack shouted up the shed, "All right, take her over dair."
I walked her over in the sun. Molter saddled her, and spoke quietly to jockey Ray Diaz. I couldn't hear what they were saying. Diaz rode her out to the track and I followed through the tunnel. My parents were waiting for me there. I shook my head at them. "No!" I said.
"Ten bucks to win?" my dad asked.
She was almost 13-1. The old chart says it all. "Queen of Turf forced the early pace while in hand, moved along the inside to gain command midway of the turn, drew out with a rush and won in hand." By 3½! Easily. She paid $27.40 for $2. I was elated, chagrined, jubilant, angry. She was the first horse I had ever taken to the post—and the last, as things turned out—and I had touted my own parents off her. Moments later, I was leading her out of the winner's circle when a bettor leaned over the rail and shouted: "Where ya been hiding her, you thief!" I didn't answer. Hot and excited, the filly pulled me toward the tunnel. I looked up and saw my father standing there, looking very grim. "Sorry!" I shouted. He just shook his head. I dropped mine, and kept on walking. Back at the stables, Parker threw a fit.
"What kind of outfit is this?" he shouted to Mr. Hack, who was tugging furiously on his pipe. "They stiff their own help to make a score. That's just great. A hell of a thing!"
Later that night, after the filly was cleaned and bedded down, I called my parents. "What the hell happened?" my father asked.
"I guess it was a go," I said.
McGinnis left that week to get a job in the real world, and life at the track changed for me. So a week after Queen of Turf broke her maiden and mine, I packed my things and went back home to get ready for school. We came back to Arlington many times in the summers of the '60s—my father followed the horses all his life, until he died on Valentine's Day in 1982—but it never was the same for me after that. Something was lost, if only the gay, innocent exuberance of my youth. When I think of that summer, I remember best my final afternoon at Arlington, the day before I drove down to school. It was Aug. 22. Round Table was carrying 132 pounds, giving no less than 20 pounds to eight other horses, in the 1[3/16]-mile Arlington Handicap on the grass. I stood in the grandstand, just below the eighth pole, wanting to see him win a final time, as I had seen him do so often, knowing I would never see him run again.
It was poetic. At the far turn he was lying third, but suddenly Shoemaker clucked to him and he took off. He swept to the lead around the bend, and turning for home, he was a length in front. Shoemaker pushed and pumped. Manassas emerged from the pack behind him—carrying a feather of 112 pounds—and began closing in. And then I started running down the apron of the grandstand, through the crowds, around the benches, down to the fence. Manassas came to him, cutting the lead to a length, half a length, a neck. Round Table was tiring, but he fought back. And I was dashing around wastebaskets, past folding chairs, urging the horse home. Manassas was a diminishing head behind him when they swept past the wire.
In the end, I found myself draped over the railing down by the wire, breathless from running half the length of the stretch. There was no point in waiting for the ceremonies; I had seen enough. So I turned and headed for the grandstand exit, leaving behind all but that final, indelible vision.