Saturday, May 30, 2009
Every long stand begins with day one and my 23 years at Newsday began on March 11, 1985, a Monday at Aqueduct. Only Tuesdays were dark in those days. When the races were over, I drove directly to Elmont, almost as if it were required, a ritualistic homage to this new post in the midst of the best racing on earth, to a place with which I had become familiar while on many assignments in New York for my former employer in Florida.
The late Bill Leggett, of Sports Illustrated, sat at a table near the front window. He looked up as I sat down.
“You’re in the right place,” he said.
The sign in front of the building not a furlong from the Belmont Park stable gate now reads: Elmont Eglise Du Nazareen De La Saintete.
Nothing of particular note will happen there on Saturday. No one with a horse in the Belmont Stakes will stop for a drink before or after the third leg of the Triple Crown is run and the fence will not be painted in the colors of the winning owner. There will be no pepperoni, cheese and crackers set out after the races, a scant repast offered only on Belmont Stakes day. This was a place for drinking, for the gathering of kindred spirits and others whose lives revolved around the racetrack across the street.
Once, this was Esposito’s Tavern, quite simply the best racetrack bar ever, anywhere. You knew the whiskey in the bottles was something other than the labels suggested, that the lines through which soda, water and beer flowed were cleaned with something less than rigid regularity and the popcorn that came in institutional-size plastic bags was made at some point just after Man o’ War won the Belmont. But the bar was three-deep in people who would eventually be inducted into the Hall of Fame and drew owners, trainers, exercise riders, grooms, journalists, handicappers, most of those employed by the New York Racing Association and horseplayers of every stripe. True racetrack characters, a species on the verge of extinction, gathered here when they walked the earth I great numbers. They celebrated victories and betting scores and life at the races. When appropriate, they commiserated with friends in times of strife and fallow bankrolls.
History was made at Belmont Park and, later, embellished at Esposito’s.
Arthur and Gilda Esposito founded the business deep in the Great Depression. Gilda, who would come to be called “Mom” by generations of racetrackers, fed those in need of food, lent money to those down on their luck, was known to keep a large cash reserve for these purposes and bailed many a racetracker out of jail so that the accused could be back at the barn in the morning.
Mom, revered in the racing community, was almost always repaid. Those who crossed her or failed to meet their obligations became pariahs here and were blacklisted at racetracks throughout the country. Few took that risk and many whose names are now familiar on racing largest stages would at one time or another while paying their dues find themselves beneath the nurturing wing of Mom Esposito.
The business eventually was passed on to the Brothers Esposito, John and Junior, who were literally raised in the tavern where they worked throughout their lives. They were cut unmistakably from the same cloth, five-by-five men of great appetite, bald, gregarious, opinionated and willing to share.
John considered himself to be an expert on all things great and small and put forth often far-fetched theories from his pulpit, the bar, often igniting spirited if equally far-fetched debate. Junior, while keeping up a continual banter of small talk, was the engine that kept the place going and the place was where the pulse of racing in New York beat and could be monitored. The exchange of information, some accurate, was continual and took many forms.
Awakened one summer afternoon from an impromptu nap by a discussion that revolved around a suddenly hot trainer, a groom who worked for the subject in question raised his head and said: “New vet,” then resumed his siesta.
Both the Brothers Esposito would travel great distances to save money, the frugality taught by an parents who lived through the Depression. Junior drove to Eastern Long Island to buy cigarettes from the Shinnecocks long before cigarettes were taxed beyond middle-class affordability. He hunted down bargains, cheap whiskey to refill mislabeled bottles and John was always willing to launch a road trip in devoted pursuit of what he considered restaurant bargains, frequently involving the phrase, “all you can eat.”
Esposito’s was a place without pretense that would occasionally be visited by those who had spent the afternoon in the Directors’ Room at the track and wished to watch the replays of the day’s races, usually after one of their horses had won. Edie LiButti, owner of Devil His Due, on one such visit asked one of the bartenders, for a wine list unaware that the available vintage was generally not potable. “We’ve got red and we’ve got white,” the bartender answered, “and if we mix them, we’ve got rose.”
The tavern could be the scene of the occasional high drama with great implication.
On a grim Sunday, July 7, 1975, the bar filled slowly reporters who kept vigil while the great filly Ruffian, mortally injured in a match race with Foolish Pleasure that afternoon, was down the street at a veterinary clinic her fragile life hanging in the balance, a team of surgeons attempting to save her life. They drank. They waited for updates and eventually what they knew would be the worst possible news.
On the afternoon of June 11, 1977, with the nation awaiting the undefeated Seattle Slew’s Belmont Stakes and a Triple Crown that was widely considered no contest, trainer Billy Turner, Frank Tours, a former NYRA official who was at the time in the employ of Hialeah Park, and several friends repaired to the relative quiet of Esposito’s, a place in which it was easy to lose track of time.
Across the Plainfield Avenue, a second call to bring the horses in that Belmont to the paddock prompted Turner’s assistant and exercise rider, Mike Kennedy, to locate his missing employer. Esposito’s was the first place he looked. Turner’s reaction to Kennedy’s alarm: “You don’t think they’re going to start the race without us, do you?”
Seattle Slew arrived at the paddock 10 minutes late, and then proceeded to make history. Turner was fined $200 by the stewards. Tours, who would be accused of orchestrating the stunt, was thoroughly amused and the story has become part of Triple Crown lore.
What became a traditional painting of the fence in the colors of the Belmont Stakes winner was begun after Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown. Turner had been a fixture at Esposito's for years before that, beginning in the days when he was called Turnpike Turner and traveled the Eastern seaboard on the steeplechase circuit. If the trainer of a jumper needed a rider on short notice, a call Turner on one of two phone-booth lines at Esposito's, would have him on the road.
Woody Stephens, also a late-morning fixture at Esposito’s trained five straight Belmont winners, the first in 1982. On the morning after each win, Stephens, en route to his barn, would stop in front of Esposito's and honk his horn, a reminder to the proprietor that the fence had not been repainted. John claimed an unwritten rule allowed him a week.
Esposito’s is long gone as are its erstwhile proprietors and many of its habitués. Turner has not taken a drink of alcohol in years but remains a font of remembrance, lamenting the absence of the truly Runyonesque from the current racing scene. To those of sufficient longevity, the building now known as Elmont Eglise Du Nazareen De La Saintete remains a relic of a time long gone, a rich time when the racetrack was not a job or a hobby, it was a lifestyle, a closed society populated by those who shared a love for horses, the appreciation of a well conceived and executed scheme, reveled in the game and the life. -- PM
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races
Saturday, May 09, 2009
In the interest of vanity …
Wealthy people spend fortunes on horses for many reasons but the après-Kentucky Oaks purchase of Rachel Alexandra by vintner and self-appointed savior of racing Jess Jackson this week for a figure believed to be $10 million is a rare acquisition indeed: A vanity purchase.
It is highly unlikely that Rachel Alexandra will earn $10 million beneath Jackson’s colors, which she will likely carry into the Preakness next week. Her value as a broodmare is nowhere near that figure since she is likely to deliver no more than 10 foals in her lifetime. But really rich people can have almost anything they want and this is an example.
The warm and fuzzy part of this story – the small-time owners and aging small-time trainer with the horse of a lifetime – no longer applies. Jackson travels with a cadre of dour and menacing security people far removed from warm and fuzzy and is never far removed from a publicist. He also loves the limelight and finding himself removed from the center of attention after the retirement of his two-time Horse of the Year, he bought his way back in and for another $100,000, he will buy his way into the Triple Crown, put himself in position, in fact, to go down in history as the owner of the Horse of the Year for three consecutive seasons.
And then, he will breed Rachel Alexandra to Curlin, a historic mating to be sure.
This is not an accomplishment but a transaction in the style of IEAH Stable or Arab nobility. The Kentucky Oaks winner is in Steve Asmussen’s barn now, one of hundreds scattered at racetracks from Louisiana to New York. Hal Wiggins, her former trainer, feels the loss more than acutely than Asmussen will celebrate the addition to his arsenal. He trained Curlin and scores of stakes winners. The second-best horse Wiggins trained is …?
Jackson is an important patron of the sport, but there is something crass about his acquisition of the season’s most celebrated 3-year-old filly. The good feeling part of this story has evaporated with the reminder that regular people fortunate enough to own extraordinary horses seldom live the dream to its conclusion. Someone with a bigger ego and unlimited resources will make an offer that is impossible to refuse. -- PM
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races
Saturday, April 25, 2009
The last Saturday of April
Opening day at Churchill Downs, Withers day at Aqueduct, the 135th Kentucky Derby a week away and spring is in the air.
When what would become the greatest tradition in American sport was first run, Ulysses S. Grant was president of the 37 United States, the total population of which was about 45 million.
In New York, the conviction of “Boss” W.M. Tweed on fraud charges marked the beginning of recovery from the financial panic of 1873 and the catcher’s mask was introduced to baseball. Congress was considering authorization of the minting the 20-cent silver piece and gold was discovered in Deadwood and Wildwood gulches in South Dakota. Aristides, on May 17, the third Monday of May, defeated Volcano and 13 others, one of which was identified only as “brown colt by Baywood.”
The new race at the Jockey Club south of Louisville was patterned after the English Derby, the concept born from Colonel M. Lewis Clark, and embraced immediately by the leaders of Kentucky society. It has become something else entirely but the Kentucky Derby has endured the ages and evolved into the world’s most famous horse race – the American classic, which has blossomed with unique traditions become a two-minute race upon which the first four months of every year is focused.
It has inspired great literary figures.
“This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is—a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion—is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced.”
'It is now about to be the one 30 minutes past 4 o'clock out of all possible 4 o'clocks on one Saturday afternoon out of all possible Saturday afternoons.'' The 10 horses parade to post - the 10 animals which for the next two minutes will not just symbolize but bear the burden and be the justification, not just of their own individual three years of life, but of the generations of selection and breeding and training and care which brought them to this one triumphant two minutes where one will be supreme and nine will be supreme failures.
“Only a little over two minutes: one simultaneous metallic clash as the gates spring. Though you do not really know what it was you hear: whether it was that metallic crash, or the simultaneous thunder of the hooves in that first leap or the massed voices, the gasp, the exhalation--whatever it was, the clump of horses indistinguishable yet, like a brown wave dotted with the bright silks of the riders like chips flowing toward us along the rail until, approaching, we can begin to distinguish individuals, streaming past us now as individual horses--horses which (including the rider) once stood about eight feet tall and 10 feet long, now look like arrows twice that length and less than half that thickness, shooting past and bunching again as perspective diminishes, then becoming individual horses once more about the turn into the backstretch, streaming on, to bunch for the last time into the homestretch itself, then again individuals, individual horses, the individual horse, the Horse: 2:01 4/5 minutes."
--William Faulkner, Sports Illustrated, 1955
Interesting that Faulkner failed to mention the outcome: Swaps beat Nashua in that Derby.
And it has inspired others …
“On our way back to the hotel after Friday’s races I warned Steadman about some of the other problems we’d have to cope with. Neither of us had brought any strange illegal drugs, so we would have to get by on booze. 'You should keep in mind,' I said, ‘that almost everybody you talk to from now on will be drunk. People who seem very pleasant at first might suddenly swing at you for no reason at all.’”
--Hunter S. Thompson, Scanlan’s Monthly, 1970
The Derby has inspired many voices over the last 135 years and some literature on deadline. Most of all, it has inspired people to chase an almost impossible dream fueled by the desire to wake up on a first Saturday of May and think: I’ve got a horse running in the Kentucky Derby today and he has a shot.”
Written by Paul Moran
Check out Paul Moran on Blogspot At the Races