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.
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