Sunday, February 04, 2018

Fake Mike Smith

Let us sing of days gone by
Blood and tears to sanctify
Freedom was a lullaby
When we made the crossing

We who stood a St. James gate
Hat in hand there with our fate
The wind was cold the risk was great
For we who made the crossing

As we turned from Hunger's door
Troubles there to bear no more
Promise waiting on the shore
For we who made the crossing

Some would rise and some would fall
Battle cry we heard the call
Liberty was after all
Why we made the crossing

Sing we of our kin and kind
All those we have left behind
Ever in our hearts and minds
We who made the crossing

So raise a glass and speak the names
All of those who braved the flames
Heaven hell it's all the same
For we who made the crossing

Lyrics by Willie Nile from his album, “American Ride”

“We’re still here,” said Matt Graves as I walked into the Saratoga press box last August. “Look around, do you recognize anybody?”

At the time he asked, I was looking around the room. It was too late for clockers but too early for scribes, there were the newly scrubbed young faces at work at their word processors. “No,” I said.

Two weeks ago Tuesday, Matt Graves checked himself into hospice. By Saturday night last, he was gone. To say that life is unfair is remarkably insipid at this or at any juncture. I’ll be 74 later this month; that would make Matt four years my junior.

He trained on the athletic fields at Ohio State University, didn’t smoke, and earned a letter in baseball as a walk-on. I trained in the student lounge at St. John’s, at the Harry M. Stevens chowder stand at Aqueduct, and was a pack-a-day man. Go figure.

History shows that Matt Graves was twice an award-winning journalist for his Kentucky Derby coverage and a four-time handicapping champion at the Saratoga race meet; no small feat that.

As you might expect they take their horse play and handicapping very seriously at Saratoga. As a young handicapper/racing columnist for Newsday, I learned just how serious the upstate newspapers were about keeping score in Saratoga.

I didn’t learn of that intensity in the press box; I learned it one night at Hattie’s Chicken Shack on Phila Street. The great handicapper and legendary tout, Manny Kalish, sent me there. He knew his fried chicken. With all the trimmings it cost eight bucks. “Value.”

Back in the day, newspapers mattered and, incredibly, by the time we left the race course and arrived at Hattie’s, young people were going around tables hawking The Pink Sheet for 50 cents.

Having race charts with pictures of the finish and a short story on the feature race for was for a young horseplayer the greatest thing ever.

The next day, the Pink Sheet wrapped-around the hometown Saratogian. The newspaper was a daily occurrence; the Pink Sheet existed only during the 24-day race meet, at a time when the horses were saddled under the elms and among the fans.

Aside from cashing a ticket, it was the best thing about the old Spa.

Alongside the tout sheets were the local newspapers being hawked outside the track entrances. Matty, of course, worked for the Albany Times Union then. It and the Schenectady Gazelle, Troy Record and the rest of the local dailies were available.

The Capital District had its share of minor league baseball and hockey teams, and quaint Saratoga Harness. The only big league sport it had was Thoroughbred racing at Saratoga. Saratoga Race Course, to this day one of America’s Top 10 sporting venues.

But the locals simply called it “the flat track” while still treating it with the reverence normally reserved for cathedrals; rightfully so. And they took picking winners very seriously, the notion of value be damned.

One year, there was a handicapper best known by his hyphenated name: Mike-Smith-Not-The-Jockey [MSNTJ]. Matt was having his characteristically good meet but the better he did, the further he fell behind MSNTJ.

The TU’s handicapper couldn’t believe what was happening and so he put his reporter skills to work. He retrieved every copy of his rival’s newspaper and, ah-ha: MSNTJ was a fraud, sometimes counting winners by twos! Smith was rightfully disqualified.

It would be bad enough if he lost the unofficial meet-long handicapping contest to arch-rival Mark Cusano of the Gazette, but not to this upstart. For picking the greatest number of winners, Graves and Cusano would give Russ Harris a run for his money.

Personally, all three made me give up the ghost and so I began concentrating on ROI, a shift in focus I never regretted. I certainly made out better than MSNTJ who, after that season, disappeared from the Saratoga press box scene forever.

Give or take a few years, I’ve known Matt Graves for close to a half century. Never once did I hear him raise his voice in anger, or a cross word about anyone, and there are plenty of opportunities given a racetracker’s life and copious number of cocktails shared.

My lasting memory was of him roaming center field for the media’s slow-pitch soft-ball team in Saratoga. As one might expect, he hit the ball a ton and was great defensively. Given my speed, or lack thereof, I was the pitcher in the annual game vs. the Spa jockeys.

They had a pretty good lineup: Angel Cordero Jr., Jorge Velazquez, and Eddie Belmonte, in that era. Later on it was Jose Amy and others. Amy easily was their best athlete.

An everlasting memory I have of Matt was of him being one of the first to race out of our makeshift dugout to second base to help break up a fight.

I can’t remember if Belmonte was playing shortstop or second base. Bill Nack, multi-award-winning writer, Secretariat’s Boswell and ex-marine barreled hard into Belmonte while trying to stretch a single into a double. Boo-rah!

Eventually, peace was restored but it was the beginning of the end of our softball rivalry with the Saratoga jocks.

Matt had a great singing voice and would burst into song-preferably Roy Orbison—at the slightest provocation. I can sing a little (“Sunrise-Sunset” at my wedding, and not a dry eye in the house) but I was more of a big-city doo-wopper. Harmony was my thing, not solos.

But sang we did, unabashedly loud on those late nights turned into early sunlit mornings at the Anchor Inn on Saratoga Lake; rivals and friends of good cheer, especially cheer.

So, as the great Willie Nile suggests, Toni and I today will “raise a glass and speak the names of all those who braved the flames”—Matt, and Paulie and Mike and Jack and Rick and Wolfie and Jackie and Chuck and Wolfie on this most fitting of days.

Toni and I are celebrating our unofficial 49th wedding anniversary—actually its January 12. On that date in 1969, the value play was Jets plus points vs. the mighty Baltimore Colts.

So, Matt, today we sing we of our kin and kind to all those we have left behind, ever in our hearts and minds. And I’ll see you at the crossing my old friend.

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, February 3, 2018

Written by John Pricci

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