Florio was a turf writer by name, a handicapper by trade. I had heard that he worked for some paper in Baltimore. But I didn’t bother to learn which one then. If it wasn’t New York, it didn’t count.
I was an arrogant little punk back in the day, only little was never my strong suit.
It was the early 1970s. I was doing whatever I could in the Aqueduct press box to survive, a magazine piece here, handicapping gig, there.
My claim to fame, as far as my dad was concerned, was that I occasionally ghosted for a turf writer who worked for a big local paper who was--how do I phrase this--a non tea-totaller.
The lead was the same every day: “At Aqueduct today, before a crowd of 21,240...” After that followed the horse’s name, the jockey’s, maybe the trainer’s, the running time, margin of victory and win price.
Two hundred words: $20. Not bad for 30 minutes work. That was 10 bets. And exactas weren’t even invented. When exotics were expanded to include trifectas, they were called triples.
I remember the precise day I met Clem Florio, although I’ve forgotten who made the introduction. I remember him being ####-sure of himself, never lacking for an opinion. It was the Fourth of July, 1972.
He was good looking in a Jack Palance sort of way. If across-the-board wagering were offered on the proposition that he was an American of Italian descent, the payoff would read: $2.40, out, out.
It was a few years after the introduction of OTB. The politico in charge was a dapper fellow named Howard Samuels. The tabloids dubbed him “Howie the Horse.”
In those days Aqueduct closed for the season in late October, reopened on March 20. The best New York horses went to Florida, or Aiken, or Camden, in South Carolina. The selling platers went to Bowie in Maryland.
OTB was taking action on racing from Bowie back then. Local horseplayers dying for some live action took a subway into Midtown Manhattan then got on a bus for the five-hour ride to Bowie. One way.
In those days you didn’t even need proof of age to buy cigarettes then. You could get them from a vending machine: You stuck a quarter in and out dropped a pack of Lucky Strikes, with two shiny pennies, always heads up, enclosed inside the cellophane on the side panel of the package. With your thumb you would slide your change up and out into the palm of your other hand. Pretty good deal, if you didn’t mind rolling the dice with your life.
No one spoke to each other on those bus rides. Besides, horseplayers are more loquacious after a race, then only if they could say, “I had ‘em.”
During those five hours, horseplayers were deep in thought, circling little details in their forms so they wouldn’t forget those nuggets when they stepped up to the $2 window, which were always located on the apron side of the grandstand.
If you won, you walked, or ran, around to the other side of the betting bay to collect. If you had a good day, you might even get to visit the $5 or $10 window. In order to queue up at the $50 window, you needed the likeness of Ulysses S. Grant and a dream.
The ritual was repeated nine times a day. Simulcasting? You were lucky to see a video replay of the races.
If you didn’t have bus fare, or the 14 hours to spare, you bet Bowie at OTB. On Saturdays, you could watch “Racing from Bowie” with Ken--can’t remember his last name, think it started with W--and some analyst named Harvey Pack.
Seizing an opportunity to add to my free lance gigs, I asked the late Ike Gellis, sports editor of the New York Post, for a job handicapping the Bowie races.
“We’ve got Clem Florio. Why would I want to hire you?”
I suppose Gellis didn’t have to sugar-coat it that way. Which brings us back to Independence Day.
It was the second half of the daily double, a maiden dash at five and a half furlongs for two-year-old colts. Trainer Lucien Laurin had a reputation for having horses ready for their debuts. The money showed and Laurin’s horse closed the favorite at 3-1 despite an inexperienced apprentice, Paul Feliciano, in the irons.
A colt named Herbull won the race by a neck over Master Achiever, with Fleet n’ Royal a length farther back in third.
Juvenile races are always good fodder for trip handicappers, especially in fields of 12. When the results were made official, handicappers and writers gathered around the only closed circuit monitor in the press box to watch the race replay.
A racetrack press box is no less competitive than the jock’s room. No one shared information then, everyone watching as quietly as those horseplayers on the bus to Bowie, scribbling handicapping hieroglyphics into track programs. But not this time.
Within an hour of meeting Florio that morning, we had become fast friends. He was standing to the right and in front of me as we watched the second race replay. When the video ended, Florio walked passed me and said “I’ve got my Derby horse.”
“What?” I asked.
“You better go back and look at Laurin’s horse,” Florio said.
In those days, you had to wait until the following day before you could see the races for a second time.
And so, there was Laurin’s horse, breaking next to last, checking and steadying all over the lot, aiming for this hole; closed, aiming for that hole; shut off again. Feliciano held on for dear life as his horse mounted a furious finish, making up seven lengths in the final quarter-mile.
Laurin’s horse not only won the following year’s Kentucky Derby but the Triple Crown, too. Secretariat later graced the front covers of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated and subsequently was syndicated for a then unheard of $6-million. His magnificent chestnut likeness even wound up on a U.S. postage stamp.
So when I think of Florio, I think of Secretariat, and vice versa. Why not? They were both champions.
Ed. Note: For More Reminiscences of Clem Florio, Read Bill Christine’s Lines In the Sand Blog