A Lunch to Die For
By Edward Michaels
He was the new whiz-kid jockey agent at Homestead Park. Twenty-four, back from Iraq only ten months, flush with cash, and confident, Larry Gorski was rolling. This was his first year working as a jockey agent.
Larry went to the racetrack to work as a groom shortly after returning stateside, and within a couple of months landed his first job working as an agent for jockey Tommy Nichols. Tommy was returning from a six-month layoff because of a broken leg he received in a spill. He had also recently lost his “bug,” or apprentice status, so no veteran agents wanted to work for him. Larry was thrilled for the opportunity to get out of smelly barn clothes and have some action.
A jockey and his agent need to collaborate daily to maximize their opportunities to win races. Winning is what it’s all about. Winning supports every part of the industry. Racing and breeding is fueled almost exclusively by the bettors’ quest for picking a winner, and all owners, trainers and jockeys success is judged by winning races. Nowhere is the pressure more intense than on the jockeys themselves. More often than not, they are given the credit or the blame for a horse’s performance. Unfair or not, that is a fact of life on the track. The jockeys have no one or nothing to blame, because if they blame the horse or the trainer, they risk losing that trainer’s business forever.
Larry and Tommy worked well together. Their cumulative job each day was to touch base with as many clients and potential clients as possible, with the primary clients being trainers. Larry was a walking and talking machine/,/ trying to solicit mounts and organize exercising appointments for Tommy at various barns each morning. He would also take down entry and scratch information, and then forward it to the racing secretary’s office.
As well as exercising a number of horses for their steady customers, Tommy’s morning job, and the job of any jockey, was to visit barns and kibitz with as many people as possible, discussing various horses’ training, past races, future races, and strategy for the races of that day. The customary hours of this morning routine was from 6am until 11am. This was a routine that was followed seven days per week, even on the dark days that provided no racing. Booking mounts for jockeys was a cutthroat business. Not showing up at the barns on any day declared a vulnerability that other jockeys and their agents would try to immediately exploit. “Submarining” was the act of stealing business from an already established partnership. They all did it, even though it was taboo to flaunt it.
As Larry was quickly becoming respected for his, fast walking, diligent work ethic, and success, everyone at the track started calling him “Lightning Larry.” He was becoming accustomed to his newfound notoriety, and reveled in it. People that used to ignore him now competed for his attention.
Joey Rizzo was a journeyman rider that had plied his trade at Homestead for at least ten years when Larry met him. He was a low-key kind of jockey that seemed to ride only for a few outfits that had a reputation for gambling. Although a natural lightweight, he rarely secured mounts from other stables because of the perception that he may not ride as hard for an outside customer. His heart was suspect also, as it seemed that his mounts never seemed to race near the rail nor did they ever split/ /horses if the space looked tight.
Joey and his circle were outside of Larry’s circle. Larry was young and ambitious, and he purposefully tried to avoid the gambling outfits and the stigma attached to them. They didn’t always try to win, and that was against Larry’s principles. Therefore, when Joey Rizzo started chatting with Larry on a daily basis, Larry was skeptical of his motives and surprised that he was so personable. He expected part of his persona to be that of talking out of the corners of his mouth, but that was not the case. He began to like him as an individual, but this did not temper his professional opinion of him.
After several weeks of small talk, Joey finally tipped his hand one day and Larry learned why he was courting his attention. Joey’s conversation on that day turned professional in subject, instead of the usual casual topics. He stated flatly that the hot young duo of Tommy and Larry was winning a lot of races, as Tommy was second in the standings at the time and battling local favorite Bobby Newman for the riding title. He then stated that Larry must/ /know from time to time when one of his mounts looked like a probable winner. Of course Larry was flattered to hear that, and “Yes” he answered, he did occasionally know when one of his mounts was a virtual BMW among a field of Volkswagens.
Never has it been considered prestigious to be labeled a tout, yet race-trackers are often vocal prognosticators. Part of the glamour of the industry, has always been to be considered an expert at picking winners. Successful bloodstock agents, as well, do nothing more than that. As most people on the backstretch of second-rate tracks survive on meager incomes, seldom would any of these characters pass-up on an opportunity to be compensated for his/her opinion. It would be considered foolish to provide expert advice for nothing. Larry now thought of himself as a crack turf advisor, and he was anxious to hear Joey’s inevitable proposal.
Joey led with, “I have some very good friends that would be most appreciative of being given notice when one of these BMW’s is going to run.” As he was a novice at this type of endeavor, Larry did not know the first aspect of negotiating such an arrangement, and he simply assumed that compensation would be adequate. It wasn’t important at this point; he was being solicited, and promised payment for information that he was sure he could deliver. “OK” he said, “I’ll let you know.” Larry was excited because he knew that Tommy was riding a horse in two days that he thought would crush its field.
Stanley Michalek, a Polish national who was training in Canada, was sending horses that weren’t good enough to be competitive at Camelot Downs, in Ontario, to Larry’s main customer, the trainer, Jim “Yogi” Thompson. Yogi was a well-known horseman who had a reputation as an excellent trainer of sore-legged horses. Yogi was respected for keeping those sore old campaigners winning, when others would have given up on them. Yogi’s downfall was that he had little business sense and fewer self-promoting skills, both of which were mandatory to a successful training career with better horses at bigger tracks.
Yogi and Lightning Larry had been pals since Larry was at college, dreaming of becoming a trainer one day, and helping Yogi during every semester break. Yogi’s stable of thirty head had provided a strong base to launch Tommy’s journeyman career. It was fun for these two friends and mutually beneficial for them to hook-up, especially this year, because Yogi had his best stable, and Larry had a talented young rider with no other commitments to stables that would conflict with Yogi’s. Larry made sure Yogi always had first call on Tommy’s services.
Many of the horses that were sent down to Yogi, from Stanley Michalek , would be fit and ready to run the day they arrived. Yogi would usually test them a bit, soon after arriving, and if he was satisfied, he would tell Larry to find a race for them. Since the level of racing at Homestead Park was significantly lower than that at Camelot Downs, races were always available that would be favorable for these horses.
The horse that Larry expected a huge effort and win from was named Absaroka. He had been winless this season, but competitive, until his last three races. Stanley said he just wasn’t good enough to win at Camelot in the summer, but he definitely was good enough to win at Homestead , first time out of the box. He said that his last three races were poor because the horse was getting discouraged racing against the better horses that were arriving for the summer “A” meet. That was important information.
Larry knew that when trying to cash a bet, just winning was not good enough. Good odds are needed to make the play (bet) justifiable. Almost anyone can pick a probable winner if a particular horse’s races are far superior to his competition. Wagering on a horse that was overlooked by the majority of the betting public was necessary to cash a good bet. Since Absaroka’s last races were very poor, they would be able to drop the gelding into a significantly less competitive race than he had ever run in, and still expect odds that would make it worth a significant wager. If he did not have those last three bad races on his past performances, he would have been favored.
Larry also knew that when a horse dropped significantly in class, coupled with deteriorating form, handicappers were wary, as they suspect physical or mental ailments affecting performance. Yogi and Tommy gave Absaroka a brisk workout and saw that he was fit in both ways. The change in atmosphere of his new track, and the class of horses that he was surrounded with, seemed to have dramatically picked up his spirits. He was ready for a big effort, and the three of them were the only ones that knew it.
With confidence, Lightning Larry informed Joey Rizzo that he could tell his/ /friends to bet on Absaroka. Showing no emotion, Joey declared that he would let them know. Not knowing what they might bet for him, as his compensation, Larry planned to place a tempered wager of his own before the race. He would have been content to receive the equivalent of a $50.win wager for his efforts. That would have been considered normal for small-time touts at the time, but a $100.win wager was what the old-timers would brag about if they scored after, “laying an/ /egg”, and that is what Larry was hoping for. An “egg” was the one being touted, and the laying process was the actual touting for a fee.
From start to finish, the race was never in doubt. Absaroka simply toyed with his field and won with speed to spare, by four lengths. Larry was delighted and feeling cocky. The win mutual was $9.40, which Larry thought was generous. More than cashing the bet, he was happy to win the race, as that additional tally in his win column on the jockey’s standings was even more important to his business.
The next day Joey pulled Larry over to the side after the usual 9am scratch time for the day’s races. Joey was very happy that Larry’s pick had won, and he wanted to assure Larry that compensation would come his way in short order. He mentioned that he knew Larry was a hunter, and questioned if he might be interested in new shotgun as payment. Quickly, Larry responded that that would suit him fine. He had already calculated that the best he could expect was the equivalent of a $100. win ticket, and that would total $470. A moderately priced shotgun would cost at least that much. He would have been satisfied with a $50.ticket, worth $235.00. His first foray into laying an egg, and he had hit a big one.
/ /Joey informed Larry that his friends lived and worked in the blue-collar city of Sweetwater, and asked if it would be acceptable if the two of them the one hour drive there next Tuesday, a dark day. He said they would go to a gun shop owned by the retired middleweight champion, Tony DiNunzio, and then have lunch with his friends.
Larry felt so high; he thought he was looking down at heaven. Tony DiNunzio was a hero of his since boyhood. Larry’s father was a prize fighter a decade before Tony fought. His dad respected Tony, and he would often relive the epic battles that Tony had with “Sweet Willy” Wilson .
After training hours on Tuesday, Joey picked Larry up at the parking lot in back of the track kitchen. That would get them there in time for lunch, but Larry was excited about getting a new shotgun, and wondered aloud where they would go first. Joey said that they would go to Tony’s shop first, and pick up the gun and a few of the boys on the way to lunch. No argument from Larry.
They arrived at Tony’s shop, and Larry was extremely excited, but he did try to appear composed. Upon entering the store, he saw a long line of neatly displayed shotguns on the wall. He couldn’t wait to see which one they were going to give him; any one there would have been fine.
Joey immediately began greeting several big guys that he obviously was acquainted with, and who appeared to be waiting for them. The disparity in size between the diminutive jockey and very large men was nearly comical. Everybody was smiling and shaking hands, and they were exceptionally courteous and friendly to Larry.
One of the big guys said to Larry, “Da boss said to pick any gun ya want up dare.” Larry was ecstatic, but intimidated. He wasn’t an expert on shotguns, but he knew enough to distinguish between an ordinary gun and a high quality gun. He was honored to have the chance, but quickly decided that he should use discretion in his selection, and not appear to be greedy. He was looking for a 12-gauge gun for duck hunting in the fall. He quickly picked out a Remington model 1100 semi-automatic, which was a standard in the industry. It retailed for over $1,000 when new. This one was barely used, but he thought it was more than adequate compensation for his efforts. He said. “Is this one OK?” A quick affirmative nod was given and the big guy reached up, grabbed the gun, handed it to him, and said, “Let’s go to lunch, Aldo’s waiting.”
The friendliest big guy, who fetched the shotgun for Larry was named Lucky, and he said, “You can folla me.” Joey and Larry jumped into Joey’s Firebird, and the others piled into two matching black, four-door, Mercedes sedans. The three cars took off in a procession, driving a very winding course. After ten minutes it became apparent that they were no longer driving on streets, but rather around a huge warehouse area that had numerous big windowless buildings and tractor trailers parked randomly. Larry thought that this was an unusual place to find a restaurant, and he reluctantly mentioned this thought to Joey. “Don’t worry, you’ll love it,” Joey said. He assured Larry that lunch would be great, and the joint was right around the corner. However, there were no streets, no signs, and no parking lots, just the warehouses and trucks. It was obvious that the primary product being shipped was produce. It seemed surreal to Larry.
Sweetwater was logistically convenient to the truck farms in Upstate New York where high quality vegetables were grown. The soil was fertile, the weather fair, rainfall ample, and the proximity to Boston and New York provided a constant market. This was a distribution center.
The three cars finally pulled up to one of the warehouses. There were no windows and no sign, only a single door. Larry was getting apprehensive. He couldn’t understand why they were stopping there. Everyone piled out of the three cars and Larry was invited to enter first as Lucky held the door open. Inside, a stairway went down, but to where?
At the bottom of the stairs there was another door. A well-groomed man in black pants, waistcoat, white shirt and black tie held the door open. Larry was astonished that a beautiful dining room spread out beyond the door. Six intricate chandeliers hung throughout the room, the tables and chairs were ornate, and the wallpaper was of the flocked variety. To Larry it looked elegant. There were a dozen tables with chairs but only one was set. It was meticulously laid out with fine china, silver and linen napkins. Two flower arrangements were situated equidistantly on top of the long table, and between them and on both sides were three carafes of red wine. The table was set for eleven with five on each side and one at the head of the table, which faced the door.
Larry was escorted by the maître toward the head of the table and asked to sit at one of the end seats and Joey was seated across from him. Lucky and his group filled the other seats on both sides. The head chair remained empty. A waiter came from the back of the dimly lit room, with a towel over his left forearm, and asked if anyone was in immediate need of anything. Lucky said everything was fine and the wine began to flow and lively chatter began with everyone participating. A jovial crescendo quickly began to build. Everyone seemed happy and they all paid respectful attention to Larry, making him feel comfortable.
The lack of preparation for more patrons separated this establishment from other restaurants, and although Larry was now having a good time with his new acquaintances he couldn’t help but have an odd feeling inside. It all seemed so unnatural. The sound of a door opening in the back of the room and at the top of a stairway would change the demeanor of all.
“It’s Aldo,” Larry heard one of the big guys whisper. Everyone quickly stood up and conversation ceased. A dapper gentleman walked through the doorway and stridently descended the stairs toward the table. He was the first person that Larry had ever seen wearing an ascot, other than in the movies. His camel colored hounds-tooth jacket was obviously tailored and Larry guessed that it was cashmere. The silk shirt looked like no other shirt that he had seen, and the crisply pressed slacks matched perfectly and broke neatly over the slipper-like brown loafers. He wore a gold necklace and a large, diamond studded, pinky ring. His fingernails were lacquered. Although bald, except for meticulously trimmed gray side hair, he looked handsome and debonair. There was an air about him, a man of means, and a man of power.
Without saying a word, he motioned with both hands to be seated, and everyone followed his cue. Aldo introduced himself to Larry by only his first name. He asked if Larry were pleased and satisfied with the shotgun. When Larry answered in the affirmative he expressed his gratitude for the fortuitous tip, and exhorted that, “One hand washes the other.” Aldo deftly asked mildly probing questions regarding how Larry would come to know the results of races in advance. Larry’s response was effusive. He was happy to explain his expertise resulting from knowledge of the horse, horse racing, and handicapping. This was also a time to boast about the capabilities of his employer, Tommy. Aldo let Larry chat on and occasionally asked a question, or complemented him.
After the immense antipasto disappeared the waiter brought the main course. Young Larry’s parents were blue-collar, so his exposure to well prepared restaurant cuisine was non-existent. First glance at the platter of veal cutlets with a creamy sauce drizzled sparingly over them had him salivating. The macaroni that came next glistened with extra virgin olive oil, and the deep red sun-dried tomatoes and calamari tossed with it looked delicious, even though he had never seen such a dish. The little white pearls that were liberally sprinkled about the dish had him baffled, so he asked Aldo what they were. Aldo smiled and said that he always insisted that his pasta dishes included pignolis, or pine nuts. It was his departed mother’s favorite, and he insisted on honoring her with them every time he ate pasta.
Next a platter of greens and beans was served, sautéed escarole with garlic and white beans. This was new for Larry, but he didn’t let on. It tasted much better than the plain spinach that his mother served him countless times, so he didn’t hesitate when the platter was passed around for seconds.
The unsliced loaves of Italian bread, stacked in several baskets, puzzled him. Larry loved bread, but he was unsure how to proceed. Suspecting Larry’s intimidation, Aldo was quick to pick up a loaf, and break off a hunk. He passed the remainder of the loaf to Larry and said, “Never do business with anyone that won’t break bread with you.” Larry nodded and tore off a big hunk.
The dessert tray was wheeled in after the main course was devoured, and Larry was overwhelmed. There were cannolis, napoleons, cheesecakes, tiramisu, chocolate cakes, Italian cookies, and fruits. The waiter described each item in detail for him. He was already stuffed, but Larry couldn’t resist. He devoured a cannoli, a slice of tiramisu, and one each of every kind of cookie. This was the greatest lunch he had ever seen, much less eaten.
Next, everyone was served a cup of espresso and a small-stemmed glass filled with a clear liquid. Without being asked Aldo explained that the sambuca was served to toast Larry’s good deed. Everyone acknowledged the toast with a cheer, and Larry tasted the sweet syrupy liquor for the first time. He liked it, and he loved the attention. That’s when Aldo asked him for the next winner.
Larry was ready. He emphatically stated that tomorrow Tommy was riding a horse in the last race that would go wire-to-wire, and win. His confidence came from the fact that he had read the advance edition of /The Daily Racing Form/, and the race looked tailor-made for Fruit Salad/. /The filly had also shipped in from Canada on the same van as Absaroka, with a record that showed she had much more speed than any of the other entrants in her race, but like Absaroka, her form was tailing-off. The only thing missing was an indication of whether or not she could go long, as the race was a mile and seventy yards. She had distance breeding, but all her races had been sprints. Larry was certain that her speed would dominate the pace early, and her breeding would carry her the extra furlong and seventy yards that she had never before experienced. This was the slowest field that she had ever faced.
Aldo thanked Larry, and with a bow of his head and a blown kiss, dismissed the entourage. Everyone immediately filed out of the dining room and climbed the stairs to where the cars were parked. Joey and Larry said goodbye to Lucky and the other big guys, and headed back to Homestead .
The next day had an extra feel of excitement to it. Tommy had five mounts, and three had a reasonable shot of winning. Neither Tommy nor Larry was disappointed when the last race finally came up. Two of Tommy’s mounts had already won, including the eighth and featured race. Of course the next race was the big one for Larry. He had not told Tommy what he was up to.
Fruit Salad was 8 to 1 in the morning line, and Larry figured that after Aldo and the boys bet she would be less, perhaps 7 to 2 or 4 to 1. The first flash of the board showed her at 8 to 1 and her odds barely wavered. The horses were in the post parade and she was still 7 to 1. Larry started to wonder if the boys were betting today. With only three minutes to post she was back up to 8 to 1, and now Larry was nervous. He decided to bet $40.to win on her, which was a huge bet for him. When he got back to the mezzanine boxes to watch the race there was one minute to post and Fruit Salad’s odds were down to 4 to 5. Larry’s face flushed. He never bet on favorites, because he always considered them sucker bets. More than that though, he knew Aldo and the boys must have bet a ton to drop the price so drastically at the last minute/. / Larry started worrying about the possibility of something going wrong, and if she didn’t win. What would happen to him? He was also nervous that Yogi would question him about how this filly could possibly be sent off a chalk (short priced favorite) with the last flash of the board. None of these thoughts ever entered his brain previously.
Fruit Salad had the outside post-position. Larry knew that Tommy would gun her out of the gate, so she could make the lead before the end of the short run to the first turn. As expected, Tommy came out booting and scooting,/ /but she didn’t make the lead. Cantankerous,/ /another filly in the field, that Larry had no regard for, bolted to the front on the rail, and by the middle of the clubhouse turn she was two lengths in front of Fruit Salad. The rest of the field was another three lengths back, so Larry was confident that the front-runner would soon collapse and the favorite would cruise home first.
When they came out of the turn and headed down the backstretch/ /Fruit Salad/ /was now four lengths behind and Larry yelled like a cheerleader. He was scared now. By the time Cantankerous hit the five-eighths pole she was 8-lengths in front and the jockey still had a firm hold of the reins. Larry went wild. He was screaming louder than he ever did in his life. He was contemplating the consequences if she lost. Would Aldo’s boys come looking for him, carrying baseball bats?
When Cantankerous reached the middle of the turn, announcer Mike Miller called her 10 lengths in front. Larry’s lungs were burning, and tears were streaming down his face. “They’re gonna kill me, they’re gonna kill me,” he kept bellowing. His heart was pounding and he felt he had to squeeze his buttocks together to keep his insides from gushing out. Maybe Cantankerous would just stop, or break down, or bolt to the outside fence, nothing less would help. Turning for home Fruit Salad started to gain ground on her, but she seemed to be inching forward and the wire seemed to be charging toward the front-runner.
With an eighth of a mile to go Fruit Salad still was five-lengths behind, and although she was closing, it wasn’t fast enough. She was on the far outside now and it appeared that she too was getting tired, as she was bearing out, but she kept coming. By the sixteenth pole she was three-lengths behind and still gaining, but the leader, although staggering, was not done. Both jockeys were slashing with their whips like their lives depended on the outcome.
Larry was now crying like a baby. He felt doomed, there simply wasn’t enough distance left for her to catch the leader. Each stride she ate-up ground, but it never appeared that she was closing the gap fast enough to catch the pacesetter. The wire kept getting closer. Fruit Salad/ /was gaining, but her steady close was not accelerating. Only a few jumps remained and she was less than a length from catching the leader, but it still seemed impossible.
The last jump before the wire Fruit Salad was less than a neck from catching Cantankerous. The last jump, made it close. Larry knew that one jump past the wire, his filly was in front, but that didn’t count. One jump past the wire is one jump too late.
The stewards immediately posted the photo-finish/ /sign on the tote board, but Larry was disconsolate. From his vantage point upstairs in the clubhouse it clearly appeared that she lost the head bob by only a nose, but that is the same as a quarter mile. He was distraught and scared. His temples pounded, as did his chest. Sweat poured off him, and there was a knot in his stomach that felt like a volleyball.
It seemed an eternity for the stewards to post the winning number on the tote board, number 10. She did it. She caught Cantankerous/ /on the last jump. Larry had a feeling like being declared “not guilty,” or walking away from a car wreck, or passing the final exam he didn’t study for. He was now delirious with relief. He would not get killed; he would not get beaten-up; he would be safe.
The winning prices were posted and they were: $3.60 for win, $2.60 for place, and $2.20 for show. Larry said to himself, “Never again.” Never again would he tout a horse to anyone for any reason, and he let Joey Rizzo know that in no uncertain terms the following morning at the track kitchen. He also told Joey that not only was that the last horse he would give them to bet on, but that he wanted no payment for it. He liked the concept of not feeling that he must deliver, or there would be consequences.
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