Tuesday, April 26, 2011
The Short, Unhappy Track Life of Sirhan Sirhan
LOS ANGELES, April 26, 2011--The recent denial of parole for Sirhan Sirhan, for the 14th time, rekindled my interest in the pipsqueak who was convicted of shooting Bobby Kennedy dead 43 years ago. Sirhan is the most intriguing of the American assassins, at least for me, because, in one of those historical hypotheses, he might have wound up at the racetrack, and lived happily ever after.
After Sirhan was tried, convicted and sentenced, there was a groundswell of literary couch jobs, and while none suggested that he was going to be Bill Shoemaker incarnate, Sirhan himself thought enough of his horsebacking to once show up at Bob Wheeler's Santa Anita barn looking for work. Wheeler, one of the best trainers not
to be elected to the Racing Hall of Fame, turned him down. At least that's what Henry Ramistella, a former jockey, told the Los Angeles police in an interview about 11 months after Kennedy was killed.
I think his name was Henry Ramistella. This was a horseman who had an alias for every occasion. He was Ramistella in New Jersey, where the stewards put his feet to the fire for allegedly stiffing a horse. When he arrived in California, he applied for a license in the name of Frank Donneroummas. Authorities out here rescinded his credentials after they discovered the dirty linen he had left behind on the East Coast. According to the police, Ramistella also operated for a time as Frank Rumma. Where did he find these names? In Harlequin novels? Did he eat a lot of alphabet soup, and pick out whatever letters ended up at the bottom of the bowl?
Under the name of Donneroummas, he was Sirhan Sirhan's boss at Granja Vista del Rio Farm near Corona, California. You don't need a state license to work at a farm. Granja Vista del Rio was no fly-by-night outfit. The nom de course for construction magnate Bert Altfillisch, Granja Vista campaigned a number of stakes winners, including Hombre Rapido, Granja Realiza and Pareja. Other investors in the operation were said to be Desi Arnaz, Buddy Ebsen and Dale Robertson.
At the farm, they began calling him "Sol," which was hardly fitting for a Jerusalem-born young man from a Palestinian Christian family. According to Larry Hancock, who wrote extensively about Bobby Kennedy's death, Sirhan and Altfillisch didn't get along. After Sirhan's arrest, authorities discovered a rambling diary/notebook at his home. "I believe I can effect the death of Bert Altfillisch," was one entry. Altfillisch, who was 87, died of natural causes in 2006.
Sirhan is either 5-foot-2 or 5-foot-5, depending on the source. Either way, at 120 pounds in 1966, when he was 22, he was the right size for a jockey. In September of that year, he was exercising a quarter horse at Altfillisch's farm when he was thrown and suffered serious head injuries and an eye injury that limited his peripheral vision. A worker's compensation claim resulted in a payment of $1,705, and he apparently had cashed the check only weeks before he shot Kennedy. At the time of his arrest, he had four hundred-dollar bills in his pocket.
Sirhan's riding career ended with that 1966 accident, which gave him more time to dabble in arcane disciplines such as theosophy and the Rosicrucians. Occult or cult, I'll let you decide. In Shane O'Sullivan's "Who Killed Bobby?" Sirhan was led down this path by Tom Rathke, another racetracker. They were inseparable for a few years at California tracks, until Rathke moved to Pleasanton, to work with horses at the Alameda County fairgrounds. Rathke told authorities that Sirhan's mother had told him that her son "wasn't himself" and had become "less communicative" after the riding accident.
Sirhan also developed an interest in hypnotism. He allowed himself to be hypnotized on stage at a Pasadena nightclub, not far from where he lived. He took classes at Pasadena City College. But he continued to go to Santa Anita, sometimes with Rathke, as the two of them tried to beat the horses. Sirhan supported his betting habit by working at a Chevron gas station. The New York Times said that when Sirhan went to the track he would bet "on every race." He would come away either "winning a bundle" or "losing everything in his pockets. Once he did so well he quit working. . . and lived off his winnings."
The last day of Bobby Kennedy's life, Sirhan was in Pasadena, about 25 miles from the Ambassador Hotel, where Kennedy would celebrate his win in the Democratic presidential primary. Testimony during Sirhan's trial is in conflict with what O'Sullivan wrote, but it is clear that Sirhan was furious that Kennedy supported Israel in the Six-Day War and beyond. Based on what O'Sullivan wrote, Sirhan had no plans to visit the Ambassador. Early in the evening, he asked a friend if he wanted to play pool at Pasadena City College's Student Union. The friend said no. If they play pool, Kennedy lives. If Jack Ruby isn't first in line at a Dallas Western Union, to wire some money to a stripper who worked at his club, he doesn't get to the police basement in time to kill Oswald.
With the pool game off, Sirhan asks his friend to see his newspaper. He wants to check the race results, and see who's running the next day. The paper also has an item that says there's going to be an anti-Israeli demonstration not far from the Ambassador. Sirhan gets in his Mustang, which he had bought with some of the insurance money, and drives to the hotel. He begins drinking, O'Sullivan writes, and decides to leave. But at the car, he decides that he's too drunk to drive. He returns to the hotel, and is able to gain entry to a pantry in the kitchen just off the ballroom. Years later, a bellman told me he'd take me over to that pantry for five bucks. I told him I couldn't afford it.
Written by Bill Christine
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
This Needs To Be Addressed
LOS ANGELES, April 19, 2011--I'm going to leave the Gettysburg address alone, but there are a lot of addresses that need to be changed, including some in racing. Your address should reflect what you are about, I've always said, but it seldom works out that way. Growing up, I had a cup of coffee on a cul-de-sac called Tanglewood Circle. The wife of a friend envied that address, and said so. "Oh, Don," she said wistfully to her husband, "wouldn't it be great if we could live on a street with a name like that?" I said, "Kelly, I've forgotten, what street do you live on?" "Gross Avenue," she said.
As far as I could ever see, the only advantage to living on Tanglewood Circle was that it was within easy staggering distance of a restaurant known as the Hitching Post, which featured Timmy Donohue, the most heavy-handed bartender this side of Joe, the upstairs man at Sardi's. I saw some of the biggest two-fisted guzzlers in town order highballs and say to Timmy, "Heavy on the water, and make it a tall glass."
But I digress. What got me started on this name business was the recent move of Harness Tracks of America, which is staying in Tucson, Arizona, but has relocated from East Sunrise to East Dry Gulch Place. Oh, Kelly, what I would give to have an address like East Dry Gulch Place. I would even settle for West Dry Gulch Place. Throw your weight around.
I think the fathers of Saratoga Springs, New York, should change the name of the street that runs past their historic kraal. Union Avenue is so mundane. Does it come from the Civil War, or is it in honor of the Teamsters? Make the change, and consider Antiquity Row, my first choice.
In Louisville, it's time they took down the Central Avenue signs outside Churchill Downs. Central Avenue reminds me of the original name of my old high school (which is now a prison, which is another story, even though we always knew it was a prison). Is there a street in Louisville named after Matt Winn, or Bill Corum? Wouldn't it be apropos if Churchill Downs was situated at the corner of Winn Way and Corum Place?
While I'm monkeying, I can't monkey too much with Pimlico. At the corner of Hayward and Winner Avenues, it might not be in much of a neighborhood, but at least one of the streets suits the venue. The Fair Grounds, on Gentilly Boulevard in the Big Easy, gets a pass as well. Gentilly, genteel? The genesis of one might not jibe with the other, but it's close enough. Atlantic City Race Course's address is another that's apt: Let's hear it for Black Horse Pike, on the outskirts of the Boardwalk.
What's always puzzled me is Santa Anita. West Huntington Drive? West Huntington Drive when Baldwin Avenue, Lucky Baldwin's Baldwin Avenue, is available, running right along the fence that encloses the barn area? Give West Huntington Drive back to Arcadia, and switch to Lucky
Baldwin Avenue (the full name). Lucky Baldwin was Santa Anita before Doc Strub was Santa Anita. All that stationery with West Huntington Drive in the executive offices? One industrial-size shredder, please.
For Del Mar, make the address Jimmy Durante Boulevard. Oh, they've already done that? Of course. And nothing was more fitting when the Hilton Hotel, across the street from the track, had a valet-parking sign in front that said, "Reserved for Mrs. Jimmy Durante."
Hawthorne Race Course, in Cicero, Illinois, is located on South Laramie Avenue, and that works for me. Word association again. Laramie. . . lariat. . . lasso. . . Laramie, Wyoming. Surely at one time there were more horses than people in Laramie. But I still wish that Sportsman's Park, Hawthorne's neighbor, was still around. I would nominate Al Capone Alley for Sportsman's mailing address.
What about some of racing's organizations? The Jockey Club, prim and proper at East 52nd Street. The pinkie extended when you sip your demitasse. East 52nd Street's been there long enough. Make way for Uppity Way, and throw in a penthouse number in the bargain. The Thoroughbred Racing Protective Bureau is based in Elkton, Maryland. What, Milquetoast, Maryland, wasn't available? Leave the TRPB in Elkton, there's not much to be done about that, but change the street name from Fair Hill Drive to Snoop Road.
Not far down the road from me is Hollywood Park, which gets its mail at South Prairie Avenue. One of the cross streets is Kelso. South Prairie? Kelso? A mismatch hardly made in heaven. Do not pass Go, do not collect $200. Go directly to the shredding room. The new letterheads will be there the first of next week.
Written by Bill Christine
Tuesday, April 12, 2011
In Search of the Kelco
LOS ANGELES, April 12, 2011--Writing from Las Vegas several months ago, I used a throwaway line about the Kelco Class Calculator. Charlie Chan might have said, "He who uses throwaway lines has never been to Troy, Michigan." From out of Troy came Phil Jackson, who has never coached the Chicago Bulls or the Los Angeles Lakers, with a question or two about the Kelco, that rudimentary handicapping tool from the 1960s. Jackson is determined to find a Kelco, either the slide-rule or the hand-held electronic version, or short of that find someone who can explain to him what made the Kelco tick. On Jackson's behalf, I called the Smithsonian and they hung up on me.
I e-mailed old friend Steve Davidowitz, not giving him
the chance to hang up on me. Mention of the Kelco took Davidowitz back to his days as editor of Turf and Sport Digest. "I had the opportunity to evaluate (the Kelco) because they were advertising in Turf and Sport," Davidowitz said. "Basically, it was built on a formula that measured purses earned per start. The higher the average purse per the most recent three or four starts, the higher the Kelco Class Rating. This did not help horses shipping from smaller circuits to New York, or even from Charlestown to Keystone, and it did not help identify multiple claiming race race winners when they were meeting habitual second- and third-place finishers (proven losers) in entry-level allowance races."
Davidowitz even gave the Kelco a tryout at the old Bowie Race Course (any discussion of the Kelco seems to lead to the mention of tracks that are dead and buried--in Bowie's case, almost buried). "Like any system or handicapping device," Davidowitz said, "(the Kelco) identified some obvious horses and once in a blue moon gave credit to a horse who had been third, fourth and fifth in richer races who were sure to benefit when dropping down to cheaper competition. My conclusion was that the Kelco manufacturers did not lie about the product, that it performed no worse or better than many other gizmo's, but a good horseplayer could do the calculations without need of a slide rule." Davidowitz concluded that when he went to the track: "(The experiment at Bowie) was not nearly enough to make me pack (the Kelco) with my Morning Telegraph, the Eastern edition of the Daily Racing Form."
The 1950s, 1960s and 1970s were a time when handicapping gizmo's, as Davidowitz calls them, were in full flower. You could spend between $15 and $100 for a dingus (as Sam Spade would have called them) like the Kelco, which once sold for $25. At the high end was the Harvard Concentric Selector, whose inventors said was the "ultimate weapon in man's continuing battle to beat the horses." I wonder whether Harvard knew, or cared, whether any of this was going on.
One of the Kelco's boasts was that its system was "conceived and designed by a graduate of Yale and
(italic mine) Brown Universities with advanced degrees in engineering." Uh-huh. I called Brown to ask if they had ever heard of the Kelco, and they hung up on me.
I remember going to Saratoga once with a friend, Malcolm Barr, who had a Kelco. It was the cardboard slide-rule variety.
"I had that one for a couple of years," Barr said, "then I graduated to the hand-held device. To the consternation of Bill Joyce, my partner in the racing and breeding business for 21 years, I was generally more successful betting the races than he was. But I dropped the hand-held on the grandstand floor and it broke."
In his closet, Barr found a computer called the Premier II Thoroughbred Horse Race Analyzer, marketed by Advanced Handicapping Technologies Inc. (Mattel). "There it was, in a green velvet pouch," he said. He thinks he bought it in 1983 and plans to use it again this summer at Saratoga.
But still, no Kelco. Phil Jackson, a retired computer programmer, has a friend, a retired insurance adjuster in Michigan, who had a slide-rule Kelco years ago. The friend's dog, Spunky, chewed it up one day, beyond repair. The family still loved Spunky, but things were never quite the same.
Jackson would like to work out the internal formulas of the Kelco. "I specifically need the thoroughbred Kelco," he said. "I located a Kelco for the trotters, but it seems clear that it uses a different formula than the thoroughbred version."
A retired Eddie Arcaro toured the country as a promoter of the Kelco. I remember spending an evening with him in the dining room at Fairmount Park. Arcaro played it smart. He talked more about all the big races he had won rather than the calculator. "The Kelco," said somebody who bought one, "was a handicapping tool for anyone who thought Damascus was a city in the Middle East. But what the hell, if I hadn't bought a Kelco, I wouldn't have gotten hooked on horses. And there's nothing wrong with that."
Written by Bill Christine