Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Slouching Towards Louisville

SOUTH OZONE PARK, NY, April 8, 2014—It is said that you can’t go home again. Despite the inherent wisdom in that adage, I left the warm, sunny climes of South Florida for Queens, the next meaningful Eastern stop on the road to the Kentucky Derby.

I must confess that when I entered the building I didn’t know what I would find. The news emanating from New York to reach Gulfstream Park this winter, both on and off the record, was disturbing but, unfortunately, not totally unexpected.

When I arrived at the press box level of Aqueduct Race Track over the weekend, I discovered newly installed carpet under foot and a fresh coat of paint on the walls leading to the press office and press box.

It was a welcome sight from the blight that had become the norm, the result of an acrimonious relationship between “new NYRA” and the Genting organization that now occupies the swanky part of the building formerly known as the Aqueduct grandstand.

Perhaps not surprising but somewhat amusing was the fact that the new paint job didn’t extend all the way through to the fifth level where the stewards and Equibase chart callers live and where Tom Durkin would later call his penultimate Wood Memorial.

And you thought David Letterman would be the only prominent retiree come 2015?

The incomplete paint job is reminiscent of the scene from “The Sting” where Kid Twist would put the final hook in Doyle Lonnegan with a visit to a makeshift telegraph office that ultimately would provide misleading post-posting information.

You may recall “I said place it on Lucky Dan, that horse is going to finish second!”

After entering the press box my first instinct was to visit with Jerry Bossert. If it weren’t for the Daily News’ Aqueduct “expose” he inspired, I might have been returning to the unhealthy work space I left behind following Holidayfest weekend last fall.

“I had been [privately] complaining about this for months,” Bossert explained.

“Jerry, you did a hell of a paint job,” I would later say, “and my body thanks you for having the hole in the roof repaired and the pigeon droppings scraped off the walls.”

“You can still see some feathers once in a while,” he said.

On occasions such as the Wood Memorial these days, you still can find a press box full of reporters there for the big race. One of those media members was Steven Crist, who was blogging live from Aqueduct.

Editorially, Steven and I often stand at about 180 degrees but a racetrack press box is a lot like the jock’s room; friendly competitors having mutual respect for one another. In our case, it might be more aptly described as friendly parimutuel respect.

Knowing I would find a sympathetic ear, I told Steve about my first losing season in the last four years at Gulfstream Park.

“On one occasion, I mis-punched myself—you know how painful that can be. On another, I committed a horseplayer’s worst sin of all; making an error of omission, not commission. I lost my equilibrium after that and never got it back.”

Steve nodded. We’ve all been there.

I’m sure neither one of us thought that he would need to be rushed to Winthrop University Hospital the following day after he stopped breathing. Daily Racing Form reported him to be in critical but stable condition.

His friends and colleagues are holding a good thought.

Between races, five hours in advance of the 89th Wood, NYRA placing judge Sentell “Sonny” Taylor, surrounded by friends and family, was feted for his half century of service to the association, first as a clocker, then official timer and now as an official.

In the winners’ circle, master of ceremonies Richard Migliore introduced NYRA President Christopher Kay to make the presentation. But first, with Taylor standing there his side, Kay found it necessary to do two commercial minutes.

Kay informed his guests that NYRA had hired Luis Grandison as its new Spanish-language race caller, that NYRA had a new Roku HD channel and that “Longshots,” an attractive, state of the art simulcast facility, was now open for business.

It was like Saratoga 2013 all over again when Kay’s penchant for face time resulted in the late Paul Moran observing at that “the most dangerous place in Saratoga is the eight feet between Kay and a mini-cam.”

Kay finally got around to saluting Taylor on his 50 years of service although, as far as we could see, there were no time pieces to celebrate the occasion--not that the always nattily turned out Taylor was lacking in sartorial accoutrements.

It is no small irony that the ceremony came at the end of a week that saw two NYRA executives resign; Director of Communications Eric Wing and Chief Marketing Officer Rodnell Workman. Workman had been on the job 22 months; Wing was hired last April.

It was good to see the Big A’s press box, my first, filled with media, some who were lamenting the recent loss of 167 non-union jobs at the venerable Newark Star-Ledger. Its newsroom lost 40 of its 156 staffers.

“The one good thing about getting old is that there’s no longer a future in the newspaper business,” cracked DRF’s Mike Watchmaker.

Nonetheless, all of it made a press box old-schooler smile on Wood day 2014 when, after the official sign had been posted, the son of a Giant Killer stood in the winners’ circle fielding question after his horse upset more highly regarded rivals in the day’s big race.

Written by John Pricci

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