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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, November 20, 2022 — It was approaching 6 am during the Saratoga race meet decades ago, a time when the Spa was truly the only “August Place To Be.”

The press box gang, following cocktails at old Lillians on Broadway and after participating in a Sinatra-accompanied kick-line at our traditional last stop, the Anchor Inn on Saratoga Lake, began making their way home.

The sun was rising and the time had come for sleep. After all, there was a Daily Double to be won in less than seven hours.

As we turned right passed the police station at 5 Lake Avenue,  Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” came on the car radio. That night, Toni and I were accompanied by Mr and Mrs. Litfin and our friend Dawn, up from Long Island for the weekend.

 “Stop the car … back up,” insisted Dawn, which put us in even closer proximity to the cop house. At that point we got out of the car and began to boogie in the middle of the street.

Meanwhile, strangers in a car driving in the opposite direction, stopped their vehicle, got out, and joined the impromptu press box boogie review. But wait, there’s more.

The night started with Robin Litfin sitting up front with me in the Subaru. Dawn and Toni were in the back, Dave sitting between them. I’m not sure what prompted it, but Toni and Dawn thought it a good idea to jump Dave’s bones, smothering him with wet, sloppy kisses.

I remember turning around and seeing the stunned look on Dave’s face as the girls laughed hysterically.

Back in the day, indeed.

While the memory of that night never fails to illicit smiles, it’s not what I think of first and foremost about Dave, who passed away this week at 64.

Rather, the mind’s eye recalls his near stoic press box presence; a smile, soft voice, but quick with a dry witticism when the occasion demanded it.

But it’s more than that, too. Dave Litfin was a true family man. We enjoyed Sunday barbecues too numerous to recall at the Litfins’ Suffolk County home.

Holidays, both patriotic and religious, were celebrated there. And depending on the time of season, the Yankees or Giants were on the den TV.

Occasions were accompanied by cocktails aplenty, of course. We were turf writers, recall, and that responsibility comes with a reputation to uphold.

One indelible memory was a warm summer Sunday and I was laying in the hammock in the right corner of the backyard, Toni on one side and Robin on the other.

Take that, Dave!

What I will cherish most about those days, however, even if we had lost touch through the years, was sitting around the Litfin dinner table with daughters Addy and Marne, and son Sam, two families as one.

Racing fans know Dave Litfin as the widely respected turf writer and acclaimed Daily Racing Form handicapper on the New York circuit.

After looking at the past performances, players turned the pages back to read Dave’s analysis. You wanted him to say something favorable about your horse, but sometimes you didn’t because his opinion often created underlays.

Dave watched races live with a keen eye, a pair of binoculars and a stopwatch cradled in two hands. He made detailed notes, entering them in the margins of result charts which all serious handicappers of the era pasted into long, thick accounting journals.

All local handicappers did the same, hoping to catch some kind of trouble the late, great chart-caller Jack Wilson would miss, a trip note that could pay handsomely the next time the horse was entered.

The problem was Jack never missed, then neither did Dave.

Dave’s talents were always in demand. He had a side hustle “doing ground” and trips for Jerry Brown’s Thoro-Graph company. Horses making wide runs require more energy to complete the distance, ground loss being the essence of sheet-style performance figures.

Upon completion of 15 years with DRF, Dave wrote handicapping columns for Blood-Horse, authored two books, and later became a chart caller and handicapper for Equibase, most recently at Gulfstream Park until he was sidelined by illness.

Dave Litfin was a pro’s pro who loved his job but loved his family and friends more. In all the time we were together, we never had crossed words. Hell, I never heard him raise his voice.

The world lost a good soul this week. Handicappers are expendable but good people are not. Losing a person like Dave is profoundly sad and his family has made a small ask; that donations be made in Dave’s name to equine retirement facility Old Friends, with paddocks in Lexington and Saratoga Springs.

Old Friends. What could be more appropriate?

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10 Responses

  1. Thanks for this, John. I did not know Dave personally, but certainly held his handicapping prowess in high regard.

    Damn shame that he died so young. Condolences to all of his friends and family.

  2. You would have liked him, Tink, everyone I know that knew him did.

    Racing fans and players all respected his ability and dedication to the work.

    I just thought people needed to know what kind of man he was, too.

  3. Damn, he always struck me as a genuinely pleasant person; and coming up, his picks were ALWAYS a must to look at when heading to BEL/AQU. Along with you guys in Newsday. No BS.

    I have a handicapping book at home that he wrote. I should revisit it.

  4. John,
    I enjoyed reading your column about Dave.
    He was devoted to his craft and I loved reading about your adventures in Saratoga.
    When I was the call taker for DRF in the early 90s in New York, Dave, Bill Johnson & I would put together pick six tickets on carryover days.
    Thinking back to that time we were fortunate to have one of the best handicappers in New York
    sharing his thoughts with us.

    In December of 1995 Dave gave me a Christmas present- Barry Meadow’s Secrets Of The Pick 6
    and inscribed it “ Best of Luck with your new toy”.
    We had some fun with it, scrambling to fill out multiple tickets after scratches and between races prior to the pick six starting.
    We had a few small wins, more losses and some consolations.
    I still have the “ Secrets “ pamphlet, occasionally use it and hoping for one big score.

    1. Hey Gary,

      Great to hear from you Gary! Dave’s loss was felt by so many, anyone who knew him, really.

      The sad part is that I never got to speak with him, not finding out until the very end that he was gravely ill. I’m a weekend warrior now and living in Florida don’t see the old crowd except for occasional forays into Saratoga.

      I remember those press box Pick 6 pools. had a small piece of a few back in the day. That comaraderie is missing these days as press boxes are shells of their former selves.

      I will remember those better times, and sincerely hope that you and yours are well and are staying safe.

  5. Indeed, you should revisit it Doc. It’s always suggested that players should consult lessons to be culled from any respected handicapper and I agree and reiterate; Dave was a must-read when handicapping a race card on the NYRA circuit.

  6. You did well by Dave with this article. It must be difficult as a person who writes for a living to know that you MUST write about the death of someone because his or her death is newsworthy but it also be someone that you knew personally. That leaves the writer in the seemingly impossible position of having to convey to readers in a limited space unlimited emotions and memories of a person that to do him justice would require multiple books.

    Just wanted to let you know you did a good job with the piece. I’m sorry for your personal loss. And as someone who is nearing 50 years of age and has been an avid fan for almost 35 of them, the hole in the industry as the writers and handicappers I grew up reading or listening to either pass, retire, or take increasing steps away from their peak duties. We are losing the journalists and cappers who like the horses of the late 60s and the 70s that inspired them in their career paths, represent a golden generation. A generation that made some of the biggest advancements in providing racegoers with information and tools to make sense of this information.

    1. Sorry for the delayed response but it appears the Spam filter was working overtime and going through my inbox just now, I saw that you had written a comment but it needed approving, which is why it appears at this late date.

      This comment means a lot to me, not for the compliments, but for the appreciation for a writer who must do the newsworthy thing but, as you say, when there’s a personal relationship, it’s “how do I say what I’m feeling without being melancholy, over-the-top syrupy.

      It’s why I often find a narrative that provides insight for an audience that would like to know more about a person. In the past year, I’ve gotten too damn good at writing obits.

      Lost another friend, a very close friend last week, that literally brought me to tears. Will probably write something by week’s end.

      Thank you for this.

      BTW: Kelso was one of my all-time favorites but I bet your namesake to beat him in the ’64 Woodward and he won–by a nose. Gun Bow, a damn good classy-fast horse!

  7. I remember seeing him at the Penn National World Series of Handicapping one year. You were there as well as I recall. The ex NBA referee Charlie Eckman was the master of ceremonies. A lot of fun.

  8. Indeed, C. We both were there for many years. In fact, I went 0-for-14 in the WSH. Eckman was a great character. Whoever he met walking around the grandstand, he’d great you with “hello leader.” It wasn’t true, but put a smile on your face nonetheless. Thanks for the memory.

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