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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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6 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. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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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