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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Cousin Sal called a week ago Saturday. We’re not related; he’s the kind of family you choose, which is what I did back when we first met at St. John’s in 1964.

We became co-workers at the Happy Times bar and restaurant on Union Turnpike, a few miles west of campus, alternating between waiting and bartending. It was a local joint and also where everyone congregated after basketball games, including the team.

“Hey Broadway, you got anything today? I’m going to the casino, they don’t sell the Form where I am. Just going to stay for a race or two and don’t feel like looking at the paper anyway.”

Sal and I often made the 20-minute drive, with no traffic, to Aqueduct and we made some scores together. I was better at handicapping; Sal was the better money manager. We made a good team. He also had a knack for picking winners out of the post parade.

From the movie, Let It Ride

“Concentrate on Kentucky Downs,” I told him. “Logical horses pay good prices, it’s all turf, big fields.”

“So who do you like?” he insisted.

“Sal, I take it one race at a time and haven’t done the work—no, wait a minute–I did the third race but I have to give you two horses to key on top, make a win bet depending on the odds, and I have some horses you could use underneath.”

Sal made the All-Jersey high school baseball team while at Redbank Catholic, a big sports school on the Jersey Shore. He crushed the baseball, good enough to win an athletic scholarship to St. John’s. His good eye may explain his talent for post parade observation.

But now he needs a wheelchair to get around, which he can handle himself, but everything takes time, as you might imagine. He got to the casino just minutes before at post time for the third and was on line when the race went off; shut out.

Any horseplayer around the game longer than five minutes knows how this part of the story turned out: The two keys ran 1-2, the $2 exacta paid $29.60, and one of three filler horses finished third and the $1 trifecta returned $65.20.

Formless, and not knowing enough to leave the casino at that point, Sal decided to play one more race at the Franklin, KY track.

Not born into the sport and not a horseplayer until he met this bad influence at St. John’s, he had that knack for picking horses off the monitor, those good eyes probably the reason he hit all those home runs. “Bigfoot,” his high school team mates called him.

Anyway, he picked out two horses he liked, went up to the window, boxed an exacta and went to the monitor to watch the race. Sal’s eyes did not fail him. By some miracle, the exacta won, paid $67, and he returned to the window to cash his ticket.

“Sorry, sir, these tickets are losers.” When Sal checked, the winning numbers were correct, only the mutuel clerk punched out the winning 9-10 box at another track.

It was the old Abbott and Costello routine: “They’re off, you lose.”

Stunned, he looked up at the heavens and thought, “now what?” Family was weighing heavily on his mind this day. It was the anniversary weekend of his son’s, and my Godson, Adam, drowning accident, not too far from Del Mar in Oceanside, CA.

Adam “Biff” D’Esposito shooting the curl

No one can make sense of this tragedy. Adam D’Esposito was a surfing star, a talent that took him around the world. For years he lived in Tahiti, often crashing at the house of his best friend, Christian Brando, the ill-fated son of Don Corleone himself.

There later would be a memorial service at the beach in Oceanside attended by hundreds of people, maybe even a thousand, local TV, the works. SoCal surfers paddled out, formed a circle of surfboards and paid tribute to their missing friend and local hero.

Still looking skyward, Sal whispered, “mom, you’ve got to help me here,” and stayed for one more race.

And so he took $12, walked up to the window and boxed his mother’s lucky number, 489, in a trifecta. The fifth race passed in the interim but Sal got to the window in plenty of time to play the sixth, the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint

The race was won by Cambria, #4, an 8-1 shot trained by Wesley Ward, who got up in the last jump under a well-executed finish from jockey Tyler Gaffalione.

Chimney Rock #9, also came with a furious charge beneath Jose Ortiz to secure the place at 7-2, and #8, Prince of Thieves, 10th with three-sixteenths of a mile remaining, closed tenaciously to finish third, winning the show photo by a neck at 10-1.

The 4-9-8 trifecta box returned $736.80. Sal knew enough to leave then and he gleaned three lessons from all this:

First, sometimes it pays to get shut out. Second, it’s good to get mis-punched every once in a while. And, finally, when stars align, the racing gods, and the true spirit world, will conspire to produce some wondrous results.

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10 Responses

  1. Great posting. Son sounded amazing. Divine intervention at play at racetrack. Yes, love the stories of when you key a tri at Gulfstream and then discover you got Ft. Erie and won anyway. Two golden rules: use the SAM machine to avoid teller error and never cancel. Nothing worse than cancelling the first race at Belmont and then watching the #9 roll in at 9-1. Okay, still go to the tellers because we don’t need computers replacing all human tasks (not to mention jobs, Alice). But the never cancel “rule” is a good one because, after all, s–t happens. Again, great story of a cool Godson who excelled where most cannot. I tried and it was a DNF for me. Looks really hard, surfing.

  2. Mal, already a member of the “never cancel” club. And it’s club-size, not cult-size. Eventually, everyone learns that lesson the hard way.

    I say do both with the tickets. Buy a voucher at beginning of the day from a clerk, use the SAM, then cash out at the end. You’re right; too many machines replacing people. However, that issue will get a lot worse but many of us unlikely will be around to see it.

    When Sal called and asked if I wanted to hear a story, I hesitated: how many racetrack turn out happily? After listening, I said, “are you kidding? This is a column that will take about 20 minutes to write.” Well, it took a little longer, but good stories do write themselves.

    Can’t believe it’s a year since Adam was found on the beach and I’m still in denial about it; can’t imagine what the family is feeling.

    A little sidebar: Adam’s sister Brianna went to Tahiti a short time later and there was a ceremony for him there as well. Not many of us get to touch so many lives for real…

  3. During my recent trip to Las Vegas I cashed a lot of small and mid size tickets. This happens when you play 30-40 races a day.
    The only really good cash was a $164 DD when I called out the wrong number in the back half too late to change.

  4. I had a similar hit recently on the last race at the Spa this season. Now I had the longshot winner on my own to cash the P3. But the only reason I threw in the place horse and hit a big tri was because my best friend from college who got me in to racing loved the word Impunity. He loved to bet “with impunity”, so of course I had to as well when the chance came. He also died way too soon from the big C just a few years ago.

  5. Waquoit,

    (For the youngins’ out there, Waquoit was a very talented handicapper in the day, the Pride of New England Racing for a spell. Very cool horse)!

    You got it,W, the above was more about a spiritual connection than winning a bet via handicapping, akin to getting a clue from the subconscious.

    Or, as Bill Maher might say, in a little piece of HBO business he does occasionally; “I don’t know it for a fact, I just know it’s true.”

  6. Just watched the 87 Mass Cap, W. Thank you, had forgotten all about it.

    UNBELIEVABLE race and finish! And those were no equine tomato cans he was beating. True Grade 1 competition. Everyone knows and remembers Broad Brush.

    What I really forgot was how good Tour d’Or was that afternoon.

    Racing like it oughta’ be!

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