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.
“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.
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.