Monthly Archives: October 2009

Tales of the turf

A few updates from the Turf, aka horse racing:

I wrote a lengthy feature on the demise of handicap racing, once an essential component of the game, for the Daily Racing Form, the newspaper where, as mobsters say, I made my bones many years ago. The paper recently started a new weekly section inside the Saturday paper, and it’ll include one long journalism piece. Even racing novices should find the story interesting.

Also, my profile on Little Joe, the unique and colorful jockey’s agent, is up online. I humbly think this is my most inspired attempt until now at recreating the work and style and subject matter of Joseph Mitchell.

An aside: Did you know the New Yorker used to include in its pages weekly recaps of horse racing from around the country? Leaf through – or, on the Internet, scroll through – editions from the 1950s and you can find them.

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The story of Little Joe

One of the characters of Monmouth Park race track, my home turf, is Little Joe Verrone, a jockey’s agent. Little Joe, who stands five-foot, gave himself the nickname long ago. He told me it had been a business decision; what’s little can’t hurt you, he said, so his competitors might take him lightly.

Little Joe may well be the longest-active jockey’s agent in the country; he is 86 years old, the last sixty spent as an agent. His riders have won, by his count, more than six thousand races. In New Jersey, where he has been for almost 50 years, he is an institution.

After December, though, Little Joe will be hanging it up. Though he is as lively and sharp as people decades younger, he has done all he wanted on the race track. I have been around Monmouth since the mid-1990s, first as a young fan then a newspaper reporter, and it is hard to imagine the racing office without the distinguished presence of the besuited Little Joe. He is the last of an era.

I profiled Little Joe for Mid-Atlantic Thoroughbred, a monthly magazine for which I cover New Jersey horse racing. The story will appear in a few weeks, but in the meantime, here is my description of Little Joe in the piece:

For his age, Little Joe is a marvel. People unanimously say he has not aged in decades. Kulina, who calls him Dorian Gray, referring to the Oscar Wilde character, says he has not aged in 40 years. His memory is as sharp as a tack, same as his wit. His stories drip with staggering detail of people and places and horses. In his spare time he also writes songs.

For his size, and his personality, he has always stood out. He wears a suit and hat to the races, a dashing figure among his habitually bedraggled peers. He shakes the pills for post positions, a daily task entrusted to him a long time ago. A few years ago, a plaque reading Little Joe’s Corner was placed in his customary spot outside the racing office where he stands during the draw.

He has been the friend of celebrities and athletes, their friendships outcomes of a time when racing seamlessly melded with sports and entertainment. Come to think of it, he is a celebrity himself. At Monmouth, he cannot walk more than a few yards without somebody stopping him or calling out his name. The mounts his jockey gets are largely out of loyalty to Little Joe.

My interview with Little Joe lasted hours, a sentimental ramble across the rich landscape of his life. I had to leave out many great stories, but two I particularly liked:

One time, visiting his friend Art Rooney, the legendary horse player who purchased the Pittsburgh Steelers with his track winnings in the 1930s, a secretary at the team’s office asked Little Joe who she should tell Rooney is here. “Tell him his third-string quarterback is here to sign his contract,” he said.

The singer Patsy Cline was one of Little Joe’s friends; the first time he met her, following one of her performances, at which he was on a date with one of her friends, Patsy asked Little Joe to be her agent. “Honey, if I was your agent we’d both go hungry,” he told her. “I’m a jockey’s agent, not an entertainment agent. Can you ride a horse in a race?”

Others around the track praised Little Joe’s sharp wit and one-liners. Here are three:

To a trainer who he had loaned money, and who said he was close to repaying because he expected to soon come into money: “The only way you’re coming into money is if a Brink’s truck hits you.”

To one of his jockeys, who complained of riding so many longshots: “You’re a quantity rider, not a quality rider.”

To a fellow agent whose griping is legendary: “You are a successful failure.”

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Greetings from Asbury Park

Over Labor Day weekend, I spent time in my hometown on the Jersey Shore. I rode my bike to Asbury Park, the lovely, faded seaside town of Springsteen fame, and, as I like to do to chronicle its change, took some photos. I have mentioned the town before, in writing about Mr. Fashion, the hat store I discovered on Cookman Avenue in downtown Asbury. And the header photo for this site is the old casino, whose shell remains. (Unlike what might be assumed, it was never a gambling establishment – a casino in the early part of the 20th century was like an events center; this one held such things as a carousel and amusements.)

While some architectural gems of Asbury’s past are gone (like the Tunnel of Love and Palace Amusements), there are still some left. Most towns of Monmouth County have washed clean their past, history being an easily discarded keepsake for the onslaught of suburbanization, but Asbury – largely because it has been left behind – is the exception.

Here are my recent photos:

Convention Hall

This is Convention Hall and inside it the Paramount Theatre, the home of so many fine musical acts and sporting events over the years. (In my not-so-rebellious youth I attended several wrestling events here.) Before their previous tour Springsteen and the E Street Band rehearsed here. There’s an outdoor bar in the back these days, on the end of the pier that juts into the ocean. The beautiful hall was built in the 1920s.

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I was inside the Baronet Theatre once after it had reopened about five years ago. I think it closed again in 2007. (Any information on its current status is encouraged.) It’s a beautiful playhouse, indeed a treasure.

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According to Cinema Treasures (cinematreasures.org): “At first a vaudeville theatre, it was built in 1913 as the Ocean Theatre. It was renovated in 1953 by Walter Reade Circuit and was considered an Art Deco treasure. The auditorium seats 546 in the original recliner seats and has a stage with proscenium arch. The mirrored lobby with its huge Manley popcorn machine has been retained as original.”

In the first photo, the blue building is the Fast Lane, which was once a rock club where Bon Jovi (as well as the Ramones and Patti Smith) often played. It hasn’t been open for some time.

For decades, every summer Asbury had a vibrant film, music, arts, and stage scene, well into the 1970s; there were still six operating movie theaters until then – 1920s-era movie palaces such as the Mayfair and the Paramount, and smaller venues like The St. James, the Lyric, the Savoy and the Baronet. With the rise of the multiplexes, they all vanished. The Baronet had a reputation as the art film house in the 1960s, but by the next decade had become quite seedy in its fare.

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I like this photo of the front of the Baronet.

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I had my sixth or seventh birthday at Asbury Lanes, and in their basement my parents still keep the bowling pin signed by my friends. The bowling alley, which is next to the Fast Lane, has led a hip, small revival of Fourth Avenue. It has concerts, burlesque acts, and shows movies; people can still bowl (one must keep score by hand), and the interior decor is preserved from its 70s heyday. It isn’t vintage per se, because nothing has changed inside. The bar on the side serves Pabst on tap and has an old-time feel.

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I love the sign, especially the slogan: “Bowl Where You See The Magic Triangle”.

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How often do bars advertise package goods any more?

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I think the signage of this building on Cookman Avenue, the downtown main street, is a stellar example of Art Deco architecture. I noticed it for the first time at the beginning of the summer, and imagine it was the heart of this once-thriving strip many decades ago.

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Nearby are the original Asbury Park Press and Steinbach buildings.

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The Press is the first newspaper that hired me 10 years ago when I was a 16-year-old junior in high school. The paper had left Asbury for more space in Neptune a long time ago; in hindsight, with the way the paper has downsized it should’ve stayed in the town whose name it bears.

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The Post building is condominiums now, but used to be an office building. In the summer and late fall of 1916 Woodrow Wilson used the entire fifth floor as his executive offices as he vacationed in nearby West Long Branch. It was here that he formulated his strategy for re-election and where his staff counted the returns on November 7, 1916, that showed Wilson had narrowly defeated Republican Charles Evans Hughes.

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And last but not least, there’s still a seedy side to Asbury, though it has been largely cleaned up over the years, at least near the boardwalk. Here’s the neon sign of the defunct Club Phoenix.

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