This is the first post in a series of stories from the press box – the strange, the memorable, the humorous, the divine, and more. These are stories of the people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen in my years writing about horse racing. Knowledge of horse racing isn’t required, only an appreciation of the low-life and its wonderful characters.
In the years 2000 through 2002, when I was a beat reporter at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, Joe Hintelmann reliably arrived at the press box at 11 every morning, nearly two hours before first post and ahead of just about any other reporter. If the security guard had not done so already, he would put on a pot of coffee in the kitchen. He was, technically, a reporter, by the loose standards of the turf. Racetracks prove the adage that any press is good press, even if, in the case of Hintelmann, his weekly rag, The Two River Times, didn’t have him write anything. It’s unclear if he ever did. I never saw him type a word – on a typewriter, or laptop, or word processor. This never seemed to be an annoyance for Hintelmann. He was like a sentry on the Maginot Line who diligently maintained his outpost long after the war was over. It was better to hold onto an old reality rather than give up the perks of the job.
After he put on the coffee, Hintelmann would walk over to his corner seat at the long window and desk of the main room and set down his cherry-brown briefcase. (The view from there was spectacular; the finish line was below and an even a rudimentary pair of binoculars could clearly pick up the horses as they ran down the backstretch.) It was something an accountant might carry in the typewriter age. He’d take out a few papers, scan them slowly, and place them next to his briefcase. Since he hadn’t written a story in years, I could never imagine what mysteries those papers contained.
Hintelmann was tall, six-three or six-four, and had a wild shock of white hair. He was in his early 70s, and although he was friendly he usually kept to himself. What little I knew about him was that he had been a local high school teacher, he was now retired, and he liked to take cruises in the winter. At the start of the Monmouth season, in May, somebody would ask him where he had traveled, and that conversation was about all that Hintelmann said for four months, other than daily pleasantries.
He’d get the day’s scratches early, but his betting strategy was simple and never wavered. He bet on jockey Luis Rivera every time, no matter what. To say this was a losing proposition doesn’t do it justice. Rivera rode longshots almost exclusively. He was, in railbird vernacular, a human anchor on a horse. He was an older jockey and at that time in the twilight of his career. He might win one or two races over the course of four months. Regardless of his chances, however, Hintelmann bet $2 to win on every single one of Rivera’s mounts, which many days were few. I guess Hintelmann had a thing for the underdog.
Hintelmann always ate his lunch early, sometimes before other reporters even arrived in the press box. When they were ordering lunch he was clamoring for an ice cream dessert. And when the best races went off, and reporters watched them intently for their articles, Hintelmann had already left, gone before 4. It was the same routine every day.
After 2002, I was no longer at Monmouth on a daily basis, but on my regular trips there I’d see Hintelmann and say hello. One of the last times I saw him was in 2005, at the press conference for the $1 million Haskell Invitational, Monmouth’s premiere race. I sat at his table. Other reporters had on their best jeans, but Hintelmann wore a long, light blue polyester blazer, something stored in moth balls particularly for this occasion; it was at least twice as old as me. His white hair was neatly combed. It was charming and nostalgic. He obviously appreciated the invitation, even though his deadline wasn’t pressing.
After the brief press conference, reporters flocked like wild dogs to the free buffet. Crab cakes were always the big draw. Hintelmann had a plate full. As we finished our lunches, he took several crab cakes from his plate, wrapped them in napkins, and slid them in his jacket pocket. Noticing me watching him, he said, sheepishly and with a slight grin, “For the elevator ride to the press box.”
The thing about the press box cast was that nothing ever changed. In September we’d go our separate ways and in May we’d return and pick up where we had left off. Conversations about what people had done that offseason usually lasted a day. There was a motley group of reporters, officials, and hanger-ons, those who had somehow become accepted in the press box even though they weren’t press. Everybody loved being there.
Of the people there in my formative years, Hintelmann was the first who didn’t return. This was 2006. He died that July at age 76. From his obituary, I learned that he had been the chairperson of the English Department at Red Bank Catholic High School for 47 years. As the local paper announced, “He proudly served our country in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was a great traveler taking cruises to many places in Mexico and the Caribbean. He was an avid Yankees fan. During the summertime, he worked as a sports reporter with the former Red Bank Register covering the Monmouth Park race track, handicapping as ‘Reggie Ster.’ He also reported for the Two River Times at the track and was the sports reporter for the Newark Star Ledger covering Shore area high school sporting events.”
Nobody has since occupied the seat where Hintelmann sat. There are no daily reporters left in the press box. At least Hintelmann showed up for work every day, even after there wasn’t any work left to do.