Monthly Archives: July 2011

Stories from the press box: Some way to go out

This is another installment in my series of stories from the press box. I’m inclined to get this one published somewhere. I wanted the story to be truthful rather than factual, but it is solidly based on facts.

Some way to go out

As I walked into the press box my backpocket and the notebook held in it burned with my first real scoop. Hours earlier, I had arrived at the backstretch of Monmouth Park before the springtime dawn, at 5:30, as the first group of horses knifed through the receding darkness. Standing at the deep outer edge of the course, next to trainers juggling stopwatches and steaming cups of bitter coffee, my attention focused on one horse – a jet-black colt, white blaze down his face, charging past us like a runaway locomotive, his young Latino rider desperately clutching the reins.

A week earlier, the Daily Racing Form, the Bible of horse racing, had tapped me as its reporter for Monmouth, the historic seaside racetrack in New Jersey. I was eighteen. My first week on the job was a slog.  The previous summer I had reported on Monmouth for a local newspaper, but that was a leisurely afternoon post. This one required first-light arrivals at the barns, because racehorse trainers – the objects of my inquiries – arrive like night patrolmen at that hour. A wary lot, their evasiveness is not so different from mobsters put on the witness stand. To gain their trust I had to hang around, a lot, and wait and listen and learn the language.

I knew I had to learn the identity of that horse. I asked around among the gossips inside the cafeteria and learned he was one of the best young prospects on the grounds. I looked up the trainer, a cantankerous old soul who wore a black fedora and chain-smoked thick Punch cigars. My youthful enthusiasm evidently softened him up. He insinuated that this was the best one he had had in decades, that the colt was “kicking down the barn,” and that his next race would be a considerable assignment out of town, in New York. This was news that my readers wanted to know and that my editors wanted from me.

The press box was empty when I found it, at 10:30, two and a half hours before the first race. I punched away at my laptop, the words pouring out rapid-fire like bullets from a Gatling gun. Visions of legendary turf writers doing the same at their typewriters, chewing on half-lit cigars, calmly massaging their leads as deadline loomed, filled my imagination. I couldn’t contain my excitement when my editor called to ask what I was writing about. An hour passed and my story was almost finished.

Soon I was joined by Joe Hintelmann, one of the press box regulars and always an early settler. He carried with him a cherry-brown briefcase and took some papers out and scanned them slowly. But I never saw him type a word. Hintelmann, a retired English teacher in his seventies, who sported a wild shock of white hair, had once written for a throwaway weekly, but we all knew the paper had folded years ago. He never gave the impression that we knew. He still showed up for work every day, like a sentry on the Maginot Line who diligently maintained his outpost after the war had ended. Hintelmann kept to himself, though, and didn’t bother anybody. I was actually sort of heartened having him around.

At noon I heard a commotion in the adjacent room, the room where reporters and assorted hangers-on lounge on couches, fire away at two betting windows, and watch TVs carrying feeds from racetracks around the country. Moments later a middle-aged penguin-shaped man toddled into the main room. He was short – five-foot-five – and must have been two-hundred fifty pounds. It was a temperate late spring day but a river of sweat flowed from his brow. His wispy long black hair floated down to his shoulders. He grasped a tattered, rolled up Daily Racing Form in one hand, and in the other a plastic cup brimming with cheap scotch. Where could you even get served at this hour? I thought.

I had already learned that turf writers were a sartorially challenged bunch, but this didn’t seem right. Still, he acted like he belonged. He walked over to the desk I was sitting at and introduced himself. “Stuart Rubin,” he said, giving me a sweaty paw. “But everybody here knows me as Beef.”

“You’re the new kid, right?” he continued, holding forth a copy of that day’s Form. I nodded, even though the question was rhetorical. “I liked your article today. You’ve come a long way in one week.”

I still didn’t know why Beef was there, but he continued talking as if we had met, as if I surely knew who he was. He told me stories of his big scores with old friends – this guy from Saratoga, that guy from Gulfstream – as if I must have been briefed on them, like some admission exam, before gaining access to the press box. It started to make sense that Beef was a horseplayer; betting on the ponies was clearly his love. But talking to him was like being in the eye of a hurricane, moving, swirling. Before I could fully grasp his last story he was onto the next.

I told him what I was working on. Unprompted, he offered advice. “Call it like you see it,” he told me. “Don’t hold back information. That’s what got the last guy fired. He was more interested in cashing a bet than telling the whole story. You are the eyes and ears of the paper and people will depend on you to get it right.”

We were standing in the main room of the press box, near my assigned seat at the large window that looks out over the course. From that fourth floor vantage point, you can see the blue of the Atlantic four miles away. It’s the best view in the place; even a crummy pair of binoculars can pick up the horses as they run down the backstretch. The finish line is right below.

Other reporters passed by, making their way from the lunch counter to their desks, taking detours at the teller. “Hey Bill, talk to me,” Beef said, grabbing one reporter by the arm, “Whaddaya working on these days?” The reporters all knew Beef, and I could tell he sought their respect.

“How was Gulfstream?” one guy asked.

“Florida was great, but the sun kills me,” Beef said. “I hung out at the paddock bar the whole time.”

“What brings you back to Monmouth? I thought your privileges were revoked here,” another guy joked.

Beef chortled. Scotch from his plastic cup spilled onto the graying carpet. “Not at all,” he said proudly. “They love me here. But New York, well, that’s another story. I’m not allowed back there. Only reporters are allowed in the press box now.”

Beef smiled broadly as the procession continued. Most of the jokes regarded his afternoon drinking (Chivas Regal), his attire (a stained white T-shirt and torn jean shorts), and his prolific betting (he grasped tickets in both hands and more spilled out of his pockets). The joking was good-natured, though; everyone in the press box – reporters, track officials, announcers, professional bettors, hangers-on – had known each other for years, even decades. Monmouth was opened from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and during that season they spent more time with each other than with their own families.

His appearance, I gathered, was misleading. Beef was in demand. His opinions on that afternoon’s races were coveted by these reporters and others. Even the press box’s security guard, an ancient white-haired man who was often asleep at his post by the third race, approached Beef like the oracle of Delphi.

“I have a horse that can’t lose in the eighth,” Beef told him confidently. “A well-bred maiden, never run before. The trainer is known for his work with babies, and his workouts have been sneaky good. The trainer has been preparing him for this. My best bet a the day.”

“What are the odds?” asked the guard, intrigued. Higher odds were always preferred; easier to get back the money he’d already lost.

“Ten to one morning line!” Beef declared. “Can’t lose! Buy me a drink after he wins.”

I slipped away as Beef continued his one-man show and made my way to the announcer’s booth. I wanted to learn more about this strange mix of grandstand barker and clubhouse sage, and the track announcer had spent more years in the press box than anyone else.

The announcer had known Beef for more than a decade. Beef is a special education teacher in a New York City public school, I was told, and he lived in the Bronx with his elderly Jewish mother. The schedule of a schoolteacher explained why Beef spent a lot of time at racetracks up and down the East Coast in the summer. He was a virtuoso handicapper, and I could tell he wasn’t shy to say so. Just last year, the announcer told me, Beef had won a handicapping tournament in New Haven, pocketing a first prize of $40,000 and a trip to Las Vegas for the national championship.

***

Shortly before the eighth race I sent in my story, and decided to walk down and watch the horses in the paddock. The race was for horses who had never won before, known as a maiden race, and some in the field had never run before; the animals were untested and one could find clues among their body language before the race. I found a spot on a wooden bench inside the lovely English-style walking ring, where trainers give their jockeys last-minute instructions and a leg up underneath three-story green-leafed European Fern Beeches and purple-leafed American Copper Beeches. It’s the most picturesque spot at Monmouth.

Casual fans lined the ring’s sturdy white fence and called out to their favorite jockeys. “Go get ‘em, Joe,” one cried. “I need you for the double, Jose,” shouted another. On their mounts the jockeys stayed as undisturbed as statues. I noticed Beef mixing among the masses, where every minute he was accosted by someone who greeted him like an old friend. Even down here he was a celebrity.

I remembered that this was the race he had boasted about earlier. He closely examined the horses as their jockeys walked them around the ring. I had seen other canny bettors do this before; closely analyzing the appearances of the horses on which they would wager large sums, looking for horses sharp and on their toes, ears pricked, necks bowed. The ones that look flat, heads down, nervous and sweaty, they know to cross out. The horse Beef liked fit the bill. The well-muscled bay colt was quiet, but he displayed a controlled energy. He swished his tail up-and-down, a sign that he was feeling good.

The bugler called the horses to the post and the crowd moved like an outgoing tide toward the track apron. I took the elevator to the top floor and then walked up the stairs and through the tunnel that leads into the press box. I found Beef in front of a bay of televisions, transfixed and uncharacteristically calm, waiting for the horses to load into the gate. His horse stood at odds of 15 to 1. He leaned back from the waist as if he might tip over backwards at any moment. His arms were outstretched and raised skyward, and his fingers motioned as if they were about to snap, but they never did. Every horseplayer has a signature pose; this was his. He looked like a believer at a Pentecostal church about to be healed by a preacher jabbering in tongue.

Beef’s horse broke well, but the jockey took him back. Beef was silent, the set of his mouth unmoved, as his horse raced in fifth, behind a wall of horses, down the backstretch. Once the horses banked into the stretch, Beef began to call out, “Come on baby, come on baby,” as his longshot ate up ground down the middle of the track, his call intensifying in volume as the horse’s prospects improved with every stride. The lengths the horse had to make up appeared insurmountable, but like a demon he hauled in one horse after another, and in the final jump before the wire he caught the leader, a dirty snout his winning margin. Beef let out a whoop. “Yes, baby!”

A crowd had gathered around Beef once his calls started, although, as focused on the race as a pilot to a landing strip, he was oblivious to his audience. Turning away from the TV, and seeing his fellow press box habitués, he started high-fiving everyone in sight, and even did a wild jig for a victory dance. It was time to celebrate.

There was one more race, and after that we left the press box as Sinatra crooned about the summer wind over the PA system. As would become a ritual, we headed to the bar at the Lady’s Secret Café. Lady’s Secret was a Hall of Fame mare who won several signature races at Monmouth in the mid-1980s. The bar sits in the rear of the clubhouse and overlooks the walking ring; it beckoned with its siren’s call of cold beers, paid for by the day’s big winner. That was Beef. The two bartenders, redheaded Ginger and leggy Nancy, knew him well. He flirted innocently with them, and the tips he left were more than the cost of the drinks.

Our group was a motley one. There were two other reporters, the media director, two cameramen, the track announcer, the official track handicapper, and a rotating mix of professional gamblers. I was the youngest by far but I had been immediately taken in. My position with the Form merited it. I was the only reporter who spent nearly every day there.

As we ordered more rounds, the sun slowly set behind the walking ring and paddock, casting shadows on the green and white buildings. I reclined in my green plastic chair like a king to his throne, listening to Beef and the others fill the air, already sweet with cigar smoke, with half-truths and shoulda-been and coulda-been scores. The language would have sounded foreign to an outsider. The tall tales and gambling lessons preached and ignored, which I’d come to treasure so, were like yarn wound across a loom into a handsome fabric.

Nobody wanted to leave for fear of missing a great story. Beef had recently spent a week at Gulfstream Park in Florida. He had gained a burgeoning following there after giving out a barn full of winners. “By the last race of the day they were chanting my name in the paddock bar,” he recounted.

I imagined what an odd scene that must have been, dozens of grown men and women singing out “Beef, Beef, Beef, Beef” over and over. His reward had been a chorus line of people who wanted to buy him a cup of Chivas. He loved to drink, and he told us there were days at Gulfstream where he was drunk by noon, except apparently that never dampened his fortunes.

Beef reminded us that his specialty was coming up with the winners of sprint races, short affairs that don’t last much more than a minute. He also never bet chalk, always looking for needles in a haystack of longshots. You could say he stuck with underdogs. I wondered why he only bet sprints, and it struck me that like the horses he bet on Beef lived fast and recklessly. He took poor care of himself and whatever demons possessed him that was his nature. He knew only one speed, like a foolhardy jockey who drives his horse to the front, daring others to come catch him, hoping to cross the wire first before his animal runs out of gas.

We finally left the track in the near dark, and a feeling of pride enveloped our group like fog. We continued telling stories all the way to dinner, where Beef picked up the tab.

 ***

The thing about the press box cast was that the actors never 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. It was all about the game. In my youth I expected that all the regulars would return every year.

On a weekday in June of 2005, at the beginning of a new season, I found myself at the track for a reason I can’t remember. College was now in my rearview mirror, and seeing as the press box was a second home, I must have felt like spending a leisurely day with my old friends.

Sometime in the afternoon the track announcer came over to me. His face was ashen and contorted by the weight of the news he had just learned over the phone. At his favorite Off-Track Betting parlor in the Bronx, where like in so many East Coast press boxes and grandstands Beef was a celebrity, a heart attack dropped him right in the middle of a race he had bet on. Bent backward in his familiar pose, his outraised hands holding tight onto wads of tickets, Beef died on the spot.

That evening after the races, we went to the Lady’s Secret and, like an Irish wake, offered many toasts and memories. We were stunned and sad, but it wasn’t surprising. Beef was only fifty-one but he looked older. He had finally run out of gas, but it wasn’t for lack of guts. We couldn’t believe the way in which he had passed into eternity; as a lifelong gambler his death happened in the heat of the thing that had delivered him so much joy. We all agreed: It was some way to go out.

Leave a comment

Filed under Horse racing, Writing