Monthly Archives: March 2012

Some way to go out

More than a year ago I posted here a short story I wrote on one of the former denizens of the Monmouth Park press box. That story has been subjected to several revisions, and what follows is the new version. Once the weather gets warm, my thoughts drift to Monmouth by the sea, and then I think of those who no longer return to the press box.

“Some way to go out”

It was thirty minutes to my deadline and the eighth race. I punched at the keys on my laptop, as visions of legendary turf writers doing the same filled my imagination: Runyon and Smith and Hatton chewing on half-lit cigars in this very press box. I was eighteen at the time, and a week earlier the Daily Racing Form, the Bible of horse racing, had tapped me as its reporter for Monmouth Park, the historic seaside track in New Jersey.

I sat at my assigned spot at the ledge that serves as a desk for the newspaper beat writers and runs the length of the main room. Above it spans a ceiling-high window overlooking the course. From that fourth-floor vantage point I looked beyond the course to see the blue of the Atlantic two 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.

Just then I heard a commotion in the adjacent room, which serves as a lounge of sorts where reporters and assorted hangers-on relax on couches, wager their meager salaries at two betting windows, and watch TVs carrying feeds from racetracks around the country. It’s a trading post for track gossip and bad-beat gambling stories.

There I found a penguin-shaped, middle-aged man holding court for a half-dozen reporters. He was short, five-foot-five maybe, and must have weighed two-hundred-fifty pounds. It was a pleasant late spring afternoon but a river of sweat flowed from his brow. His wispy black hair drooped to his shoulders. In one hand he grasped a tattered, rolled-up copy of the day’s Racing Form, and in the other a clear plastic cup brimming with cheap Scotch.

“Hey Beef!” one reporter exclaimed. “What brings you back to Monmouth? I thought your privileges were revoked here.”

Beef chortled. Scotch 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 in the press box now.”

“How was Gulfstream?” another asked.

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

Other reporters passed through, making detours at the teller on the way to their desks; this group never let work get in the way of making a bet. They all knew Beef, and I could tell he sought their respect. “Hey Bill, talk to me,” Beef said, grabbing one of the old-timers by the arm, “Whaddaya working on these days?”

Beef smiled broadly as this 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 (tickets spilled out of his hands and pockets). The joking was good-natured, though; everyone in the press box – reporters, track officials, announcers, true horseplayers – had known each other for years, even decades. Monmouth was open from Memorial Day to Labor Day, and during that season they spent more time with each other than their own families.

One of the reporters, whose talent for hexing a tip earned him the nickname the Grim Reaper, spoke up. “So who do you like in this race, Beef? I’m getting crushed today, we all are.”

His audience collectively leaned in. Even the press box’s security guard, an ancient white-haired man usually asleep in his chair by now, listened raptly from the edge of the circle as if Beef were the oracle of Delphi.

“I have a horse who can’t lose,” Beef answered confidently. “Been waiting all day for him. He’s a well-bred maiden, never run before. The trainer is good with the young ones and his workouts have been sneaky good. I got a guy on the backstretch who has been watching him breeze in the morning. The trainer has him ready for this.”

“What are the odds?” he was asked.

“Fifteen to one right now,” said Beef, turning to glance at the television flashing twenty minutes to post and the odds on the five horse. “All you hacks can buy me a drink after he wins.” Beef chuckled and everybody laughed. “I’m going to the paddock to see how he looks.”

His spectators dispersed, Beef noticed me standing behind the group. He walked over and extended a sweaty paw. “Stuart Rubin, but everybody calls me Beef.”

Holding out his Racing Form, he asked, “You’re the new kid, right?” I nodded even though the question was rhetorical. “I liked your article today. You’ve come a long way in one week.” Reminded of the business to come, he declared, “Walk with me to the paddock.”

Beef led us out of the press box, down the long entrance hallway decorated with large black-and-white photos of the Monmouth of old. The security guard had left his post, presumably to bet Beef’s tip. Along the way Beef boasted of big scores with old friends – this guy from Saratoga, that guy from Gulfstream – as if they were included in some press-box admission exam I had been forced to take. It was obvious that Beef was a first-rate horseplayer. But talking to him was like being in the eye of a hurricane, moving, swirling. Before I could fully settle on his last story he had moved onto the next.

On the slow elevator ride to the ground floor Beef asked me what I was writing that day. I told him that I had a scoop about a gifted local horse ready to race in New York, where he might be overlooked because of his out-of-town connections.

“Good, call it like you see it,” he told me. “Others reporters might hold back that information so they can cash a bet instead. Some guys can get away with that, but that’s what got your predecessor canned. You’re the eyes and ears of the paper and people depend on you to tell the whole story.”

My first week for the Form had been a slog, so coming from this eccentric sage it was encouraging advice. The previous summer I had reported for a local newspaper, but that was a leisurely afternoon post. This one required first-light arrivals at the barns; racehorse trainers, the objects of my inquiries, arrive like night patrolmen at that hour. To gain their trust I had to hang around, a lot, and wait and listen and learn the language. Beef could help me translate.

Stepping off the elevator into the basement of the grandstand, we walked past the TV department and medical office and then into daylight. Thousands of fans surrounded the paddock, from fathers showing their sons how to read a program on down to hopeless degenerates. The racetrack is the great equalizer – once you understand the language.

This was a maiden race; for some of the horses that meant their first start. Anxiety isn’t restricted to human athletes, Beef pointed out. These animals were untested and you could find clues within their disposition. Beef wanted to study his pick, as well as its competition.

We threaded through the crowd into the paddock’s English-style walking ring, where owners and trainers and jockeys congregate before the race. Inside the paddock trainers saddle their horses and then give their riders instructions and a leg up. Three-story green-leafed European Fern Beeches and purple-leafed American Copper Beeches provide a canopy above the ring. It’s hard not to fall in love with horse racing from this spot, I thought.

Standing to the side, Beef rocked back and forth, examining the horses as they took three laps around the ring, their jockeys in the saddle. “Look for the horses that are sharp and on their toes, ears pricked, necks bowed. They can’t wait to run,” he said. “The ones that look flat, heads down, sweaty and nervous, cross them off.”

The horse Beef liked fit the bill. He grinned when I suggested this. “Oh yeah, look at him,” he said knowingly. The well-muscled bay colt was quiet, but he displayed a controlled energy. He swished his tail up and down, a sign he was feeling good.

The bugler called the horses to the post from inside the tunnel that leads to the course. The fans lining the ring’s sturdy white fence hurled final pleas to their jockeys of the moment. On their mounts the small men sat undisturbed.

“Go get ‘em, Joe,” one cried.

“I need you for the double, Jose,” shouted another.

“Hey Stewie, quit riding like a bum for once.”

The crowd moved like an outgoing tide toward the track apron. Time to bet. Every few yards Beef was accosted by someone who greeted him like an old friend. They were desirous of one thing. Who did he like?

I left Beef and quickly returned to the press box. There were five minutes to post. I filed my story and then found Beef in front of a bay of televisions in the lounge area, transfixed and surprisingly calm.

By now, I could tell Beef’s opinion spread as quickly as a buyout rumor on Wall Street. His odds had dropped to 10 to one, though still healthy. Waiting for the horses to load into the gate, Beef 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 ready to be healed by a preacher jabbering in tongue.

A small congregation of regulars, a dozen in all, took their places behind Beef. Even those who would have left by now were there, like Joe Hintelmann. A retired English teacher in his seventies, Hintelmann, who sported a wild shock of white hair, had once written for a throwaway weekly. I never saw him write a word and we knew the weekly had folded years ago. But he never gave the impression that we knew.

As the last of nine horses loaded, we collectively held our breath. Just break well, I thought. And then they were off. Beef’s horse got away well, but the jockey took him back. I couldn’t tell if Beef was hoping for that. He was silent, the set of his mouth unmoved, as his horse raced in fifth, behind a wall of horses, down the backstretch. The race was only six furlongs – three-quarters of a mile – and would be over in a minute.

As protocol dictates, nobody spoke until the field reached the final turn. Once the horses banked into the stretch, Beef began to call out, “Come on baby, come on baby,” as his longshot motored down the middle of the track. His jockey had lost ground taking him wide, but at least they were in the clear. The six lengths the horse had to make up, however, appeared insurmountable.

But like a demon he hauled in one horse, then another. Beef’s call intensified with every stride, as did the rest of ours, each person with his own call.

“Come on baby! Come on baby!”

“Come on you commie bastard!”

“Get him up! Get him up! Get him up!”

In the final jump before the wire Beef’s horse caught the leader, a dirty snout his winning margin. Beef let out a whoop and spun around. “YES, BABY!”

As focused on the race as a pilot to a landing strip, he looked surprised to discover the crowd around him. He started high-fiving everyone in sight and then let free of a wild jig for a victory dance. It was time to celebrate.

There was one more race, and then we left the press box as Sinatra crooned about the summer wind over the PA system. Our group was a motley one. Besides Beef, there were three other reporters, the media director, two cameramen, the track announcer, the official track handicapper, and a rotating mix of resident players. 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 would become a ritual, we headed to the bar at the Lady’s Secret Café, which sits in the rear of the clubhouse and overlooks the paddock. Lady’s Secret is a Hall of Fame mare who won several signature races at Monmouth in the mid-1980s. The bar 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 larger than the cost of the drinks.

The sun slowly set behind the paddock, casting shadows on the green and white-painted 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 dialect 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.

Too timid to ask Beef himself, I leaned over to the track announcer and asked him if Beef bet the ponies for a living. Yes and no, the announcer told me. Beef is a special education teacher in a New York City public school, he said, and he lived in the Bronx with his elderly Jewish mother. He could probably do this for a living, but the swings were great, and Beef lived recklessly. Best to have ammunition during the downswings. A teacher’s schedule explained why Beef spent a lot of time at tracks in and around New York during the summer.

The rounds continued. Nobody wanted to leave for fear of missing a great story. Beef told us about the $40,000 first prize he took earlier that year at a two-day handicapping tournament in New Haven. On his recent trip to Gulfstream Park he had added to his burgeoning following.

“I gave out a barn full of winners. By the last race of the day they were chanting my name in the paddock bar,” he said with a chuckle.

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. That never seemed to damper his fortunes.

Beef reminded us that all his winners, as before, came in sprint races. He also never bet chalk, always looking for needles in a haystack of longshots. You could say he bet the underdogs. It struck me that Beef resembled the horses on which he bet. He knew only one speed; he lived in the manner of a foolhardy jockey who drives his charge 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 dark, and a feeling of pride enveloped our group like fog. To nights that never end, I thought, reciting Sinatra. We continued telling stories all the way to dinner, where Beef picked up the tab.

***

These scenes would play out for me over the next four years. The press box’s cast of characters hardly 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 lasted a day. It was all about the game. Deceived by the illusion of time, I thought these days would never end.

None of us were with Beef that day in June 2005, at the beginning of a new Monmouth meet. I hadn’t seen him since the previous summer. Supposed to make the trip from New York, he instead decided to play the races from his favorite Off-Track Betting parlor in the Bronx. I can only imagine he was as much a celebrity there as in so many East Coast press boxes and grandstands.

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. A heart attack dropped Beef while watching a neck-and-neck stretch duel between two cheap claiming horses at some nowhere track. Bent backward in his familiar pose, his hands squeezing wads of tickets, he died on the spot.

That evening we went to the Lady’s Secret and, in something of an Irish wake for a Jewish gambler, offered many toasts. My memories were younger; I thought back to that whirlwind day I met Beef. We were stunned and sad, but not surprised. Beef was only fifty-one but he looked older. He had finally buckled under his impost.

And yet I marveled at the way in which he had passed into eternity. We spend hours studying races which last a minute or two. Deliverance is rare; the best in the trade win a quarter of their wagers. Beef had died in that fleeting moment of a passion that gave him so much joy. We all agreed: it was some way to go out.

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