Category Archives: Writing

Eclipse Award

The last week of December I was honored to learn that I had won the Eclipse Award for feature writing, the national horse-racing journalism award. (The other writing category is for enterprise reporting, a category in which I received an honorable mention last year.) The piece that won it was my story on father-son jockeys Eibar and Keiber Coa, which ran in the Daily Racing Form’s Weekend section on July 7, and the latter’s decision to become a rider after watching his father recover from a career-ending, life-threatening riding accident. I’m thankful to both Eibar and Keiber for giving so freely and honestly of their emotions and memories on a very difficult subject.

Here is the press release from the National Thoroughbred Racing Association announcing the award. And here is the story itself, in the Daily Racing Form.

I used to see “Eclipse Award” attached to Sports Illustrated writer Bill Nack’s name, and since his collection of features “My Turf” had as great an influence on me as anything I read in my early teens, I always thought that award was something fit for gods. So it’s a humbling recognition. Hearing the news also made me think of the late Bill Handleman, as fine a wordsmith as I knew in those youthful years; he was the sports columnist for the Asbury Park Press, and at 15 I started sending Bill letters, which, as I remember it, asked for advice and the chance to break into the paper. After quite a few letters he handed them over to sports editor John Quinn who, out of curiosity and a little skepticism, invited me for an interview. It was September 1999, I was 16 and had only started my junior year of high school. We shot the breeze on horse racing, I knew my stuff and he saw my eagerness, and Quinn hired me as a cub high-school sports reporter. He took a chance, something I’ll never forget. I got to write about the horses the following summer. If Handleman had thrown those letters in the trash (that he didn’t reminds me that he was, despite outward cynicism, a dogged romantic at heart), I’d probably have ended up writing about something far less exciting and fake. Never a happy trooper at my high school, that job with the Asbury Park Press saved me.

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An ode to Columbus Park

Like all great parks, Columbus Park, on the southern edge of Chinatown, is many things to many people. For the bums who populate its benches in the northeast corner, it is a place to lay in the sun, drink tall boys of Budweiser in peace, and fall asleep undisturbed. For the elderly Chinese who come by the thousands every day, it is a community center and retirement home. Some play cards and checkers on stone tables as still more huddle around them like bees to a hive. On the south end of the park, far away in space and time from the pagoda-like pavilion where middle-aged Chinese men twist and flow to the rhythms of Tai Chi, young black boys fight it out at three basketball courts. A turf field divides the park in half and hosts soccer games for children from nearby public schools. Separating the field and the basketball courts is a playground where parents and grandparents from Chinatown amusingly watch the new generation swing and jump and slide, same as the American kids. This is only the park in Chinatown.

Different parts of the park stir different emotions. The parallel rows of benches which line the west side along Bayard Street are the refuge of the homesick, the lost, the wanderers. Chinatown is a poor replacement for their real homes. Creased and wrinkled old men and women sit here and listen to other old men play traditional folk music on instruments that look like a long-necked upside-down mallet. Played like a guitar-violin hybrid, the men strum a bow where three strings meet the head of the mallet. Those who sit here are not passive listeners; they sing off-key to songs which are high-pitched, heartbreaking, almost whining in tone. One day, a solitary man sitting alone on a bench clapped. He wore a hat which read “Brooklyn”.

Most men of Columbus Park wear cast-off hats or T-shirts emblazoned with the American flag or “New York” or messages they must not understand. One time a middle-aged, homely man wore a T-shirt that read: “Your Girlfriend is Flat”. The women fare better. They carry brightly-colored umbrellas on sunny days, shielding themselves or their friends playing Mahjong at the stone tables.

Columbus Park is what designers of urban parks should use as a model. It is a skid row in parts, social club, playground, hideout. Its four surrounding streets – Bayard on the north, Baxter (formerly Orange) on the west, Mulberry on the east, Worth (formerly Anthony) on the south – bear a turbulent history. The bloody Five Points neighborhood and “The Bend” once stood here. Next door, what is now Foley Square was two hundred years ago a swamp and tannery district. Once that pond was filled, in 1808, the surrounding area began to sink and a fierce odor soon possessed the air. The notorious, wretched, crime-plagued Five Points grew from this. This was the den of murderers and thieves and the slums of “The Bend” that Jacob Riis called a “vast human pig-sty.”

But the mix of immigrants and the poor of New York have never left Columbus Park. The German Jews arrived on Baxter Street in the 1840s, planting the city’s first garment district, and then the Irish arrived in numbers unseen outside Dublin, followed by Italians in the 1880s, their artifacts still seen farther north on Mulberry Street. Calvert Vaux planned Mulberry Bend Park, as it was first called, in the 1880s. It opened in 1897 and decades later Chinatown rose up around it. The hard-working Chinese have never relinquished it. They come here to rest their feet and enjoy what time they have between hours of toil.

Death is still a motif here. This stretch of Mulberry Street is Chinatown’s funeral row – Wah Wing Sang Funeral Corporation, Ng Fook Funeral Services, Fook On Sing Funeral Supplies, Sun Lun Hong Florist – and the men and women in black who habitually grace this street are solemn reminders for the regulars inside the park. Except they rarely seem to notice. The ancient men with empty gazes who sit alone on benches or large boulders in the northern section of the park lose themselves in tall clouds of cigarette smoke. Others congregate in large groups and never turn to see what happens on Mulberry Street. There are talkers and listeners and voyeurs. Something for everyone. There is life in Columbus Park, but there is also sadness. Lives here have not been easy, but in the afternoon the sun sets behind the wide stone pavilion and people fall asleep on benches, safe it seems, even comfortable.

 

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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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Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows

The Italian Carroll Gardens community in South Brooklyn is one of the few left in New York that holds onto its past, begrudgingly, and perhaps fleetingly, against the vicious eraser of chain stores, extreme wealth, and sameness that has come to define swaths of this city. What the community has lost in terms of businesses and population it has guarded in tradition. This past Sunday was a sacred one in the neighborhood, as the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows took place for the 63rd consecutive year.

The Feast is organized by the Molesi community in Carroll Gardens. People from Mola di Bari, a tiny fishing village of 2,500 people on the Adriatic Sea in Southern Italy, began slowly arriving in the neighborhood in the 1930s, but thousands came after World War II once fishing jobs dried up in their hometown. There was already an established Italian community going back to the late 1800s, although mostly Sicilian and Neapolitan. By the mid-1960s there were more emigres from Mola di Bari in Carroll Gardens than in the Italian village. In 1960, 14 teenagers opened the Van Westerhout Cittadini Molesi Social Club on the corner of Court Street and Fourth Place; its doors are still open, that is if you are Molesi.

In search of prosperity here, the arrivals from Mola brought with them the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. As Lisa M. Collins of the South Brooklyn Post recently wrote in a must-read feature about the community:

[W]hen the people of Mola di Bari came to Carroll Gardens, they brought with them a sacred tradition from their hometown. In 1948, an exact replica of the town idol, which stands in the town square, the Maria Santissima Addolorata, named ‘Our Lady of Sorrows,’ and wearing an elaborate medieval dress, was brought over on the boat.

For the past 62 years, twice a year, the Italian Carroll Gardens community, lead by the local Molesi leaders, gather at Sacred Hearts-St. Stephens Roman Catholic Church at Summit and Hicks streets. Men carry the statue of the sorrowful Maria on their shoulders in an hours-long procession throughout Carroll Gardens that includes singing, traditional clothing, incense, and stopping every once in a while to play instruments and sing. The Mary is in mourning over the death of Jesus, and is symbolic of the suffering parents feel when a child dies.

I arrived at the church shortly before 3 on Sunday, as hundreds of old men and women dressed in dark suits prepared to lead the Maria statue out of the church. The Feast is always the second Sunday of September; Good Friday is the other day of the year the statue is taken out. As many Molesi who lived in Carroll Gardens have scattered to Bensonhurst, Staten Island, and elsewhere, it had the feel of a reunion. Cheap firecrackers gave the signal to march, and a ragtag band kept up the rear of the procession. It seemed pulled from a Fellini film.

I followed the band as we set out on Hicks Street. The streets were blocked off for the procession. A thick nostalgia enveloped me like fog, and I grew emotional thinking about the continuity of the tradition. We stopped at the police station and later Scotto Funeral Home. I spoke to one old woman who has lived her whole life on Tompkins Place in Carroll Gardens, and has never missed a feast. She gave me rosary beads. I departed around 5, but the procession still had two hours to go before it returned to the church for a fireworks display and then Mass in Italian.

Here are some photos:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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The patients no one wants

I spent time at the turn of the year reporting a piece on a group of doctors, based at Brown University, who have made their careers and a distinguished history out of treating prisoners, easily the most neglected segment of our population. That’s a population that’s grown to unbelievable heights, and keeps growing: 2.3 million prisoners in all. Mass incarceration is one of the few areas in which the U.S. still leads the world.

This is a topic on which I’m going to continue reporting, particularly the individual stories of those affected by our correctional-industrial complex. I’m open to any ideas for those who’d like to offer suggestions.

In the meantime, here’s the online version of the story. It’ll be in print this week; the magazine is sent to all Brown alumni.

Here is the story’s introduction:

On the second Tuesday in January, Professor of Medicine Josiah “Jody” Rich began his seventeenth year of weekly visits to Rhode Island’s state prison, the Adult Correctional Institution (ACI). The first inmate he saw that morning was a familiar one.

“How far do we go back?” Rich asked Charles Long.

Long shook his head mournfully. “Way back,” he said, his voice trailing off.

They talked inside a small examination room at the minimum-security prison on ACI’s sprawling campus in Cranston. Rich, an infectious-disease specialist and professor of medicine and community health at the Warren Alpert Medical School, sat behind an old metal desk that supported an outdated computer. Long rested on a plastic chair next to an exam table. Nearby were a young resident and the prison’s head nurse.

Laid low by drugs and sixteen prison stays in twenty-two years, Long, at sixty-one, was in bad shape. He had tested positive for HIV eighteen years earlier while incarcerated at the ACI, and the effects were catching up to him. His breathing was labored. He coughed frequently. His kidneys and heart were failing. His thin hair was arranged in cornrows above his small, weathered face, and his prison garb was a study in beige: beige sandals, beige flannels, and a light-beige thermal undershirt.

Inmates in Long’s condition are not uncommon among the 2.3 million prisoners in the United States, a number that forty years ago was only 200,000. More than half of those 2.3 million have a history of substance abuse or mental illness. Thanks to mandatory sentences for even minor drug violations, and to the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, prisons have often become overcrowded warehouses mixing young and old, sick and healthy, hardened criminals with men and women guilty mostly of being foolish and young.

Not until 1976 did the U.S. Supreme Court rule that the Constitution guarantees prisoners the right to health care. Yet how that right is acknowledged varies greatly from state to state. Jody Rich is one of several Brown doctors who over the past quarter century have quietly established Rhode Island as a national model for providing quality health care to incarcerated citizens. From the treatment of HIV infection to the easing of addiction, Brown physicians like Rich have been not only on a mission to ensure that people who have broken the law get adequate health care; they have also used their prestige to advocate for better living conditions in prisons more generally.

“These guys at Brown took some of the basics of providing health care to prisoners and they took it to another level, with the research and the systematic approach and the continuity of care,” says Dr. Mark Malek, the director of preventive medicine and epidemiology at the Los Angeles County Jail. He met Rich two years ago after asking the National Institutes of Health (NIH) about grants for treating prisoners with HIV. “I was told there’s a great group in Rhode Island I could learn a lot from.”

Malek says that Rich and his collaborators have approached prisoner health care as a public health mandate, and have streamlined the transition of health care for prisoners as they are released back into the community. The doctors are, Malek says, “an example for the rest of the country.”

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Louisiana drama

I spent the last two months reporting the case of the Louisiana horsemen’s group in which its leaders were indicted in November for a panoply of fraud – wire, mail, identity and health care – and are basically charged with trying to take anything that wasn’t tied down. It’s ensnared some powerful and well-known people in Louisiana racing. And its narrative conclusion is far from being written – the trial won’t be held until September.

The result of my investigation was a lengthy piece in the Daily Racing Form’s Weekend section last Saturday, where I’ve had the privilege of contributing my long-form stories for the last year and a half. The link is on the right side of the main page and also in the “Articles” tab above. What follows is the introduction to the piece.

If Hamlet were recast in modern America, is there any doubt where it would be set? Over the last six years in Louisiana, a Shakespearean performance full of intrigue, betrayal, greed, and family rivalries has played out within the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association (HBPA), the non-profit group recognized by law as the voice of the more than 5,000 owners and trainers who race at the state’s four racetracks.

This storyline is as familiar to Louisianans as Mardi Gras. The populist governor Earl Long once said that his constituents “don’t want good government, they want good entertainment.” But if there is any entertainment here it could only be dark comedy.

Last November, the U.S. Attorney’s office of the Eastern District of Louisiana charged Sean Alfortish, the president of the HBPA, and Mona Romero, its executive director, with 29 counts of conspiracy to commit mail fraud, identity fraud, wire fraud, healthcare fraud, and witness tampering. The investigation took more than two years.

Alfortish, 43, and Romero, 52, pleaded not guilty and are free on bail. The board of the HBPA forced them to resign, and their trial is scheduled for September. If they are convicted on all 29 counts, Alfortish and Romero face maximum penalties of 280 years in jail and $7.25 million in fines.

Even for a game well acquainted with tomfoolery, this was sensational. Prosecutors say that beginning in March 2005, when Alfortish won election and then chose Romero as executive director, they siphoned off hundreds of thousands of dollars from the HBPA and its medical benefits trust for cash and salaries, parties and vacations, cars and entertainment, evening gowns and diamond cufflinks, and even a settlement in a sexual harassment suit.

That isn’t all. The indictment charges that after horsemen from around the country donated almost $800,000 for Hurricanes Katrina and Rita relief, Alfortish and Romero seized control of the funds and spent some on themselves and gave more to undeserving friends.

And, as a minority of elected members of the HBPA’s 10-person board asked more and more questions about the finances of the association, Alfortish and Romero, prosecutors say, conspired with three subordinates to rig the March 2008 election, replacing those members with their preferred candidates.

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