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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Film, radio, and print

Some news to share. Last night, the ESPN Films “30 for 30” documentary on which I was the associate producer, Benji, finally aired. The film tells the story of the tragic murder of Chicago high school basketball star Ben Wilson in 1984; his death rocked the city and the lives of his friends and family, and still reverberates today. I’m proud of the film and those who had a role in it. I think we told a compelling story, one in which a sports narrative extends beyond box scores and locker-room quotes.

It also played at the Chicago International Film Festival last week. Here is a video from the Q&A that followed the Thursday night show. It was a surreal moment for those who’ve seen the film.

Elsewhere, last month I was interviewed on the WBUR (Boston) show “Here and Now” about equine genetics and the concurrent article I wrote for the Times. I think I sound better in the end than I felt at the time.

Lastly, my most recent feature was for the Daily Racing Form about geriatric trainers and the rich history of old men training well into their eighties, and why that’s such a colorful, important, unique part of the game. I spoke to some true legends for the story, men with enough stories for a few lifetimes.

 

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Various stories

The last few weeks have been busy, with the documentary I worked on, “Benji,” the story of the late Chicago basketball star Ben Wilson, premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival last month. For those who didn’t catch it, it will make its televised debut on ESPN in October. I had a great time on the project, from my joining directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah and producers Ted Schillinger and Amani Martin in July, through to its finish in April. It was a pleasure being part of that team, along with accomplished editor Jason Schmidt, and several others.

There was no rest, as I wrote three articles which came out last week. The first two were features for the International Herald Tribune’s Kentucky Derby preview section and the other was a profile for the Daily Racing Form about quintessential powerbroker Dennis Drazin’s plan to save Monmouth Park, the historic track in New Jersey and a place where I first placed a bet and got my start as a writer years ago (2000, to be exact).

The IHT stories are here and here. The first is about Take Charge Indy’s trainer Patrick Byrne, and his revived career. Unfortunately Take Charge Indy ran poorly in the Derby while coming out with an ankle injury. The second article is about Went the Day Well’s trainer Graham Motion and owner Team Valor; their horse ran a credible fourth, and I give him a big chance in the Preakness on Saturday. Here is the Daily Racing Form article on Monmouth Park.

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A Vision in White

Last Wednesday, a profile I wrote about the nearly white racehorse Hansen, last year’s 2-year-old champion and one of this year’s leading Kentucky Derby contenders, ran in the New York Times. You can read that here. I was floored to open the paper and find a head-on action shot of Hansen taking up about 4/5ths of the front page of Sports (tucked behind the Business section). The story looks at Hansen’s unique coloring, the attraction of that, and the genetics of color. I learned a great deal about how color – particularly gray – is inherited, and it turned out to be a visually compelling article. Kudos to photographer Christian Hansen (no relation) in Louisville who snapped some beautiful shots.

Also, I stepped in to cover the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct on Saturday. That story is here. It was a thrilling contest, as the undefeated Gemologist showed a great deal of class and resolve to hold off the stout, late-running Alpha.

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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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The Kettle of Fish

I’ve spent as much time at any bar in the city as the Kettle of Fish on Christopher Street. It’s a friendly, warm neighborhood bar and one of the few remaining Village institutions. It opened on Macdougal Street in 1950 and became a bar of the Beat poets. But I had never been there for Packers games, for which the bar is now known. For more than a decade fans from around the city have made pilgrimages there on N.F.L. Sundays, and it’s also a destination for Wisconsinites too, now. Much of this is the handiwork of Patrick Daley, the boisterous, kindhearted 56-year-old owner, and a roundtable of regulars in the rear of the bar who incited the Packer tradition there. I wrote a feature for the New York Times last week which recounted a classic New York tale set within a slice of the Midwest in Greenwich Village. The story was positioned on the front-page of the Sports section, with a lovely layout of photos.

Here is the online version of the article and here are a few photos.

 

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