Tag Archives: Horse racing

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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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 golden era of Brooklyn racing

One of the reasons for my long silence here is that I’ve been fabulously busy recently.  In particular, I spent several weeks buried in old Brooklyn newspaper archives, manuscripts and ephemera at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and research from the Keeneland Library for a story I was researching about the grand history of horse racing in Brooklyn. For about 30 years, Brooklyn racing had no peer, and the borough in many ways grew around its famous racetracks. The story was as fun as any I’ve written. You can read it here, in the Daily Racing Form’s Weekend section, and the following is a short passage.

There are no obvious traces left of Brooklyn’s grand horse racing past. Not even a plaque where any of its three storied racetracks once stood, reminding unsuspecting passersby of the famed circuit that prospered there for three decades and laid the foundation for the modern game. The still-mourned Ebbets Field has a small plaque marking its former site, but before Brooklyn was a baseball town it had been synonymous with horse racing. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle observed around the turn of the 20th century that “the sport for which Brooklyn is most famed is horse racing.”

There are no mourners left for seaside Brighton Beach, Gravesend, and the grandest of them all, Sheepshead Bay, known in its time as America’s Ascot. Together they made Brooklyn the racing capital of America. Like other racetracks in New York they closed by the end of 1910, casualties of a prohibition on gambling in the state. That ban was lifted in 1913, but by then, the power center of New York racing had moved eastward into the more open spaces of Queens and Long Island. The Brooklyn trio never reopened, supplanted by the newer courses of Aqueduct, Jamaica, and magnificent Belmont.

Aqueduct is the only track left within city limits. It opened last Friday for its six-month slog through almost three seasons. It will soon become more like a casino with the addition of thousands of slot machines.

As strange as it sounds, it was easier to be a racing fan in New York City a century ago than today. The subway runs to Aqueduct, but no direct line runs to Belmont after the Long Island Railroad eliminated daily service. A yellow school bus now picks up racegoers once in the morning at a nearby station.

By the early 1880’s, one could reach the beachfront of Coney Island, home to the Brighton Beach course and within a mile of Sheepshead Bay, by any of nine steam railroads and one horse-car line. By 1886, the Prospect Park and Coney Island Railroad, today’s F subway line, deposited racegoers at the Gravesend entrance.

Closer inspection of Brooklyn’s history reveals a fixed legacy – for racing and New York. The Brooklyn tracks started everyday racing from spring to fall, established great fixtures such as the Suburban and Brooklyn, moved the classics from four miles to 1 1/4 miles, and gave away purses that made racing broadly profitable. Neighborhoods rose around the tracks, and the most extensive railway system in the country developed as a way to carry racegoers to these ever-popular locations.

 

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More tales from the turf

I’ve had a busy and exciting few months with several assignments from the turf, as well as other stories firmly in the old-school category.  This time of the summer, in the sporting world, is always gripping; that’s been the case for my home turf of Monmouth Park. First, last year’s horse of the year, Rachel Alexandra, laid over a weak field in the Lady’s Secret Stakes there July 24th, a race basically designed for her.  I have a problem with such tomfoolery, more so from the standpoint of the connections, who seem to feel the American stakes schedule is below them, rather than the track’s management.  Then, a week later, last year’s 2-year-old champion Lookin at Lucky won Monmouth’s premier race, the $1 million Haskell, stamping his case for another divisional championship. I was there both days.

Although the crowd for Rachel on a sweltering day was below expectations, both days were successful for Monmouth.  Never has that been so important for the historic 65-year-old track.  This year, with calls from the state over the winter for change, the track shortened its schedule and upped its purses with the ambition of drawing better horses and larger fields.  Fields have been bigger, and the horses better, though not as much as probably hoped for.  The meet’s tagline is the “Elite Summer Meet”, but most of the cards, outside of most Saturdays, haven’t been elite.  This, I realize, isn’t altogether Monmouth’s fault; there just aren’t enough quality horses any more, and the ones that exist run so infrequently, get injured or sidelined, or retire to the breeding shed at the first sign of talent.  I’d like to see Monmouth experiment with the composition of its races; longer races on the main track and turf, for example.  Hopefully, if the meet returns in similar form next year, that will happen.  But, in short, racing has many problems, foremost of which are drugs and medication, and one track alone can’t fix them.

Even with Monmouth’s so-far successful experiment this summer, its fate is still on the line in New Jersey.  This weekend, I wrote a long feature for The New York Times about the fate of harness racing and the Meadowlands racetrack in New Jersey.  Monmouth, where thoroughbreds run, appears somewhat safer than the Meadowlands, which finds itself in the crosshairs of Gov. Chris Christie after a long-awaited report on gambling came out three weeks ago.  It’ll be interesting to track in the next 6 months what the thoroughbred and harness industries conceive in terms of a long-term plan, which is what the governor is asking for.

On another note, I recently wrote two other stories which will be coming out soon.  I had a wonderful time reporting both.  The first is a story for the Daily Racing Form about said newspaper’s founder, a man named Frank Brunell.  In the long history of the so-called Sport of Kings, Brunell’s influence has few parallels.  He created the Daily Racing Form in 1894, and along with it racing charts, which since then have formed the backbone of the way a race is represented.  His paper and his charts changed the game.  Eleven years later he designed past performances, which show a horse’s previous races in an easily digestible ledger format.  Again, this was a revolutionary invention, and those past performances are now inseparable from horse racing.  Brunell was an eccentric; honest and thorough in the bawdy and swashbuckling times of turn-of-the-20th century Chicago, a hard drinker but a tireless visionary.  My account of his life and the early days of the Form will appear this weekend.

Lastly, I recently turned in a story about a one-of-a-kind pinball museum in the seaside town of Asbury Park, N.J., which is one of the more fertile areas for my reporting.  The place is a time warp, and people, young and old, are flocking there to relive old memories or create new ones.  This story will run next month in Inside Jersey, the Star-Ledger’s monthly magazine; this is my second story for that publication, following my recent feature on Mr. Fashion.

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Stories from the press box: Joe Hintelmann

This is the first post in a series of stories from the press box – the strange, the memorable, the humorous, the divine, and more. These are stories of the people I’ve met and the things I’ve seen in my years writing about horse racing. Knowledge of horse racing isn’t required, only an appreciation of the low-life and its wonderful characters.

In the years 2000 through 2002, when I was a beat reporter at Monmouth Park in New Jersey, Joe Hintelmann reliably arrived at the press box at 11 every morning, nearly two hours before first post and ahead of just about any other reporter. If the security guard had not done so already, he would put on a pot of coffee in the kitchen. He was, technically, a reporter, by the loose standards of the turf. Racetracks prove the adage that any press is good press, even if, in the case of Hintelmann, his weekly rag, The Two River Times, didn’t have him write anything. It’s unclear if he ever did. I never saw him type a word – on a typewriter, or laptop, or word processor.  This never seemed to be an annoyance for Hintelmann. He was like a sentry on the Maginot Line who diligently maintained his outpost long after the war was over. It was better to hold onto an old reality rather than give up the perks of the job.

After he put on the coffee, Hintelmann would walk over to his corner seat at the long window and desk of the main room and set down his cherry-brown briefcase. (The view from there was spectacular; the finish line was below and an even a rudimentary pair of binoculars could clearly pick up the horses as they ran down the backstretch.) It was something an accountant might carry in the typewriter age. He’d take out a few papers, scan them slowly, and place them next to his briefcase. Since he hadn’t written a story in years, I could never imagine what mysteries those papers contained.

Hintelmann was tall, six-three or six-four, and had a wild shock of white hair. He was in his early 70s, and although he was friendly he usually kept to himself. What little I knew about him was that he had been a local high school teacher, he was now retired, and he liked to take cruises in the winter. At the start of the Monmouth season, in May, somebody would ask him where he had traveled, and that conversation was about all that Hintelmann said for four months, other than daily pleasantries.

He’d get the day’s scratches early, but his betting strategy was simple and never wavered. He bet on jockey Luis Rivera every time, no matter what. To say this was a losing proposition doesn’t do it justice. Rivera rode longshots almost exclusively. He was, in railbird vernacular, a human anchor on a horse. He was an older jockey and at that time in the twilight of his career. He might win one or two races over the course of four months. Regardless of his chances, however, Hintelmann bet $2 to win on every single one of Rivera’s mounts, which many days were few. I guess Hintelmann had a thing for the underdog.

Hintelmann always ate his lunch early, sometimes before other reporters even arrived in the press box. When they were ordering lunch he was clamoring for an ice cream dessert. And when the best races went off, and reporters watched them intently for their articles, Hintelmann had already left, gone before 4.  It was the same routine every day.

After 2002, I was no longer at Monmouth on a daily basis, but on my regular trips there I’d see Hintelmann and say hello. One of the last times I saw him was in 2005, at the press conference for the $1 million Haskell Invitational, Monmouth’s premiere race. I sat at his table. Other reporters had on their best jeans, but Hintelmann wore a long, light blue polyester blazer, something stored in moth balls particularly for this occasion; it was at least twice as old as me. His white hair was neatly combed. It was charming and nostalgic. He obviously appreciated the invitation, even though his deadline wasn’t pressing.

After the brief press conference, reporters flocked like wild dogs to the free buffet. Crab cakes were always the big draw. Hintelmann had a plate full. As we finished our lunches, he took several crab cakes from his plate, wrapped them in napkins, and slid them in his jacket pocket. Noticing me watching him, he said, sheepishly and with a slight grin, “For the elevator ride to the press box.”

The thing about the press box cast was that nothing ever changed. In September we’d go our separate ways and in May we’d return and pick up where we had left off. Conversations about what people had done that offseason usually lasted a day. There was a motley group of reporters, officials, and hanger-ons, those who had somehow become accepted in the press box even though they weren’t press. Everybody loved being there.

Of the people there in my formative years, Hintelmann was the first who didn’t return. This was 2006. He died that July at age 76. From his obituary, I learned that he had been the chairperson of the English Department at Red Bank Catholic High School for 47 years. As the local paper announced, “He proudly served our country in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was a great traveler taking cruises to many places in Mexico and the Caribbean. He was an avid Yankees fan. During the summertime, he worked as a sports reporter with the former Red Bank Register covering the Monmouth Park race track, handicapping as ‘Reggie Ster.’ He also reported for the Two River Times at the track and was the sports reporter for the Newark Star Ledger covering Shore area high school sporting events.”

Nobody has since occupied the seat where Hintelmann sat. There are no daily reporters left in the press box. At least Hintelmann showed up for work every day, even after there wasn’t any work left to do.

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Clockers (not the Richard Price kind)

Every morning at an American racetrack, hundreds of horses train for upcoming races. Like any athlete, horses have a training regimen that should prepare them to race their best. They’re like distance runners who build toward marathons by increasing the distance of their morning runs. Horses in training often have one full-fledged official workout a week, whereas the rest of the time they’re jogging or galloping.

As this is a game premised on wagering, that official workout has meaning, and offers a glimpse into the health, conditioning, speed, and stamina of a horse. For decades, then, there are people at the track who time these workouts, and that information is published in the racetrack program and Daily Racing Form. The people who time the workouts are known as clockers.

Their job is indispensable but usually overlooked. It is not easy. Horses don’t wear nametags on the track. Clockers must identify the horses by their saddlecloth (which has the trainer’s initials), color, and markings. Once they’ve identified the horse, they use a stopwatch to time the horse’s work (or drill, as it’s also called), often watching and clocking several horses at once.

While every racetrack has a small team of official clockers, say between three and five, and whose timings appear as the official record, in Southern California there’s a tight community of private clockers. This is an aspect unique to California. These private clockers use the information they gather observing horses for wagering purposes or to sell to bettors. The simple idea is that horses translate their morning form to the afternoons. Put another way, five-kilometer runners don’t win marathons overnight.

In a new article for the Daily Racing Form‘s Weekend section, I wrote about this small group of clockers. Even racing novices will, I think, find it an interesting subculture.

The two private clockers I followed are Gary Young, one of the best gamblers and observers of horseflesh in California, and Andy Harrington, who offers his analysis for National Turf.

Here’s a passage:

Clocking is still something of a religion in Southern California. It has different churches – workout reports from National Turf, The Winner’s Card, Today’s Racing Digest, The Handicapper’s Report – and many believers. Workouts are scrutinized like scripture. The scene Young entered almost 30 years ago has experienced some attrition, but it is an aspect of racing that remains unique to California.

Every racetrack has official clockers who time all the workouts on a given day. Equibase gathers this information, which appears in the Daily Racing Form and racetrack programs. But a community of private clockers, who gather information for betting purposes or sell to clients, does not exist outside California. Bettors benefit from this wealth of information and readily pay for it. Their opinions can move the tote board.

“The clocker culture in California is borne out of the fact that if you can clock two tracks you can see 95 percent of the horses,” said Andy Harrington, 46, who wields a stopwatch for National Turf. “You get a line on almost every single horse. That’s why clocker information became so ubiquitous out here: the geographic nature and lack of training centers.”

In other words, Southern California is an island. Without training centers and farms, as on the East Coast, all horses currently train at Hollywood or Santa Anita (or Del Mar in the summer). There are few shippers from out of state, making it a relatively closed horse population. Harrington and his competitors observe the same horses every day, as familiar with them as if they were relatives. Their success depends on it. Harrington says he knows a third of the horses on sight. And nowhere else are workouts so important. In California, trainers work their horses harder and more consistently.

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