By Jonathan Stettin
There are some things that may be quite the accomplishment, but you can never put them on a resume. There are some stories that should never be told, or even can’t be told, and yet some that almost have to be told. This one probably fits into more than one of the above categories. At times I thought I’d never tell it, at times I thought it could be a book, or even a screenplay, and at times I thought I had to tell it. But how was the question? How does one tell a story like this?
There was really only one way. To go back in time and tell it as it was and how it happened. There was also a caveat to that. We’d have to go Dragnet style, as in the names have been changed to protect, well, I’m not sure what, or even whom, but to protect something.
Well before I wintered and ultimately moved to Florida, I spent many a cold, dark and dreary day at Aqueduct, trying to decipher those tough inner track cards. It seemed like a small daily crowd back then, all hard core regulars, but by today’s standards it would probably be crowded. Almost everyone knew everyone, if not by name, then by face. It was a rough crowd, but mostly good people, many of whom I’m friends with today. I dropped out of school young, and was surely one of the youngest regulars, but I was there every day. Snow, sleet, freezing, whatever, and we almost always raced.
This was prior to simulcasting, ADW’s, cell phones even. The only way to follow the other circuits was through reading The Racing Form and word of mouth. Back then there were a few large bettors who most people knew and tried to follow. There was a guy they called The Baron, who bet thousands a race. There was a tall, skinny, blonde guy whose name escapes me. There were the sheet guys, which included Teddy, Alan, and the Hardoons, and then there was us. It was Vic, Dom, and me. Vic and Dom are aliases, but if you were around the Big A back then, you likely know who they are. You definitely knew their faces. I was the last to join them. They had their regular table just to the left of the escalator leading up to the first floor of the clubhouse. There was a bagel stand with sandwiches and coffee, and you could sit while you ate. They sat all day and nobody ever said a word. Everyone knew who they were, and most nodded hello, but a seat at that table was by invitation only. I was invited and it became the three of us for a very long, cold but prosperous winter.
Back then I started taking one of those black and white marble like covered notebooks to the races with me. It was my racing form, the program, and my notebook. I was in my late teens, maybe very early 20’s, and driving a gleaming white Coupe De Ville, with red leather interior, true spokes with vogue tires. Back then that was the ticket. And it all came from the notebook. I became known as a dangerous bettor and a lot of people knew I kept a notebook with my own notes on horses who had troubled trips, and bet them back big when they ran. It was the notebook that attracted Vic and Dom to me. It started simple enough. Hey kid one of them said, sit down and have some coffee with us. we want to talk to you. Saying no did not seem like a wise option so we sat and talked over coffee.
Both had reputations as tough guys, well deserved I’m sure, but they were extremely nice to me and always gentleman. They were very curious how someone as young as I was drove a Caddy to the races every day, especially when everyone knew my Dad was a mutual clerk there. I explained how I took betting seriously, tried to create an edge, and wasn’t afraid to go all in. I explained how I took notes in my book, and told them I’d show them how it worked. Christy’s Ridge was running in the last race that day. At least I think that was the name. I told them she couldn’t lose. In my book it said completely blocked the whole stretch while full of run, jock had no choice but to wrap up and finished off the board. Was clearly the winner if they got through. We mutually agreed the daily double was the way to go. The exotics were limited back then. As luck would have it the 8th race, the first half of the double also had a horse in the book. Lovin Touch. Alfredo Smith Jr. who was very hot that winter was riding both. My notes on Lovin Touch were not as strong but we figured if she didn’t win and get us alive, we could always come back with Christy’s Ridge and double up. My reputation at the least was on the line, and who knows, maybe more.
I bet a $200 daily double ice cold, Lovin Touch into Christy’s Ridge. The teller, who was not my Dad, subsequently became a very good friend and influential person in my life. He remarked wow, that’s some bet for a kid. I smiled and told him to take one himself. He bet a $20 double. I don’t know how much “Vic and Dom” bet but I assume a lot. Lovin Touch was 9-1. Back then they constantly showed the probable pays and the last one I caught on our double was $74. Lovin Touch went to the lead, got headed at the eighth pole, and came back on the inside to win by a neck. Unbelievable. We were sitting pretty. The hard part was over. In my mind there was no way Christy’s Ridge was getting beat. The double was coming back $34. Wow I thought. Cut my price in half.
We watched the race together on the TV on the opposite side of the wall near the bagel stand. We left our stuff there unattended. No worries. Alfredo had Christy’s Ridge laying back in 5th or 6th place but looked loaded. He seemed to wait a long time and well into the stretch before swinging out to make his move. When he finally swung out Vic screamed “Explode Alfredo!”. Dom and I joined in “Explode Alfredo!”. And explode he did, Christy’s Ridge got clear on the outside and won going away. The $3400 I collected probably should have been $6800 but it was hard to be upset, after all we won, and I had two new friends, likely for life, and also had a permanent seat at the bagel stand.
“The Book” as it became known was very popular. I kept it always but now I had partners, Vic and Dom added horses and notes as well. I didn’t mind. They were good, and took it seriously. Like a full-fledged business. Vic even had a cousin who was a small time trainer in New Jersey, Atlantic City and Monmouth primarily, so we all had been around the game our whole lives. Dom had even trained a few horses himself at Suffolk Downs. We would rush home to watch the Frank Wright replay show and check our notes and add more if needed. We met early in the morning when the Big A first opened and watched the previous day’s replays. We made more notes. We were known all over the track as big bettors, who took big scores and had some kind of book. Everyone wanted to know what was in it. Good trip notes was all it was.
We had a good long run with the book. It carried us for two brutal winters and everything in between. Of course those winters were made less brutal by cashing some very nice bets. We became good friends. There was a lot of envy, but we didn’t care, came with the territory we figured. All good things come to an end I guess. The book was no different. Some old friends of mine, from before I started sitting with Vic and Dom became resentful. Sure I fed them horses, and never cold shouldered them out of a bet, but it seemed they never had the exacta, double or triple. If they won, they lost it all back. They harassed me constantly and wanted access to the book. I spoke to Vic and Dom about opening up our partnership so to speak, to two old friends of mine. They were against it. They felt they should have to “buy in’ to the partnership and have access to the book and to sit with us and felt 5k apiece was the fair amount. This created a conflict, as all the parties were my friends and I couldn’t even propose such a thing. I felt guilty excluding my friends, and couldn’t seem to help them win unless they were right there with us which they weren’t. I was giving them the book horses, and they were telling other people, and before you knew it every book horse opened 6-5. Ultimately I had to go back to doing it on my own so nobody could be mad at me and I could make my living. Vic and Dom weren’t happy but understood and we remained friends with a good deal of mutual respect.
It was maybe two or even three years since “The Book” ended. I was still friends with Vic and Dom but we hardly saw each other. Vic rarely came to the track. He was running some poker room I heard and Dom was in Boston where he had family. I was still at the track every day and this particular day was a beautiful spring day at Belmont. I was hanging out with one of my dearest friends to this day, Joey, and a friend we had met at the track we’ll call Rob. Rob was the son of a rich guy who owned a chain of stores that were in every mall on the east coast. He had a nice condo in Great Neck where we’d often go eat after the races and handicap the next day’s card. Rob even had a few claimers.
As we were leaving, we walked past the racing secretary’s office which led to the jockeys’ parking lot where I parked back then. I heard a voice say hey John, John, and looked over and it was Vic. I walked over, kissed him on the cheek and said how are you. Joey and Rob stayed back and waited for me. Vic said he was good, but was going to be better, and that today was my lucky day. He said his cousin the trainer, was running a horse Tuesday at Monmouth that was going to win. He said you can tell those two guys you hang around with but don’t tell anyone else. Nobody. And if you see me at the track Tuesday, don’t even say hello or nod, act like you don’t know me. Just bet whatever you can and don’t worry. I thanked him, kissed him goodbye, and joined Joey and Rob. What he’d say, how’s he doing they asked. Relax, I’ll tell you over dinner but we are going to make a score.
Vic was a serious guy. I knew he meant business and never fooled around when it came to betting. He played it like I do, a serious game, not a recreational hobby. Over dinner I told Joey and Rob, listen, next Tuesday, which happens to be the dark day at Belmont, we are going to Monmouth. We’re going to bet a horse named Regal Warrior (not his real name) that Vic’s cousin trains. Rob quickly pointed out Vic’s cousin hasn’t won a race in a long time. I said don’t worry, he’ll win this one, we just need money to bet. Big money. Of course I was on a cold streak, and Joey was broke. Rob always had money but sharing it was another matter entirely.
I borrowed 2k from a loan shark to bet.
We couldn’t wait for the form to come out Monday night. There were no advance pp’s on line back then. I borrowed 2k from a loan shark to bet. Joey borrowed money the same way. Rob had plenty of money to bet but also didn’t listen to me. He told this guy Mikey, a knock around guy from the City (Manhattan) about the horse and Mikey gave Rob $500 to bet for him. I told him he never should have done that, and I said I wouldn’t have even told him the horse’s name if I knew he was going to, but you can’t undo what’s done can you?
When Monday night came I never expected such abuse. We drove to get the Racing Form. We scoured the Monmouth entries. No Regal Warrior was entered. Nothing. No call from Vic. Only abuse from Joey and Rob. What kind of nonsense is this? You and your wise guy friends. The horse ain’t even in. Maybe there is no such horse. Vic’s cousin can’t train. We borrowed all this money. Rob actually complained now he looks like a fool to Mikey. He actually expected me to feel bad about that. I heard it all and heard it all night. I went home dejected. I was so dejected I didn’t even buy Wednesday’s Racing Form for Belmont on Tuesday.
Wednesday morning my phone rang and it was Joey. It was about 11:30 am. He said shall I pick you up in 10 minutes to head to Belmont. Sure I said. Do you like anything he asked? I said I don’t even know; I didn’t even buy the form after the barrage Monday night. Then it happened. I could not believe my ears. But he said it and I heard it. “Oh, by the way, that horse Regal Warrior is in the first at Monmouth today”. What! When did you see it, why didn’t you call me, how can you not say anything. Calm down he tells me. Wait till you see the form, there is no way you’d drive to Monmouth to bet this horse. I said Joey, yes I would, I know Vic, the horse will win. No way he says. Stop panicking. The horse is in for maiden claiming 10k. He’s run 10 times. He’s never been ahead of a horse at any call. I think he’s run for maiden 5k already and his best comment is trailed. Stop worrying I’ll pick you up in 10 and we’ll head to Belmont. I said well you waited so long to tell me we could never make it to Monmouth by the first now anyway. I had a sinking feeling.
The whole ride to the track Joey said how the horse couldn’t possibly win.
The whole ride to the track Joey said how the horse couldn’t possibly win. I looked at his form and everything he said was accurate but it didn’t matter and I knew it. I didn’t know why, but I knew it didn’t matter. We got to the track and met Rob. He agreed with Joey I was panicking, although he did remark he hadn’t spoken to Mikey and did not return his money of yet. I caught a little more abuse, yeah the horse is going to win but we don’t even know when it’s running. Tuesday isn’t Wednesday. Thanks guys.
It was now about two o’clock. The first at Monmouth was over. Results from other tracks were not as easy to come by back then. I saw a jockey agent we all were friends with, Al Hanan and we asked him if he could go into the racing secretary’s office and call Monmouth and tell us who won the first race. Sure he said. We stood outside the office waiting for what seemed like an hour, it was maybe five minutes. Al walked out in deep conversation with another agent, but looked over at us and said, ‘Regal something or other, paid over $50 dollars”.
They say it’s darkest before a storm. I beg to differ. How can this get worse? Piece of cake. I found out the race for Regal Warrior didn’t go on Tuesday and was brought back Wednesday, perfectly logical explanation and one Vic would have no control or knowledge of in advance. I proceeded to lose the 2k I borrowed making stupid bets I may not have normally made but felt I was entitled and supposed to win 50 or 75k that day. I was, but I didn’t. Joey and Rob lost too. We left feeling pretty low. Nobody apologized, why bother. The damage was done, but the worst was yet to come.
We got back to Rob’s condo and the answering machine was blinking. We all listened to the message together. It was Mikey. He was screaming I love you Rob, I don’t know how you did it. Hold my bag of money until Friday. I’ll pick it up then. Rob looked at us and said this guy is liable to kill me if I don’t give him that money. I even lost his $500. You guys have to help me pay him. You can’t possibly be serious was my only reply.
Thursday I went back to Belmont. I went with Joey but we walked in separately and got separated for a while. I wasn’t there ten minutes when I saw Vic looking like a million and all smiles. I walked over and he kissed me and said come on, tell me, you take close to six figures? I know how you bet you must have really scored. I said Vic, thank you so much for including me, but to tell you the truth, when the horse didn’t run Tuesday, I got all fouled up and didn’t find out he was in Wednesday until too late. Vic turned his back and walked away. Cold. Very cold. Just then Joey came walking up to me. He hadn’t seen me talking to Vic. He said John, I ran into Vic when I walked in and he stopped me. He said hey Joey I know you made a score but John must have really took it down. I looked him in the eye and said please tell me you told him what happened. Joey said I couldn’t tell him that, I didn’t want us to look like idiots or worse liars. I told him oh yeah, John did great, you know how he bets. Suddenly the cold turn around made sense. You can’t make this stuff up. I wish you could. Regal something or other. I can still hear it.
American Pharoah and Team Zayat,, not for The Eclipse Award sweep which was a no brainer and has lost a lot of significance due to how it’s run and the whole voting process, but for the Longines Horse of the World. It’s nice to see the difficulty of The Triple Crown recognized on a world stage against races like the Arc, Melbourne Cup, and so many others. Well done.
Santa Anita, I’m leaving it open for you to fill in the blank.