By Jonathan Stettin
I’m not quite sure why but find myself in a reminiscent kind of mood today. I thought for this week’s column I would share some great memories of times gone by. Now these are not what I call the glory days of racing which I’d consider the 70’s and maybe even early 80’s before drugs, Lasix, simulcasting, ADW’s, commercial breeding, and poor track management changed everything. No, these were more transitional days when we were going from what we had then to what we have now.
I’ve shared stories about these times before. Like when I hit the pick 6 with Birdstone when he upset Smarty Jones in The Belmont. You can read that here. Or when I was in that slump Festin should have got me out of when he upset The Oaklawn Handicap. You can catch that here if you missed it.
The ones I’ll share today are shorter, and maybe even more personal, but they were indeed great times and memories. I hope you enjoy and can relate to them.
First I’ll cover a few current topics worth mentioning. These are the days.
I’m excited about the debut of The Elite Racing Network. They’ve put together a great concept, a great team, a great business model and plan, and the game needs more of this type of innovative thinking and exposure. I am happy to say I’ll be joining in and supporting some of their ideas. I encourage you all to check them out.
Kudos to Oaklawn Park. They continue to try and get it right and they do. Under the leadership of Dave Longinotti and Jason Milligan they put together a great meet and program. And what better place is there to prepare for The Triple Crown? First, they brought back their unique no Lasix program for a second run. I think it was worth it. Second they made a fast hire of a great young announcer in Pete Aiello after the sudden departure of Frank Mirahmadi left them little time to make a move. I think they made a great choice. Pete has his own style, it’s exciting, it’s not cookie cutter, and I think he will be a great fit.
If you were alive Saturday at Gulfstream in the pick 4,5, or 6 into the last race, The El Prado Stakes, with either the 1 Aztec Brave, or the 4 Victory Exchange you took it on the chin. Maybe right in the nose. Aztec Brave was slightly favored over the 10 Reporting Star at 9-5 and 5-2 respectively. Aztec Brave looked significantly better and faster to me and was coming out of what I’d say were better races. Victory Exchange was taking serious money down to about 7-2 from his 10-1 or so morning line. He was a bit of a question mark. He had won his last earning a huge figure on the Ragozins off a year and a half layoff. That was on synthetic and he was going on the turf. He could bounce or jog. He was reported to be training like a bear so he looked more live than dead. He scratched at the gate sending all the multiple race money onto the favored 1 Aztec Brave.
As they loaded the horses Reporting Star clicked down to 9-5 taking the late money. Aztec Brave held his odds making them co favorites both at 9-5 but with slightly more money on Aztec Brave he was the designated favorite and carried all the Victory Exchange multi race wager money. Aztec Brave saved a lot of ground from his inside post and found himself loaded and looking for room under Corey Lanerie turning for home. There were three horses across the track in front of him and it appeared finding a seam was all it would take to win. The 10 Reporting Star was the outside horse of the three in front of Aztec Brave. Even the Larry Collmus call said Aztec Brave just needs someplace to run. Well Lanerie found the hole, split horses and made the lead mid-stretch. He looked on his way to victory but Reporting Star came again fighting back. There was some obvious bumping from the pan view approaching the wire but Reporting Star indeed came back and won the photo. Tough beat if you had Aztec Brave or backed into him because of the scratch. He wins with a clean trip and almost won anyway. The objection and steward’s inquiry lights immediately went on.
Alas there was hope for those who needed Aztec Brave. The inquiry lasted all of two minutes. No head on view was shown to the public, a necessity to make a correct call in this scenario. No phone calls between the riders and stewards were shown. Two minutes is awfully fast to make a decision, especially nowadays where they look at blatantly obvious calls for ten to fifteen minutes. Anyway a fast no DQ left the Aztec Brave crowd with nothing. I did watch the replay and the head on view. I agree with the call, in part anyway. Aztec Brave bumped Reporting Star first, Reporting Star and his rider bumped Aztec Brave just at the wire and it could easily be construed it cost him the race. It was back and forth though so I can live with the call. How it was made so fast is another story. Maybe everyone left early to beat the traffic, or wanted to. I don’t know but here’s the rub. Aztec Brave should have won regardless in my opinion. Lanerie stood up prematurely before the wire, perhaps thinking a DQ was imminent. If he doesn’t and rides out I think he wins the photo. You be the judge.
Those were the days.
I must admit I don’t go to the races as often as I used to. ADW’s and huge high def flat screens with the DISH Network Roberts Racing Network changed all that. But it doesn’t erase about a thirty-five-year period without barely missing a day. Ah those were the days. Like the time I was dating a girl who was a Playboy Magazine Cyber girl of the month. Her sister was getting married and on all days it was the first Saturday in May. Of course I was expected to attend. Of course I would I said assuming it was a Saturday night ceremony. Well guess what. It was an afternoon Wedding and the ceremony started at four. I said I couldn’t be there until about 7:30 ish as it was Kentucky Derby day. We broke up. But nobody could accuse me of not having my priorities straight back then. Derby Day was “one of the days” with huge pools and opportunities a professional could not pass up.
There was a time not all that long ago some followers on Twitter pointed out they never see me at the track and maybe I never spent as much time there as I said. I really took that with a laugh. Just ask any old time NYRA, Calder or Gulfstream teller about how much time I spent. You can always ask for me in The Oaklawn VIP room as well. I’ve spent the better part of my life at the races. I do miss going and am seriously considering going back regularly soon. We’ll see. It’s just so much easier to concentrate from the war room.
I’ll never forget the day The Breeders Cup was at the old Gulfstream the last time. Back then I had a regular table in the trackside restaurant. It was right behind the maitre’d section and was kept roped off like a VIP area. It was my table, Murray Durst’s, Pete Rose’s when he came, and my good longtime friend Joe from Buffalo, may he RIP. We had some great times back then and Murray was always joined by trainers and jockey agents looking for a meal or drink which he always supplied. It was so much my table that even if I wasn’t there Jim who ran the restaurant, also Ciro’s in Saratoga, would hold it for me in case I decided to show up late. Most days I wouldn’t even bother sitting in the VIP room with Annette as this place was like our office. I never waited at Ciro’s either. It didn’t matter who was at the bar. Those were the days.
Anyway when the Breeders’ Cup rolled in they called me and said John we’re sorry but we had to move you for the Breeders’ Cup. What! But that’s my table. Couldn’t be avoided I was told, Breeders’ Cup sold it for the day. It was still one day back then. Don’t worry they told me we have you covered. They gave me a table for six even though we were two right on the glass overlooking the finish line. Those were the days.
Back then Ray and Esteban ran the valet parking at both Calder and Gulfstream. I was running late that Breeders’ Cup day and although there was half hour to the first race, and I was on US 1 approaching Hallandale Beach Boulevard, I wasn’t going to make it. The traffic was backed up and insane. Out of nowhere appeared Ray, who knew me and my car well. I had my own spot backed up right against the clubhouse door at Gulfstream. He was driving a golf cart being followed by a Hallandale Beach Police Officer on a motorcycle. As soon as he spotted me he said something to the officer who immediately turned on his lights, Ray waved me to follow him and my car was backed into my normal spot in about five minutes. We stopped traffic, moved traffic, went over curbs and sidewalks but my spot was there and I made the first. No complaints about the table switch either. Those were the days. Peter Walder used to like when they kept my car there too. He always borrowed it to run to the backside to check on his horses. It always came back dirty which was an OCD issue for me but we were like brothers.
A great Calder memory was when I hit a pick 6 at Saratoga for 143k or something like that on a $576 ticket. I had left early and watched on TV. The week before I lost the last leg of a pick 6 at Del Mar when there was a record pool when Shine On under Clinton Potts got nailed approaching the wire. I had a single in the last at Saratoga, New York Dixie, under Garrett Gomez, who won by a nose. There were two live tickets, both to the same horse and we each won 143k. I went back Monday to cash my ticket. It was an enjoyable drive. I gave the ticket to Al, a teller I bet with often. He ran it and said I’ll be right back. Not yet concerned I waited. He came back and said Ed wants to see you. I knew Ed was head of the mutuals. They brought me to Ed’s office. He apologized but said Jon, today is a simulcast day, I don’t have enough money to pay you. I can’t even give you a check because I have to get Churchill Downs to wire us the money first. Ed was a great guy and I understood. I came back Friday and was squared away exactly how I wanted to be. It’s nice when the track doesn’t have enough to pay you. It happened once at Hialeah when I hit a pick 4 several times at Keeneland also.
Should I try and get a bag?
“Should I try and get a bag?” That was a great Gulfstream memory too. I used to bet with Jeanne a long time Calder and Gulfstream teller back then. She was fast and always ahead of you and as soon as she put the ticket in she asked my social and keyed it in fast. She used to use her pen not finger. That’s when she said “should I try and get a bag?” By all means I said. I had the only winning pick 6 ticket again with a single in the last at Gulfstream. It was Secret Status who would win The Kentucky Oaks a few months later. It paid 126k and I left with close to that after all the pick 5’s in a ripped up old Publix bag Jeanne came up with. She worked the first window as you came in the clubhouse entrance and close to the entrance of the dining room where my table was. It wasn’t far to my car which was kept backed up right outside that door. The best memory of that day though was my Mom. May she rest in peace and how I still miss her and my Dad every day. Jeanne let me count the money behind the mutual counter. The place was thinning out and a Hallandale Beach Police Officer caught wind of what was going on and insisted on walking me to my car. My Mom and Dad were by the car waiting but hadn’t gotten in yet. The officer walks me to my car, the whole time his hand on his gun. When we get to the car Ray and Esteban are there along with several other valet parkers. The officer too. So of course I started giving out a few hundred to everyone who was there. The officer included. We got in the car and left.
My Mom immediately started. You are not smart you know. You come out and start handing out hundreds like a big shot. Keep a low key profile she said. You being stupid will have someone follow us home and kill us for the money. I said listen Mom, I know you are right. What could I do though? I had to take care of everybody, and besides, don’t worry about that, we left the track 25 minutes after the last race, I was holding a tearing Publix bag bulging with money, a cop was walking beside me with his hand on his gun and our car was backed up against the door. I’m pretty sure anybody watching who was up to no good would figure out we had a pretty good day. It was a classic moment right out of Let It Ride only real.
Although nothing beats the 546k pick 6 at Saratoga these are some great memories and times for me. We can’t go back though and the game and times have changed. Another funny one was when I claimed the only bad horse I ever took with Peter Walder. We took Am Flippy from The Chief for $62,500. Big claim. First time we ran her this guy from New York I knew for years comes over to me as soon as I walk in the door. He says listen you have to bet this horse Am Flippy today. She’s training like a monster. Can’t lose he said. The owner flew in from New York and is betting big. Trust me on this one he said. I was never one to be influenced on a horse race. I live and die with my own opinion. I just looked at him and said thanks. To this day I never told him it was my horse, I was already living in Florida a long time, and we weren’t betting a nickel. She finished last.
Elite Racing Network, great concept, great team, good for the game, Oaklawn Park, doing it right, Peter Aiello, congratulations and well deserved.
Anyone and everyone involved in that El Prado stakes fiasco and inquiry at Gulfstream.