My love of going to Bowie predates my actual breaking my ‘maiden’ (first outing to the track); walking through an unlocked stable gate, dusk on Christmas Eve, snowflakes and discarded race program pages blowing into my face. Resultant dividend, over $600 payout from a nag called “Little Buttsie.” Talk about beginner’s luck…
No, when I still had my walk-up at the northeast corner of 56th and Second Avenue, Turtle Bay, Manhattan — one flight up from NBC Saturday night’s resident madman Mike O’Donoghue — my “second home” was the Off-Track Betting (OTB) office adjoining Goodfellow’s (not goodfellas) Pub. A block from my crib, it was a convivial hub for yours truly. Here, I was “Jay,” my leftover handle from recent madcap summer nights at Spring Lake, Belmar, Asbury, Central Jersey Shore (which had been my Mom’s stomping grounds, in the shadow of the majestic Monmouth and Essex/Sussex luxury hotels). The older, red-faced regulars (over 40) would decamp around 3 p.m. to Monmouth Park Course, after a few ‘caps at the Stone Post Tavern. I was just learning to quaff, in part due to the undertaker’s wife, whose ‘office’ was the third stool to the right in the darkened bar of the Allaire Inn.
These grown-up enablers, like “Miz M,” whetted my taste for not only drinking but gambling, particularly “playing the ponies.” I couldn’t tell for sure, but while splashing in my pal Charlie’s elevated swim tank, the race parties seemed to always return from the “Green Gates” full of green.
Since my Moorish Huguenot grand-dad on Mom’s side, Leonidas Huston, was a card carrying member of the New York Jockey Club, Natch, by the time I landed my “city” apartment, OTB had to be Jay’s main hangout. Extra work in films just didn’t take up enough of my week. Rather, I’d be sipping stout, munching on Irish boiled beef, and punching little canary-colored tickets from the OTB ticker on Second. Often, retired boxer Rocky Graziano would open the door for me in his silk bomber jacket reading ‘Rock’ with a peacock interwoven in the shiny black fabric.
But, these days “Jay” would be loath to bum a bet from the Rock. No, a wizened, part-time Daily Racing Form hawker named Whitey and perpetually scowling Crazy Tony, whose greasy brown locks flopped out from beneath his battered beret; not to mention Angelo, my Greek landlord’s homie who had allegedly “Lost a million dollars in Lefta!” — no, they were my slaveholders in a two-buck wager at the scuffed-up Plexiglass shield in the OTB office.
Now, if I had just received an ‘infusion’ by wire to Citibank, courtesy of my patient Dad (also known as Moose), or a small chit for movie work from the guild, why, then I’d go wild with ‘exotic’ bets in the name of trying to ‘nail the Double’ — or the Exacta.
At that point, Crazy Tony would loom large in the window, wagging a cautionary index finger. “You! You playin’ too many dam’ combinations — slow down, kid, slow down!”
By the time I made it back (figuratively, on my chafed elbows and blown-out kneepads) to old D.C., my mom and dad were gone to their greater reward, and I was soused with drink.
But now Laurel Park track in PG County was my adult nursery. As I sobered up by 1992, I still campaigned the aisles as “Jaaay!”
Perhaps by this juncture in time, my nose for the longshots had become more attuned to beloved chance — and the improved fortunes of outsider steeds with hidden high pedigree. At any rate, my friendly detractors from the Laurel fan base steadily grew.
This bunch was led by “Clever Chuck,” a wiry furniture-mover who cautioned me unfailingly that ‘his’ picks were “That horse by far and away much the best!” (usually close to ‘chalk’ or the program favorite). ‘Bean,’ who was apparently zonked all the time on ‘dust,’ would hail me, beaming, as “Here he comes … The Caped…Crusader — How ya makin’ it?”
But the most menacing had to be Karl, a Baltimore trust fund baby, who loved to dump a bundle in the newly-minted, electronic “Sports Handicapper’s Palace.”
Particularly the day I nailed a $326 win on a broken-down looking colt, “Mr. Napton.” I shambled, instinctively, down the tarmac – double time – as Karl caterwauled in my ear, “Hey — let’s get Jay!” As I dodged the thunder of angry Adidas thumping closer and closer, I could just make out Karl’s resentful snarl: “D’ya know how much scratch you just cost us…” (Incidentally, the jockey, initials P.S., very soon relocated from Laurel, Md. to Singapore race tracks).