I caught Mom moving toward me out of the corner of my eye. My peripheral vision had saved me many times and protected me from harm even better than that of the security guard whose same keen adeptness protected Richard Dreyfus’ character, Troter, from a mugging in ‘Let It Ride’. She had raised herself up slightly with one leg underneath her butt while pulling down the heam of her cotton housecoat over her knee. She leaned hard in my direction with her right elbow pressing deep into the fabric of the arm of the sofa. With a Hamms in hand and a Pall Mall red smoldering in the glass ashtray beside her, she said, “That’s the guy who replaced you.”
Glancing at her then back to the small tubed TV and then back to her again I asked in a tone giving the appearance as if I didn’t hear what she had just said. I asked, “What’d you say?”
She nodded sideways at the small screen and from the corner of her toothless grin she said it again, “That’s the bug who replaced you. He moved in with your Father and his redhead from the gin mill.”
“Who is it?” she knew I meant the Jockey and not the redhead from the gin mill who she had monikered as such a thousand times before specifying to me daily that she was now who was having sex with my Dad and not her. The whole picture, the rose flowers imprinted housecoat, curlers 24/7, Hamm’s beer and sex with Dad was a gross-out to me and beginning to make me hate both of my parents.
“Jerry Bailey,” she snipped.
Shaking my head slowly like it really bothered me. I made a suttle growl with my lips together. I didn’t say anything back to her and sat there staring at the finish of the race where the winner circle interview takes place before the station rolls into a commercial. I cautiously looked over at my Mom. She was sneering at the screen, the beer can made a crinkle noise as she repositioned herself on the faded early American patterned sofa. Mom called it a divan but it was just a sofa, and an ugly one at that, as I always thought the patterned design was a year-round celebration of Thanksgiving. I sat quiet, hoping desperately the heated shouting and violent behavior wouldn’t erupt. The hatred she had in her and expressed was beginning to be a habit. A day wouldn’t pass where something was said or something she saw reminded her of Dad leaving us out in the cold. She assigned me the physical and mental blame of the breakup. The torment fell upon me as I gave to her without knowing it, a life-like resemblance and the name of someone she hated and loved.
I paid little attention to the track after the abandonment by my Dad on the Eisenhower in Chicago during the Sportsman ‘meet’. Occasionally someone would mention a race either on TV in the coming weekend or one that had already passed. When I heard his name, I would instantly flash back to the image of Mom snugged into the corner of the flowery couch in the living room filled with acrid cigarette smoke for only a second, then erasing the picture and onto something better in my life. I didn’t care.
Years and years passed. I had finally divorced both parents cleanly. My sister, was off doing her own gig and we didn’t speak very often if at all. My brother was sent to prison for a long time for a variety of felonies. Guess what? We didn’t speak either. Life for me at the time seemed pretty fair and my immediate family was growing and was genuinely happy. Nice house, nice car, good job, loving wife, great kids, two dogs, two cats, enough money to live on precariously week to week and you got it, no track. What more can one guy want in life.
Then I met the Mayor as I told in the earlier story, Urine Paradise, and the track was added back into my life’s formula. Bailey’s name came up more often and the Mayor and I would talk shop about him. We only did this because I would bring up the ‘Replacement’ theory of my Mom’s every time I heard his name and I heard it a lot. I heard it all the way and even pass the date when Bailey announced his retirement in January of 2006.
Recollection and reality can be hard to distinguish between when age and time create a foggy vagueness in your own mind. A subtle and clean clearness came to me on a trip to Chicago late in the year of 2005 to visit my Dad’s relatives. Dad had passed away four years earlier in Florida from Alzheimers at the age of 74. I can’t pinpoint the real reasons I waited so long to go back and visit them. Who knows, it may have been something as simple as the out-of-sight, out-of-mind cliche, I think it has something to do with my Dad.
I had met some of them when I was very young, probably in a pass through of Chicago while heading to another meet on the East coast. All I know is the only memory I have is what is on a black and white photograph of the group taken with a Brownie camera or the likes of one. Some of those relatives to this day I still have never met. Cousins mainly and their children only fill my memory as dreams of what they look like and how they are as people. But, it was on this day of reunion when I was unknowingly led out of the fog by a couple of comments and a story whose content validated the blurry memories I had wondered all those years about.
Uncle Ron, a tall lean man with a gentle face and a very contagious relaxed manner mentioned Jerry Bailey in one of his mesmorizing stories. “Oh yes, Jerry came over to the house many times for dinner.” Uncle Ron casually said. He also asked me if I had read Jerry’s new book, Against All Odds, and that Jerry had mentioned my Dad when Dad hustled book for the apiring young Jockey. I told him no I had not but I locked the title away in my brain for a visit to the bookstore when I got back to Phoenix
Little did I know how in the coming years after the family reunion, Jerry and I would converse over several emails talking about future racing and small snippets about my Dad. He even wrote me from an airport telling me where he would be performing his analyst duties for ESPN next. In one of our email conversations, he said, and these are his actual words, “Your Dad was the most honest man I’d ever met.” This conversation came after I had told him my Dad had died in Florida.
Those words that day coming from Jerry Bailey did mean something special to me at the time although now I know those words are words you should say to a son when you’re talking about his Father. You also have to put into perspective his ghost writer’s comments in his book about dear departed Dad. I didn’t mention the comment ever to Jerry. Bailey was always gracious and had impecable timeliness in answering any questions I might have. He even told me to stop by at the next big race to talk and that he was looking forward in meeting me. He wrote at the end of one of our emails, “Let’s chat, Jerry.”
The race day had finally come. The day was late in August, of the year, 2008. My son and I were at Del Mar to witness the track’s finest hour, although only 2 minutes of the hour is actually the finest. The Pacific Classic, need more be said? The field in this year’s contest was special and it was extremely likely that some of those horses were going to have a huge impact on the Breeders’ Classic. This is what makes the type of race even more interesting and besides, Jerry said he would meet me there if he could and said something about chatting. One of them ‘open-ended appointments’ I expected.
Del Mar never disappoints. Our first stop, The Brigantine, our favorite spot in the area for a bite before the races and where the best fish tacos, oyster shooters and a coldest glass of beer awaits our arrival. Toasting shooters, polishing off the last of two beers and then we’re off to the track. As expected the crowd was more than a crowd should be. Everyone and everybody of any importance in SoCal was there and getting in the gate took a little extra time. Once inside, we went directly to our seats, staked our claim then began our traditional walkabout.
From our viewpoint the crowd below us mimicked a large field of sunflowers of different hues where the colorful petals were actually the brims large fancy hats of all makes and models. We moved downstairs and toward the Winner’s Circle and stopped to take the time to watch my second favorite ESPN sideline reporter, Jeanine Edwards, who is just a head bob behind Donna Brothers for me personally, polish off her segment about a jockey in today’s race card. Shoulders apart we squeezed through the mayhem toward the the paddock tunnel to where Jerry was seated to see if he had a minute to say hello. That’s all, just a hello.
Randy Moss, Joe Tessitore, and Jerry were seated near the winner’s circle facing us as I stepped near the security barrier. A very large and round security officer was guarding the gate. I slyly motioned to her to come near me showing the note I had prepared earlier. She paused, straightened her custodian style hat, looked side to side and moved ever so cautiously toward us. I handed her the small quarter folded scrap of paper. I asked with charm, “Hi, , , would you mind handing this to Jerry, please?” She raised one brow, looked me square in the eye and nodded affirmatively once. The hand-off was complete
On the note, scribbled in black ink, was a secret encoded message, ‘Jerry, this is Bill ( last name ).’ The note continued, ‘If you have time, I’d like to say hello.’ Very to the point I thought without question. I backed away from the rail and melded into the crowd behind me keeping a non-forgiving eye on the pseudo enforcment officer. She walked back to her post and waved over another T-shirt uniform, an office whose post was on the platform. They leaned toward each other and made the second of three carefully planned hand-offs. She whispered something to him as she passed him the message. He read it as walked up the ramp and back onto the stage. He turned toward me unaware I was amidst in the throng unaware I was peering at him from above someone’s shoulder five deep in the crowded apron. He looked down at the note again and without any hesitation or thought, crumpled the note with one hand and tossed carelessly into a hidden waste can behind the short red curtains hanging from the railing of the production set.
I cringed with disappointment and bit my lip with my eye tooth. Was I to call foul on the guard for not making sure of the delivery? No, it wasn’t her fault and I didn’t want to embarrase anyone plus I didn’t have another piece of paper except for a page out of the wrinkled and coffee-stained race program. How bad would that look? What was I going to say? Something like, “Hey, what the . . . do you think you’re doing. I’m special. I know Jerry Bailey.” Yeah right, We worked my way back to the seats and let it go for now.
Three races go by and the beer line has extended to another whole area of the track. I figure I’ll do another flyby later during the next race, I still have a quarter of a glass of beer. I find myself down on the apron again walking toward the platform to see if I could get Bailey’s attention. Halfway there I see a security guard, and this one is in shape like a thirty thousand dollar claimer, jogging straight toward me dodging people holding their draft beer and soda glasses. This guy is cutting left then right then left like a downhill slalom champion and making up a lot of ground. He’s fifty feet away, moving at me at a good clip. Shields are going up as I quickly raise my last drop of draft above my head for protection. Visions of standing in the infinite beer line flashed in my mind. Then I notice something, something behind him running in unison like two synchronize swimmers. To my surprise, it’s Jerry Bailey and behind him is another guard keeping pace. A human presidential motorcade without the limos. He’s coming to chat with me I instantly realized.
Jerry never missed a step as he passed me. I half-heartedly yelled, “Jerry! It’s Bill ( including my last name again ), it’s Bill!” All I saw from then on was the backside of a security shirt and a young lady of grace and taste sporting a classy, fashionable stylish sombrero spilling a slosh of beer on the man in front of her. In their wake were two swirling wind eddies filled with losing tickets and the top of Bailey’ head occasionally on one side and then the other of the guard following him. One of them were out of sync.
I couldn’t believe what I had just witnessed. A woman standing next to me in big pink hat decorated with flowers, feathers, bows and red ribbon was guarding the lemony tinted cocktail between her breasts. She looked me straight in the eye and quipped sarcstically, “Hi Bill.” I gave her the lifted-eyebrow ‘I hate you’, expression and turned back to the disappearing procession. Did I just watch the movie Shane and Shane was not coming back. Hell, even Shane turned around for a second. Not even a “Hold on, I’ll be back.” or a “Wait there, I got to pee.” or a good willed “Meet me back at the set,” C’mon give me something. I walked down to the rail in disappointment and finished the rest of my beer.
This is where the note from the airport I mentioned in Episode 1 comes in to play. I sent an email to Jerry later in the evening saying I saw him running by and yelled to him. I received a note the following day. Jerry explained how he was pressed for time and had to get to the Jock’s room for an interview before the next race. Sounded fair so I blew it off. I returned to Phoenix the next day and had a great time on the short trip.
What a great year it had been seeing Big Brown smother the competition at the Kentucky Derby with Millionaire Row seats my Son was given thankfully and watching Go Between nose out Well Armed in the Pacific Classic. We didn’t know then but it would get even better with Raven’s Pass upsetting Curlin in the Breeder’s Cup Classic at Santa Anita. Jerry and I spoke a couple more times at most from then on and I mentioned our plans for the Preakness and the Santa Anita Derby along with The Classic and Zenyata. He told me to stop by at the next big race to talk and that he was looking forward in meeting me. The Belmont was just around the corner and what Jerry said made perfect sense at the time. Besides, Jerry said he will meet me there to ‘Chat’ about dear old Dad. . .
– Time Travel Time –
We had missed the 2008 Preakness and Belmont because of work. We watched Rachel Alexandra clean house in the ’09 Preakness from the grandstand at Pimlico and decided then we would wait until next year for the Belmont. Those years passed by so fast yet I kept going back in my thoughts to Jerry’s ‘mention’ of Dad in his book, Against the Odds. I still couldn’t help wonder if Jerry really understood how hurtful the few words about Dad in his book were to me.
At the time, it was a virtual slap in the face but later on I began to see what the real meaning of the small sentence meant to me personally. Funny how wrongs can right themselves without a whole lot of help much like the kayaker you’re dead sure is a goner in the whitewater yet somehow pops up like it was nothing and acts as if he was just washing his face off.
Jerry wrote, and excuse me for not exactly quoting the book but I have a couple of reasons. First, I loaned the paperback to a friend and never got it back, and I can’t remember which friend it was for the life of me. Second, the book is ‘Out of Print’ and I’m not going to put this on hold because I would have to wait forever if I ordered it again. I’ll do my best but if my memory serves me, this descriptive fragment should be enough for you to understand fully my interpretation.
Jerry actually didn’t have a lot to say about Dad and Betty, you know, the redhead from the gin mill who is now the stepmom whom I’ve never met. Jerry too must not have known Dad’s significance at the time as if he had, it would have been at least a page or two of words written about him.
His first written words were, “Bill and Betty took me in like a son.” or something of that nature. If Jerry would have known it would have been more like this, “Bill and Betty took me in because he kicked his real son out of the house in Chicago on the Eisenhower.” But, he didn’t know that or about me, I know this for sure. Why would he have cared anyway?
At this point in the book I was filled with anticipative excitement as I thought here it was and I was going to finally get to read facts about Dad I never knew. I was going to validate my childhood hero and solidify any vagueness about his life after me. I scanned the volume further searching for the right word, our last name. Then I found it. I was deep in the pages almost near the end when I noticed the familiar spelling. Jerry was talking about Dad, the drunk. Dad and the alcohol. But hey, this is not a major headline to anyone, in fact it’s old news to many.
Jerry, and my Dad both had a severe drinking problem and all of our family friends at the time were aware of Dad’s especially but it was how you say, ‘accepted’. A lot of trackers drink and they drink a lot. The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree I thought as I read on. What Jerry went on to say about Dad in the book stung me like a fire ant inside my pants on the inside of my thigh. But again, he didn’t know.
“The vodka ran like the Great Mississippi at the ‘Last name goes here‘ house.” What? Dear old Dad was a drunk and presumably forced everyone to get in the river boat with him including as it appears, Jerry. Was Betty, my redheaded stepmom a drunk as well? Does the mention of the ‘gin mill’ ring a bell to anyone? The great Mississippi? Holy crap Jerry, that’s a lot of vodka. I was beaten down. I laid the book aside and never read it again.
Then it hit me one day and things began to turn toward the positive side. No, it wasn’t how Jerry conquered his alcoholism or how he became so successful. No, it wasn’t about Dad and how he screwed up the family and left us high and dry. It was simply about significance.
Jerry Bailey is and will always be “the Michael Jordan of racing” and Michael Jordan is and will always be “the Jerry Bailey of basketball”. He is without question one of the greatest, if not the greatest jockey ever to break hard and win from any post position and has won every major horse race and turned around and did it again if not three times. He’s a true Hall of Famer and rightfully so. Jerry Bailey is the King of the Sport of Kings. Jerry is, , , screech to a stop right here.
Time to reconnect. We all know how every person starts their life somewhere and that every person eventually has an influence on someone else whether or not it be negative or it be positive. Some even learn from their mistakes and become a better person in the end and some don’t, even though positive influences were all they ever had. Okay so let’s back up a bit and I’ll fill you in on the striking realization, my epiphany.
Flash back to the summer of 2003. Mitch Albom has high hopes to publish his book, The Five People You Meet in Heaven, and come September, it’s one hot item on the bookshelf. I read it and I don’t read books at all even though I’ve written several mostly incomplete novels and didn’t read other books because for some odd reason I thought it would change my writing style instead of what the real truth would’ve been which was to help me see and understand good writing.
Mitch’s novel is simple and complete. The story is about understanding the meaning of one’s life whether or not the person feels the life they’ve had was meaningful or in the case of the story’s main character Eddie, just the opposite, meaningless. I know, you’re thinking where the hell is this going but I’ll tie it all together later on. Just be patient.
The story goes like this. Eddie works at an amusement park and has worked there forever. He’s 83 on the day he tries to save a small child from being killed from a cart falling from a ride and in-turn gets killed while saving the young girl.
Eddie travels to heaven and meets his first person of significance, the Blue Man. The Blue Man informs Eddie that he is going to meet five people in heaven whose lives he has somehow affected. The Blue Man tells Eddie how he is indirectly responsible for his untimely death.
When Eddie was a child, he and Joe were playing with a ball that bounced into the street. Eddie ran into the street to get the ball as the Blue Man was driving by. The Blue Man swerved out of the way, terrified that he would hit Eddie. Eddie ran safely back out of the street but the Blue Man was still extremely anxious having almost hit him. His anxiety caused him to drive recklessly and he smashed into another car, killing him instantly.
The Blue Man teaches Eddie his first lesson, which is that events are not random and lives intersect for a certain reason. Some good, some bad but they all happen for a reason and if you are one of the lucky ones with meaningful lives, you need to take a close look back and recognize the people who were significant without you really knowing it.
So I’m pretty good now as I finally figured out who the Blue Man was for me and who the Blue Man was for Jerry in a way. Obviously Jerry has others but by what was written in his book, I don’t think Jerry really knew of our mutual Blue Man. After the day I put it together, the ill-feelings toward Jerry for the bitter sweet words he published were gone and also I realized who one of the five people I might meet in heaven was going to be.
The Blue Man is going to be very recognizable, shorter than me, darker complexion and honest as any man I have ever met. That’s right, I expect to see dear ol’ departed Dad in whatever shade he feels fashionable that day but since white shirts and brown pants were his mantra of repeatable character, I expect something in-between, something on the tan side.
Just think what would have been different for both of us. I may have been talked back to the track by Dad and never had any chance of my life with Kim and the kids today and Jerry may have never have found out how bad his disease was if he had not gone swimming in the muddy river with him and Betty the redhead. Everything would have been different for both of us for sure.
We all have our Blue Man in some shape or form. I remember spending the day accepting Dad for what he was and losing any anger I had for him and in this case, Jerry too.
I was back on track. This year was going to be the year I finish the Triple Crown with my son. Super Saver, with Calvin Borel up, took the lead in the stretch while coming up along the rail to win the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby. Fourteen days later, Lookin’ At Lucky upset Super Saver to win the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 15. The Belmont was just days away, coming up the first week in June and my bags were packed.
The WiseGuy software is all over Drosselmeyer and Dan and I plan on laying down the bankroll. To top it off, Bailey and I had spoke again on an email when the Belmont was just a couple months away. I told him I wanted to get with him one of these times in person just to talk about racing and Dad in the old days. Jerry was so kind in his words and always helpful.
“Anything you feel you need to know just ask,” he wrote. I told him about Dan and I going to the Belmont. He mentioned he’d be there with ESPN. I typed I would try to look him up and maybe we could talk. He wrote back within seconds. The note read, “Sounds great, then we can chat. . . regards, Jerry”
– Time Travel Time –
There’s just something about traveling to a track to watch a big race that excites me. In those days when my son didn’t travel as much as he does now in his job, I’m sure in him was the same love for the trip. There’s only a few races left which I really want to see in person. Saratoga Opener and The Travers, the Arlington Million and The Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland. Then there’s the trip to Ascot Berkshire, England to witness the Royal Ascot for a week.
The 12 million dollar Dubai World Cup doesn’t interest me at all because gambling of any form on horses or camels is strictly forbidden as written in Koran 5:91. This too is true at the prodigious Meydan Racecourse where it’s held and everyone knows how them Emaratis love to enforce law.
With my luck I’d get caught by an informant for the Dubai Police for putting two bucks down on a win in a bar after dropping 15 Dirhams ( a little more than 4 dollars if you care ) on a Heineken and spend the next two years learning Arabic in some mud-walled prison shower for men and boys. I understand the religious hill they stand on and that the principal is about the sport and not the money, but it’s not for me, especially the showering part.
We boarded the plane exactly on time for the long ride to the Belmont in New York. My son’s a pretty tall guy so I had the window seat. The man seated in the aisle smelled like a cross between sulphuric acid and Old Spice and is leaning up against Dan’s shoulder and snoring in a precise repetitive muffled roar. One of his canvas shoes had slid off and every once in a while a musky odor you could actually taste would arise and champion above the manly smell.
Dan reached up to the air vent and put in on full blast directly between him and us trying to build an impenetrable air barrier. I smeared a touch of chap stick on each nostril and pleasantly continued to read the emergency pamphlet to see if I would be clear any charges to disregard saving this passenger in the event of an emergency disembarkation.
The lady seated in front of our seats heard the conversation the attendant and I had about Jack Daniels and passed six drink coupons between the opening in the padding. We didn’t milk our drinks from then on and saved our money to add to the upcoming Drosselmeyer bankroll.
Dan sat quietly and patiently with his new odorous friend for over 6 hours and 30 minutes without confrontation. The man woke momentarily only to kick off the other shoe and snort while trying to clear his exhausted throat. My chap stick did its job and we landed at LaGuardia feeling a little stiff from the flight but the excitement of what was coming healed any of our discomforts.
Our rented Ford Focus is parked, Dan’s golf bag made it with us on the flight and are secured with the concierge, checked in the room at our favorite hotel, Marriott, and we were ready for New York. That night was food and a couple more beers at the bar. Chowed down appetizors for dinner as we had decided earlier not to eat hamburger ever again out of town since the Preakness food poisoning event of last year remained clear in our memories.
The 7,468 yard, par 71 Bethpage Black Golf Course in Farmingdale was the topic before bed. Every internet site and brochure had been scoured over in detail to get information about the course and how to get on. By bedtime we had decided first dawn would bring to us a visit to the historic course in search of a tee time later in the week although we had a day to burn before the Belmont.
Sunrise and we find ourselves at the window of Bethpage. “Hi, any tee times available for this week for Black? I asked the young lady behind the glass. She didn’t look down to check her book and answered, “Yes. For what day?” I turned to Dan for a ‘when’ he wanted to play. He only shrugged his shoulders in a ‘whatever’ look.
“Any day this week early in the morning is fine,” I answered. She pushed her brown thin bangs out of the way of her eyes as she looked down at the book then raised up and said, “I have two today at 8:30.” I quickly said, “We don’t have our bags with us. I don’t know if we can get back in time.”
“I’ll put you down and if you get here late I’ll refund your money.” I reached for my wallet, “What’d I owe ya?” I casually asked, thinking to myself, ‘Hey, what’s a hundred bucks? We’re here on vacation.’ “Two hundred, twenty with tax.” I choked back any impression of shock and laid down the plastic. Dan walked away knowing I was going to say something but he didn’t care how much grief I expelled as he wanted to play the Black.
Well needless to say I hadn’t divulged to Dan that I had another common bout of atrial fibrillation since leaving Phoenix because he would worry the whole trip about me keeling over in front of him and worse, as if that isn’t bad enough, mouth to mouth would come into play and he’d have to kiss the old man on the lips.
I wasn’t worried at all and figured I would be able to finish easily from the cart. What could happen? I’d have to walk across a fairway or two to hit a second shot into the green. No biggie.
We returned back to the course with Dan’s clubs in hand and just in time for our round. I walked up to the window and asked for the cart key. “Oh, they don’t allow carts on the Black. Never have.” an elderly woman educated me. “Pull carts are available out near the range where you pick up your rental clubs.” My heart skipped a beat. ‘You Have to Walk this Monster?’ scrolled across my worried mind monitor like a cheap screen saver.
At the tee box with rented clubs in tow I stopped and turned toward the gallery. You say, “What?” I say, “Yes.” Yes, there is a gallery and they stand directly behind and above you on a three foot raised concrete landing. As if they were Gods, ten or so people dressed in golf attire was leaning on the green railing above and behind studying your next move.
They stood quietly and watched as the golfers hit their first shot into the mouth of the giant. This I thought really helps one’s nerves to settle down. My blood pressure soared to the top of the charts after acquiring the knowledge of the gallery and I still had A-Fib going on.
I casually walked up to the railing where a man in his late 60’s with a Bethpage workman’s shirt and hat was standing. “Hey, you work here?” I asked. “Yes I do. Worked here for 24 years.” “Really.” I snapped back. “Tell me, how is this course to play? You know, for a guy my age. Pretty hard?”
“Don’t know, never played it before. To big for me and way out of my league and probably out of yours too since you’re already sweating once I saw you read the sign on the fence up here.” I turned away as I thanked him for his insight. The nice lady who was the starter screeched my last name and proclaimed that the tee was mine. I pulled the dented and abused metal wood from the torn leather bag and walked up to the markers to place the ball.
Before stepping up to the little white ball of torture, I turned confidently and acknowledged the crowd on the landing by touching the brim of my ball cap. Dan smiled knowing I was full of it. I addressed the ball and carefully swung, releasing the club face into the ball. The expensive non-branded clubhead made a solid dink sound like an old metal baseball bat. I watched as the dimples disappeared and flew perfectly into the center of the fairway. The crowd actually clapped and the old man gave me a nod of approval. I touched my hat again. . .
I had set the stage and now the others in the foursome had to follow. One of the men paired with us had already fed us his line and for some reason he thought he was as good as any professional who’d ever played the Open on this course. His ball dribbled down the tee box embankment and stopped about 4o yards in front of us. I kept my eyes down to the grass at my feet. His partner swung like he was cutting kindling and sent the ball spinning into the tall grass a hundred and fifty yards to the right a hundred yards down range.
Dan, as usual, hit it seventy yards further than me and turned it down the dog leg right remaining statuesque in form until the ball disappeared around the right guarding trees and into the center of the fairway.
Dan played, I struggled. The other two, well you know, they were professionals alright, professional triple bogey golfers. By the 7th hole I could tell the A-Fib was getting the best of me. I told Dan what was going on and that I may not be able to make the entire 18. He understood my dilemma so when we approached the tee box he asked the two guys in the group if it would be okay for us to sit a moment and drink something cold from the snack shack.
I bought Dan a blue gatorade and a red for me. I drank it quickly. The missing electrolytes was exactly what the ticker needed. Within minutes it seemed the heart beat began to go back to normal rhythm and the sweating was stopping.
Later I had pulled a serratus posterior inferior back muscle along my spine on 13. For those who don’t know what a serratus posterior inferior back muscle is, it’s the one that hurts like hell. It hurts so bad you have to sit down to pee willing to risk revocation of your man card in order to avoid the pain and moaning that comes with this sprain.
At 605 yards, the 13th is the longest hole on the course but still reachable in two shots by longer-hitting players. I made my drive, wrenched my back, made it to the green in 6 then putted 4 times and picked up.
Something about thinking you have to swing as hard as you can because the hole is long makes for good chiropractic therapy sense. By 18, I was hunched over, missing one club I left on 16, and barely able to tug the homemade pull cart any further but I was happy to see the Clubhouse.
We shook hands with our partners and stopped in and had a couple of cold beers in the bar called Taste 99 located in the Oak Room inside the Clubhouse. We had finished the course, my Mount Everest, and made a couple of friends on the way. Most importantly, we all had a great time battling the prodigious beast.
I had just had one of the best days of my life playing the world-class test at Deathpage, Black’s deserved nickname, with my son. We sat for almost an hour at the small bar in the clubhouse and talked about my injuries and how I managed a 120 for a score. Dan shot well as expected in the low eighties. The Belmont came up again in our conversation as tomorrow was going to be two days in a row of ‘The Best’ Days of Your Life’.
“Have you talked to Bailey?” Dan asked as he admired his newest memorabilia of a score card. I took a slow sip of the draft and paused as I swallowed, “A little while ago. I told him we’d be here for the race and he said to look him up.”Dan gazed over the bar into the mirror and said as eyes caught mine, “What are you going to say to him?” I looked down at the bar top and wiped up the circle of water left there from my glass with the napkin, “Don’t know for sure. It would be nice if we could just sit down for a few and ‘chat’ about your Grandfather who you never knew.”
My back is on fire from the Deathpage pounding I took and I’m eating Tylenol like they were Skittles. Dan and I left the hotel around 7 in the morning with the WiseGuy Bet sheet securely tucked in my back pocket. We proceeded south to the Elmont city limits and to where the infamous Belmont Park stood proud.
“Drosselmeyer?” he questioned as Dan looked over our picks. “That’s what the sheet says,” I voiced confidently. We pulled into the Stop 20 Diner for what I thought would be a quick bite before post time. Dan ended up eating everything in the kitchen as usual. Doggy bag in hand and the next destination was directly to the track.
On Thursday, May 4, 1905, Belmont Park opened. This was an historic day for another reason as it was the opening of the “Taj Mahal of Racing” that created the first traffic jam in Long Island’s history. But on this Saturday, June 5, 2010, we were able to avoid all of the traffic and pedestrian problems as we arrived earlier than anyone else. First race post for the 13-race card is 11:35 a.m and we definitely had a lot of time to kill. We parked the car in the lot just steps away from the front gate. I waited while Dan finished off the to-go breakfast burrito from Stop 20.
The shuttles were arriving at the gate but only had one or two early-bird spectators. Dan wadded up the empty wrapper and looked at me with a full mouth and said one word through the chewed food, “Ready?” I pulled the door handle and stepped out onto the pavement. Dan stood up and checked his shirt for food stains and closed the door. We were standing on hallowed ground. Immediately I started taking movies on the point-and-shoot as we walked up to the Will Call. Dan monologued the 30 second walk to the counter.
“Two tickets for ‘last name’, I asked the lady seated behind the counter in the Will Call booth wearing a green Belmont Park windbreaker. She was organizing some papers in a clear plastic box. “Tickets aren’t here yet. It’ll be and couple of minutes,” she answered. Together we walked up to the green ornamental fence that guarded the grounds. Another shuttle came up screeching its brakes as it stopped. This time it carried the full capacity. “It’s starting,” I quipped over my shoulder to Dan. Another people mover, this one was newly painted and was filled to the brim with today’s attendants. The shuttle pulled in line behind the others. Hurriedly people got off the tram and moved to the turnstiles.
I walked back to the booth and asked again knowing no one had delivered anything to the lady even resembling a ticket. “Two tickets for,” again I told her my last name. She paused for only a moment, “Right here,” she responded and handed over our badges for entry and a seat at the 144th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Belmont Stakes, the 1½- mile “Test of Champions” for 3-year-olds.
When you first walk into the massive park, the Grandstand isn’t as obvious as you might think. Large trees and an expanse of grassy areas cover over any extended view in every direction. The old park’s original boundaries made up a full square mile of ground, approximately 642 acres and today boasts only a mere 430 acres including the barn area.
The main dirt racecourse, known to everyone as the ‘Big Sandy’ has an oval distance of 11⁄2 miles, the longest dirt thoroughbred racetrack in North America. In early time there were four tracks. Inside Big Sandy is the ‘Widener Turf Course’, name after the prestigious Widener family and runs right at 15⁄16 miles plus an additional 27 feet. Then comes the inner course, appropriately called the ‘Inner Turf Course’ of 13⁄16 miles plus 103 feet.
Here’s where it gets challenging. On the Main Track, it is 1,097 feet from the top of the stretch to the finish line. I remember watching Drosselmeyer go by us in the stretch and wondering if the horses were ever going to get there. There are two chutes on the Widener Turf Course, from which turf races of 1 mile and 11⁄16miles are run with an additional chute of 11⁄16 miles on the Inner Turf Course. So without anymore track talk, this baby is big!
Belmont Park was built to symbolize the best that America can do to represent the Sport of Kings. Racing at Belmont Park was ran every year from 1905 until 1962. Horse racing early on was plagued by fraud. The odds and payouts were often faked. The parties taking the bets, known as the bookmakers, often owned horses and were able to influence the race. “Ringers,” horses that were fraudulent substitutes and were either much quicker or slower than the expected entry, were often raced.
Struggling for cash, Belmont Park hosted the International Aviation Tournament highlighted with a dynamic air race from Belmont Park to the Statue of Liberty and back. The Wright Brothers were top marque.
Then came the decision of NYRA to close down and demolish Belmont Park, and change it into a ‘New’ Belmont. The grand stand, the clubhouses, and the Manice mansion were all demolished to make way for a larger grand stand and to move the train station so it could connect directly to the newer grand stand. The NYRA had envisioned an up-to-date version of the old Belmont. However, despite its larger scale it’s never enjoyed the same character or popularity of the old classic Belmont Park.
We were inside the turnstile and we were in awe. Our first stop was to stop by and see Ron Turcotte and maybe get an autograph. Rudy his brother had hired my Dad to handle his book as an Agent sometime after Jerry Bailey let him go in Chicago. Ron’s booth was overrun by fans all trying to get well wishes with their name as the feature and his signature along side. Ron was signing books and posters. ‘Good for him’, I remember thinking. We said hi, and left to take a look at our seats.
Before we found them, we ran into Kenny Mayne. Everyone knows him today as a sports journalist and comic for ESPN. We stopped and talked briefly and asked him if he ran into Jerry before his spot was over if he could mention that we were here. He told us sure and showed us where Jerry would be coming in for his segment. Kenny was very obliging not only to stop and talk to us but offered a snapshot without us asking. Again we left to find our historical seats.
The fold-down grandstand accommodations were perfect and exactly on the stretch where we like to sit. The final turn into the lane is the best and most exciting part of the race and from there you can see who is rightfully in contention. We left a few items on our chairs and headed down for another round of Budweiser Light and more sightseeing. I sent an email from my phone to Jerry letting him know we had made it and told him during a commercial break the plan was to catch up with him and have a ‘chat’.
Early in the Belmont Stakes race card Dan hit a nice exacta for a couple hundred bucks and change. The ‘Beer Buyer’ rule immediately went into effect and off we were deep into the bowels of the grandstand in search of a frosty plastic glass of Bud. Two was the limit for any one person to buy at a time so we walked away clutching one in each hand for a total of four.
Our second lap’s first turn was near the finish line of Big Sandy’s home, through the glass doors of the Clubhouse, upstairs where you could look out onto the expanse and really see what this track is all about and then down to the paddock where hundreds of onlookers stood patiently while the horses were being prepared for the 4th race.
At the end of the 6th we made our way again down to the beer garden and picked up a couple more for the day. As we began to enter the stairway up to the seats Dan asked, “You want to see if Jerry is there yet?” Dan was talking about checking out the covered broadcasting set constructed of aluminum scaffolding and canvas on the end of the stretch apron.
“Sure,” I quickly answered, as I tucked my entry badge back into my shirt pocket. As we passed through one breezeway and out into the open apron we could see the ESPN set was occupied by Bailey and his co-hosts. They were sitting with their backs to the crowd. Randy Moss and Hank Goldberg were looking over some notes and talking while Joe Tessitore was battling a sudden breeze that had taken away some of his papers on the desk in front of him. Jerry was studying a paper he held.
I was prepared from the night before and had my note in my pocket that I had written, ‘Jerry, Dan and I are here with security. If you have time I would sure like to say hi. Bill ‘ I wasn’t prepared to find another almost identical guard as was at the Breeder’s Cup. She was leaning against the railing leading into the set area. A very large and menacing lady of African descent with a badge sneered at me as Dan and I approached her position.
“You can’t go any further, Sir” she instructed in a low grumble. Her bondwoman approach worked and both Dan and I stopped immediately. “We’re here to see Jerry Bailey,” I announced. She looked at me over her glasses although she wasn’t wearing any and without hesitation said, “What did I just say?”
I reached out my hand holding the small folded piece of paper and politely asked, “Officer, I understand that we cannot go any further and that is why I wrote down our name on this piece of paper. Would you please get this to Jerry?”
She locked her jailhouse stare at me again, “I can’t leave this area.” I softened my voice, “Oh, I know. You being here is very important. Can you have someone else take it to him?” Just then Jeannine Edwards approached from the secured area, “Excuse me,” she says as she passes by us. “Hi, Jeannie,” I said to her trying to sound familiar. “Hi,” she answered back without breaking stride. We smiled and I turned my attention back to the guard, nodded slightly and raised my brow in question. “Please.”
The uniformed guard slowly took the paper from my hand, turned and called out to the second tier guard standing thirty feet away nearer to the gate leading out to the protected area. The slightly built man walked up and she handed him the note, “He want’s to get this to Jerry Bailey,” she said. He took the paper and walked back to the gate, opened it and went directly to a young man with an ESPN shirt and whispered to him as he handed our message to him.
Bailey and Tessitore were in the middle of a segment. The bright lights of the set were on and the camera’s red light was blinking. The man with the note stood at the bottom of the stairs waiting for the set to open before handing Jerry the note. I kept my eyes on him anxious for the handoff. The lights went off and Jerry stood up. I looked back at the man and saw that his hand was in his pocket. Jerry backed away from the desk and pushed his chair into place and leaned over and said something to Tessitore who only nodded.
Jerry turned toward the aluminum stairway where the young man was waiting. He hurriedly stepped down the stairway and passed him. The worker stood silent and still without even a mention of the note or a message he was to pass on. Jerry walked briskly across our field of vision and appeared he was making a break to the restroom. It was obvious our initial approach was not going to work. I had tried everything I could think and only had one more possibility of a meeting up my sleeve.
“Jerry!” I yelled over the security guard’s shoulder and above the noise of the workers and other security guards. “It’s Bill ( last name ).” Jerry never broke stride and turned his head slightly back and upward and announced loudly back to us, “He’s dead!” I looked at Dan, Dan looked at me. I looked at the lady guard, she looked at Dan. The three of us looked at the departing Jerry. He was only feet from disappearing from view to our left.
“We know that!” I yelled. Jerry stutter stepped and turned his head toward us looking for whoever was talking to him. He stopped as he spotted us and put his hand on his forehead in embarrassment as he now knew who it was. Quickly he strutted toward the gate and stepped through the opening held open by the second guard. With his hand outstretched to me to shake he exclaimed, “Nice to meet you.” I turned to Dan still holding Jerry’s handshake. “This is my son Dan.” Jerry shook his hand and said the same thing.
Now I’m not sure of Jerry’s height but it’s somewhere around five, five. I do know Dan’s who is breaking slightly over six, six. Because of this there was a drastic size difference and some extreme crane necking going on as they met. Jerry and Dan released their hold as Jerry said,”Your Father was the most honest man I ever met.” I couldn’t help the response, “Yes I know that. You already said that in an email.” There was a modest awkwardness happening so I continued, “We just wanted to stop by to say hi.” Jerry nodded and said, “Well it was nice meeting both of you but I do have to get back.” The large guard was looking down at Jerry as he spoke.
Jerry reached out to Dan again to shake, “Thanks for being a fan. We’ll talk soon.” He reached over to me and shook my hand again. I was speechless as Jerry turned away and walked through the gate. Dan looked at the guard as she shrugged her shoulders at him. “I’m not a fan,” he proclaimed to her and she nodded slightly but affirmatively.
We both turned away and left muttering to each other words and names of disgust and disappointment about the end of our longtime quest to meet the man who as dear old Mom had labeled so eloquently, ‘the guy who replaced you’. I could tell now that my Dad had not been as significant to Jerry as I had thought or was it just that Jerry had moved on and now was too much of a star to pay any attention to the little people and to who I felt was a ‘Blue Man’ to him is some aspects of Jerry’s past.
I was embarrassed and ashamed that I had spoken to my son with such regards of Jerry. Being a small part of a history of such a great Jockey and being able to say I knew him now left only a mark of over estimation. We went back to the beer garden and never really spoke again about Jerry in any fashion. We still do joke about his outcry to the crowd that my Dad was deceased only because we knew Jerry’s mind was racing during the moment after he spoke of his passing. Still today during big races I will ask Dan one simple question when the hosts of a televised race do their bit.
“Are you a fan?” I’ll ask. Dan simply shakes his head and says nothing. There’s no one to really blame here as we’re all really busy. Jerry is really busy, I’m really busy, you’re really busy and still took the time to read this nonsense. What you do have to do is take the time to recognize those who were significant in your life and learn to take a moment to really express a heartfelt appreciation to them.
Imagine if Jerry would not have been provided the ‘Great Mississipi river of vodka’ at my Dad’s house while coming up in the ranks. Do you really think things would have been different. Of course they would. The experience Jerry and my Dad went through fighting their way out of alcoholism made them who they were then and who Jerry is today.
You can’t ignore that even if you are too busy. So all and all as I just said, there is no one to blame for anything anymore, not Jerry, not me, not my Mom, not Dan my son, and especially not his Grandfather because as Jerry loudly assured those on the stretch apron that wondrous day of discovery,
“The best part of life starts at the top of the stretch.”