October 22, 2007

The most authentic human being I have ever known was the father of a classmate in elementary school.  That classmate has remained a friend to this day. His father was a handicapper of thoroughbreds, an aficionado of the racetrack. His name was Vince, born in 1898 in Connecticut, of parents who had both arrived on a boat from Ireland in the 1880’s. I was to learn that Vince’s glory days were in the 1930’s and the 1940’s, when he lived large like a character right out of the pages of Damon Runyon.

Vince handicapped his way through the Great Depression and the World War II years, traveling by pullman car between New York,  Los Angeles and Miami, as free as a bee. His residence was a series of upscale hotel rooms. All his meals were in restaurants. From what I could gather, bookmakers at the track had not been totally banned and replaced by the automated pari-mutuel machines. This meant that Vince had an edge because he knew more than the bookmakers. He made a small fortune utilizing his superior insight, and later on sent his four “baby boomer” boys through college on his winnings. He had regular clients who paid for his advice right up until the 1980’s. I remember that Vince’s home office was stacked high with back issues of the Racing Form. He must have been good with figures. I never found out what his “system” was. He never talked about it, nor did he pass it on. He never used a credit card. Everything was cash. I doubt that Vince ever opened a bank account. On top of that, he was the spitting image of Ambassador Joe Kennedy, complete with the same jaunty smile and down-to-earth persona.

There were a number of memorable, drop-dead, throw-away lines which Vince employed and which only he could properly deliver. I confess that most have faded from my memory, because my memory is shot. One of my favorites has stuck, even though it was not at all original. It was the way he said it. Not in a loud voice, but in low-key, ironic tones. Vince would say, “What the hell is this?” He could be referring, for example, to the sudden appearance of a glamorous woman, to the unexpected change of odds on the tote board, to the physical appearance of a sandwich, or to anything which momentarily surprised him. The phrase was uttered slowly while staring at the phenomenon that had evoked the comment. It indicated that Vince was momentarily perplexed, but that the new development would be figured out, soon enough. Since you were there, on his team, so to speak, it meant that you, too, could not be fooled, and were ready for anything.

I remember sitting at his reserved table in the Clubhouse, smack on the finish line, and thinking “How good is this?” I never learned to decipher the past performance data in the Racing Form, because there was simply no need. Vince knew everything already. He came equipped with a split-second stopwatch to time each race. Another fixture on the table was his indispensable, pre-war Zeiss binoculars from Jena, which he focused on the horses from start to finish. In addition to sitting at Vince’s table, the magical and egalitarian atmosphere of the racetrack itself was part of the allure. Between races, I would go explore the nooks and crannies of the place, including the paddock area, and leave Vince to his stopwatch, binoculars, and newspaper. The racetrack seems to have had a similar, albeit more profound, existential effect upon the philosopher-poet, Charles Bukowski, with whom I would later exchange ideas.

Some mornings I would get a phone call from Vince, then in his mid-seventies, saying that he needed a wheelman and was I available? Whatever work I had to do, I would get it out of the way by noon, and pick up Vince and drive him and one of his millionaire sidekicks to the track. What was the point of going to work in a conventional way, when you could go to the racetrack and sit with the smartest guy out there? I never knew what the arrangement was—whether Vince was paid a fee or got a percentage of the winnings from the picks he handed out to his clients on the phone, before he left for the track, and then on site. (Speaking of the telephone, Vince is the only man I’ve encountered who never said “goodbye” or signed off. When he finished whatever he had to say, he abruptly hanged up.) Vince normally placed only one or two bets for himself the entire afternoon. He would jump in whenever his calculations and the odds on the tote board were out of whack, which meant that “the crowd” was dead wrong in its evaluation of the race.

Most of his long-time associates and fellow racetrack denizens—who referred to Vince as “the chief”—were of the same no-nonsense frame of mind. They were there to make money and beat the track. They did not take unnecessary risks. Then again, others were obviously on hand for the action. I recall one sunny Saturday afternoon sitting at Hialeah with Vince and Jimmy the Greek.  Every couple of races, Jimmy would slide a few hundred dollar bills across the table to Vince, and say something like, “Here’s that money I borrowed from you, Vince.” Of course, that was a cover. Jimmy had the benefit of Vince’s picks, but I believe in the final analysis that he was there just to be at the same table with Vince. In sharp contrast to “the chief”, Jimmy would bet every single race and almost every single horse in every single race, in some sort of combination.

When Jimmy won big, he would wave his fat wad of tickets in the air and yell, “The Greek had it!” to the spectators below. He loved the action, and the crowd loved a winner. We were happy for him. On the other hand, if things did not work out exactly as anticipated, The Greek would go into a tailspin emotionally and say something impolite like “It died like a pig!” in reference to a horse who faded in the stretch, and ran out of the money. Vince would comment, “Yeah, so-in-so sure disappointed me today,” in reference to the same unlucky horse who had done his best but failed. Vince knew the odds, and took everything in stride. 

Anyway, I find myself thinking a lot about Vince and the racetrack these days, almost every time I pick up a newspaper or cut on the T.V. and watch the news. His phrase and the tone of “What the hell is this?” comes to mind. I start with that basic, no-nonsense question when evaluating current events, and take it from there. What would Vince think, what would he do? That is my criteria. The racetrack back then was a better, brighter universe.




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