An aptly named racehorse sheds the cloak of loser and drapes it over its bevy of owners.
“Well, look who’s here," Bob said, cheerily. "If it ain’t my dear friend, Boom Boom... maven of the Chicago Board of Trade. Don't just stand there, come in, come in.” Bob led me to his study. “I'm delighted to see you. So, how are the markets and horses treating you these days?”
“No complaints. Been short beans and long on horses lately. In fact, it's why I'm in town; got a filly running at Belmont tomorrow.”
“Ah, I see. She gonna win?”
“‘Hope so, but it’s only her second start. Should have won her debut, but she stumbled out the gate. Went right to her knees and had too many lengths to make up. But this time? Yeah, I guess you could say I like her chances.”
“You guess? Listen to you— sounds like a lot of hedging to me and you call yourself a horse owner; the ultimate optimist, heh heh? If you expect to coax a hondo from this old dude, you’re supposed to say: heck yeah, Foxy. Slam dunk. Bet the farm and we’ll meet at D’Nato’s in the Village for a victory dinner.”
“Go easy on me, bucko. Remember, it was you who once taught me that bangtails seem to have a way of making monkeys out of owners.”
“Yep, that would be me. You remember your lessons well.” Bob motioned to a tray of delectable treats as he eased the cork from a fine Bordeaux. “Dig in. Marianne made us a few hors d’oeuvres before she went to work.”
“Mmm, don’t mind if I do. Be sure to extend my warmest regards when she gets home.”
"No problem. Will do, my man." Bob Fox had been more than a good friend. We hit it off from the get-go, a patient and valued adviser ever since we were introduced. He was always willing to help me learn the horse game given his years of consulting in concert with hosting a weekly New York racing show on TV. He knows it head to tail; the people, pedigrees, breeding farms, and all the innuendos of horse racing. His home office is a virtual gallery of awards, photos, and scores of racing memorabilia. One particular framed item caught my eye: 54 Excuses.
Its alluring title drew me closer. I knew there was only one way to win a horse race, but after scanning the zany document, I failed to disguise my guilt-ridden grin. I was hooked. “Where in blue blazes did you find this little gem?”
“Oh that, isn’t it neat? It was hanging in a trainer’s tack room at Pimlico. Apparently over the years, some dude compiled a list of excuses that horse owners use after losing a race. Lord knows I’ve heard ‘em all at some point or other. Don’t ya love it?”
Hmm, fifty-four of excuses... and 'over the years' he says, I mused, pausing to reflect while scanning the list. My facetious grin widened. “You know, Foxy, this reminds me of a totally nonsensical day at the races with my partners— and not so long ago."
“No kidding.” Bob added another measure of wine to my glass and directed me to an overstuffed armchair. “Sit down. Make yourself at home and tell me about it.”
“Okay, but I think I should change one name to protect the innocent.”
Bob raised his glass in toast. “Ha ha, whatever you say, chump, but here's to us guilty ones. Salute.”
“Now, let’s see; where to begin,” I said, and carefully composed my thoughts while keeping an impish eye on that list of excuses. “Well, a few years ago, my country club cronies and I decided to pool our money and try our luck at owning a race horse. We were excited and hired Terry Pawl as agent to buy us a yearling.”
“Ah, a good choice. I know Terry well; heck of a horseman.”
“Yes, he is. Well, that August at Saratoga’s auction, we didn’t come close our first two tries, but kept at it. Anxiety mounted as we jumped in on a third prospect. Terry was bidding on a good looking chestnut colt, and this time, the bidding slowed well within our budget. One partner had his young son along who blurted: ‘are we gonna get diss’un, daddy?’"
“A moment later, the hammer fell on Terry's bid and the colt was ours. We were giddy with excitement, and over beers, even decided to name him, Dissun Terry— in honor of our agent and little Mikey's outcry. Yeah, you might say we were in the game hook, line, and stinker,” I said, chuckling.
“Dissun grew and muscled out nicely as a coming two-year-old during breaking and early training. Our optimism swelled as we eventually approached race day; his first start. But the sorry s.o.b. let us down big time. He ran like you know what and finished tenth out of twelve starters.
“‘Ah, shake it off, boys,’ the trainer said. ‘Few horses ever win their first out. He's still a baby, and with more experience he’s sure to improve.’
"Yeah, sure, we grumbled. Although a tad cynical, we gradually accepted his reasoning as the weeks passed until our deflated egos once again ballooned with can’t-miss enthusiasm. His next start was only a modest race for maiden claimers, but to us it seemed like Derby Day.
“All but two of the partners arrived early though our race was ninth on the card. And what a group we were— might as well have showed up wearing neon lapel buttons flashing: I'm a New Owner.
"Ol' Doc Lossen and his aging sidekick, J.T., were decked to the nines in fancy, but dated duds. Fabino had his son with him again, flanked by Big Rich, Chuck, and Norman, the trio casually dressed though sporting some form of lucky garb like a bright yellow fedora, a huge horse-head belt buckle, or whatever; all in support of a cinch win. Even little Mikey was antsy and squealed: ‘Daddy said our horsie's gonna win today, right Daddy?’
"'You bet! A sure thing, son. Gimme a high five for luck."
“Though overcast and threatening rain, nothing could dampen our spirits. We were not to be dismayed proudly flaunting new-owner passes with pomp and positive energy. We killed time betting early races while chatting and sipping brews until Charlie Sharp, the colt's trainer, arrived. In contrast to the group, he seemed somewhat aloof and uneasy.
“‘You look perplexed,’ I said. ‘Is something on your mind?’ The revelry waned as we circled Charlie, anxious to hear details.
"'Actually, a few things do bother me,’ he said. From his expression, no doubt Charlie remembered how we reacted after the last race and was about to voice concerns when Rich blurted out.
"'Well hell’s, bells! Spit it out, Charlie. Are we gonna run good this time, or what?’
“Startled by Big Rich’s demeanor and not knowing us all that well personally, Charlie paused a moment to read expectant faces.
"‘Um, ah... well y’all remember Dissun’s first start when I said he didn’t run his race  that day— but not to get discouraged? Well since then, I’m a tad concerned he ain’t the same horse he was earlier , you know, when you first sent him to me to take over training. I'm thinking maybe he was ruined by the hard track he came from .’
"Charlie was referring to Kelly’s training center in South Carolina where the colt was first broke to training. How could that be, we wondered. Dissun seemed to be in great shape when arriving at Charlie's barn. At any rate we were dumbfounded, our zeal going down the same drain as several kidney-filtered beers.
"Charlie continued. 'But y’all urged me on; to keep him in training— 'oh, he’ll be better next time; that he needed the race ' y'all said, remember? Well, when you insisted he needs his races closer together , I worked him harder. But if you ask me, I think he left his race on the training track . In fact, I was thinking he needs a rest .'
“Thank God someone had the presence of mind to suggest another round of drinks. ‘I'll go. On me,’ Fabino volunteered, and started toward the bar.
“‘Change mine to whiskey!’ Chuck hollered.
“‘Yeah, and make it a double for me,’ Bill added.
"Fabino flashed a thumbs-up and soon returned with whiskeys for everyone. Unsettled, I again asked Charlie if we were still going to run.
“‘Of course,’ Charlie confirmed. ‘It’s too late to scratch. But there’s still another thing that bothers me about last time; I’m pretty certain it wasn’t his distance .’
“‘I knew it. I just knew it,’ Bill said. ‘I’ve heard enough of this baloney. One dang excuse after another. Face it guys, we came here for nothing.’
“Fabino faced the trainer directly, his expression distorted from a healthy gulp of whiskey. ‘Bill’s right, sounds like a bunch of hogwash to me, too. Just what are you trying to feed us, anyway? We all know why he lost his debut. The track was too deep  and the turns are too sharp at this track .’
“Norm interrupted. ‘Yeah, I too recall somethin’ being said about how he didn’t like the track . So what gives, Sharp?’
"Dubious eyes set upon our trainer, who by now, sensed a need to allay growing apprehension.
“‘It's like I said, boys, things were different then. His loss had nothin’ to do with the track.’ Charlie reminded us that perhaps the distance might have been a factor, that it was his first time he’s been around two turns, and then sheepishly added: ‘but that aside, this time there’s more things to worry about than minor stuff like that.’
“Hearing that little kicker, Bill took a menacing step toward Charlie. ‘Oh? You say there’s more— more excuses?’
“Charlie seemed unnerved and didn’t bother looking up from studying his boots. ‘Seems to me you boys have forgotten what you had said about his race conditions, too, like— the weight was too much , or that maybe he was giving away too many pounds ?'
“Doc’s eyeballs rolled upward. ‘Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, is there anything else?’ He turned to Norman and poked him in the shoulder. ‘Can you believe this guy?’
“‘Yup. What have I been saying all along? It’s not meant to be,’ Norman mumbled. 'This whole Dissun Terry thing is beginning to leave a bad taste in my mouth. We never should of done this. Humph, seems we bought us a bum, alright.’
“Norman’s prophetic rip inspired humbled opinions; our way of coming to terms with Dissun Terry’s certain demise. J.T. was first to test dispirited waters by spouting tin-horn knowledge that comes with rookie ownership. “‘What’s Charlie talkin’ about? Why should distance bother him just because his sire was only a sprinter ?’
“‘So much for what you know,’ Doc countered. ‘That was his broodmare sire, dummy. His sire could only win at a mile and a half , a downright plodder if you ask me.’ Both stood their ground, staring at each other, neither one sure of what the other really knew.
“‘Why is everybody so riled?’ I said. ‘Maybe he needs blinkers , is all.’ But that only spurred a sharp retort from the bulky Chuck standing to my left.
“‘That’s a load a malarkey,’ Chuck grumbled. ‘We all know he runs better without blinkers .’
“A little shoving and glaring induced Charlie to referee. ‘Boys, boys! Everyone calm down. I gotta be going now, anyway. It’s almost race time and I need to get Dissun ready. I'll catch up with y'all at the rail in front of the grandstand.’
“Grateful for the reprieve, we ambled out to the saddling paddock, but not without stopping for more liquid courage on the way. Despite a light drizzle, crowds gathered round as we managed to wedge our way alongside the paddock barrier.
“‘Good grief,’ Fabino groaned. ‘Look at all these people. Why so dang many have to hang around here for crissake. We’re the owners, not them.’
“‘Yeah, and take a look at Dissun Terry,’ Rich said, pointing his drink toward the saddling stall, slopping a dollop of whiskey onto little Mikey’s head. ‘Looks to me like the crowd scared him .’
“No doubt about it. It don't take a genius to see he was nervous .’
“Dissun Terry pranced and pawed the ground until the call for ‘riders up’ was heard above the din of the crowd. People dispersed as jockeys guided their mounts single-file toward post parade. We beat the majority of crowds passing through the clubhouse to claim a good vantage point along the outside rail near the wire.
“On the way, Ol' Doc Lossen pulled at J.T's arm. ‘Saaay, ain’t you gonna get a bet down first?’
“‘Hell no,’ J.T. said. ‘You heard what the trainer said. Besides, didn't you notice? Don’t you know nuthin’ about horses, Doc?’
“‘What d’ya mean?’ Doc blinked, wondering what he’d missed.
“J.T. seized a second chance at one-upmanship. ‘Look around ya. Can’t you see it’s been drizzling?’ and swept his hand about the grounds as if blessing the place. Armed with a false sense of Nouveau-authority, J.T. continued to educate. ‘Why, any fool can see he wasn’t wearing his mud caulks . And another thing, doofus, the jockey didn’t fit him , either. Look at him. He's too big and gangling for my likin', and besides, he had a bad post . No sir-eee, bub. No bet for me.’
“The horses finished warm up jogs and were nearing the gate. We guzzled refills to stave off the jitters, our eyes glued to the far side of the track. Assistant starters snatched bridles and began leading horses into the starting gate. No one spoke, yet our facial expressions were plenty audible: saints preserve us, our champion is about to get his ass kicked.
“Norman pointed at Dissun Terry. ‘Good Lord, fellas. Do you see what I see?’ He was fractious at the gate .' We all agreed the damned horse was wasting precious energy fighting his handlers when the intercom came to life: ‘they’re all in, the flag is up, aaaaaaaaand they’re off!’
“Only seconds after the explosive start, Chuck's face twisted; he was fuming. ‘Good God almighty! The assistant starter held his tail . Damn him,’ Chuck cursed, but Norman corrected.
“‘Not so, amigo; the jockey was asleep when the gate opened . That’s why he walked out of the gate .'
“‘Damn!’ I yelled. ‘He should have gone to the lead .’
“‘Whadja ‘spect; how could he do anything?’ Doc slurred, ‘the jockey almost fell off  when the saddle slipped .’
“But as it turned out, we were all wrong. Two jumps from the start, the jockey lost his irons  as he was knocked off stride coming out of the gate . Worse, another horse clipped his heels  and he lost a shoe . Yet despite the jostling and banging of flanks battling for positions, the jockey somehow managed to hold on, his knees pinching the colt’s withers with all the strength he could muster.
J.T. was transfixed on the action. He cringed, grabbed both ears, and yelled. ‘Ugh! I think he stepped in a hole !’
“Norman again proffered correction: ‘no he didn’t, he jumped over a hole in the track , you twit.’
“J.T.'s goof exposed, he glowered as the horses neared the half mile pole. By now, it seemed the early pace was too much  for him as the jockey moved too soon , rushing through the pack too quickly. Now, the jockey had to take him up . What a waste. Any idiot could see that the jockey didn’t rate him  because he was too close to the early pace , expending way too much precious energy needed for a closing rush. I sighed, conceding we were doomed to certain defeat, just like last time. I glanced at Charlie who was peering through binoculars.
“‘It looks to me like he was climbing, not running ,’ Charlie said, likely making a mental note for a change in equipment for next time. Suddenly, Charlie became enraged. ‘What’s that numskull doing? The jockey hit him left handed  when I specifically told him never to hit him on that side.’ Charlie feared Dissun Terry might bolt way to the outside, and seething with contempt for Gomez, he lowered his glasses.
“Chuck’s face gnarled into knots. ‘The jockey shouldn’t have hit him  at all. He needed a stronger hand ride , fer crissake!’
“‘Charlie’s right. Look!’ I yelled. ‘He was trying to bear out all the way .’ To our dismay, he lost too much ground on the outside . My God, I prayed, trying to will the jockey into doing something right— like anything and quickly. Good lord, I must have conjured up too much mojo, because at that instant, we witnessed yet another ill-fated decision; he was trying to get in all the way!’
"Chuck was boiling. ‘Christ almighty, Gomez! Don’t you know where you’re going? The blasted idiot should know better; everyone knows it was too deep on the rail .’
“‘Yup, here we go again, "tenth, if we're lucky’ Fabino grumbled, kicking the chain-link fence. 'We're finished.'
"I nodded agreement. At this juncture, there was no doubt the jockey moved too late  because he got pinched back at the turn .
“But suddenly, a glimmer of hope recharged our motley crew as Dissun Terry seemed to quicken his stride coming out of the turn. But as he tried sneaking free between horses, he was blocked in the stretch  with less than a furlong to go. Our hopes vanished as quickly as a popcorn fart.
“We’d had enough and couldn’t bear to watch another stride. Norman and Ol' Doc held each other for mutual comfort. Rich and Fabino draped their arms over the fence and stared at the dirt in defeat. Aside from accepting pending failure, I felt a little woozy from whiskey and closed my eyes to steady myself.
“Chuck and Bill were the only two brave enough to watch the final yards disappear as a wall of horses passed in front of us with nostrils flared, ears pinned, and heads bobbing. Chuck rocked Bill with a heavy hand to the shoulder.
“‘Will ya look at Gomez, the useless pipsqueak!” Chuck yelled, pointing at the jockey. ‘Hey, Gomez; are you stupid or what! You went and used him up! Can't you see he spit the bit ?’ Chuck mumbled a string of expletives, turned his back to the track, and threw his drink at the pavement.
“As quickly as the crowd's cheering reached a crescendo, the roar dwindled to scattered shouts as horses crossed the finish line. Hundreds of torn ticket stubs were tossed into the air while other patrons were bouncing on their toes, pinching wagers praying for a favorable photo outcome.
“As for us, within the span of a minute and change, we were reduced to a band of blithering losers as Charlie’s cell phone came to life.
"'Hello, Kelly,' Charlie answered, noting the caller ID. "What's new in South Carolina, these days?"
“‘Well, for one thing, I caught the race on simulcast. What’s your take on Dissun Terry now?’
“Charlie glanced at us crestfallen owners. ‘As I see things right now? Uh, I guess you could say he just didn’t run his race today .’
“‘What? I don’t get it,’ Kelly said, studying the off-track monitor in front of him. ‘What do you mean— he didn’t run his race today? I thought he did a heck of job to hang in there given such a rough start.” Kelly’s professional eye suggested that Dissun Terry showed a lot of courage and class in only his second start.
“‘I hear ya, Kelly, but it’s a long story and I gotta run. I’ll call you back later.’ Charlie cut him off and went to help his groom with the unsaddling, who by now was walking Dissun Terry in circles with four other horses in front of the grandstand.
“'I still don't get it,' Kelly hung up. ‘Something’s really strange up there in River City. What do those idiots expect, a run-away romp every time? Ha, and lookie there,’ Kelly chuckled, pointing at the off-track monitor. ‘It’s official. Dissun got it by a nostril.’
The photo finish confirmed results as cameras zoomed in on a jubilant Charlie Sharp leading a tired, but feisty chestnut into the winner’s circle.
* * *
"Ha, ha!" Bob roared. “Well I’ll be a son-of-a-gun. That was one heck of a story, you rascal. Why, I’d bet a bundle that my producer would love to make a movie out of that corker, but the Marx Brothers are dead. And you’ve also proved my point— Dissun Terry made a monkey out of all of you and those excuses.”
“All right, all right. I give. But if you promise to be nice, I got another story for you. It’s about a humbled monkey who’s willing to buy a win ticket for his buddy tomorrow— providing I get to swap a few more lies while sipping more of this fine wine tonight.”
“Gotcha covered, pard, but I’m fresh out of Banana Ripple. You’ll have to settle for a fine Chateau Moutin, but I guess you’re worth it.” As Bob pulled the cork, he paused. “You know, on second thought, I have an even better proposition.”
Bob peeled a c-note from his money clip. “Here, put this on your filly’s nose tomorrow, but, on one condition. You promise not to boost that list to fifty-five or more with something like: oh,she stumbled out the gate and had too many lengths to make up; or you wore the wrong hat; the moon was in the wrong phase; or whatever. Then Marianne and I will have no excuse but to join you at D’Nato’s for dinner tomorrow night— deal?”
I reached for his hand, my face surely matching the rich Bordeaux as we enjoyed exchanging mischievous grins. “It's a deal!”