Saturday, August 10, 2013

Longshot Larry and Lucky Hal

   One of the World War II veterans I interviewed spoke about what a character his mother was, and how she was so supportive of everything he did. When he made the football team in high school, she came to his games, and one time, when he scored a touchdown, she proudly told everyone within hearing distance in the stands that her son just hit a home run.
   I, too, had a mother who was very supportive. Her son wasn't an agate clerk in the sports department of the New York Post. He was the sports editor of the New York Post, never mind that in its pre-Rupert Murdoch heyday being the sports editor of the Post was only one or two steps removed from being king of New York.
   At the time, the Post had a prestigious horseracing section. With a bunch of charts and all, it was kind of a poor man's Racing Form. And you can't have a horseracing section without handicappers.
   The post had one professional handicapper, Jerry DeNonno, and it had a couple of amateurs who would send in their picks, and Mr. Agate Clerk, aka me, would arrange their three picks per race neatly in a box that appeared on one of the three or four racing pages. There was, however, one handicapper out of the five in the box, his name was Trackman, who may have at one time existed, but he didn't exist when I was there.
   Here's what you do, I was told. You take Jerry DeNonno's three selections and jumble them up, and that's Trackman. Sometimes you mix in a jumbled trio of one of the other handicapper's selections to throw off any conspiracy theorists who might latch onto the formula. It may not be in a league with Edward Snowden, but I often thought one day somebody is going to expose this racket, except that in the horseracing world those three jumbled selections had about as good a chance of winning as the professional handicappers' picks. Kind of like the stock market.
   The night sports editor at the time was Vic Ziegel, who was a legend among sportswriters. Vic died a couple of years ago of lung cancer, and he didn't smoke, but he used to cover boxing in the days when Madison Square Garden was one big cloud of cigar smoke during a match, and newsrooms weren't smoke free either. Vic's job was extremely stressful thanks to ever-earlier deadlines and ever-later games, but he found a way to handle the stress. However difficult a night it was, come about four or four-thirty in the morning Vic would stop everything, he'd lean back in his chair with, I guess it was the Racing Form since he knew how we handicapped our own paper, and he would pick a longshot at Aqueduct or Belmont, and there'd be a little box on the racing page, one day it would be "Longshot Larry" and the next day it would be "Lucky Hal." Most days Longshot Larry or Lucky Hal was actually Vic Ziegel.
   When Vic was off, sometimes Longshot Larry or Lucky Hal would be ... you guessed it. And my mother would always ask me for recommendations when one of her poker playing buddies was going to the track.
   At any rate, Longshot Larry and Lucky Hal went a long way toward alleviating the stress on poor Vic.
   There was a story Vic may or may not have told, I lost touch with him and only saw him once after I left the Post in 1978, but he was a great storyteller and I was there when this story happened, so I assumed he would add it to his repertoire, although it's possible he told it a couple of times and then it slipped into the recesses. Like during the great Newspaper Strike of 1988 when there were three "interim" newspapers and the strike lasted 78 days and the new Pope died suddenly and one of the interim papers ran a headline on the top of its front page that said "Pope dies -- see tomorrow's paper for details." And it seemed like everybody who worked for one of the interim newspapers was going to write a book about it and no one ever did.
   In this particular story, however, Longshot Larry made his selection for the night. An hour or two later the paper was finished. Vic probably went out and had some breakfast, then hopped on the subway and got to Aqueduct, or maybe it was Belmont, in time for the first race.
   Longshot Larry picked a horse named TV Rerun that day. I don't know which race it was in, but I'll wager that Vic plunked ten or twenty bucks on its nose. The bugle signaled that the race was about to begin, the starting gate was lifted, TV Rerun bolted from the gate and soon was in the middle of the pack. The horse was acquitting itself well and entered the stretch in second place, but didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of winning. Suddenly the jockey on the favorite horse raised his right hand, or maybe it was his left hand, to give his horse a gentle little thwack with the whip and, lo and behold, the whip fell out of his hand, the favorite switched gears from Express Train to Laid Back Surfer Dude, and TV Rerun passed him just before the wire, returning a handsome sum to all the Longshot Larry devotees who wagered two or four dollars on him.
   That night Vic came in to work in a very good mood and was telling the story to anyone who'd listen, and then he got down to the stressful work of the night.
   Around seven or eight in the morning the phone rang and it was Ike Gellis, the sports editor of the Post, calling, as he usually did, to see how things went during the night. Now Ike, too, liked to play the ponies, only whereas Vic bet ten or twenty dollars on a horse, Ike would bet several hundred, if not more. And there was Vic, a few feet from me, on the phone relating the story about TV rerun and the favorite's jockey dropping the whip when all of a sudden there was a prolonged silence, and Vic's face turned ashen.
   "What did he say?" someone asked.
   I could see Vic was trying to maintain his composure. Then he said that Ike, the sports editor, said, in what was probably a terse near whisper, "That was my whip the jockey dropped."
   Nothing more was said, but man, what a great story Vic had to tell, I thought. Whether he ever told it I don't know.
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1 comment:

  1. This is such a vivid portrait of the sports desk. It makes someone who wasn't there long for yesterday.