Jim Murray, the great sports' columnist for the Los Angeles Times, died Sunday night, a day after writing his last piece, a commentary about Free House's victory in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar racetrack. How fitting.
You see, Jim loved horse racing, even though he once said, "thoroughbreds never have to do anything real horses have to do -- pull a plow, cut a cow, ride in a battle, lead a parade. They work about two minutes a week. The rest of the time they sleep and eat. They also sulk, jump shadows, bite, kick, and get all lathered up when they're called on to do something. They got the nervous system of a guy with terminal DT's. They are playboys. They squander other people's money. Like, the bettors."
But, Jim Murray, who never took himself too seriously, also loved a good story. He may even have enjoyed these two tales from Saratoga 1998, Be advised they come from the mouth of Indian Charlie. No, not the recently retired racehorse who finished third to Real Quiet and Victory Gallop in this year's Kentucky Derby, but the Indian Charlie also known as Eddie Musselman. His motto, while sleuthing the backstretches of Kentucky and Saratoga, is "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story."
Anyway, Jim, here goes. First we have Robert Perez, the well-heeled native of Argentina who owns Interborough Asphalt Construction Comany in New York. Perez has been importing horses into the United States to race since 1962, many of the slow, slower, and slowest kind. But, in the past few years his charges have been hitting the board with regularity for trainers Alfredo Callejas and Nick Zito. Why, his two-year-old filly, Call Me Up, even upset the $100,000 Schuylerville Stakes on opening day at Saratoga.
Then, on Aug. 2, Perez entered Mil Kilates against the mighty Bill Mott-trained Escena, the prohibitive 3-10 favorite, in the $250,000 Go For Wand Stakes, the eighth race. Why not? Perez was on a roll, having won a race already on the undercard. Besides, he had D'Nang entered in the ninth in a $30,000 claiming race and could hit the daily double. After all, Perez is a sporting man, if you know what I mean?
Perez attacked the mutuel windows, placing $400 daily doubles on his Mil Kilates and D'Nang and also on Helen Alexander's Aldiza (11-1) and D'Nang. Naturally, a separate win bet on D'Nang was part of Perez' utterance to the clerk.
In a frenzied finish, Aldiza put her brown nose across the wire just before Escena, paying $25.00. When Perez' D'Nang (5-1) won the finale, the retired construction boss was indeed a happy man. He had won $14,000 as his share of the purse for the D'Nang win, his win bet on D'Nang, and had the late double 200 times with two nicely-priced horses.
But, Perez, momentarily forgetting that he had used Aldiza in the late double, had torn up his live double ticket with D'Nang after Mil Kilates had lost the Go For Wand. As he cashed his tickets on D'Nang following the picture-taking in the new Saratoga winners' circle, Perez realized his grievous error and returned to his owner's box in a panic to find his ticket on the floor in multiple shards. Try to picture an extremely well-dressed man on his hands and knees, surrounded by old money on every side, attempting to piece together a puzzle of perhaps the worth of my yearly salary.
Luckily, Perez found the portion of the ticket with the bar code on it, returned to the window, and sheepishly explained his plight. As the intact bar code was punched into the machine, the window registered $34,600 to be returned to the bearer.
It appears that Mr. Robert Perez needs one more runner in his barn, this one with only two legs.
Then we come to Phil Hauswald, one of 17 Kentucky-based trainers who shipped their strings to Saratoga for the 36-day race meeting. Unfortunately, not all of Hauswald's help wished to be away from family or grits for six weeks. Medicinal waters proved no incentive. Hauswald needed one more hotwalker around the barn.
Fortuitously, a polite, dreadlocked young man appeared at Hauswald's barn one morning, looking for gainful employment. Following a description of barn duties, which were warmly accepted, Hauswald signed his new hand on.
In his first week of work, the newcomer was always the first to appear at the barn and the last to leave. As retired trainer Woody Stephens used to say, "he worked from when the sun was down to when the sun was down."
Concerned that this "find" would leave for another barn, as it customary on the backstretch, Hauswald rewarded the stranger with a $100 raise after only one week on the job. Week two went even better. Hauswald now counted the newcomer as one of his more valued employees.
Then, a few days later, it happened. When Mr. Dreadlocks showed up for work under the Saratoga elms one morning at 5:30 a.m., FBI agents, state police officers, and the local constabulary descended upon Hauswald's barn like Powerball winners to the lottery office, hauling their prize catch away to jail.
Hauswald was perplexed, telling the law officers that all he knew about the man was that he was a damned good worker around the barn. It seems he was pretty handy around banks, too, climbing to number 40 on the FBI list of most wanted fugitives. Good help is so hard to find these days.
I hope you liked these tales, Jim. You once said that Red Smith possessed a "surgical deftness with words that made some of us wonder if Red wrote with rubber gloves." Well, I got news for you. If Red Smith was 1 you were definitely 1A. Part of a Hall of Fame entry. Now you share the same shedrow. Hope the hay is fresh and the oats are sweet.