I suppose some of the details are a little fuzzy after all these years, but the gist of this story would be tough to forget. I recall being about 10 years old at the time. My father and his buddies loved to pick a horse or two each day and place their bets with Tony, the local “entrepreneur,” an Italian guy who never wrote anything down on paper. When I asked my father why that was the case, he told me that Tony kept losing his pencils. Even at that tender age, I had an inkling that Tony may have had another reason from which I should be sheltered! At any rate, as the summer approached, my father announced that the family would be attending a Memorial Day picnic with some close friends and Uncle Freddy, Dad’s younger brother. The picnic would be held at Delaware Park, a beautiful racetrack about 15 minutes south of Wilmington off I-95 and about an hour’s drive from our home in southwest Philly. There would be lots of food and fun for the kids while the grownups tried their luck at the ponies.
My uncle was a character. Just a few years younger than my father, Uncle Freddy was affectionately given the nickname “Woodpecker” by my uncle Joe, another brother not in attendance. I wasn’t sure why Uncle Joe didn’t join us, but it may have had something to do with what Uncle Fred described as his younger brother’s “habit of bettin’ on slow horses.” Uncle Fred’s penchant for handing out nicknames (Uncle Joe was “Joe Pierre.” My father, Henry, was “Crooch.”) and his quick Italian temper, which always made me laugh, were two endearing qualities I greatly appreciated. I also got a kick out of the colorful Italian words that nipped at the heels of his angry but brief tirades!
The Daily Double payoff on Mom’s $2 bet was $758.80! Mom spent the money on some much-needed new furniture from Wanamaker’s, but not before she gave me my cut, a crisp $5 bill.
My mother, Catherine, was a bit of a gambler too, but her game of choice was bingo. She was a legend in the neighborhood and attended about three games a week at our local, ethnic Catholic churches. Mom never played the horses, so Dad’s proclamation about the picnic caused her some excitement.
When May 30 rolled around, we hopped in our ’57 Dodge Coronet and made the trip to the track. As we arrived and claimed our tables, Mom came over and asked me to pick two horses for her for the Daily Double, which involved the first two races. The trick was to pick both the winner of the first race and the winner of the second race. Once done, you bought a Daily Double ticket that reflected your choices. You had to place your bet on your two picks before the first race started by telling the cashier the number of each horse you chose. Your ticket was only “alive” if your horse won the first race. If it did, you would hold onto your ticket to see if your selection in the second race won. If so, you won the money. The amount you won depended on the payoff for each race, and the higher the odds were against your horses winning, the larger the payoff.
I told Mom to play No. 8 in the first race and No. 3 in the second. As luck would have it, the No. 3 horse withdrew, or was “scratched,” before the first race even began, so I had to pick another for the second race. I chose No. 8, so we had an “8 and 8” Daily Double ticket that cost Mom $2. Our No. 8 horse in the first race was named Flo Syrum, who went off at 15-1 odds. These are not good odds for a victory; however, when the race was over …
The winner of the race: Flo Syrum!
Mom, my big sister Kathy, and I were all excited that we had the only “live” Daily Double ticket in our group. Dad shook his head in disbelief of what he just saw that his little kid got lucky and picked a winner, while all of these old guys – who read the racing forms and studied, or “clocked” the entries – ended up picking losers. Then the real drama began. The No. 8 horse I chose for the second race was named White Bait. As the horses came out onto the track to warm up, we got our first glimpse of my pick. White Bait looked like he was ready, right after the race, to hop into the truck for a ride to the nearest Elmer’s glue factory. He was a pale beige color, and his neck flailed back and forth as he trotted out. Everyone at our table was silently aghast at his appearance, except Uncle Freddy, who almost fell off of the bench with laughter as he shouted, “Look at that nag you picked!” The betting public must have agreed because White Bait went off at 50-1 odds.
As our horse entered his No. 8 position in the starting gate, he seemed to settle down some. When the race began, White Bait took off as if chased by demons. He led all the way, and, as he came to the final few hundred yards – or the “stretch” – he was in a nose-to-nose battle with the No. 5 horse, who was the favorite at 5-2 odds. Our table was positioned right at the finish line. As White Bait raced with his whole heart and soul, both horses crossed the line simultaneously. My father said, “Oh, my God, he got beat by a nose in a photo finish.” Uncle Fred’s mouth was open, but he was no longer laughing. We all stood in shock until the official result was announced after the photo was developed. My father was a very smart guy and usually right about most things.
But not that day! It was White Bait by a nose!! The Daily Double payoff to Mom for her $2 bet? $758.80!!
After the initial hootin’ and hollerin’, I approached dear Uncle Fred with a smile and said, in my most macho 10-year-old voice, “Whaddya think of that nag now, Woodpecker?!” He just smiled and gave me a hug, saying, “Atta boy, Charlie.” Mom spent the money on some much-needed new furniture from Wanamaker’s, but not before she gave me my cut, a crisp $5 bill, which was icing on the cake to me and more money than I could possibly need at a time when movies cost 25 cents, and Tastykakes were a dime! Besides, the thrill of victory was payment enough. As I said, some of the details may be a little fuzzy, but I sure remember most of the best ones!