It's Derby time again and my thoughts go to Frank. I'll get all wrapped up in the race, the tradition, and my own memories of being at Churchill Downs on Derby day, but I'll also carry something of Frank with me. Time to tell the story again.
I love how shoes retain the personality of the person they belong to; just lying around, or sitting neatly on a shelf, or even abandoned, lost, or separated, as they sometimes get, they continue to reflect the identity and appearance of their owner.
I saved my shoes for last, like a special dessert. They were the last things to get packed, the last bit of jagged grain to finger, the last sorting out to do.
In the corner of the closet, on the floor, coiled, like a pair of sleeping lovers, were my black leather cowboy boots. Small wonder I hadn’t worn them for a while, my days around horses had ended half a dozen years before and they weren’t particularly kind to my aging feet.
Yet, they made me smile and would obviously require a place of distinction for my upcoming migration. I paused, uncoiled them, dusted them off with a convenient jean cuff, and thought of Frank. Or rather, Frankie, as his associates called him.
Frank came into my life quite unassumingly one day as I began the morning in my local coffee shop. Taking a break from paper grading, I was reading a copy of The Blood-Horse magazine at the bar and noticed one of the locals sit down behind me. He must have spotted one of those glossy full color stallion shots on the cover or on the back page because the moment I laid the magazine down, he approached.
“Would you mind if I took a look at your magazine for minute,” he softly inquired. The voice was incongruous with the image. Frank was in construction, often drove an old pick-up with a large toolbox in the bed, and seemed like he’d be a good fit on the set of the Sopranos. Rather than De Niro, De Vito, or Pesci, out came the tone of Robert Redford. But Frank was irrefutably Italian, New Jersey born, in fact. Imagine an aging Sal Mineo, whose wavy hair turned silver and set off the most brilliant sky blue eyes I’ve ever seen. If the eyes stopped me cold, I can only imagine what they did to others.
“Sure, take a look, and take your time,” I replied. I was delighted that someone actually knew the magazine. Frank turned out to be someone I didn’t need to enlighten about The Blood-Horse. He even subscribed to it, and when I told him I moonlighted as their Northern California correspondent, we became fast friends. The rest of that morning we shared ideas about everything from turf breeding to sire lines. Frank seemed to have particular knowledge of the Eastern tracks and it was clear from the excitement in his voice that he was somebody that appreciated the aesthetics of the sport. He knew about the big Lexington, Kentucky breeding farms, and spoke lovingly of misty Saratoga mornings.
Saturday mornings now included running into Frank at the coffee shop. We traded stories, shared bits about our 9 to 5 working lives, then gradually worked our way into the subject of thoroughbred horse racing.
When I appeared a bit earlier than usual and dressed in tie and jacket one Saturday, Frank inquired about the look.
“I’m covering the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows today,” I informed him.
“Would you mind if I rode along with you,” he boldly asked. “I’d really like to see that race because I think a couple of those horses have a chance to get to the Triple Crown races this year,” he added.
“ If you meet me here at 11:00,” I said, “I’ll pick you up right on the corner and we’ll get there by noon. I have to check in with the press box and see if there is anything newsworthy or which owners and trainers will be available after the race. Then I usually go check in with Bill, the photographer, because I often have to get a photo on a plane to Kentucky within 24 hours. I hope you don’t mind getting there a little early.”
Frank didn’t mind. He was standing on the corner in front of the coffee shop dressed in a beautifully tailored suit, striking Italian silk tie, and a broad smile on his face. This was the first of many trips together over the next few years. It was great to have company for the long ride home at the end of a working day. Driving through rain at night after a long day at the track, knowing I had an article to write all that evening, sending it by fax to Lexington early the next morning so it could go to press right about the time I began my first class on Monday morning. A less than restful weekend, but I loved every agonizing moment, from hoping the editor would like my piece to wondering if anything was unclear or misspelled to hoping I got that last quote right and didn’t forget to mention the owner of the winning horse’s name. Having Frank along helped.
After a while, I got to know Frank fairly well. Men disclose their personal lives slowly and Frank was no exception. I learned about his family ties to the thoroughbred industry. He had uncles in L.A. and New York and usually referred to them as “they.”
“They like Alyshiba in the Derby,” he’d say, or “They gimme a horse in the fifth at Belmont today.”
Often “they” were right. But after his reports from the uncles, Frank began to fill in some gaps in his life, especially his demons. As a recovering alcoholic, he told me about AA groups and the many people who supported him in difficult times and how it was his turn to be there for people now. I noticed how going to the races dressed well was his own way of staying centered, focused, and sober. As I wandered the perfect societal metaphor that is a racetrack, from the inaccessibility of the barns to the exclusivity of the Turf Club, I would occasionally run into Frank, ever the gentleman, sipping coffee at the bar, or quietly reading his Racing Form in one of the many restaurants. If we were an unlikely pair, this teacher/writer and this contractor/recovering alcoholic, we were also good friends who began to know and trust each other.
On the morning of the 1993 Kentucky Derby, Frank called me at home and told me that he would be unable to go to the track to watch the race. He went on to say that he’d be grateful if I could place a small wager for him, and that he’d meet me at the coffee shop in an hour. I didn’t mind, but I usually made it a point never to mix other people’s money with anything to do with wagering. I knew better. Too many things could go wrong. But this was Frank, and I had a hunch he was sacrificing the Derby for helping someone on this day of all days. We met and he carefully scrawled out some words and numbers on a scrap of paper. He liked Sea Hero to win the Derby and gave me $30.00 for a win bet, and an additional $70.00 for some exacta combinations. (Exacta is a more “exotic” bet, which predicts the first two finishers in exact order)
“Yeah I really like Sea Hero,” he revealed. It's Mista Mellon's horse, Paul Mellon, he’s 85 now, a class act, really deserves to win a Derby. Sea Hero's really bred for the mile and a quarter distance."
Dutifully noted. I went about my day, carefully placed Frank's wager well before post time, and added a couple of bucks of my own on Sea Hero. Off to the press box I scrambled to watch the race with the local band of newspaper reporters and turf writers. I can’t tell you that when the dust settled Sea Hero was in front because there was no dust that day. The Churchill Downs track was very sandy; “cuppy” the race trackers call it. But Sea Hero liked it all right, because he found the lead in deep stretch and kept going at 13-1 to win the 119th running of the classic. On my way to the cashing window, I realized that Frank had not only won his win bet but also had the generous Exacta a few times. I never really became nervous until the last bill of the $3,000. and change was counted out. Placing it in the inside pocket of my jacket, I went about my business.
Frank called that night, as I knew he would. When I met him at the coffee shop the next morning, I felt more like a drug dealer, counting out his winnings. As is the custom, he thanked me and carefully peeled off 3 One Hundred dollar bills.
“Ten percent is for you," he whispered, "and thank you very much.”
“Frankie,” I retorted, “thank you, it’s been a real pleasure.” Within the week I had my black leather cowboy boots. They took nearly all of my 10%, but that’s to be expected; they’re the real deal. They served me well over the next few years, from horse auctions, to blues festivals. I wore them to interviews in the stables and to dark jazz clubs. My feet even obliged after a bit.
When I moved a little farther away from the coffee shop, I saw Frankie less and less. Slowly over the next few years his appearance changed and I couldn’t help but think that some of his demons had returned. He looked thinner, and grayer, and those magnificent eyes had lost a little luster. But when we did speak, he was always cordial, if not brief.
One afternoon, at the coffee shop, I chanced to meet one of Frank’s friends, a fellow contractor he once introduced me to a few years back. When I inquired about Frank, he told me that as far as he knew he’d been diagnosed with Leukemia. About a month later, this same friend mentioned that Frank had gone back to New Jersey, presumably to spend time with his family. I never saw him again. That he is gone, I have no doubt.
I'm in Oregon now. I love the seasons of Portland, with blazing red and gold leaves on the trees, freezing rain, and, of course, long afternoons in Powell’s Books. The Internet brought about the end of my turf correspondent days. Pictures are sent instantly and cell phones make talking to anyone anywhere a simple matter. There is Portland Meadows, a small track whose entire advertising budget consists of a newspaper add, three times a week with a picture of a photo finish. One of the horses in the picture is rider-less; having lost his jockey sometime after the starting gate sprang open. The text of the add reads, “Something’s missing, is it you?”
Now and then I see one of Sea Hero’s offspring running. It’s an automatic $2.00 bet. I spruced up my black leather cowboy boots the other day and thought of Frankie. I saw his smile, heard his muffled laughter, marveled at the hue of his eyes, and wished, for an instant, that there had been one last trip to the track together. But like the add says, “Something’s Missing.”
©Bruce Greene, 2007