"Remember Swoon's Son?" she was asking now. The first time I ever went to a racetrack—Aug. 24, 1955, when I was 14—I saw Swoon's Son win the $15,000 Prairie State Stakes for 2-year-olds at Washington Park, south of Chicago. The next summer he won the $100,000 Arlington Classic at a flat mile, whipping Ben A. Jones and Doubledogdare and Fabius, the Preakness winner, and thus stamped himself as the swiftest 3-year-old in the land. Swoon's Son was a stylish little bay colt with terrier courage. Challenged in a drive, he would pin his ears and cock his head slightly—as if to say, "Come and get me!"—while stretching out and lowering himself in an attitude of surpassing determination.
All those horses ran in the summer of '56. For me that was the beginning, the year my mom and dad and I first went to the track together. Arlington became our family picnic place, and so it remained through the early '60s—a pleasure dome smelling richly of cigars, where we staked out seats in the wooden grandstand and prowled the paddock out back, watching trainers saddle their horses under the prettiest stand of elms in northern Illinois. When most of my friends were out cutting grass with five-irons, or making off to Wrigley Field to watch the Cubs chasing line drives deep to ivied walls, I was sitting in the front seat of my father's chartreuse De Soto, handicapping the 'day's races. Every Friday night I would drive from our house in Skokie to the newspaper stand at Chicago Avenue and Main Street in Evanston, and buy Saturday's Form.
Unable to wait to read it, I would park under a streetlamp, and like a squirrel with a big nut, crack it open and begin devouring it, page by page, first reading the news stories and the columns. Then, looking for the next Derby winner, I would scan the Belmont or Saratoga entries for the big names, like Nashua and Traffic Judge, and the pedigrees of all maiden 2-year-olds. At home that night, I would spread the Form out on the dining room table, and for the next two delicious hours attempt to divine the inscrutable secrets of its glyphs and scrolls.
For years not a Saturday went by—except when we were vacationing in the woods of northern Wisconsin—that we did not pile into the car and head the 16 miles northwest to the racetrack. Spending holidays at Arlington was as much a part of our lives as French toast and maple syrup, piled on plates under snowfalls of powdered sugar on Sunday mornings. With my sister, Dorothy, I had grown up around horses, riding in little shows from southern Wisconsin to northern Indiana. In the summer I spent most of the time around walk-trot and five-gaited saddle horses, learning how to groom and feed them, put on bandages and apply all the esoteric balms and salves that lined the shelves in the show-horse barn at the E.J. Holdorf Riding School in Morton Grove.
The moment I saw Swoon's Son win the 1955 Prairie State, I began to lose interest in the highsteppers and fancy tails. The horses were all right, but the judges could be arbitrary; the lines were cleaner in horse racing. The race usually went to the swiftest, the first horse to get from point A to point B—a horse like Swoon's Son or Round Table. And so I started buying the
Daily Racing Form
and luring my parents into the sport.
My father never learned how to read the Form; he simply didn't care. He was an electrical engineer, a schooled reader of blueprints that were unfathomable to me. He would glance at the Form now and then, looking for that drop in class, but mostly all he needed was a program, with the names of the horses and their jockeys. The first time we went to the races together was at Arlington. A neighbor of ours, Bob Farnham, sat teaching me how to read the Form, what to look for in the array of numbers, how to read the patterns of workouts. My dad wasn't interested in any of that.
That first day, in the very first race, he bet $5 on Thunderbird, a $3,000 selling plater who went off at almost 6-1. I can still hear the voice of Harry Henson, the track announcer, as the field raced through the stretch: "And here comes Thunderbird on the far outside!" Behind me, Dad was yelling, "Come on, Thunderbird! Get up there!" He won by half a length and paid $13.60, returning Dad a profit of $29.90. He beamed in triumph.
"Why did you bet him, Gordon?" Farnham asked.
"I liked his name," he said.
Ten days later he was back at the track, looking for the names that sang for him. He put $5 to win on Blue Eternal and she paid $17.80. Two races later he bet $10 on the nose of Special Style. She paid $24.60. The two races netted him a profit of $152.50. As Special Style's payoff flashed up on the board, Dad threw his arms in the air and turned, like Midas surveying his riches, and said, "Special-l-l-l-l Sty-y-y-yle! We've got enough money to go on that vacation to the woods now."