That day was all it took. My dad was 53 years old when he first walked into a racetrack, and Blue Eternal and Special Style set the hook in him. He was never a big bettor—it was the action he liked more than the prospect of making money—but racing became the central recreation of his life. One summer he met Peaches Morton, a blind old man who sat by the back gate and handed out the next day's entries as you left the track. Trainers used to whisper tips to him, and Peaches would whisper them, in turn, to people like my dad, touting them on this guy's or that guy's horse. Dad would slip into a chair next to Peaches and whisper, conspiratorially, "It's Gordon." Peaches would lift his head, his eyelids flickering, and lean over and mutter something sage, such as "Charlie's Song today, in the ninth" or "Wise Eddie is ready in the fourth" or "The trainer likes Belleau Chief."
Not all of Morton's tips panned out, but those three did, and my father always handed him a $5 bill for every winner on his way out. Over the years, Morton became my father's oracle. My father loved tips, loved inside information, the whole idea of having an edge that the Form could not reveal—of being in the know. He loathed and avoided favorites, no matter how dominant they looked, and so he never bet on Swoon's Son, at least not until that glorious Saturday afternoon of Aug. 9, 1958.
The horses were parading to the post for the $100,000 Equipoise Mile on the Arlington dirt course. Swoon's Son was five, and for two years he had been the most popular racehorse in Chicago, where Arlington had become one of the fanciest racing meets in America. Bill Shoemaker led the jockeys' colony when Bill Hartack wasn't in town, and some of the strongest stables in America made Arlington their summer home: Calumet Farm and Ada L. Rice, the Kerr Stables and Dixiana, Claiborne and Hasty House Farms. For this Equipoise Mile, most of the fastest guns in the land were on hand. Besides Swoon's Son there was the great Round Table, who would be named 1958 Horse of the Year. There was hard-running Bardstown, a son of Alibhai out of Twilight Tear, one of the greatest race mares of all time. Clem, who had just gotten beaten a nose by the fleet Bold Ruler in the 1�-mile Suburban Handicap at Belmont, was in Chicago for this one. And there was Indian Creek, the horse my dad wanted to play because, you know, he liked Indian names and the odds were 13�-1.
Sitting with him, I was so engrossed in the past performances that I missed what was happening on the board. "Am I seeing that right?" my father asked. "Is Swoon's Son really 8-1?"
I looked up and was struck dumb. The board flashed. He was 8-1. Round Table—at his best running long on the grass—was going off at odds-on in a mile race on the dirt, which was Swoon's Son's game.
Swoon's Son was carrying 129 pounds, but he was getting two pounds from Round Table, and all at once he began looking like the most attractive 8-1 shot that ever lived.
The horses were nearing the post. "What do you think I should do?" my father asked. "I think ten bucks to win and five across the board." That was a plunge for him.
What a sublime spectacle it was! Bardstown went to the lead through an easy first quarter, in 24 seconds, with Indian Creek lapped on him a nose away, but as they flashed past that pole, Indian Creek stuck his head in front and together they began firing through the second quarter, which they ran in :22[3/5]. Swoon's Son slipped into third, a length and a half behind, while up front, Bardstown and Indian Creek went at each other, bit to bridle, through three quarters in l:10[1/5]. As they came off the bend for home, Bardstown thrust his head in front and then suddenly, as they charged down the straight, Swoon's Son dug in, lowering himself like a cat, and began coming to them.
My dad and I were on the apron, up by the grandstand doors, when we saw them coming to the eighth pole, all three of them just heads apart, with Swoon's Son third on the inside but gaining, and we swept toward the rail, yelling for the bay. In the final yards he seemed to stretch for the wire, inching away from Bardstown to finally win by half a length. Indian Creek was third, Clem fourth, and a listless Round Table fifth. Swoon's Son had raced the mile in 1:34[4/5], only two fifths off Equipoise's 26-year-old track record, and my father positively gloated.
"He showed 'em who's boss, didn't he?" he said. Swoon's Son paid $18 to win, $9.80 to place and $6 to show, yielding a profit to him of $149.50. It was the greatest horse race I had ever seen and that summer, for the first time, the game really began to own me—not the betting but rather the rhythms of life on the racetrack: the hustlers on the make in the game and the early morning hours, with those wondrous, graceful creatures moving to and from the track in files.