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Echoes of an Equine Past
William Nack
September 18, 1989
A spanking new Arlington track has gone up near Chicago. The old establishment offered attractions aplenty, as well—especially to a horse-loving teenager in the '50s
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September 18, 1989

Echoes Of An Equine Past

A spanking new Arlington track has gone up near Chicago. The old establishment offered attractions aplenty, as well—especially to a horse-loving teenager in the '50s

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By that summer of '58, I was working at Arlington Park, in my first job at the racetrack. That May, my mother's brother, Ed Feeney, a sports photographer for the Chicago Tribune , had gone down to shoot the Kentucky Derby and had invited me along. We watched the race just inside the rail, not 20 feet from the finish line and 200 yards from where Tim Tarn came bounding off the pace to win by half a length over Lincoln Road. That night, at a party at Churchill Downs, I found myself reciting from memory all the Kentucky Derby winners, from 1875 through 1958, for a handful of racing officials. I had been studying the sport with the intensity of a monk for more than two years, poring over the Form and old records and racing magazines. One of the men, a Pimlico publicist named Charlie Johnson, asked me if I'd be interested in a summer job at Arlington. He said he knew Marje Everett, who ran the place.

I told him I would be home all summer, but I didn't think anything would come of it until the July morning Marje called. Two days later I was working for track photographer Lou Hodges, taking pictures of the horses in the morning and working in the darkroom in the afternoon. Nothing I took ended up in a gallery, with good reason. One day I stationed myself at the far turn and nearly got trampled by a runaway horse. Still, I took about a hundred shots of horses racing and galloping by, all for the purpose of peddling them for $2 apiece to the grooms and exercise riders. Lou grew wide-eyed with astonishment as he developed the film in the darkroom.

"You nincompoop!" he cried. "It's all blank. What have you done?" Grabbing the camera, he looked at it and turned it toward me, pointing to the front: "The lens cap! You forgot to take off the lens cap!"

Things worked out in the end, drawn as I was to the barns and to the horses. That summer I made a few friends at the Kerr Stable, Round Table's barn, and by the time I went back for my senior year in high school in September, trainer Bill Molter had promised to put me to work as a hotwalker when the stable returned to Chicago in the spring.

The day after graduating, I charged off to Washington Park with my oldest friend, John McGinnis, whom I had talked into walking hots with me. Arlington was to open on July 6, just a few weeks later, and that was what we were waiting for. As for my father, he had a son who was going to be working out there, in the know, his own Peaches Morton listening to the heartbeat of Chicago racing, inside the big Kerr Stable.

"Keep your ears open," he told me. "If you hear about anything good, let us know."

I heard sooner than I had expected. Late one night in mid-June, we were drinking beer and playing cards in the room of Juan Alaniz, the groom for both Round Table and a maiden 2-year-old filly named Our Special Jet. Juan got a few beers into him, and he started talking about this filly as if she were Twilight Tear herself. "She a good, good filly!" he said, with his heavy Argentine accent. "She run on Monday and she win. Big!" She had run poorly in her previous starts, showing little, but Juan waved the record away as meaningless. "Too fat!" he said. "She lose 90 pounds. Now she ready."

Excusing myself, I ran to the phone. I called my father and told him all about the filly. The next day, at the restaurant where he ate lunch every day, he whispered the name Our Special Jet in the bartender's ear. The guy was a heavy player. That Monday, Our Special Jet was entered in the fourth race. My mother and brother, Mike, drove out. They bet $25 to win on the filly at almost 15-1. We all watched, in horror, as she dropped back to seventh, looking hopelessly out of it, but at the top of the lane she took off like a flushed deer, slipping through on the rail. She chased down the leader in the final strides to win with a flourish. I danced with my mother in the grandstand.

Our Special Jet paid $31 to win, and my mother and Mike went home immediately, with a profit of $362.50.

My father was feted at the restaurant, the bartender greeting him on Tuesday as if he were visiting royalty. It was a heady time for me, with my father bragging around that his kid knew how to get the inside stuff. Every boy, for at least one brief time in his life, ought to be his father's hero.

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