SI Vault
John Underwood
February 06, 1967
Saul Silberman, owner of Tropical Park, has been battling with politicians, racing commissions and newspapermen all his life. Only the horses he bets on defeat him
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February 06, 1967

One Tough Little Guy

Saul Silberman, owner of Tropical Park, has been battling with politicians, racing commissions and newspapermen all his life. Only the horses he bets on defeat him

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Sam (The Genius) Lewin says that when it comes to picking horses his pal Saul Silberman, the former rabbinical student who owns Tropical Park racetrack, can just about tell a yarmulke from a fetlock. The Genius keeps their friendship fresh by telling what a terrific loser Saul is. "The little man bets to be betting," says The Genius. "If there were 10 races on the program Saul would bet 11. He's like those little old ladies that go to Las Vegas and sit all day at the slot machine throwing quarters away."

Here is Sam, sitting in Saul's glass-enclosed box in the Turf Club at Miami's Tropical Park, smoking a cigarette through a holder and looking through field glasses at the horses being bullied into the starting gate. It is just before the second race. The Genius is relaxed. He has made all his bets for the day in advance because he does not want to be swayed by hot information. Not Saul. He is out with a group of manicured players, buzzing and transmitting advice like pollen, one to another, standing behind the private boxes, watching for the flash of the tote lights that raise and lower the worth of the animals.

Saul is all in royal blue, a suit with a weave you can see across a room, like burlap. His shoes have side buckles. Some days it is an all-cream outfit with white loafers. He is the class dresser of the Turf Club, but the thing that strikes you is his posture. He does not have good posture, he has great posture. It is so great he appears to be slumping backward. He is 5 feet 2 inches tall. Jim Bishop, the columnist, says Saul could stand under most of the horses that beat him. So what is size? Saul has been standing nose to nose with big people all his life. "I don't know if you realize this or not," he says in the way of information, "but a little guy hates a big guy. Big guys are not just big guys to little guys. They're always Big Sons of Bitches." Saul admits that might explain a few things about him. He says he has always been the kind of guy you put a gun to his head he will tell you to shoot.

Once when he was building houses in Baltimore he took on a whole committee of Senators investigating FHA windfall profits ("I don't like to boast, but I tied them in knots"), and his lesser adversaries have included district attorneys, track owners, a professional football coach named Paul Brown, his own partners, newspapermen and politicians of every stripe and, on a regular basis, racing commissioners. He considers racing commissioners, politically appointed, a serious drawback to intelligent racetrack operation. "Ninety-nine out of a hundred don't know the right time," he says. Track owners like himself are "in the hands of the Philistines" when they are in the hands of racing commissions. He got up at a Florida State Racing Commission meeting once—he did not actually get up, but people there said it seemed like he did—pointed a finger and said, "What's the use of me talking. That man's asleep." Only horses buffalo Saul Silberman.

The horses are at the starting gate for the second race and Saul is ready to make his move. His personal messenger, a jockey gone fat named Ernest Renzetti, is on his right, one step to the rear, ready to run for the cages before the bell rings. Saul has a racing program up to his proud, abundant chin, watching the lights over the tops of his glasses, calmly biting his lower lip. Without taking his eyes off the tote board, he says something and Renzetti scribbles it down and bolts for the $100 window.

"You want to know how to make Little Caesar mad?" says Sam The Genius, inserting another cigarette into the holder and looking through the glass at the familiar scene. "Tell him his horse can't win. Chances are you'll be right."

Saul Silberman says it is ridiculous to think he owns a racetrack just to make his gambling more convenient, or that he sold the Cleveland Browns in 1956 because he wanted to feel ethical when he bet against them. He made a profit of $300,000 when he sold the Browns. That is called "good business," not ethics. He says he bets for the love of it, pure and simple, and, if you must know, he bets about $2 million a year. How can he do such a thing, his conservative friends want to know. "It's easy," says Saul. He says you have to be stupid to think that means he loses two million a year. "The money keeps flying around." He says he probably hasn't lost more than four or five million in his whole life. One time when he was struggling he went to Havre de Grace with $40 in his pocket. He was just a kid. He put the $40 on the nose of a horse that had not been in the habit of winning and before the day was over Saul had $20,000. It is one of his favorite stories.

"Yeah, he did that," says The Genius. "But did he tell you about all the times he goes to the track with $20,000 and winds up with $40? Little Caesar is a great man, but he is definitely not an intelligent bettor."

Saul Silberman tells people he had to be successful in business to cover his gambling debts, but that is an exaggeration. At one time he was the principal stockholder of the Cleveland Browns, Randall Park Race Track, Painesville Raceway and Tropical Park, and all the while he and his partner in Baltimore, Ralph DeChiaro, were building houses. Nobody has that many gambling debts. He made rich men out of every one of his partners, then fell out with them or cut them loose or bought them out. One of his partners was the late Bill MacDonald (SI, Feb. 17, 1964), who bought 45% of Tropical in 1961 when Saul needed some help and then tried to take the track away from him in 1965 by charging that Saul borrowed on track credit and was into the track for more than a million dollars. "So what else is new?" said Saul. "I've been borrowing and betting on credit all my life." The courts suggested MacDonald forget his suit, and eventually Saul bought back the 45%, at a profit to MacDonald of $1.75 million.

Saul Silberman is 72 years old and still so sharp he has to stop conversations to be sure everybody is keeping up—"Do you follow me? Do you get what I'm saying? I don't think you're getting this." His brilliance is unfettered by doubt, fear or humility. "I like to run things, to make things go," he says, which means, in the context of whatever enterprise he is currently operating, run everything. "Don't just say, 'They're off,' " he told his announcer, Chuck Bang, who has been calling races for 22 years, "say, 'They're off!' Make it sound more exciting." If he had chosen baseball instead of horse racing, Saul Silberman and not Bill Veeck would be the household word, if you can imagine, and the bestseller would have been Saul—as in Gall. He likes to be first, to be way ahead of everybody else. He restored Randall Park to the sports pages in Cleveland by tearing down and building up, by installing the first automatic tote board in Ohio, by putting in a Turf Club and stocking it with respectable Clevelanders and by buying the Cleveland Browns. "That's right, I bought the Browns so I could get more publicity for Randall Park, pure and simple."

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