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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Florida racing commissioners, who change according to the political wind because they are prestige appointments of the governor, have never been able to figure him out. He throws so many things at them they just naturally start delaying action the moment he opens his mouth. He has tried everything short of horses riding jockeys. The only thing he will not complain about are his dates, which are the worst of Miami's three tracks, because they begin before the tourist season is in full swing. He says he can't kick, Hialeah and Gulfstream do more business. This winter horses at Tropical ran one race a day on an all-weather composition track called Tartan, laid inside the dirt track by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (Saul got a good deal and a five-year guarantee, and 3 M helped pay off MacDonald). Tartan had been tried successfully by trotting tracks in the East, but nobody had had the nerve to try it with Thoroughbreds. Saul is unhappy with some of the prominent jockeys who did not have the nerve to ride on it.

After a minor skirmish, Silberman was allowed to add a 10th race to the Tropical program. He rammed through a breakage bill to increase the purses (and make Tropical more appetizing) for horsemen. He could not imagine the commission objecting to that, and it managed not to. He put in the "twin double," which allows the itchy bettor to try to pick four winners instead of two, for a gaudy payoff (highest to date at Tropical: $75,002.20). Once he thought up a pic-six, which is as tough as the name implies—impossible—and he raised the price of the daily-double ticket to $3, and then he proposed putting up a drive-in window so motorists passing by on their way home from work could bet in a quick one before supper, but the papers got on him for trying too hard and some of these passed away. Eight years ago he joined the campaign that Frederick Van Lennep had been running to bring harness racing to Florida, and it finally succeeded despite the opposition of other local sporting interests. Van Lennep's magnificent Pompano Park was the result. This month Van Lennep will shift his trotters from Pompano for a 47-day meeting at Tropical. "It only proves," says Silberman, "that right will prevail."

For years people have been watching Saul in action, watching him hustle and make money, following the premise that what is good for Saul has to be good for the government because they're getting their cut, right? And some of these people have not only been watching—they have been trying to pin something on him. In 1957 State Attorney Richard Gerstein got up a list of 98 telephone calls made by an employee from Saul's office to a Cleveland bookie, put the list together with Saul's practice of betting on credit and the presence of a private $100 ticket machine, and concluded that somebody in that office wasn't using Crest. The Miami Herald made the grand announcement: TROPICAL BOSS TAGGED AS BIG-DOUGH GAMBLER, which must have got a few laughs around the Turf Club, where Saul wasn't exactly pretending to be a $2 bettor. Saul called it a witch hunt. "Gerstein is a publicity hound, everybody knows that," he said. "The whole thing is exaggerated to the nth degree."

Nevertheless, the state made a case, suggesting that the calls were for a possible bookie layoff, to get "comeback money," and that the employee in question was actually a bookie's agent. Saul said they didn't know what they were talking about, that it was ridiculous. And as for betting on credit, where is the law? "We open up the track every morning with half a million dollars in capital, which is my money. What I would do is write an IOU, take some cash and go to the $50 or $100 window and make a bet. The money was passing through the machines. What the hell difference does it make if a man bets on credit as long as cash is going through the window and the state gets its take? That's efficiency. I was the one taking the risk. It was my money. My promissory note. Racetracks cash personal checks all the time and what are they but promises to pay? I also had it arranged for my messenger to make bets by phone to the $100 window. Otherwise he might get in line late and shut out somebody behind him. You see that all the time, somebody getting shut out."

The case came up in April 1957, and the racing commission took away Saul's license. He appealed to the State Supreme Court. He won. The court said there was too much circumstantial evidence and that Saul's betting on credit was a niggling offense. Other than that, the only thing they made him do was yank his private machine. "That was just to save face," said Saul, "but it was stupid, too. All that machine did was make it efficient." Naturally, nobody went to jail. (Rhetorical question: Can a man be jailed for having too much hutzpah?) Saul got his license back. Gerstein resurrected the issue before the Senate crime investigation committee in 1961 to no avail. And in December of that year the vice-mayor of Miami presented Saul Silberman a certificate "in special recognition of his important contributions to the community."

The second race is over and it does not discredit The Genius' evaluation of the Silberman betting system ("he has no system"). Saul has successfully chosen the wrong horse again. You cannot tell the extent of his loss by the color of his cheeks, however. He says you never can, because he has a "great capacity to throw things off." He threw a party for New York sportswriters one year, chartered them in by jet, put them up in $69-a-day rooms on Miami Beach, picked up the bar tabs, and never got a line of publicity because all the New York papers were struck at the time. "So what?" said Saul. "It was a nice party. I like parties." He got beat by a nose for a $98,000 double, and once at Hialeah a horse was disqualified that cost him $144,000, "and all I did was pick up the form and say, 'Who you going to bet the next race?' It's over. What you going to do? I used to tell my building partner, Ralph DeChiaro, never worry about things you can do nothing about. He used to go nuts when it rained. I'd tell him, let's go someplace till it stops. What can you do?"

The Genius is out of Saul's box, joining the group. Saul points to a horse on the program for the third race. "I like it," he says.

"Why?" yells The Genius, who is not only profound but is a peril to the eardrums. "Why today? You never liked it before, and it never won before, and it won't win, so why today?"

"The conditions are different today."

"Saul, you'll never be happy until you go broke."

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