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The Mafia at Saratoga
Sam Toperoff
November 11, 1968
The goal of horse racing is breeding for excellence, and it is a goal often achieved. The bloodlines of horseplayers are less consistent. Even at hallowed Saratoga the fancy ranges from aristocrats to $2 bettors and sometimes it has a salty seasoning of toughs. Meet Sal, Rocco, Vinnie—and a strong-minded dame named Sophie
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November 11, 1968

The Mafia At Saratoga

The goal of horse racing is breeding for excellence, and it is a goal often achieved. The bloodlines of horseplayers are less consistent. Even at hallowed Saratoga the fancy ranges from aristocrats to $2 bettors and sometimes it has a salty seasoning of toughs. Meet Sal, Rocco, Vinnie—and a strong-minded dame named Sophie

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Prides Profile didn't break very well, but soon she got to the lead. She appeared to be running easily. Lady Pitt and Natashka were content to trail. Down the backstretch they slowly and carefully improved their positions. The field turned for home. For a moment, at the very head of the stretch, the three horses—Prides Profile, Natashka and Lady Pitt, from the rail outward—were running as a single horse. The early fractions had not been really fast, so I expected Prides Profile to have some sort of finishing kick. Suddenly she stopped, and I was whipped. The remaining two were strong and ran on as a matched pair. It was hard to tell from where I stood, but Lady Pitt seemed to have slightly the better of it through the stretch. The photo-finish sign flashed. A couple of minutes passed, the horses were unsaddled and the jockeys weighed out. The mixed crowd of sharpies and rubes waited nervously. Waited quietly. A roar. Lady Pitt, the favorite, went up on the board.

Many in the crowd started to have the feeling that they wanted to go. The bitter people up from the city vowed to stay to the end. The sun had softened considerably, I noticed. Poor Sophie. Then the track announcer's high-pitched "Please hold all tickets. In this race there is a stewards' inquiry against Lady Pitt, number four, for alleged interference with Natashka, number two, through the stretch." For a fraction of a second no reaction; then a contrapuntal cheer-groan. People ran all over the track in a peculiar stooped position, turning over pari-mutuel tickets on the ground, looking for a possible winner that might have been prematurely discarded.

Sophie was alone on her bench, reading her New Yorker without her glasses. Tootsie was stretched next to her, basking in perfumed shade. "You didn't throw your tickets away, did you?" I asked.

"Of course not. Who won?"

"Lady Pitt, but there's a stewards' inquiry."

"Oh."

"There's a good chance they'll take Lady Pitt down and put your horse up. This isn't just a jockey's objection, the stewards saw something wrong. When they make an inquiry, the horse comes down seventy-five percent of the time."

"If I win, I win. Here comes that bum."

Rocco said Lady Pitt would stay up: "Da jockeys are told to objec' in a race for fifty t'ousand dollars." I might have corrected him about the source of the inquiry if Sal were around, but he wasn't, so I let it be.

Sal and Vinnie arrived with properly worried brows. When Rocco said, "Dere's nothin' to worry about, she'll stay up," they looked at each other with great weariness. The inquiry took a long time. At Aqueduct the alleged offender and the wronged party would have disappeared into the depths behind and beneath the paddock and been whisked up and away on private elevators to confront the judges and the patrol films of the race. At friendly Saratoga they must walk through the clubhouse to a small room located in the center of the grounds. They must ward off the questions and accusations of the patrons as best they can during the stroll and even after they arrive at the room and are waiting to be called in.

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