He came out of Lawrence, Mass., a mill town on the Merrimack River, a place out of the textbook chapter on the industrial revolution. For him it was six miles from Rock, which is across in New Hampshire and formally named Rockingham Park. His father is a little man, too. He wanted to be a rider, but never could work it out; he was out of a job at the mills when his boy started riding a great many winners around New England that spring. Mr. DeSpirito spent the balance of 1952 signing papers for the various Cadillacs; all the business with the excise taxes was a real mess, he says.
It is fascinating that everybody but one who knew the kid back then says how mature and precocious he was. For example, Pee Wee Gervais, his valet for most of 1952, says, "Tony really grew up quick. He learned the fast life pretty quick." Bob Aiello, his best friend, says, "Tony was a 16-year-old boy who was a 55-year-old man." Everybody—his parents, his friends, other riders—echoes this feeling. The one person who disagrees completely is his first wife Doris. She shakes her head and laughs that anyone could ever have thought he was grown up. "Listen, Tony was small," she says, "but he was the biggest, bravest man I ever knew. But what did he know? What did we know? We were just a couple of kids. That's all he was, a kid." We think kids are men for doing the things well that would make grown men kids again if they could do them. The late Tony DeSpirito could pick up a tab, take home a broad, trade in a Caddy and switch sticks in the stretch; so much for growing up.
The amazing thing, really, is that it didn't mess him up. It didn't. It cost him plenty of easy money, but it never did go to his handsome head. Aiello, who is now the clerk of scales at Lincoln Downs, says, "Sixteen years old, he could write his own ticket. I'll tell you, it was more than I could have handled. He's making $3,000-$4,000 a week. The toast of the town. Women chasing him. He's taking bows wherever he goes. He's on
. And always the entourage, the fair-weather friends. Sixteen, he knew all the wheeling and dealing."
That is the occupational hazard (such as it is) of being a great athlete. The ones like Shoemaker, the ones who avoid getting caught up in it, they are the exceptions. The late Tony DeSpirito wasn't anything out of the ordinary, and maybe he was a classic case; it all happened so quickly and ended so fast. And also, he was carved larger than life, a regular folk hero in his part of the world.
New England is a singular place. Everybody thinks of the South as the most distinctive American region, but since air conditioning, the people in Atlanta and Richmond are from Cleveland, and the other way around. There was never any cult about New England. In the South the thinkers wrote about the South, and glamorized it; in New England the thinkers started schools. At the time DeSpirito came to prominence New England was a place unto itself, and it still is. The people prize their own.
The North End of Boston is Italian. There are still dyed-in-the-wool Yankee fans in the North End, this affiliation going back to Joe DiMaggio and Frankie Crosetti, when the Red Sox didn't have any good paisanos. When DeSpirito got hot, the whole North End came in on him, and then the whole city and then New England. It wasn't just the broads, understand. The kid had the whole place at his feet.
You still will have a hard time in Bean-town betting with a bookie if you want to bet more on place or show than win. This goes back to 1952 and the late Tony DeSpirito. He was on so many good horses and riding them so well that he was almost a lock to finish in the money on certain mounts. He had a one-armed agent named Wingie, so called because of his unfortunate dismemberment, who could pick and choose the best stock, and about the only time the kid didn't get the horse that figured was when another trainer could make it exceptionally appealing, laying a bill across Wingie's existing palm. So wagerers were putting fifty, say, on DeSpirito to win, and then backing that up two, three hundred place or show. People were betting the late Tony DeSpirito who had never bet so much as a bingo card at the parish before. The books were getting handled. They couldn't even win when he lost because everybody was saving. That's when they said you could only wager fifty to show if you wagered fifty to win.
The entire New England racing economy went on a DeSpirito standard. The books had to play "the comeback window." This is a term for a corrective device to deal with perverse betting. Say a horse named Irish Mother is entered on St. Paddy's Day at Suffolk. Obviously every Irishman in town is going to get five down with his bookie. Suppose Irish Mother is 20 to 1 at the track, where there isn't so much hunch money corning in. But away from the oval, maybe a quarter, a third of the books' take is on Irish Mother. At 20 to 1 they'll be wiped out if the hunch filly scores. So they have to take a lot of Irish Mother money and run it out to the mutuels, to the comeback window, and bet it on Irish Mother in order to get the odds down. Well, the kid was an Irish Mother all year. Every day the bookies had to feed the comeback window just to stay square.
Playing to his audience, an old racetrack announcer named Babe Ruben-stein stopped calling the horse and would call the boy, instead—and where did you ever hear of that before? Desspereeto, he pronounced it, and it stuck, even though the family says Desspeeritto. People can still remember Babe Rubenstein suddenly shouting, "...and here comes Tony DeSpirito, flying on the outside like the wind!"
Oh, what a time it must have been for a 16-year-old boy.