Maybe the late Tony DeSpirito was never scared out there himself, but he terrified the women in his family. They knew he was just a hard-luck kid. Even when he and Doris had bad arguments, when they had fights about his women, she would cry, "Tony, Tony, don't ever leave to ride before you kiss me goodby."
His mother was even more scared. It was good that she didn't know he was planning another comeback. Mrs. DeSpirito went down as low as 72 pounds after Barbara died, and she says that after Tony died, "I'd have gone to the booby hatch" if she hadn't had Barbara's three boys to take care of, to occupy her. When Barbara died and her children came in with them, the DeSpiritos just found a bigger place in the project.
They are tiny people. In the mornings, when the three boys are at school, they sit around the living room and smoke cigarettes and watch the game shows. In the afternoon, when the boys come home, it is livelier around the house, jumping and noisy again, almost exactly as it must have been with their own three kids 25 years ago before Tony quit school and went to Rock.
He was getting ready to start all over again this summer. He had been itchy when he was sitting in high school, and now he was itchy sitting in a puff job where they give you a pair of binoculars, call you an official and you then play second fiddle to a television camera. Of course he wanted to come back. You cannot expect an athlete to swear off performing. Reporters clustered around Shoemaker after his Belmont, but they didn't have all day because he was up in the ninth race, too, some inconsequential allowance route. They asked him why he kept on riding. "I enjoy what I'm doing," he replied, easy enough. "I love it."
A couple of days later, at Lincoln Downs, a jock named Norman Mercier, who has been riding about as long as Shoemaker, although you never once heard of him, came back after winning the first race, $1,500 claiming maidens. Why did DeSpirito keep on trying to ride? "How many people have a job which they really love what they're doing?" Norman Mercier said. "That's why I'm still here. That was what Tony lived for." It is the same with Shoemaker.
All the time, as he worked as an official at the tracks, DeSpirito would get away now and then and go down to the jocks' room to have coffee with the other boys. He was a quiet man, sometimes moody. The other jocks, even the kids who knew little but the legend, always deferred to him and liked him because he never put on airs even though "he had been to the races and back."
In a TV world of superlatives, of greats and alls, dynasties and supers, athletes themselves tend to go the other way, to employ the most prosaic language to indicate the extreme. Thus, in team sports, the greatest compliment an athlete can pay another is to say that he is "a player." At the tracks, making the big time is merely "going to the races." And this in the jocks' room at Lincoln:
"Oh, Tony was a rider," says one.
"Tony was a race rider," says another.
And that is precisely what the late Tony DeSpirito was. Other people, though, always expect athletes to move on to other things. Why? Because we are jealous that they get to keep on playing games? If Willie Shoemaker wants to ride until he's 60, what's it to us? Why shouldn't the kid try to come back? "In Tony's mind there was never any doubt that he was the greatest rider who ever lived," says Bob Aiello. "Never a doubt." So what is making weight and a bad back when you feel that way about the one thing you can do in life? DeSpirito began to jog and bicycle to get fit. He figured to break in at Calder in Miami this summer. He prepared to move out of his apartment, the one he died in. "Well, I guess I'll go back to the whites," he told a couple of friends, and proudly.