EDITOR’S NOTE: This is an excerpt from Gazette handicapper Bill Heller’s new book, “Captain Free-lance, The Check Is In The Mail,” which is being sold exclusively on-line at www.billhellerbooks.com.
When asked what’s the stupidest thing you’ve ever done in your life, most people have to think for a few seconds. Not me. I answer right away. It was the day I rode a horse in a race at Saratoga Race Course. Out of the starting gate, no less.
What was I thinking?
Was I thinking that Sunday afternoon in July 1980? I had graduated from Albany State, known now as the University of Albany, with a degree in political science. That’s had a lot of relevance in my life as a sportswriter. As opposed to my three years of studying French in high school. After waiting more than 30 years, I was presented an opportunity to utilize my French in a real-life situation, when I tried to arrange a phone interview with legendary French thoroughbred trainer Andre Fabre. On my initial call to his home, I was confronted with a woman who spoke no English. None. I quickly resorted to my extensive French vocabulary from high school and came up with, “Je m’appelle Guillaume,” which may mean “My name is William,” or “I like potatoes.” Either way, the conversation didn’t get very far. I could’ve added, “Paul est a la bibliotheque,” which I think translates into Paul is at the library, but I didn’t think it would have helped the conversation. I called back. Fortunately, Fabre, who speaks English, answered the phone. Actually, I had tried using my high school French on a visit to Montreal. I tried to order a beer. They brought me a toaster.
Anyhoo, I was opening my mail at the Times Union one afternoon in the summer of 1980 the week before the beginning of the annual Saratoga meet and saw a press release from my buddy Ed Lewi, whose public relations firm handles the New York Racing Association, which operates Saratoga, as well as Belmont Park and
Aqueduct. Ed used to be the PR guy at the Times Union, and one day for a promotion, he drove around a bear in the back seat of a convertible. He had the picture in his office. Epic. What could Ed want? I read his press release:
YOU CAN RIDE AT SARATOGA!
Join us for a Media Race at Open House at Saratoga the Sunday before the meet opens. With FREE T-shirts!
Do you have any idea what the word “FREE” means to the media? It’s a sacred word, kind of like “mother” or “money.” The only term holier than “FREE” is when that word is attached to the word “FOOD.” Writers have been known to rise from their graves for a FREE lunch.
FREE T-shirts wasn’t as appealing as FREE FOOD, but it was pretty close, especially since I only owned about 7,000 T-shirts.
Let’s see. What did I have to do to get this FREE T-shirt? Ride a horse? But I’d never ridden a horse before. I better call Ed Lewi and find out the details. No sweat. He said they were going to use donkeys for the race. No big deal. Have a great time.
Hmmm. Was anybody else going from the Times Union? My sports editor, Eddie Palladino, was. Eddie had just returned from back surgery, was more than a tad overweight and had never ridden a horse, either. He was in. And his bad back made my back problem trivial. Well, if he’s in, I’m in. We’ll go as an entry from the Times Union: 1 and 1A.
I made that decision on a Friday afternoon, two days before Saratoga’s Open House. Very late than afternoon, I got a call from Ed Lewi’s office. They couldn’t find donkeys. So instead they’re going to use trail horses for the Media Race. No big deal. They run together as a pack.
At that precise moment, my brain screamed, “HELLLLPPPPP!!!” but my stupid mouth said, “Okay.”
By the time I hung up the phone, I realized that I needed a crash course in riding horses. I called a nearby riding stable and sped there for a half-hour lesson. When I told the friendly riding instructor that I was going to be in a race at Saratoga two days later, she looked at me as if I was from Mars. But, after she stopped laughing, she said she would do what she could to prevent my impending doom and give me a lesson.
Most of the lesson consisted of my futile attempts to get on my horse Chester. I felt like Neil Armstrong when I finally made it onto the saddle. I wanted to plant a flag.
“The first thing we’re going to do is walk,” the instructor said.
Wrong. The first thing we’re going to do is watch Chester eat grass.
“You can’t let him do that,” the instructor implored. “You have to teach him who’s in charge.”
I said, “Look, he knows who’s in charge; I know who’s in charge, and you know who’s in charge.”
Chester eventually got tired of grazing and we did walk a bit before my lesson concluded. My instructor walked away shaking her head, which I interpreted as not a good sign.
I spent all of Saturday and Sunday morning in pure panic. How could I possibly learn to ride a horse in half an hour? It had to take at least an hour or two.
Now, I’m heading to Open House, which that year attracted more than 10,000 fans. At least there would be a lot of witnesses.
This was the very first year of the Media Race, and so many people entered that they split the race into three divisions. Eddie and I landed in the second division, which at least gave us the opportunity to see the first. All three divisions would race a sixteenth of a mile from the sixteenth pole to the finish line right in front of the grandstand.
But first, before we got our FREE T-shirts, we had to register and sign, what’s this? A waiver? Why are we signing a waiver? Brilliantly, I decided that if I signed my name as Bill instead of my legal name, Guillaume, I mean William, my wife could sue following my
demise. Then I got a FREE T-shirt. It was cool. It said NYRA MEDIA RACE 1980. I quickly put it on.
Eddie and I walked out onto the track to watch the first division. Why was there a starting gate at the sixteenth pole? And why were the horses in the first division being loaded into the starting gate?
ARE THEY NUTS? Are they completely out of their minds? Professional jockeys riding experienced thoroughbreds who have been schooled in the starting gate have been hurt and killed in starting gate accidents. These horses had never even seen one.
The horses were loaded. The starting gate opened and out came the horses. Only one rider fell without hurting herself, but another rider, who had ridden horses previously, couldn’t pull her mount up. The horse did a complete lap of the track. That’s a mile and an eighth. Finally, they came to a stop near the finish line.
If that wasn’t frightening enough, we then learned that the organizers hadn’t been able to get enough horses for three divisions, so they were using the same ones three times.
That was comforting.
Eddie and I weighed our options: punk out in front of more than 10,000 people and never hear the end of it from our friends in the
media, or go ahead and tempt fate.
In that crucial moment of decision, I remembered what was really important. The FREE T-shirt. Heck, no, I’m not giving that back. There’s a principle involved here.
We got a leg up on our horses in the paddock and walked them onto the track. I had no idea what I was doing, but the horses were following one another toward the starting gate. I had the No. 4 stall; Eddie the No. 2.
As my horse contemplated re-entering the starting gate, I realized how incredibly narrow the stall was. I didn’t think there was enough room for the horse and my legs, which I thought would be ripped off. I waited in dread. The gates opened. I still don’t remember the first couple of seconds, but I remember the first word out of my mouth:
My mount flew through the sixteenth of a mile — OK, he wasn’t as fast as Secretariat — and, miraculously, my horse decided to stop after the finish line. I had finished fourth in a field of six. But the best news was that my life wasn’t finished. Eddie, who was fifth or sixth, was also OK, although the horse he rode had to wear a truss for the rest of his life.
I dismounted with the stupidest grin on my face. I had survived. And I had learned a life lesson, a very important one:
If you have to sign a waiver, it might not be a good idea.
Unless, of course, there’s a FREE T-shirt. The aches from riding a horse went away. Eventually, so did my first wife. And the Media Race didn’t survive. But I’ve still got that T-shirt. Did I mention that it was FREE?