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Original Issue

Epitaph for a Horseplayer

An obstinate legend gives Damon Runyon credit for first saying, "All horseplayers die broke." It could well have been said by some ancient philosopher who hung around the world's first racetrack. But Runyon always insisted that the author of the mournful truism was a friend of his: a gambler named E. Phocion Howard, who died broke himself to prove his point.

Runyon quoted the phrase often enough, for horseplayers were always dying broke in his Never Never Land of threadbare Broadway hustlers whose only reading was scratch sheets and the handwriting on the wall. The spirit, if not the letter, of the words is Runyonesque. And E. Phocion Howard came as close to being a Runyon character as could anyone in real life. The ones who get by nowadays as Runyonesque are merely a form of nature plagiarizing art, and critics who praise Runyon as realistic do an injustice to his gift for fantasy.

No one at Jacobs' Beach and the Long Island paddocks talked like that until Runyon's fiction gave them the idea. Then Broadway flowered with characters in too-tight collars, hand-painted neckties and hats a size too large, hoping they would be mistaken for Harry the Horse or Nicely-Nicely.

But fantasy, however far out, needs some connection with reality, and that was where oddities like E. Phocion Howard came in. His friends called him Phoce, and he was one of Damon Runyon's large retinue. Some thought of these oddities as camp followers, for they included from time to time paroled con men, punch-drunk pugs and unemployed touts.

But not all of Runyon's specimens were chosen for squalor. Some, like Phoce Howard, were strictly legitimate citizens. Howard had begun life back in the 19th century as a Senate page boy. He was fond of the classics, and quotations from them rolled trippingly from his tongue at the slightest provocation. He was mainly known as editor and publisher of a weekly paper called the New York Press which was devoted to bettering the lot of the downtrodden horse-player. In those days straitened times were not unknown to Phoce's pillar of the turf, and often, when a payroll was only hours away, the editor-publisher would sit down at his battered Woodstock and bang out an editorial paean to some millionaire horseman who was prepared to express his appreciation in negotiable goods.

Phoce never allowed his wardrobe to fall below 100 suits of clothes, although some of them might be decades out of fashion. He owned a Rolls-Royce that had been hand built during the days of Edward VII. His faithful retainer was a Negro called Chicken Fry Ben who served as cook, butler, bartender, valet, masseur, chauffeur and social secretary.

Phoce was a dedicated and notoriously unlucky gambler. Spiritually, if not financially, he was of the breed of Bet-a-Million Gates, who would wager on the relative speed of raindrops crawling down a windowpane if no other hazard was handy at the moment. His favorite sports were horse racing and bucking old Tige, the latter a name given the game of faro because the decks traditionally bore the image of a rampant tiger on the case. For years Phoce shared a house on Union Avenue with Runyon during the month of August when the meeting at Saratoga was being run.

On the last day of his life Phoce won a bundle of several thousand dollars at the Saratoga track. His bankroll was seriously decimated before he even reached his Rolls-Royce in the parking lot, for he staked many deserving citizens who had heard rumors of his windfall. That night Phoce went to a house of chance called Smith's and blew the rest of his liquid assets bucking old Tige.

When Chicken Fry Ben found his employer dead the next morning he searched the pockets of his trousers and brought forth a total of $2.37.

Runyon suggested a fitting epitaph for Howard's tombstone but was overruled by relatives of the deceased. The epitaph Damon suggested, of course, was "All Horseplayers Die Broke."