Publish date:


Saul Silberman, owner of Tropical Park, has been battling with politicians, racing commissions and newspapermen all his life. Only the horses he bets on defeat him

Sam (The Genius) Lewin says that when it comes to picking horses his pal Saul Silberman, the former rabbinical student who owns Tropical Park racetrack, can just about tell a yarmulke from a fetlock. The Genius keeps their friendship fresh by telling what a terrific loser Saul is. "The little man bets to be betting," says The Genius. "If there were 10 races on the program Saul would bet 11. He's like those little old ladies that go to Las Vegas and sit all day at the slot machine throwing quarters away."

Here is Sam, sitting in Saul's glass-enclosed box in the Turf Club at Miami's Tropical Park, smoking a cigarette through a holder and looking through field glasses at the horses being bullied into the starting gate. It is just before the second race. The Genius is relaxed. He has made all his bets for the day in advance because he does not want to be swayed by hot information. Not Saul. He is out with a group of manicured players, buzzing and transmitting advice like pollen, one to another, standing behind the private boxes, watching for the flash of the tote lights that raise and lower the worth of the animals.

Saul is all in royal blue, a suit with a weave you can see across a room, like burlap. His shoes have side buckles. Some days it is an all-cream outfit with white loafers. He is the class dresser of the Turf Club, but the thing that strikes you is his posture. He does not have good posture, he has great posture. It is so great he appears to be slumping backward. He is 5 feet 2 inches tall. Jim Bishop, the columnist, says Saul could stand under most of the horses that beat him. So what is size? Saul has been standing nose to nose with big people all his life. "I don't know if you realize this or not," he says in the way of information, "but a little guy hates a big guy. Big guys are not just big guys to little guys. They're always Big Sons of Bitches." Saul admits that might explain a few things about him. He says he has always been the kind of guy you put a gun to his head he will tell you to shoot.

Once when he was building houses in Baltimore he took on a whole committee of Senators investigating FHA windfall profits ("I don't like to boast, but I tied them in knots"), and his lesser adversaries have included district attorneys, track owners, a professional football coach named Paul Brown, his own partners, newspapermen and politicians of every stripe and, on a regular basis, racing commissioners. He considers racing commissioners, politically appointed, a serious drawback to intelligent racetrack operation. "Ninety-nine out of a hundred don't know the right time," he says. Track owners like himself are "in the hands of the Philistines" when they are in the hands of racing commissions. He got up at a Florida State Racing Commission meeting once—he did not actually get up, but people there said it seemed like he did—pointed a finger and said, "What's the use of me talking. That man's asleep." Only horses buffalo Saul Silberman.

The horses are at the starting gate for the second race and Saul is ready to make his move. His personal messenger, a jockey gone fat named Ernest Renzetti, is on his right, one step to the rear, ready to run for the cages before the bell rings. Saul has a racing program up to his proud, abundant chin, watching the lights over the tops of his glasses, calmly biting his lower lip. Without taking his eyes off the tote board, he says something and Renzetti scribbles it down and bolts for the $100 window.

"You want to know how to make Little Caesar mad?" says Sam The Genius, inserting another cigarette into the holder and looking through the glass at the familiar scene. "Tell him his horse can't win. Chances are you'll be right."

Saul Silberman says it is ridiculous to think he owns a racetrack just to make his gambling more convenient, or that he sold the Cleveland Browns in 1956 because he wanted to feel ethical when he bet against them. He made a profit of $300,000 when he sold the Browns. That is called "good business," not ethics. He says he bets for the love of it, pure and simple, and, if you must know, he bets about $2 million a year. How can he do such a thing, his conservative friends want to know. "It's easy," says Saul. He says you have to be stupid to think that means he loses two million a year. "The money keeps flying around." He says he probably hasn't lost more than four or five million in his whole life. One time when he was struggling he went to Havre de Grace with $40 in his pocket. He was just a kid. He put the $40 on the nose of a horse that had not been in the habit of winning and before the day was over Saul had $20,000. It is one of his favorite stories.

"Yeah, he did that," says The Genius. "But did he tell you about all the times he goes to the track with $20,000 and winds up with $40? Little Caesar is a great man, but he is definitely not an intelligent bettor."

Saul Silberman tells people he had to be successful in business to cover his gambling debts, but that is an exaggeration. At one time he was the principal stockholder of the Cleveland Browns, Randall Park Race Track, Painesville Raceway and Tropical Park, and all the while he and his partner in Baltimore, Ralph DeChiaro, were building houses. Nobody has that many gambling debts. He made rich men out of every one of his partners, then fell out with them or cut them loose or bought them out. One of his partners was the late Bill MacDonald (SI, Feb. 17, 1964), who bought 45% of Tropical in 1961 when Saul needed some help and then tried to take the track away from him in 1965 by charging that Saul borrowed on track credit and was into the track for more than a million dollars. "So what else is new?" said Saul. "I've been borrowing and betting on credit all my life." The courts suggested MacDonald forget his suit, and eventually Saul bought back the 45%, at a profit to MacDonald of $1.75 million.

Saul Silberman is 72 years old and still so sharp he has to stop conversations to be sure everybody is keeping up—"Do you follow me? Do you get what I'm saying? I don't think you're getting this." His brilliance is unfettered by doubt, fear or humility. "I like to run things, to make things go," he says, which means, in the context of whatever enterprise he is currently operating, run everything. "Don't just say, 'They're off,' " he told his announcer, Chuck Bang, who has been calling races for 22 years, "say, 'They're off!' Make it sound more exciting." If he had chosen baseball instead of horse racing, Saul Silberman and not Bill Veeck would be the household word, if you can imagine, and the bestseller would have been Saul—as in Gall. He likes to be first, to be way ahead of everybody else. He restored Randall Park to the sports pages in Cleveland by tearing down and building up, by installing the first automatic tote board in Ohio, by putting in a Turf Club and stocking it with respectable Clevelanders and by buying the Cleveland Browns. "That's right, I bought the Browns so I could get more publicity for Randall Park, pure and simple."

Florida racing commissioners, who change according to the political wind because they are prestige appointments of the governor, have never been able to figure him out. He throws so many things at them they just naturally start delaying action the moment he opens his mouth. He has tried everything short of horses riding jockeys. The only thing he will not complain about are his dates, which are the worst of Miami's three tracks, because they begin before the tourist season is in full swing. He says he can't kick, Hialeah and Gulfstream do more business. This winter horses at Tropical ran one race a day on an all-weather composition track called Tartan, laid inside the dirt track by the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (Saul got a good deal and a five-year guarantee, and 3 M helped pay off MacDonald). Tartan had been tried successfully by trotting tracks in the East, but nobody had had the nerve to try it with Thoroughbreds. Saul is unhappy with some of the prominent jockeys who did not have the nerve to ride on it.

After a minor skirmish, Silberman was allowed to add a 10th race to the Tropical program. He rammed through a breakage bill to increase the purses (and make Tropical more appetizing) for horsemen. He could not imagine the commission objecting to that, and it managed not to. He put in the "twin double," which allows the itchy bettor to try to pick four winners instead of two, for a gaudy payoff (highest to date at Tropical: $75,002.20). Once he thought up a pic-six, which is as tough as the name implies—impossible—and he raised the price of the daily-double ticket to $3, and then he proposed putting up a drive-in window so motorists passing by on their way home from work could bet in a quick one before supper, but the papers got on him for trying too hard and some of these passed away. Eight years ago he joined the campaign that Frederick Van Lennep had been running to bring harness racing to Florida, and it finally succeeded despite the opposition of other local sporting interests. Van Lennep's magnificent Pompano Park was the result. This month Van Lennep will shift his trotters from Pompano for a 47-day meeting at Tropical. "It only proves," says Silberman, "that right will prevail."

For years people have been watching Saul in action, watching him hustle and make money, following the premise that what is good for Saul has to be good for the government because they're getting their cut, right? And some of these people have not only been watching—they have been trying to pin something on him. In 1957 State Attorney Richard Gerstein got up a list of 98 telephone calls made by an employee from Saul's office to a Cleveland bookie, put the list together with Saul's practice of betting on credit and the presence of a private $100 ticket machine, and concluded that somebody in that office wasn't using Crest. The Miami Herald made the grand announcement: TROPICAL BOSS TAGGED AS BIG-DOUGH GAMBLER, which must have got a few laughs around the Turf Club, where Saul wasn't exactly pretending to be a $2 bettor. Saul called it a witch hunt. "Gerstein is a publicity hound, everybody knows that," he said. "The whole thing is exaggerated to the nth degree."

Nevertheless, the state made a case, suggesting that the calls were for a possible bookie layoff, to get "comeback money," and that the employee in question was actually a bookie's agent. Saul said they didn't know what they were talking about, that it was ridiculous. And as for betting on credit, where is the law? "We open up the track every morning with half a million dollars in capital, which is my money. What I would do is write an IOU, take some cash and go to the $50 or $100 window and make a bet. The money was passing through the machines. What the hell difference does it make if a man bets on credit as long as cash is going through the window and the state gets its take? That's efficiency. I was the one taking the risk. It was my money. My promissory note. Racetracks cash personal checks all the time and what are they but promises to pay? I also had it arranged for my messenger to make bets by phone to the $100 window. Otherwise he might get in line late and shut out somebody behind him. You see that all the time, somebody getting shut out."

The case came up in April 1957, and the racing commission took away Saul's license. He appealed to the State Supreme Court. He won. The court said there was too much circumstantial evidence and that Saul's betting on credit was a niggling offense. Other than that, the only thing they made him do was yank his private machine. "That was just to save face," said Saul, "but it was stupid, too. All that machine did was make it efficient." Naturally, nobody went to jail. (Rhetorical question: Can a man be jailed for having too much hutzpah?) Saul got his license back. Gerstein resurrected the issue before the Senate crime investigation committee in 1961 to no avail. And in December of that year the vice-mayor of Miami presented Saul Silberman a certificate "in special recognition of his important contributions to the community."

The second race is over and it does not discredit The Genius' evaluation of the Silberman betting system ("he has no system"). Saul has successfully chosen the wrong horse again. You cannot tell the extent of his loss by the color of his cheeks, however. He says you never can, because he has a "great capacity to throw things off." He threw a party for New York sportswriters one year, chartered them in by jet, put them up in $69-a-day rooms on Miami Beach, picked up the bar tabs, and never got a line of publicity because all the New York papers were struck at the time. "So what?" said Saul. "It was a nice party. I like parties." He got beat by a nose for a $98,000 double, and once at Hialeah a horse was disqualified that cost him $144,000, "and all I did was pick up the form and say, 'Who you going to bet the next race?' It's over. What you going to do? I used to tell my building partner, Ralph DeChiaro, never worry about things you can do nothing about. He used to go nuts when it rained. I'd tell him, let's go someplace till it stops. What can you do?"

The Genius is out of Saul's box, joining the group. Saul points to a horse on the program for the third race. "I like it," he says.

"Why?" yells The Genius, who is not only profound but is a peril to the eardrums. "Why today? You never liked it before, and it never won before, and it won't win, so why today?"

"The conditions are different today."

"Saul, you'll never be happy until you go broke."

Saul is smiling. He tolerates The Genius. Even when The Genius is writing on his tablecloth in the Turf Club and telling Saul what lousy stewards he has at Tropical, Saul tolerates The Genius. "Don't listen to Sam," he says. "Sam's just talking for publication." Saul moves away, looking for Julian Cole, his publicity man. Immediately he is irritated. "Where's Julian? I told him, right after the second race. We'll go down right after the second race. How can anybody be so slow and so stupid?"

Julian Cole materializes, carrying a fistful of envelopes. His posture is as bad as Silberman's is good. One tight black curl comes down over his wide forehead. His black eyes glisten and move; Ideas and Strokes of Genius foment behind them. Julian might easily be called the nonpareil of Miami publicity men, if in that surfeited environment it would not be like choosing one wave over another. Julian is excellent at his job, but Saul is a believer in oligarchy. He treats Julian in the same derogatory manner he treats all his help. He has fired his waiter, Max Applebaum, every racing day for 17 years. "Why can't you do something right?" he yells at Renzetti. "Julian," he says to Cole, "you're a nice guy and the press likes you, but you're like all p.r. men. You're dead from the neck up." They all love him, Saul's help.

Cole believes you achieve a compatability with Silberman when you realize he can do your job better than you can. There was a point in their relationship when Saul asked Julian where the advertising signs were for the buses. "They're on the buses," said Julian. Saul shouted: "Which buses? What numbers? Where are the buses now?" Cole did not know. "Dammit, Julian, can't you do anything right?" "No, Mr. Silberman." "What—?" "No, because I'm stupid. Didn't you tell me I was stupid?" "What? Well...." Saul walked away. Julian is now able to recite the names, numbers and routes of 150 metropolitan buses that display Tropical Park advertising posters.

The way it is, you know you're doing a good job when Saul stops criticizing you. As a rule of the road, however, if he sees you he gives you hell. Cole and Elmer Vickers, an ex-FBI man who is the track manager and Saul's right arm, moved their offices out of the Turf Club so they would not be bumping into Saul so much. Vickers is a tall, distinguished-looking man with gray hair and a picture of J. Edgar Hoover on his office wall. He got to know Saul when he was tailing big spenders at Pimlico, making sure they bet everything at the windows. Vickers was impressed with Saul as being honest if testy and candid if blunt and has been with him 17 years. He always calls him "Mr. Silberman." Saul has told people that Vickers is the only man he is afraid to fire for fear he might take him up on it.

The stack of envelopes Julian Cole is carrying for Saul are addressed "To Our $2 Bettor." Inside each envelope are a starchy $20 bill and a note from Silberman: "Thanks for being with us, good luck." One day a season he goes around passing out 50 of these envelopes, because Tropical is known as the "friendly track" and Saul likes to perpetuate the image. With his entourage, including Cole and a few photographers and reporters rounded up for the event, Saul walks down from the carpeted Turf Club to the Cuban tile of the Clubhouse, down to the grandstand, where the bare concrete is littered with losing tickets and the dress is shirtsleeve and beat-up Palm Beach and frayed cardigan instead of blazers and mink. Saul moves as easily in one place as the other. In that blue suit, with that terrific posture, he stands out. He is looking, looking, very carefully. He gives the first three envelopes to women, and one kisses him on the cheek. "See?" he says. "I'm no dope." He stops at the line where the sign says "$2 Place" and offers an envelope to an old man in tennis shoes and a shirt with paint spots. The old man is imperious. "Do you know who I am, lad?" he says. "I'm————. I was a medic in World War II. You can't fool a medic, you know."

"See how tough it is to give money away?" Saul says to his group. "He thinks I'm a tout. Go ahead, open it," he orders the old man. "Maybe it will change your luck." The old man lifts out the $20 bill. He raises his eyebrows. He takes Saul's hand and shakes it firmly. "Just remember my name, lad, if you pass this way again."

The word is out now and the beggars are coming around getting in Saul's way. Saul ignores them. He goes upstairs to shake them off and to bet the third race, then comes back down with the envelopes. Out in the paddock he draws a crowd around two old ladies on a bench. They are also in tennis shoes. They are suspicious of the envelopes. They want to have him arrested for trying to push tout sheets. They take out the 20s and one holds hers up to the light. "It's counterfeit," she announces. "I ought to report you to Mr. Silberman for passing counterfeit bills." Saul is delighted. "If it's counterfeit, I'll give you another just like it. Here." She reads the note. Saul starts to leave. "You forgot something on this note," the old woman says. "You forgot to put, 'Thanks sucker.' " Saul laughs all the way back to the Turf Club.

Saul Silberman and his handsome, nongambler wife, Lillian, live in a $250,000 waterfront home on Miami Beach with three servants who have been with them forever and a black poodle named Nappy, which is short for Napoleon (Little Napoleon is Saul's other nickname). Pete, the Filipino cook, has a fashionable accent that Saul says is getting suspiciously thicker every year. The house has four guest rooms, his-and-her lanais by the heated pool, which Saul walks laps around and swims laps across (at the shallow end); it has 13 television sets, Oriental rugs, a sign at the bar that says "I am the master of this house, whatever my wife says shall be done," and it has 10 bathrooms, all immaculate and piled high with fancy little bars of soap. Saul has a great predilection for cleanliness. He has been known to insult waiters who served him with dirty towels over their arms. He inspects bathrooms carefully. He cancelled his account at the Zephyr Room in Cleveland because the faucets snapped back, so the management put in new ones, the kind that stay on, and sent Saul a special invitation to return.

The Silberman den is a repository for trophies and plaques from the hospitals and high schools and Khoury League baseball teams that enjoy the Silberman largesse. Long years ago, during the Depression, Saul was a $5-a-house appraiser for the Home Owners' Loan Corporation and worried about the staying power of the checks he gave the grocer. Now he gives money away like he was trying to set a record. The other night, in the Napoleon Room (no connection, only coincidence) of the Deauville Hotel on Miami Beach, Saul got up to receive the Good Samaritan Award as the Variety Children's Hospital Man of the Year, and while he was up being applauded the thought struck him to pledge another $50,000, which he did before he sat down. A 56-bed surgical floor at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital is called "The Silberman Pavilion."

It is here, in the glistening den, on a Sunday afternoon when the Silbermans have open house and friends drop in to try Pete's flambé, that the man of the house gathers up his Scotch and ruminates about his life and how he got into this mess and out of that one. He happens to be a great storyteller. So what came first, his bar mitzvah or his first million? "Don't ask questions," he says. "I'll answer your questions before you ask them."

Saul was the seventh of 10 little Silbermans and barely 15 years old when he got out of high school. This was in Baltimore, where his father manufactured women's clothing and got a name for himself settling neighborhood problems out of court. "I'm not exaggerating," says Saul. "When my father died he had a police escort, a funeral so big you'd think he was President of the United States." Nathan Silberman was an Orthodox Jew. His wife Sophia claimed to be a descendant of 80 rabbis. She dreamed of little Saul in a white robe and a tallis (prayer shawl) and a skullcap. Her argument was they already had an engineer, doctor and lawyer among the sons, what else was there? She schemed and Saul wound up at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, which is part of the Reform branch of Judaism. "My father's friends couldn't believe it. 'How can you put up with this, Saul going to the Reform branch?' The Orthodox Jews hated the Reform Jews. My father just shrugged. 'This way he'll at least be half a Jew. The other way he's nothing.' "

Saul did not feel the call. The only thing he remembers about rabbinical school was a card game. "We didn't have a dorm and I was renting from this widow woman, a very devout Catholic. She looked 90 to me, but she was probably about 50. It was Christmas Eve. Her son, sort of a wayward kid, appeared on the scene, and she was the happiest woman on earth. That night four of us sat down to play cards. We played 500. Don't ask me what 500 is because I can't remember, but it was sort of the forerunner of bridge. The son had gotten into the theatrical business and he was successful, you could see it all over him. Anyway, we're playing cards, it got to be late, 12 or one o'clock, and the mother was talking about going to bed. Somehow she knew the boy hadn't been to Mass in a long time, and out of the blue she says to him, 'Do me a favor. I want you to go to Mass in the morning.' He didn't want to go to Mass any more than the man in the moon. So he says, 'If Saul will go to Mass I'll go.' She turns to me, and I said, 'Sure, I'll go.' It was a 4 o'clock Mass and he didn't think I was going to any 4 o'clock Mass and we just kept playing. But at 4 o'clock I had him with me, kneeling right down beside him on those little benches. You a Catholic? You know what I mean. After that I was the star boarder. And that's what I remember about rabbinical school."

After his second year Saul was summoned to the school office. "The secretary said he was disappointed in me. I only had an average grade of 96. I know that sounds like boasting, but I had been taught by a very famous rabbi. I was supposed to get 100. 'We think you're not interested,' he said. It rankled me."

That summer Saul went to work for a real-estate company in Baltimore and sold a $100,000 life-insurance policy to a big you-know-what, a man 6 feet 3 and head of a banking firm, and realized a $900 commission. He sold some more. He began playing the stock market. He got to be known as the Boy Speculator. "In those days it was easy to walk into a broker's office, put up $300, say, for 10 shares of stock that might be $100 a share, leaving $700 owed, then sell before you had to pay interest. You sold something you didn't have, hoping the market would go down and you could buy it back. The idea was to buy long and sell short. I was what you call a short seller. One day President Wilson made a peace feeler, and the market went down and I made a killing, proportionately speaking. There were rumors that Bernard Baruch made a killing because he was adviser to Wilson. To him a killing might mean three million. To me it was $10,000, overnight." Saul did not go back to rabbinical school.

The Boy Speculator began law studies at the University of Maryland, then enlisted in the Army and went to France to help subdue the Kaiser as an interpreter for the 39th Engineers. His reaction to Army life was instinctive. "I hated to be told what to do. I always wanted to know why. My nickname got to be 'Pourquoi.' " Saul says he was too young at the time to realize the full potential of a French-speaking American soldier in wartime France.

He came back a corporal and joined his cousin in the real-estate business, selling small houses $1 down, $10 a week. One day at Havre de Grace he got a tip on a horse named Lounger from a lawyer they had worked with. "Lounger was supposed to be a fast-track horse, but I got word he was great in the mud. It was muddy that day and the horse opened at 2 to 1 and steadily went up to 5 to 1, and I kept betting him. Most I had ever bet was 10, 20 dollars tops. This time I bet $200, and Lounger won, and I was taken. I thought I really knew something about horses."

Saul had made his first fortune building houses when the market busted him in 1930. He went to work appraising for the HOLC, and got up to 20 houses a week, which meant $100, and those days you could live on $100 a week. Then he went with the FHA as a field representative. "I'm not boasting but I got more people to take loans from the FHA than anybody. It was new then, just getting off the ground." Saul was rolling again. He borrowed $565,000 to build a 180-unit apartment complex, came up $100,000 short and, dipping into his reserve of hutzpah, went back to his creditors and suggested the only way they could get their money back was to sit tight and trust him. They did. He arranged another loan, finished the buildings and soon the money began to pour in.

There was a pretty young secretary in the HOLC office in those days. Her name was Lillian, and Saul pestered her for dates. He drove by her house in the morning, and if she had already taken the bus he would drive along behind the bus, honking his horn, until she finally got off. He sneaked a kiss at her desk one day, on the right cheek, figuring she couldn't angle much of a reply from that side. Lillian fooled him. "I was left-handed. I popped him good." Eventually she surrendered. They have been married 29 years.

With his building partner Ralph DeChiaro, Saul bought Randall Park in Cleveland in 1950, "only because it was good business, good speculation, that's all. I looked at it from the standpoint if it didn't make money the land was still worth it." Things began to happen at Randall. A sportswriter called up to find out what was all that hammering out there. "If you want to know come and see for yourself," Saul replied. A lot of people did. The daily handle went from $128,000 to almost $500,000. "My baby," Saul called Randall.

One day he got a call from Dan Sherby, who, with Mickey McBride and a couple of others, owned the Cleveland Browns. "I was in Florida. Dan said, 'Saul, Mickey and I want you to buy the Browns.' I knew Mickey McBride was a very rich man. Getting money for the Browns didn't mean a thing. He didn't have to stick anybody. I said, 'Dan, is it worth the money?' He said yeah. I said, 'I'll take it.' I never saw a statement. Never saw a statement of Tropical Park, either. It didn't matter. Instinctively I knew these things. I don't care what the other fellow does. I know what I can do. The Browns weren't what they are today. They were drawing 25-30 thousand people, and it rained or snowed every Sunday. TV rights went for $150,000, now they get a million. It didn't mean a thing. The racetrack meant more. I figured if I lost $100,000 it would be worth more to the track in publicity.

"They wanted $300,000 cash, $300,000 carry. I took in some Clevelanders, Ellis Ryan and Dave Jones as partners. They'd been with the Indians and stood well in Cleveland. They represented the top Gentiles in the community. It was a fusion, Jew and Gentile. This way I'd get better standing in the community for Randall.

"I believe McBride selected me because he thought I was a scrapper. I think he felt I'd fire Paul Brown. I remember what Brown said when we were introduced to the players. 'Here are the owners,' he said. 'As soon as we get rid of them we'll get down to business.' He didn't give a damn. He had a hell of a contract, full power to hire and fire. He was kingpin, because he was a winner. I sent for him once and we had a talk. I said, 'Paul, you've got enough to do coaching the team. Why don't you stay out of the office, and we'll raise your salary and you won't have as much to do. You'll make more and the club will make more.' (He owned 1%.) We parted friendly. He acted like he agreed. The next day the papers ran a big story: SILBERMAN TRYING TO FIRE PAUL BROWN. Well, I couldn't fire him, not in Cleveland. Not then. He was idolized. I was nothing next to Paul Brown. I even had trouble getting past the locker-room door. They finally got rid of him, but they had to pay him $82,500 a year to do it and I think he's still getting paid. By that time I'd sold out to Jones for $600,000."

Another couple of phone calls and Saul bought Tropical Park in 1953. First from a guy in New York, whose name Saul keeps private. "How would you like to buy Tropical Park?" the guy said. "Nat Herzfeld won't sell Tropical Park." "You didn't answer my question. We had a meeting. We selected you. We want you to buy it. Here's Nat's number in New York. He's waiting for your call." Saul talked to his lawyer, Herman Siskind. Siskind said he must be crazy, he already owned Randall, the Browns and Painesville Raceway. "Where's the money coming from?" Eventually there was a meeting in New York, a dinner date with Jerry Herzfeld, Nat's brother. "I got there at 7:30 and it got to be 11:30 and Tropical Park hadn't been mentioned. I said, 'I thought we came here to talk about Tropical Park.' 'Oh, are you interested?' 'What the hell you think I'm here for?' 'O.K., you can have it for x number of dollars.' 'I'll take it.' You could hear a pin drop. They were dumbfounded. They expected some negotiation. Finally, one of them said, 'What do we do now?'

"The next day we went to Herzfeld's office to finalize the deal. There was an Associated Press guy there, waiting outside, and I remembered I had promised Milt Ellis [executive sports editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer] the next big story because I'd asked him to hold off on the Browns announcement and somebody beat him to it. Anyway, our lawyers get hung up over a back-taxes clause, and I'm thinking more about that promise to Ellis than making the deal, so I called him, got him at the Theatrical Grill in Cleveland. I said, 'Milt, I'm going to buy Tropical Park.' 'Fine, how much money do you need?' 'I'm serious, Milt. It's a deal. Remember that promise I made? I'm paying you back. Go set up your story and I'll call you when it's final.' He said his deadline was 11:30 or something, and it got to be 11:20 and still no deal, so I called him back. 'Listen, Milt, go ahead and run the story and quote me, say I said I bought it.'

"Well, we still can't iron it out, and finally one of their guys pulls out a watch and struck a pose. 'It's one o'clock,' he said. 'You've got five minutes.' I said, 'Look, you big son of a bitch, nobody pulls a clock on me. You go to hell,' and I got my coat and hat and went for the door. I had to pull the best bluff I could. I got to the door and somebody called me back, and we quickly worked out a compromise and signed the papers. Then we all went down to Reuben's for coffee. Everybody was happy. Must have been 5:30 when we're walking out and Herman Siskind, my lawyer, says, 'Did you call Ralph?' 'No, I thought you did.' Jerry Herzfeld says, 'Who's Ralph?' I said, 'That's my partner.'

Saul Silberman today is fresh out of partners. Except for stocks and real estate, Tropical Park is his last piece of equipment. He owns 97%. When he bought it in 1953, it was worth $2½ million; it would sell today for as much as $12 million. He and DeChiaro split in 1961. DeChiaro wanted him to quit all the fun and games and stick to building houses in Baltimore. "He took the position that if I'd devoted my time to building, instead of a few million we'd be worth a hundred million. Maybe he's right. I don't know."

What seems to irritate those persons who find Silberman irritating is that he is no respecter of persons. Politicians, college presidents, theatrical people, football coaches, syndicated columnists come regularly to his Turf Club, and he loves to sit around when the races are over and kibitz and watch them eat the kosher salami and the special hot dogs he has flown in from Cleveland. "Bet you never had any of that at the Ponderosa," he beamed when Lorne Greene came in to try the salami. But he made Senator Frank Lausche, then governor of Ohio, put his coat back on on the hottest day of the year at Randall Park because a Turf Club rule was tie-and-coat. His fights with his fellow track owners are not sensational, but are regular. "I wish the Moris would sell Hialeah Park," he said once, "because then maybe we'd get somebody who would cooperate." His present feeling about Jimmy Donn of Gulfstream is that he "is a big hog, always after what somebody else has." (Donn wants to split Tropical's winter dates with Hialeah, and let Silberman run during the summer.)

There is a certain sense of Old Testament morality to the way Saul goes about things. He thought the Thoroughbred Racing Association high-handed when it dropped him during the trouble with State Attorney Gerstein, so when it was cleared up he allowed the TRA to reinstate him, then he resigned. "Who needs you?" he said. For years he shielded his wife from an associate who flaunted his affairs. If they were both invited to the same party, Saul would call up and find out who so-and-so was bringing, his wife or his girl friend, and if it was the latter the Silbermans stayed home. Politicians give him a pain in the saddle. "It's against the law for liquor or parimutuel plants to give money to candidates for office, but every son of a bitch who runs comes around asking for money," he says. "Politics is not honest at any level. I know for a fact that Kennedy bought West Virginia with bags full of money. I never had much respect for the Kennedys anyway, and then the other day I see a picture of Jackie Kennedy wearing a miniskirt. Awful."

There was a time at Randall when a photo finish did not sit well and the crowd downstairs was acting like it might rearrange the furniture. Against the counsel of his friends, Little Caesar walked down into the lions' den. "Now wait a minute," he said, holding up his hands. He explained how close the picture showed the finish to be. He invited them to examine the picture and if anyone thought the stewards had ruled incorrectly he would pay double. He won the crowd. At Tropical one year the placing judges separated an even closer finish and made a horse named Deemster the official winner over another named Teacher. Saul took another look at the picture. He decided it was a dead heat, and the track would pay off on Teacher as well. A lot of people had already thrown their tickets away. A lot of people who never bought tickets said they threw their tickets away. Some of them weren't too smart (Tropical does not sell a "$20 win" ticket) and could be weeded out, but the track still paid out $22,000.

The Miami Herald got on him for that one. The Herald wanted the pictures, as is customary, but there was some suspicious dillydallying going on and when the pressure was applied Saul reacted: "Don't put a gun to my head." He battled with Russ Harris, the Herald racing editor, a former college professor and perennial leading handicap-per. He began a discussion of the situation with Edwin Pope, the columnist, by saying, "Listen, sonny boy," and Pope reacted to that, and what could have been smoothly handled became a cause cél√®bre.

Newspapermen just naturally get him started, and he just naturally gets them started by dropping into conversation little rejoinders like "you don't know what you're talking about" and "you don't know how to run a newspaper." He calls them "bullies." He says it is his experience that "they don't gather facts, they slant facts."

Yet for all the abuse that is volleyed back and forth, newsmen wind up loving Saul Silberman, or at least respecting him. He has close friends among them. Milt Ellis, for one, is a regular at his home. Columnists Gordon Cobbledick, Ed Bang and Franklin Lewis practically begged him to stay in Cleveland. John S. Knight, the publisher of the Herald and owner of racehorses, has a box at Tropical. Saul finds he can take his troubles to Knight and get a sympathetic ear. Russ Harris and the racing editor of the Miami News, Art Grace, say he is about the most honest thing going, and recently Jim Bishop wrote about him in the kind of glowing terms a proud, sensitive millionaire could appreciate. Julian Cole, the publicist, appreciated the column. He went running to Silberman. "What did you think of that, Mr. Silberman? Wasn't it great?" "He left out the part about me being in the Army," Saul replied glumly. "People are liable to think I was a shirker or something."

Years ago, when he was building houses, Saul Silberman made trips to New York and got an inferiority complex looking at the tall buildings. He wanted to work in New York. He thought he could move just as easily there as in Baltimore, "easier, maybe, because money is easier to get in New York." But he got over that. He became, instead, a man who built fancy turf clubs and passed out $20 bills to $2 bettors.

"I've lived a long time, and I don't think you can find anybody that knows me that would say I haven't played fair. I don't think anybody that made a real effort to find out would say I ever did an unclean, unfair thing in my whole life. But the things I've done in racing were done for the purpose of good business, pure and simple. Passing out the 20s, that's good publicity. It gives me a better image. At the same time, it's a pleasant way to get it."

So what is there left undone for Saul Silberman? A pic-eight? A plastic track? Green Stamps? Is there anything that would please him now, at 72—something that he would still like to do?

"Yes, there is," says Saul. "I'd like to win tomorrow's double."


As Silberman studies the "Daily Racing Form" before placing one of his bets, Sam The Genius explains why his friend is a terrible horseplayer.


On a typical day Silberman gets up early to see what the Miami newspapers have to say about him, stuns a track patron with a gift of a $20 bill, hears another claim that her gift is counterfeit, studies the field before a race from his Turf Club and gives last-second bets to messenger Ernest Renzetti.