The wind is howling off the Atlantic Ocean, half a mile away, and the seagulls are taking refuge on an infield pond at Boston's Suffolk Downs racetrack. The snow is stinging and the temperature is in the low 20s. It's a perfect day not to have thoroughbred racing. But at Suffolk the horses are approaching the starting gate.
Inside the enclosed grandstand inveterate horseplayer Roger Chin grumps, "There's too much snow. Look out there. And there are too many broken-down horses. See that one? What a joke. The horses aren't fit for racing. Neither is the weather. I don't know why I come." Then the retired book salesman from Roslindale, Mass. falls silent, staring alternately down at his Racing Form and up at the winking and icebound tote board. "Excuse me a minute," he says. "I've got to go bet the double."
Nearby, Milt Goldberg of Beverly, Mass., a former pro basketball scout, says, "The reason we have winter racing is to inflict self-injury so we have something legitimate to moan and groan about." And down in the frosty paddock, Trainer Joe Martinez is giving advice to his jockey concerning his mount in the next race: "Keep him between the snowflakes."
Any resemblance between racing in the North in February and the Kentucky Derby in May is purely coincidental. Winter racing exists because states can generate substantial revenue from it, and tracks are anxious to run when they have the least amount of competition for the gambling dollar.
Roger Chin and Milt Goldberg may curse winter racing, but they go to the track every day and would be hopping mad if it came to an end. Which it won't. Chick Lang, the general manager at Pimlico (which doesn't open until April), says, "If there are human beings around, there are two things you'll never get rid of, and gambling is one." There are thousands of folks like Chin and Goldberg in the frozen North, including a preponderance of retired people, who keep seven cold-weather tracks operating through the dead of winter. Tracks try to call their winter fans regulars, but they keep slipping and calling them racing degenerates.
Suffolk races 200 days a year, many of these in December, January and February. In 1977 the track had 30 cancellations, but only 14 last year. In 1978, snow removal alone cost Suffolk $120,000. Boston's Logan Airport closes; Suffolk Downs keeps flying. And there is winter racing in New York (Aqueduct), Pennsylvania (afternoons at Keystone and nights at Penn National), Maryland (Bowie) and West Virginia (310 days a year at Waterford Park, an hour west of Pittsburgh). The sport has tried and failed in Chicago's winters, but in fairness, fires at two tracks have joined with the weather to do it in. Sportsman's Park will wait until Feb. 27 to open this year's thoroughbred meeting.
With the notable exception of Aqueduct—where attendance is averaging a healthy 13,704 and the daily handle is $2,354,169—many horses that run at this time of year are doing so as a last gasp. Most good horses are either being rested on farms or are racing in Florida and California. Dan Bucci, secretary-treasurer of the Massachusetts and New Hampshire chapter of the Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association, says of racing at Suffolk, "If you fail here, you're out of the business."
Still, Suffolk Trainer Jim McCloskey grouses about winter running. "It's terrible," he says. "Every element is against you. It's too bad we can't all go to Florida." He trains 10 horses; four have bruised feet, he says, from poor track conditions. Ralph Katz, a trainer at Waterford—the lowest rung in winter racing—says if a horse can't win there, then he's looking at a new life as a riding horse or a corpse. "Bottom's bottom wherever you go," says Katz, "and this is bottom. I can't find anything joyful about being here in winter."
Obviously, the alpha and omega for winter racing is that money is to be made. If Suffolk averages 5,500 fans a day, it survives. At Waterford, hard by the Ohio River, the break-even point is only 2,250 and a daily handle of $250,000. And at Bowie, winter is better than summer: attendance these days averages 7,820, with a handle of more than $1 million. Management hopes that this summer the track will attract at least 7,000 daily, with wagering of $850,000. That's because the Chesapeake Bay and the shore, among other distractions, are powerful good-weather magnets.
It's the states, of course, that take to winter racing like exercise boys to an electric heater. In New York, racing at Aqueduct last winter provided more than $6.5 million for the state. In 1977-78 winter racing meant $5,670,159 to Pennsylvania, $2,996,000 to Maryland, $922,420 to West Virginia. Suffolk paid over $10 million in taxes and fees to the Commonwealth in 1977-78, much of it from winter racing—despite a deficit of almost $750,000. Says Milt Goldberg, "The state will have winter racing as long as two people come." The tracks, too, like winter racing, but largely as an accounting matter; they have more racing days over which to average fixed expenses. And despite their grumbling, backstretchers like it because it helps them pay their bills. "It's the only chance a cheap horse has to make money," says one trainer.
At Suffolk Barn A, Trainer Joe Martinez says he's cold. Understandably. Above the waist, he wears a T shirt, covered by a turtleneck, covered by a sweater, covered by a blue jacket, covered by a darker-blue windbreaker (insulated), covered by a heavy blue jacket with hood. "No, I don't like winter racing," he says, "but we do a lot of things we don't like. Winter racing is better than no racing. You know, every day before 7 a.m. about 10 trainers and owners say they're going to quit. I kick the wall and say, 'No more for me.' Then the sun comes out." And so does his common sense. If the horses aren't running, it costs about $10 a day each to keep them on a farm. Then it takes another 60 days after a long layoff to get them fit to race—at $22 to $25 a day. Says Martinez, "My trouble is, I've noticed my owners are real glum when I give them a bill and their horses haven't been racing."
The frustrations of winter racing are enormous. At Martinez' stable, pony girl Debbie Russo says, "It's so nice when your hands crack and your horse slides on the ice." Water buckets freeze, help fails to show up, engines won't start, water spigots won't turn on, nothing works.
Then there's the track surface. The idea is to keep a cushion of about four inches that is soft, i.e., unfrozen, on top of the frozen earth. At Suffolk, Gabe (Blackie) Chobanian is the track superintendent. To keep the track raceable, he has tractors harrow it 24 hours a day.
Do you like winter racing, Blackie?
"Let me have another drink before I answer that."
Is winter racing a good idea, Blackie?
"Let me have another drink before I answer that."
As the Scotch bottle empties, Chobanian says, "Well, if our equipment didn't break, if there were no thaws, no rain, no heavy snow, and temperatures didn't ever drop quickly, I'd be happy." He'd also be in Florida, not Massachusetts. Thaw is his worst enemy, because if the undersurface starts melting, it makes for an uneven track with dangerous holes. And quick-dropping temperatures make the cushion dirt stick together in rock-hard clods that horse hooves launch like missiles.
Jockeys often wear four or five pairs of goggles to protect their eyes, plus foam rubber inside their silks to protect their knees and legs. At Waterford, Jockey J. J. Thompson says, "It says in the Bible they used to stone people to death. It's still happening here." To fight the cold, jocks often encase their feet in Saran Wrap, and their hands in surgical gloves. They cover their faces with Vaseline and masks. Keystone Rider Steve Pagano says that once when he was riding in the winter at Suffolk, he got hit in the mouth by a frozen clod "but I was so numb I didn't even know I was bleeding until I got back to the jockeys' room."
The other day, racing at Waterford was called off by the jocks because of poor track conditions. General Manager Howard S. Graham, who contends that "winter racing is a little more exciting because you never know what's going to happen," was furious. He tried and failed to intimidate the riders, which prompted one to look at him from afar an mumble, "I guess you can't be tall and have brains too."
Horses as well as jockeys take a beating in winter. Cracked heels are a constant threat and are harder for a horse to recover from in cold weather than in warm. Chemicals used in the track to fight changing weather raise havoc with a horse's eyes and hooves. Worse, the cheap winter horses often don't get the rest that they should.
In the first 20 days of winter racing at Bowie this year, 10 horses were destroyed after suffering injuries. In a corresponding period at a Maryland track in good weather, an average of three horses are put down. Trainer Jack Mobberly says, "The track is raceable. By that, I mean the horses can get around it, but it's not safe. I think there should be some serious question when so many horses break down." Bowie management says there's nothing wrong with the track.
The concept of winter racing is not new. On Dec. 2, 1933, Charles Town, W. Va. opened not because track President Al Boyle foresaw a winter bonanza, but because that was when his track was sufficiently finished to start taking bets.
Then, in 1957, Bowie opened. And the heartiness of the Bowie breed became legend. On Feb. 16, 1958, heavy snow fell—and 13,554 showed up. Thousands were subsequently stranded. In 1961 a special race train derailed at Bowie, killing six and injuring 200. A bloody and tattered fan, the story goes, refused medical attention. "I came all the way from Philadelphia to bet on a horse in the fourth race," he said. "I'll take care of that first."
Winter racing takes a lot of understanding. Especially from the gamblers, who not only are saddled with figuring out a bunch of horses generally too cheap to have much form, but also with handicapping such factors as wind chill and whether the horse has even been able to work out. At Waterford's private club overlooking the track, ma‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√útre d'Vince Ianodi whispered, "See that guy over there? He's worth $2 million from betting every horse I tell him to all winter. He used to be worth $4 million."
The horses have to be out in the cold, but for bettors it's another story—and a sad and familiar one.
Who says winter racing is for the birds? One plus is privacy, another is plenty of room.