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{It comes from the English ‘ To gamble’ but was always reserved for the horseplayer}.

He came from a family of punters, with his mother’s father and his own father who couldn’t  go too long without placing a bet. As a kid he was baptized into horseracing before he reached the first grade. When he reached third or fourth grade he already had been to the racetrack many times. Before that, he remembered accompanying his dad on Saturday mornings to the local taverns. His old man was a part time bookmaker and spent Saturdays ‘ Squaring up’ with his customers. His father sat him down on a barstool and ordered him a Coke, then pushing a bowl of peanuts in front of him.

From the age of six he would go with his mom and dad to Belmont Racetrack on its biggest day of the racing season, The Belmont Stakes. Early that Saturday morning his mom would make a slew of sandwiches for the three of them, packed them with chips, pretzels and a thermos of ice tea, and off they went. His dad  made sure they arrived just as the gates were opening at 10 AM, even though the first post ( race) was not until 1 PM. As they marched from the parking lot into the facility he would always inhale that smell of horse manure merged with disinfectant. To him it seemed almost pungent. HIs dad bought he and his mom a program since he already had his Daily Racing Form, having driven with his son the evening before to a remote news stand that carried it. They then hurried to get  great seats in the grandstand right on the finish line, usually 2nd or 3rd floor. For some reason all this seemed to excite his appetite, and he began eating his lunch before it was 11 AM. They sat in the fresh air as his father went over the same Racing Form he had already digested last night. He spoke with his mother and played with the racing program. From a kid who loved playing baseball and football, and watching it regularly, nothing compared to this! Nothing!

Gerard got his baptism when he was maybe 17 or 18 and Secretariat ( the horse) was the darling of 1973 racing. He was always around sports , coming from what seemed the Mecca which was Bensonhurst ,Brooklyn. All the guys in his neighborhood did was play ball and bet on all the major sports, including of course the ponies. Gerard was an astute softball first baseman and quarterback in the two sports he excelled at. Being over 6 foot 3 also helped. Then one day he visited Belmont Racetrack with some friends, and the fever hit him hard. This was just great: The excitement and thrills of the horserace; the chance to win a few bucks picking the winners, and the camaraderie that most horseplayers shared, regardless of winning or losing. Someone once said it best that it was ‘ The Juice that mattered’.  Gerard stayed loyal to this cause. His favorite type of racing was turf racing, something the Europeans favored over the more popular American dirt. There was something magical about running on beautifully kept grass. He loved it. He became so into it that the guys started calling him ‘ Turf Gerard’.

Leon went to the simulcast  each day that the horses ran. Why not? He was retired, had plenty of dough to stake him ( though he was a traditional two dollar bettor) and what should a ninety year old guy do with his free time? Definitely NOT staying home or shopping with the wife ( 70 years together should show how much he loved the broad), or doing gardening ( too damn hot here in Florida anyway), or staring at the boob tube all afternoon ( he reserved that for after dinner). No, the simulcast center was filled with many of his cronies, and Leon loved the ponies. He didn’t need to buy the form, just the sheets for the one track he played. Leon would sit among his punter friends as they all watched the races. Sometimes he won, mostly he lost. Yet, for the perhaps the $ 10 a day he donated to the place ( if he lost), he was able to have five hours of mental stimulation. This kept Leon going… until Covid. He stopped going, as per instructions of his wife and four sons. Within 18 months he was gone.

Augie married the horses way before he married his wife. Being a longshoreman he was always around gambling. The guys, lifting and carrying heavy cargo for hours each day, needing a respite during lunch and break time. Some guys loved a few beers or a quick shot of whiskey, and others, like Augie, studied the Daily News racing page and made a few bets with the local book. Augie really didn’t know much about handicapping horses. No, he went with his intuition and a few ‘Strange to some’ oddball strategies. HIs favorite was to bet any horse with the third letter R in its name. He laughed when friends ridiculed him, telling them about all the big payoffs he had gotten. Sometimes he would bet on a horse with a jockey that just lost on a heavy favorite. So long as the horse was not being bet, Augie loved to take the shot. Many times he and his pal Al, being on the guaranteed salary due to their seniority, secured part time jobs as car service drivers. On Mondays, for some reason, the two of them would decide to head out to the race track at noontime. Their wives didn’t have a clue ( this was in the 70s, way before cell phones) as to what they were up to, and the only one who knew was Al’s son. Al would pick his son up at the college to join them on their excursion. His son always lied to Al and said that he was finished with classes for the day. The three of them would get to the track in time for the first post at 1PM, buy the program or Form , and hurry to the cafeteria for a quick bite. To Augie, what ever could be better than this?

Maury the bookie was new to the gig. He loved the ponies as much as he loved playing paddleball. Maury was employed as a computer programmer and worked the midnight to 8 shift in the city. He was single, lived with his mother, and had plenty of time to gamble each afternoon. The OTB ( Off Track Betting) office was a five minute walk for him. He bought himself a Racing Form on his way home from work, studied it on the 60 minute subway ride, ate breakfast, slept until 11 and off he went.  He hung out at the OTB until usually the last race at 5 or 6 PM. Maury was what one could call an ‘ astute’ handicapper. Perhaps it was that he was a ‘ numbers guy’ from his profession and all that. Regardless, Maury did OK at the ponies. HIs ‘ claim to fame’ came in the 1974 Kentucky Derby when he had the winner, Cannonade.  At the OTB the horse paid $18.80, but Maury hit it big with a $1700 quinella when a long shot , Hudson County, ran second. No one knew just how much Maury had bet, but it was enough for him to decide thereafter to go into the bookmaking business. He had a real edge because the OTB was taxing the winning payouts, where as the tracks did not. Maury started giving ‘ Track prices’ and secured a slew of customers at the OTB. Soon after, the management banned Maury from entering the facility, so he conducted his business outside, around the corner or at the local coffee shop. Within a short time the mob offered Maury a deal. They rented a storefront a few blocks away, called it Meadowlarks Social Club, and installed Maury there. Everybody made out… except the OTB.

PA Farruggio
April, 2023