Marriage, in order to be successful, inevitably relies on a set of intricate compromises. As similar or different as a couple may be, at some point there’s a need for middle ground to keep everything on an even keel.
In the Ehalt household, there’s a particular imbalance that mixes the yin of a rather fastidious Felix Unger-like wife and the yang of an irritatingly sloppy Oscar Madison-like sports writer hubby.
The hubby, me, has never gotten over that day in his early teens when a gold mine of baseball cards was taken to a Queens landfill, which spawned a lifelong desire to horde anything that might be considered even remotely valuable.
As time quickly passes and piles of what my wife calls “junk” (I prefer to call it “my heritage”) grow like wild ivy vines, a day is set aside to clean out the depository for these valuables, a place known to most as the garage.
It’s almost always a painless and soothing activity that brings bliss back to home for a couple months until the clutter mounts once again. It doesn’t bother me, for one, because with wife and husband working different schedules, husband can always say he’ll take everything to the dump the next morning and then, while wife is working, remove the cherished possessions from the garbage bag and tuck away (hide) those items that were supposed to become methane without a cross word being uttered.
Secondly, the entire undertaking usually doesn’t last that long since hubby can be counted on to find something in a dusty box or old pile of papers that will have him hurtling down memory lane and bring the straightening up to a screeching halt.
The picture that you’ll see in this post was the one that most recently ended clean-up day and brought me back in time. It’s old, perhaps 30 years old. And I can’t even remember who took it, though I have a suspicion.
It shows me, the second of three racetrack amigos (the technically challenged third amigo could not have taken the picture because a thumb is not obscuring the lens) and one of the colorful old-time touts who could be found outside of Saratoga Race Course some three decades ago – a fellow who went by the name on his tip sheet, Dan Carter.
AUTHOR BOB EHALT (RIGHT) WITH DAN CARTER (CENTER)
With one look at the picture, I was in my 20s again, and realizing that my own bond with racing – and perhaps yours as well – doesn’t just involve horses and races. There are places like Saratoga, and all of the people and events associated with it that give it such a fond and special place in our lives.
To better explain, tag along for a trip back to the late 1970s, and please don’t hold me accountable for all of the tales here. The memories do get fuzzy after so many years and there is not a Wikipedia page on the subject to refresh the mind.
It was the first time two friends and I drove up to Saratoga. For a few bucks, I parked my car on the lawn of a man we called “Big Jim,” who over the years would become our trustworthy tour guide to the greater Saratoga Springs, N.Y., area.
We walked down Nelson Avenue, and then turned onto Wright Street to enter the track. In front of us was the electricity sparked by a whirlwind of activity as streams of people headed toward the entrance gates.
Above all of the merry sights and sounds, though, one thing could be heard. It was a loud, sharp cry of “Dan Carter!”
My eyes followed the noise rattling in my ear and it led us to the elderly fellow in the middle of my picture. He was dressed in a flowered shirt that seemed lifted from John Travolta’s wardrobe closet in “Saturday Night Fever.” He mismatched it with a smock and fishing hat that had copies of his tip sheet affixed to them. Each proclaimed at least seven winners – and that was back in the days when there were only nine races a day!
We walked over to him and, while my friends talked to Dan Carter about the tip sheet he was selling, my attention was diverted to another elderly gent, dressed just like Dan, though he was heavier, more gruff-looking and much quieter.
When he saw me looking over toward him, he motioned to me and said, “Hey, kid, come here.”
Being new to all this, I went over and saw he had the same kind of card (he had seven winners too) as Dan Carter, only his was named “Clocker Wilson.”
With a sly look on his face, he told me, “You want to hit it big at the races?”
“Sure,” I responded.
“Then buy this,” he said, putting a dark-colored card in front of me (Dan’s was blue). “You can’t lose with it. Nobody knows which horses are going to win today better than me.”
“What do you do that gets you all that info,” I asked.
He shook his head in disgust, and then pointed to the words “Clocker Wilson” on the card in his hat. “What does that say?”
“Clocker Wilson?” I said hesitantly.
“Get it?”’ he said with a perplexed look on his face.
“Clocker Wilson,” I said again and then it all dawned on me. “Oh, I get it, you’re a clocker.”
The clocker just shook his head and said to me, “Harvard guy, right?”
I blurted out “No, I went to,” before it dawned on me that he was busting my chops and I slowly finished, “Fordham.”
“So you know how these horses are working?” I continued.
“Every exercise boy knows me and tells me about their horses. I got a few longshots that are going to pay big today,” The Clocker said.
“How much is it?”
“Give me a dollar,” he said.
I handed him a buck, figuring what did I have to lose and inside information is always the best information, right? My buddies razzed me over it, but I thought it was a good investment – until I started playing his selections. The Clocker had one winner that day and his plays read like the morning line. Apparently, longshot to him meant 5-1.
CLOCKER WILSON'S CARD
The next day when we arrived at the track, I voiced my displeasure to The Clocker, who scoffed at me and said, “What do you want for a buck?”
I glared at him and said, “What does that mean?”
“It means,” he said, “you can’t get my best pick for a buck.”
“What do you want?” I replied.
“Here, now give me a buck for the card,” he said.
I handed him a dollar.
“Now give me another buck,” he said.
Again, I complied.
He then wrote something on the back of the tip sheet and handed it to me saying, “Now look, don’t open this here. I don’t want everyone hearing about this. Look at it when you get inside. This horse will make up for everything you lost yesterday.”
Again my pals blasted me for being gullible enough to open my wallet, but for some reason I had faith in the guy. Then I bought program, looked at the horse he gave me and saw it was a 4-5 favorite in a five-horse field, who would run third.
The next day I returned loaded for bear. I was fuming over being had once again. I marched up to The Clocker and shouted at him, “What kind of horse did you give me? He couldn’t even win at 4-5! You ripped me off!”
Without batting an eyelash he retorted in that sly tone of his, “What do you want for a buck?”
As my friends howled in laughter, I was frozen. Speechless. Then it hit me. This guy had turned me into Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush in a 1930s comedy. I was Groucho Marx in “A Day at the Races” to his Chico Marx, only with a tip sheet instead of a code book and without even a scoop of tutsi-fruitsy ice cream for my dollar.
A few seconds later, I was laughing, too. I had been outwitted, but the damage was minimal. Hardly enough to buy a six-pack of beer was lost. I patted The Clocker on the arm and shook his hand while nodding in admiration to this huckster. Then I handed him two singles for that day’s dose of losers.
It was, like the words of another old movie, the start of a beautiful friendship.
Every visit to Saratoga for the next seven or eight years would begin for me with greeting Dan Carter and an encounter with The Clocker. Now knowing what I was up against, I was occasionally able to hold my own against him in our verbal jousts that would precede the forking over of a dollar.
I can recall once telling him, “If you ever show up at Aqueduct, they’ll take that hat of yours and burn it in a trash can.”
He then said all sorts of nasty things about the residents of Queens.
When I told him, “Hey, I was born in Queens,” he quickly shot back, “See what I mean.”
I should have seen that one coming.
Some of my best success in zinging him came from bringing up a rival. Not Dan. They were buddies. It was a couple of 6-year-old kids who were behind a tip sheet called “Kids’ Picks.” My mother, on her visits to Saratoga, would always buy their sheet and give them an extra dollar or two, saying “Don’t bet this. Save it for college.”
It’s sad to think, but those “kids” probably have kids in college now.
Anyway, telling The Clocker he ought to do something useful like sharpen the kids’ crayons usually got a grumble out of him.
My best day, though, was the time I handed The Clocker a letter addressed to him, supposedly from the Mayor’s office. It read something along the lines of: “Clocker Wilson, you are hereby ordered to cease and desist selling your tip sheet outside Saratoga Race Course. Your picks have stunk so much that the residents on Wright Street say the area smells like a garbage dump.”
That got a chuckle of The Clocker and netted me a tip sheet as well as two dollars from him to get rid of me.
Then at some point in the mid to late 1980s, I turned the corner onto Wright Street and smiled when I heard Dan’s distinctive voice but when I looked for The Clocker, I didn’t see him. Instead there was a guy with the Clocker Wilson tip sheet whose picture might very well be on the Wikipedia page for hobos. His shirt was about three sizes too big for him and hadn’t seen the inside of a washing machine in at least six months. He had teeth, but only one or two of them.
I immediately went over to Dan and asked about the real Clocker. Though seemingly business rivals, the two touts were actually good friends and rumor had it they shared a printing press not too far from the track where each day, after four or five races, they would run off the “updated” versions of their cards that had four or five winners on the early part of the card and peddle them to late arrivals who were won over by their handicapping prowess in the early portion of the card. Dan sadly said The Clocker had gotten sick that winter in Florida and did not come north.
The joy of being at Saratoga faded in an instant at that moment as I realized time had caught up with my sparring partner. Then I pointed over to the “new” Clocker and said, “Where did you find him?”
Dan looked over at me, and said, “He’s from hunger, ain’t he?”
Then he asked for a dollar for his tip sheet. In an instant, the smile was back for a few moments. I felt bad about The Clocker and hoped he was doing well but understood that time does not stand still. It was an odd feeling, but at least there was some reassurance since Dan was there.
I never saw The Clocker again, and within next year or two Dan Carter was also gone, leaving behind a host of memories and that one picture with Dan – that cost me a dollar!
And seeing that photo, even in the aftermath of a dead heat in the Travers Stakes (G1), I understand why that particular track means so much to me.
Beyond the races and horses , there are always the experiences. The laughs and jokes with your friends, both current and old. The days in the backyard with a cooler of beer. The betting coups. The disqualifications. The day some smashed bottles of orange soda were supposed to be an omen for success at the betting windows. The nights in town. Arriving in town in a friend’s new car and driving a “Rent-a-Wreck” after the new vehicle died on Broadway. Believing a horse named Tax Dodge would make us rich. Watching morning workouts in the cool, crisp mountain air. Sleeping in a $14-a-night cabin. A miserable 0-for-9 day at the betting windows that spawned a madcap night which played a pivotal role in my life. Two old touts at the front gate.
Those are just some of my memories of Saratoga over the years and I’m sure someone else can wax equally poetic about Del Mar or Keeneland Race Course or Churchill Downs. When you develop a passion for racing, you do indeed go all in. You get the racetrack and everything that happens on it and that revolves around it. You get a Saratoga in its full glory and the great times that become a coupled entry with it.
I could probably list more reasons, but why tax my brain now?
I’ll probably be cleaning out the garage again in a few more weeks.
And what are your thoughts? What your favorite track and memories? Do you recall Clocker Wilson or Dan Carter?