As I sit in our Manhattan apartment on a cold January day, anticipating yet more NFL playoff games and having just watched an exciting Manchester United/Liverpool match, I hark back to the days that Thoroughbred racing was the dominant sport in the winter months.
The Super Bowl was played in early January, the baseball season was still months away, the NBA was a Sunday afternoon event (there was no racing on Sundays). The NHL still had only interest in the “Original 6” cities and did not have a national TV contract.
Saturday was the day for horse racing and the two tracks that dominated the East Coast action in the 1960s and early 70s were Hialeah Park in Florida and Bowie Race Course in Maryland. Crowds of 40,000 would flock to these tracks. Bowie even had a railroad station in the grandstand to import New Yorkers and fans from Philadelphia! Santa Anita Park in California might as well have been a foreign country.
As a high school sophomore, in my Holden Caulfield best, I set off to Bowie on a bright February Saturday to see my parents fine filly Process Shot run in the Barbara Fritchie Stakes , which is still a major winter race.
My friend and I were going with a legendary racetrack character, Freddie “Schnozz” Krieger. At the track, everyone has a nickname and Freddie’s nose was rather prominent, to say the least. Freddie was an ex-jockey who won one race, and he claimed to his dying day that his fellow riders “put” him on the lead to give him a win.
As the three of us entered the exclusive Prince George’s Room, I looked through the crowd to find my parents and their group, but I was startled to hear a rather proper voice asking Freddie to come over. We walked over to the table where the voice had emanated from and two very dapper gentlemen were sitting there with their Racing Forms and programs spread in front of them.
“Schnozz,” bellowed one of the fellows, “who do you like today?”
I looked at the man and saw this famous Bulldog of a face — J. Edgar Hoover, the legendary FBI crime fighter and his long-time assistant Clyde Tolson . They were away from the nation’s capitol to soak up a day of racing at the track. Process Shot won the race handily, and I never felt so safe in my life.
Little did I know, as the years passed, what a controversial figure Hoover would become. He did like his racing, though, and I came to see him often at Hialeah and Del Mar to the extent that we had a “nodding” relationship.
You never know who you will meet at the races!