Clem Labine was a stellar relief pitcher for the 1950s Dodgers, back before they moved to Los Angeles. He’s also a 4-year-old racehorse who, despite a three-month layoff, was the heavy favorite in the featured 10th race, a $20,000 claimer, at Emerald Downs in Auburn, Wash., on closing night (Oct. 29) of the godforsaken year of our Lord, 2020.
The problem with Clem the racehorse, if not Clem the pitcher, was early speed — or lack thereof. When you’re a closer in Thoroughbred racing, you need it. Same goes for baseball, and that’s about the extent to which the two sports intersect — although a three-legged nag could probably outhit Mike Zunino.
Saddled with a not-so-hot pace to set him up, Clem finished fourth, while an 8-year-old son of Grindstone, Grinder Sparksaglo (what a name!), won going away in his 67th career race. Gelded, grinding, and well in front, he appeared to be a good omen for Joe Biden, if not for the Ben Franklin that separated itself from my bankroll.
The crowd was sparse at one of America’s shiniest backwater tracks, a nearly full moon and a massive pack of honking geese supplanting Mount Rainier as the sky’s primary attraction. But the mood was largely jovial, and the IPA was flowing. (Masked IPA breath is the worst breath ever: one guy’s opinion.) They’d made it through a meet to end all meets, but the meet never met its maker. Such is the story of horse racing, the most resilient sport in the eye of the Apocalypse.
Emerald operated its 2020 meet sans fans, with a wink. The track moved its entire simulcast operation to the open-air ground floor, which means that if you looked (not) really hard, you could watch every race. Even with masks on, smiles and grimaces aren’t that hard to detect until the harness races come on. At that point, the dogged bettor has the reins triple-knotted around his wallet, without a whip. No facial expression can capture such helplessness — and unyielding hopefulness.
Gary Stevens, Charlie Whittingham, and the Baze clan are all enshrined in the Washington Racing Hall of Fame, on display near the tellers’ windows on the aforementioned ground floor. Theirs are the recognizable names who’ve plied their trade at Emerald and, before it, Longacres. The other Hall of Famers are largely local yokels. A gelding who’d be an afterthought at Keeneland has his name in lights in Western Washington, which is the beauty of horse racing.
Every filly, every jockey, every trainer, every gambler’s got their spot. It can be the last Thursday in October or the first Saturday in May. The glint’s in the eye and the billfold’s fat. The possibilities are endless, and at least half of them aren’t great.
Clem Labine finished 15th in the National League MVP voting in 1955, appearing in a league-leading 60 games. He won 13 and saved 11, back before saves were all that big a deal. The Dodgers won their very first World Series that year, defeating their crosstown rivals, the New York Yankees, in seven games. Clem was a big part of it.
Things come full circle, sea to shining sea. The Dodgers, long since bound for L.A., just won their first World Series in 32 years. As for Clem Labine, he finished out of the money, but he’ll be back on the track in no time. He just needed a race. We all do sometimes.