Hey, at least my Chavez
bet came through in 1987

Sep 5, 2006 6:11 AM

There is another break in the boxing schedule and I’m sure you can use the respite from my expertise. My tips, my father used to tell me, buried more Jews than Hitler.

It’s a good thing I know boxing, though, as the late great Pat Putnam used to soothe me when I touted another loser. "Don’t worry," he said, "we’re paid to pick ”˜em, not to pick ”˜em right."

I haven’t been doing so well lately. No, I don’t know why Hasim Rahman just didn’t simply use his jab to beat Oleg Maskaev. The only big event Sept. 9 is my baby brother’s 63d birthday. So for your entertainment and enjoyment, instead of my usual losers, I offer a few tales from my favorite past-time, horse racing.

If I can’t properly handicap the game in which I have been immersed for so long, imagine how well I do in something with which I am only faintly, if affectionately, acquainted.

Not even the stars have helped me there. Once, almost 40 years ago, I covered my first Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris. Knowing nothing of the cumbersome field, and even less of the local language, I searched for someone who spoke both English and horses. I settled on an Australian jockey, whose horsemanship was much easier to understand than his accent. He gave me a rundown of the favorites and, as a matter of politeness, I asked him about his mount, a very long shot.

"She’s a nice mare," said the jockey, "but she really doesn’t belong with these."

Naturally, I did not have a centime on her when Topyo became the greatest longshot in Arc history, popping at 80-1.

A few years later I discovered that the old Ritz Hotel bartender, who used to give Hemingway and Fitzgerald tips on the horses, was still alive. He was retired and living in Saint Cloud, one of the two major training areas outside Paris. Naturally, it made for a good New York Times piece on his selections for that year’s running of Europe’s most important race.

He said he did not know much about the English Derby champion, who was flying in for the race. From what he gathered, a daughter of one of my favorite American horses, Gun Bow, was the filly to beat. Her name was Pistol Packer.

In France, there is betting on win or show — no place. I had a ton of tickets on Pistol Packer, who beat the third-place finisher by half the stretch but was no match for the Epsom Derby winner, Mill Reef. She paid $7 or so to show. I had her only to win; I don’t bet to lose.

Years later, I was sent to the Kentucky Derby midweek and told to file a column the day I arrived. I got to the track while that day’s racing was going on, dropped my luggage in the press box, and scurried to the Churchill Downs backstretch. It seemed a few miles away to this quick-footed writer. I discovered that only one Derby trainer was around. He was going to be my column, no matter.

It was Charlie Whittingham, the crusty old Marine who was making his first Derby appearance in more than 20 years. Charlie didn’t think much of the idea of running the equine equivalent of young teenagers a mile and a quarter the first Saturday in May. He did acknowledge that the Derby was a special race and pointed at the wild-haired writer, who had just arrived at his barn,

"See, even the Russians send the press," Whittingham said.

Whenever he would see me, Charlie always referred to me as his "Russian friend." So he was talking about his horse and how he felt it was only fair to his owners that he give this strapping three-year-old a shot at the country’s biggest race.

The old-timer also had the oldest jockey in the race, the great Willie Shoemaker, aboard. I forget the box-car figures Ferdinand paid that Saturday — $30, $40, something like that. Naturally, I didn’t have a bet on him. The following year, by which time I had fallen in love with the horse, I had him when he beat Alysheba in the Breeders Cup Classic at Hollywood Park. I had to leave my winning tickets with a friend so I could catch a plane to Vegas to cover Julio Cesar Chavez in his defining fight when he completely broke down and stopped Edwin Rosario.

I picked Chavez in that one, but that won’t help you now. At least I realize that winning isn’t the only thing when it comes to gambling. Having fun is the key, as long as you can afford it.