Watching for Sylvia’s secret signal at Hialeah

Feb 13, 2001 7:01 AM

HALLANDALE, Fla. – Down among the sheltering palms . . . oh, horsies, win for me!

It’s been a long time — too long — since a vacation came my way. Feathering a nest leaves little time for rest. Regrets? Nothing worth remembering. Del Mar has always been there for me. The seasons are short there, but it’s only a hop, skip and jump away.

Growing up on the East Coast, Florida has always been something special. In the dead of winter — if I had the coins to escape Bowie — I did so. Motoring south was an adventure. Driving non-stop to get there was part of the routine. Long before I was anywhere near the ocean, the breezes drove me on until the palm trees started to appear. A horseplayer worth his salt knows where to take refuge. The palm trees of Hialeah and Florida got the job done. Armed with a few bullets and a Telly, playing the ponies in the sunny South was so much fun.

Nearly all of us came from different cities. But before the season ended, we all knew each other on a first name basis. Hialeah was my favorite haunt. A gentleman named Eugene Mori owned the place. He was quite a keeper. He kept the place so spotless, patrons could eat off the floor. My outpost at Mori’s Mansion was near the paddock. It was located behind the stands. There, owners, trainers and jockeys gathered. How nice it would have been to be able to read lips.

They kept us horseplayers a safe distance behind a hedge. Everything was in sight. When the horses were saddled, paddock judge called "RIDERS UP!" The jockeys, bless their hearts, were given a hand up to mount their horses. Crowds gathered. The horses were walked around the ring before being led to the track in front of the stands. There was a dirt path that led from the paddock through a tunnel to the track.

On the clubhouse side of the stands was a veranda. There were tables for customers to use. The one closest to the path was reserved daily for a lady named Sylvia. She sat there with her female friends. Nearly everyone who was anyone knew Sylvia — especially, most of the jockeys.

Sylvia and her companions lived in a very palatial pad in nearby Miami Springs. It was only a few furlongs from Hialeah. In the evening, gentlemen came calling. During the daytime, some of us — the in-the-knowsters — paid close attention to Sylvia and the passing parade of jockeys. It was widely known (or at least believed) that certain pinheads would secretly signal to the clubhouse lady as they passed her table.

Sylvia talked to very few people at the track. There were exceptions. She was very close to a big time gambler who came from my hometown. It just so happens that the Big Player let Sylvia know that I was OK. Thus, if one of the riders signaled that their horse was a go, Sylvia shared the dope with a select few, including me.

Looking back, it’s easy to realize the folly of it all, but certainly not at the time. Beneath the warm sun, the swaying palms and the hot signals, I went tap city nearly every night. But, boy, what fun!

The other day I went to Gulfstream in search of Sylvia. There was no veranda there, but I remembered where she did her business.

Searching, searching, searching! Sylvia could not be found. I thought to myself, she’s probably somewhere up high with a far better view. I hope so. And I hope she picks a winner now and then.