Emotional diversion:
Memories are made of this

Dec 5, 2006 2:24 AM

Good memories never grow old. And if they do, their antiquity is replenished with the innocent reminiscence of youth.

As time races infinitely on, the appreciation of life’s green years is held in ever-increasing reverence.

When I was a kid, we walked to and from school without apprehension, save for a dreaded confrontation from the class bully. Earrings were for girls, tattoos for sailors. Movies didn’t have preconceived "ratings" absurdly dictated by the people who make them. Parents decided what was best for their children. Movies were either dramas, comedies or "scary."

There were no drug-dependent producers pushing the barrier of good taste with repulsive chain-saw flicks. "Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein" was about as gory as it got. On TV sitcoms, married couples slept in separate beds. When Elvis debuted on Ed Sullivan’s "Toast of the Town," cameras showed his performance from the waist up. Good taste dictated that gyrating hips were verboten.

At the race track, life was simpler, too. There was one daily double, on the first two races. Bettors had to pig out on win, place and show wagers. The word "exotics" was reserved to describe bawdy female dancers. There was no racing on Sundays and except for bucolic Delaware Park, children weren’t allowed. At Garden State Park on Memorial Day one year, more than 50,000 fans showed up.

So when I read on a website in two months ago that Paul Kallai had died, it stirred recollections of yesteryear.

Kallai rode at Garden State when I was a young writer, earning my spurs as a handicapper and columnist for a feisty little tabloid in New Jersey called The Trentonian. Later, I would become sports editor, where I labored over a.m. deadlines and grieved over every typo. A headline I wrote during that time still brings a smile. The Eagles had been overwhelmed by the Cowboys, and our reporter, Phil Jasner, who now covers the 76ers for the Philadelphia Daily News, drew a magnanimous quote from Dallas lineman Jethro Pugh about the inept Birds. So I wrote this headline: "Eagles Don’t Really Stink: Pugh." Later when at the Daily News, after Dallas buried Seattle something like 54-7 on Thanksgiving Day, I wrote: "NFL Serves a Turkey." The city editor loved it.

Ah, but I digress.

Kallai (pronounced KAY-lie) was a combative little guy from Hungary who rode as hard as he lived. He was still riding at 73 in Hungary when he died on Oct. 13. The website report said Kallai "developed an aneurism and collapsed after riding in a race at Kincsem Park in Budapest. He was hospitalized and later developed a second aneurysm days later."

Kallai left the United States for Hungary, never to return, in the mid-1970s. He was caught up in a race-fixing scandal at Garden State in 1974-75 and rather than face the consequences, he lit out for his native country. He and I would socialize at his home in Cherry Hill before his decisive departure, and we corresponded a few times through the years after that. His last letter was postmarked from Hungary on Feb. 18, 2004.

Larry Gilligan, a top rider more than three decades ago and now the "Quick Official" man at Santa Anita, Oak Tree and Del Mar, rode with Kallai. Now 69, Gilligan remembered the good old days.

"We had Karl Korte, Tommy Barrow, Sammy Boulmetis, Walter Blum, Rags (Joe) Regalbuto, Phil Grimm, Alfonso Coy, George Gibb, who came out of New England with Tony Despirito, and the Block brothers, Henry and John," Gilligan said, naming some of his peers. "It was a tough room. Nobody gave anybody any slack. You had to ride heads up. You couldn’t ride up into a hole and then holler for room.

"Like Paul, I had a house in Cherry Hill, too, right around the corner from Sammy and Walter. I wasn’t at Garden State when the fire hit in 1977. I was riding in Chicago then. I actually never did retire. I just kept moving around and I rode my last race in the year 2000. I rode for 45 years spanning six decades.

"I rode Crimson Satan in the Jersey Derby in 1962, and he finished first but was disqualified. The first big race I won was the United Nations Handicap in 1962 at Atlantic City on Oink for (owner) Jack Hogan and (trainer) Steve Ippolito.

"I look at the old pictures now and usually I’m the only one in them who’s still living. It’s kind of sad. My daughter came to visit me from Maryland at my home in Laughlin, and we were looking at some photos, and I said, ”˜Everybody in that picture is dead,’ and we looked at another, and I said, ”˜Everybody in that picture’s dead except me.’"

That list would include, unfortunately, GamingToday’s departed founder, Chuck DiRocco, a street-smart guy from his haunt in Norristown, Pa. Chuck was a regular at Garden State. "He was a fun guy to be around," Gilligan said.

In those days, it seems, everybody was.

The homestretch

On-track attendance at Hollywood last Friday was 2,601, or about as many days as Patrick Valenzuela has missed during his career.

”¡ What would the over / under be on the decibel level if Chris Berman, Dick Vitale and Stephen A. Smith were in the same room?

”¡ Today’s so-called movie comedies are permeated with so much mean-spirited genitalia-bashing and face-mashing, they make the innocent slapstick of the Three Stooges seem like Shakespeare.

”¡ OK, so USC won’t beat Ohio State.