Michael James : Heading to the Finish Line

photo horse race

Sportsman’s Park, Cicero, Illinois, 1986. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Sportsman’s Park, Cicero, Illinois, 1986. Photo by Michael James from his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.

Pictures from the Long Haul:
Heading to the finish line at
Sportsman’s Park in Cicero

Straight up: horses were my first love — before cowboys and Indians, Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Wally Parks and the National Hot Rod Association… before Chicago itself.

By Michael James | The Rag Blog | May 7, 2013

[In this series, Michael James is sharing images from his rich past, accompanied by reflections about — and inspired by — those images. This photo will be included in his forthcoming book, Michael Gaylord James’ Pictures from the Long Haul.]

I have a friend named Cheri. Back in 1986 we dated. Her dad was into the ponies and had a race horse named Big Sparkle. We went out to Sportsman’s Park to see number three run. I brought along my friends Jason and his wife Jessie.

Jason used to run track at the University of Illinois. He and Jessie are serious horseplayers. Jason refers to this late racetrack as the “beloved Sportsman’s Park, killed off by the greedy Bidwill family by a metaphorical attempted conversion to auto-racing, after having once served as Al Capone’s local playground.”

When I was a kid I remember my dad saying: “I’m not a gambler” as in betting and playing cards. He did add that he bet on bigger things in life as in joining others to produce plays and go after a radio or TV franchise.

I myself am not much of a gambler. I did win some money in a slot machine driving through Nevada in the 1960’s. And I got roulette-wheel-hot one night out with the stunt men and fellow “fishermen” working on the flick The Guardian in Shreveport. I’ve won friendly bets on football, basketball, and baseball games, never betting against a Chicago team unless it was the Cubs when they played the White Sox.

Several times during the past 25 years I’ve gone to Sportsman or Arlington Park with Jason. I kind of act as his corner man. I’ll find him a nice place to sit, help him spread out his racing forms and other information sheets and notes, make sure he’s got a pen, get him coffee, and generally try to keep him comfortable and focused on the complex handicapping tasks at hand; he grasps them; I do not. I invest in his activities on such race days and actually have won a few hundred smackeroos on occasion.

I met Jason back in the 1960’s. He knew someone who was a neighbor of a famed radical I knew well. As an aside, for a future tale, let me just say that the particular neighbor was once called to U.S. Customs when some other acquaintances shipped him a monkey from India, the cage floor being lined with hashish.

Yes, I know there are ethical issues confronting the horse racing industry. But I do like going to the track; racetrack outings are fun. I like the people, the peeps. I like the scene. I like the rush when you win a few bucks or come close to winning a few bucks.

Most of all I like the horses. Straight up: horses were my first love — before cowboys and Indians, Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers, Wally Parks and the National Hot Rod Association, Bill Veeck and the Chicago White Sox, Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls, and before Chicago itself.

My first book was Michael the Colt. I read Sea Star, Misty of Chincoteague and other horse books by Marguerite Henry. I once traveled through Chincoteague when hugging the coast moving north and was surrounded by the “wild ponies.” We broke the rules and petted them.

A great thrill in the 1940’s was the yearly trip to New York City and the rodeo at Madison Square Garden. I got to pet Champion’s colt Star on the New York-New Haven Rodeo Train. My kid brother got to shake the hand of Champion’s rider, Gene Autry.

I loved riding lessons as a kid, though I protested having to use an English saddle. My uncle David in Florida had a horse named Beauty. A horse named Mariah, a pinto, ditched me out on the desert outside of Placitas, New Mexico. I chased her — literally ran after her — for two miles back to my buddy’s crib, swearing and laughing the entire way.

I drew pictures of horses, watched movies with horses in them, liked cowboys on horses and rooted for the Indians on horses. When I was a pre-driving teen I helped a woman named Mary up the road clean out her horses’ stable on Saturday mornings.

My dad was in advertising and he produced the Saturday races on NBC from the Hialeah racetrack in Miami, the first horse races I watched — on TV. Sammy Renick, the famed jockey turned announcer and “pioneer in racing television,” gave our family a boxer puppy. Dad named her Gabby as in Gabriel of Mi-Beau-Mel (his kids —  Michael, Beau and Melody).

In 1947 my kindergarten friend David Soskin’s mom would drive us to their house in a 1936 Ford convertible. We sat in the rumble seat. We hung out by the fence trying to feed hay to the horses in the field next door. When we weren’t hanging out by the pasture we were in the hayloft with bread-on-a-stick trying to catch swallows per the mom’s instructions.

I don’t remember how Big Sparkle did that day at Sportsman’s Park. I do know she was born in Louisiana in 1980, started 82 times, won 20 times, placed 10, showed 14, and won $212,375. On that race day in 1986 Cheri’s dad introduced Ms. Jessie and Jason to Ronnie Ebanks, a Caymanian who was then a jockey but went on to become a leading jockey agent. Jessie liked that. She too is from the Cayman Islands.

Leading up to the Kentucky Derby 2013 I read about jockey Rosie Napravnik who might be the first woman to win the big race, and about Kevin Krigger who would be the first Blackman to win the big one since 1902 (before blacks were jim-crowed out of that racing role). With a dose of Derby fever I called Jason to get in on the action. He said to bring him the moola.

At noon Saturday, May 4, 2013, with son Cadien riding shotgun, I headed down Lake Shore Drive and out North Avenue to meet Jason. He was at the Mudbug, an off track betting location on Weed Street. He said it was mobbed, so I met him in the parking lot at North and Sheffield. I handed him my share of the stakes, $100 bucks.

He explained various betting plans, basically telling me we were rooting for Revolutionary, Normandy Invasion, Mylute, Goldencents, and Its My Lucky Day in all kinds of permutations and combinations. Krigger and Napravnik were each on one of our horses.

I watched the prelims and the race. According to my man Jason, “we did cash a separate bet for a 50-cent pick4 including the winner (Orb at 7-1) which returned just under $90, so the net result was a $55 deficit on both accounts.

Normandy Invasion took the lead into the stretch but may have moved too soon and faded to fourth. The common plodder Golden Soul edged out Revolutionary for second, which cost us a break-even exacta saver bet. Fast pace and slop determined outcome…”

It was not our lucky day on the horses. I do have a $45 rebate coming. So for $55 I hung out with a son, took a spring ride down LSD, visited with an old pal, then headed home for an afternoon of stretching and arm curls in my living room, watching all the Derby TV action, and got to spend a few race-time minutes with my wife Paige who joined in for the rooting, all leading up to the Bulls-Nets-playoff-game-seven an hour and a half later. It was a good day and on the Bulls front it was a lucky day!

Yet a day later, thinking about my relationship with Jason, I realize that I like the role of investor and corner man at the track better than being an investor viewing the action on television. My next bet will be at a racetrack somewhere, probably making Jason comfortable, then down track-side-on-the-rail cheering on some noble beast prancing and dancing, heading home to the finish line.

[Michael James is a former SDS national officer, the founder of Rising Up Angry, co-founder of Chicago’s Heartland Café (1976 and still going), and co-host of the Saturday morning (9-10 a.m. CDT) Live from the Heartland radio show, here and on YouTube. He is reachable by one and all at michael@heartlandcafe.com. Find more articles by Michael James on The Rag Blog.]

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1 Response to Michael James : Heading to the Finish Line

  1. My favorite uncle raised and trained quarter horses and raced them all over the southwest when I was a kid. He taught me to place a bet when I was old enough to reach over the window. Still love to watch the ponies run, even though uncle also took care to show me the “dark side” of racing. Nice piece.
    Sorry I missed you on your recent visit, Mike!

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