Runyonesque track characters

Steven Crist, who retired last year as editor of the Daily Racing Form, is the son of the late film critic Judith Crist. He studied English at Harvard, joined the staff of the undergraduate humor publication the Harvard Lampoon and fell in love with racing the summer following his junior year.

Several years ago in a story in his alma mater’s alumni magazine, Crist talked about how he went with a friend to a dog track near Boston known as Wonderland. He called it a “charming little place with a festive feeling — the animals, lots of people. … I felt right at home the first night.”

Late that summer, Crist discovered thoroughbred racing at Suffolk Downs and spent every day until the fall either at Wonderland or Suffolk.

I love Crist’s explanation of why he spent his career writing about thoroughbreds and the people who inhabit the tracks where they run: “The stats and numbers stuff is there, plus the animals, the gambling and the weird subculture. The racetrack is … well, like people who ran away and joined the circus.”

I think about that racetrack subculture as the Racing Festival of the South approaches at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs.

As a college student, I learned to appreciate thoroughbred racing as much as Crist, though our backgrounds are vastly different. He was raised on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and attended Harvard. I was raised along the Ouachita River in Arkadelphia and attended Ouachita Baptist University. But each January through April, I had racing at Oaklawn.

I was the sports editor of Arkadelphia’s Daily Siftings Herald during my college years, and that allowed me access to Oaklawn’s press box and the fascinating characters who inhabited it.

The elevator ride to the press box was narrated by Alex Blattner, who grew up in Chicago, spent a career working for Illinois Bell Telephone Co. and then retired to Hot Springs Village. During the race meet, Blattner worked as an elevator operator and gave memorable descriptions of each floor.

In the press box, I was greeted daily by the “hi ya” of Daily Racing Form correspondent Don Grisham, a Hot Springs native who had watched races through a fence as a child. Grisham, who died in 2014 at age 84, joined the Racing Form in the late 1950s and spent almost 35 years there. He never tired of reminding me that he too had been a Daily Siftings Herald sports editor when he was a student at what’s now Henderson State University.

There were other interesting folks in that press box, some of whom just went by their nicknames. There were the Muldoon brothers, the Beer Man and a couple of silent characters whose names I never knew.

I finished college in December 1981 and went to work in the sports department of the Arkansas Democrat.

Jeff Krupsaw, who has long been the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette’s deputy sports editor, was covering racing in those days. One of my first assignments was to help Krupsaw put together a special tabloid that would run in advance of the race meet. We spent a glorious week driving to Hot Springs prior to daylight each day, conducting interviews during morning workouts and then having big breakfasts at the track kitchen before returning to Little Rock to write.

Just before the 1982 race meet began, Krupsaw accepted a job with the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Wally Hall, who was early in his tenure as Democrat sports editor, called me in and informed me that I would be the newspaper’s chief Oaklawn writer since I had covered the track on an almost daily basis during my college years.

I couldn’t have been happier.

The newspaper war with the Arkansas Gazette had heated up by 1982, and because there was so much space in the Democrat sports section, I was encouraged to produce feature stories on things that interested me around the track. I was, of course, also writing about the races, but I didn’t have the knowledge and contacts that the Gazette’s Randy Moss had. So I also wrote about people such as Blattner the elevator operator, the track’s veteran shoeshine man, the ladies who worked at the oyster bar and more.

No place harbors more colorful characters than a thoroughbred track.

No place.

I was convinced that I had found a job I would hold onto for many years.

Oaklawn is a particularly special place, a family-owned track in an era of corporate ownership.

“Even before the Civil War, the former pasture where Oaklawn now stands in Hot Springs was home to impromptu races between local farm boys riding their fastest ponies,” Michael Hodge writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. “Today the track is Arkansas’ only thoroughbred horse racing venue and the lone remaining gambling center in a city once known as much for its casinos as for its famous thermal baths. The popularity of Sportsman’s Park, built on the southeastern edge of Hot Springs in the early 1890s, sparked an interest in developing the sport of thoroughbred horse racing in the area. Following the 1903 repeal of anti-gambling laws, Essex Park was built in 1904.

“Charles Dugan, Dan Stuart and John Condon — owners of the Southern Club — decided to build a racetrack on a site closer to downtown. In 1904, they formed the Oaklawn Jockey Club and began construction shortly afterward. The name Oaklawn came from the rural community in which the track would be built, which in turn took its name from what Peter LaPatourel, an early settler to the area, called his home, around which a large stand of ancient oaks stood.

“Oaklawn Park opened on Feb. 15, 1905, and prevailed as the lone remaining horse racing venue by 1907. The original venue reportedly cost $500,000 and could seat 1,500 spectators. It included innovations such as a glass-enclosed grandstand and steam heat, one of the first racetracks in the country with either.”

The Southern Club that was owned by Dugan, Stuart and Condon had its own intriguing history. It was established in 1893 and by the 1930s was known as the place where the visiting gangsters would gamble in the evening. The building, which now houses Josephine Tussaud’s Wax Museum, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1985.

“At the end of the 19th century, Hot Springs experienced tremendous growth as a health resort and spa,” Eric Segovis writes in the Encyclopedia of Arkansas. “One of the buildings constructed during this period was the private club of Charles Dugan and Dan Stuart, the Southern Club. As early as 1910, the Southern Club ranked among the Spa City’s most popular gambling houses, along with the Indiana and the Arkansas clubs. The Southern Club catered to a diverse clientele of locals and tourists during Host Springs’ heyday as a health resort and gambling center. Among other notable customers, gangster boss Al Capone frequented the Southern Club during the 1920s and 1930s. He became a frequent poker player at the club and always sat at an elevated table, where he commanded a clear view of the entire room. Even his preferred suite at the Arlington Hotel, No. 442, overlooked the club.

“The building’s ownership changed many times. A new owner usually meant changes for the Southern Club’s appearance. In 1927, William Stokley Jackson purchased the building from the widow of the original owner. He expanded it and encased the front of the building in dark Pittsburgh glass that remains visible. Apart from being decorative, this glass served to help Jacobs conceal the gambling that went on within the club. Jacobs was known as the czar of Hot Springs gambling for many years due to his interest in six clubs in Hot Springs — the Kentucky, Ohio, Ozark, White Front, Southern and Belvedere clubs. In the 1940s, the first floor was extensively renovated as Jacobs added a marble staircase. In the 1950s, the city’s first escalator was installed and has been in continuous operation since that time.”

While business at the Southern Club grew, things weren’t going so well further south down Central Avenue. Oaklawn Park ceased racing following the 1907 meet.

Hodge writes: “Anti-gambling sentiments, driven by former Essex Park owner and former state legislator William McGuigan, rose in the form of a bill titled ‘an act to prevent betting in any manner in this state on any horse race.’ The bill was approved on Feb. 27, 1907, and necessitated the closing of Oaklawn at the end of the 1907 season and for a decade after that. The infield of the track continued to be used for other purposes and was the site of the Arkansas State Fair from 1906-14, including a 1910 fair that was attended by former President Theodore Roosevelt.

“By 1914, Oaklawn was owned by Louis A. Cella and his brother Charles, both of St. Louis. The track has remained in the Cella family since then. In 1915, a bill to legalize horse racing and pari-mutuel betting … had passed both houses of the Legislature but was vetoed by Gov. George Washington Hays. The veto was challenged in the courts by local citizens but was eventually affirmed by the Arkansas Supreme Court.

“The aftermath of fires in 1913 caused a downturn in tourism in Hot Springs, fueled by rumors that the city could not accommodate guests as a result of the damage. The persistence of these rumors inspired city leaders to find a way to draw tourists back to the city. In 1916, the Hot Springs Men’s Business League reopened Oaklawn Park by setting a short racing schedule beginning on March 11 under the guise of a nonprofit civic enterprise. Pari-mutuel betting was not allowed, but this did not preclude any unofficial wagering. This 30-day season was a success and led to the reopening of both Oaklawn Park and Essex Park the following year with plans for the two tracks to split a full season. Unfortunately, the newly refurbished Essex Park burned the day after its grand reopening in 1917, thus moving the entire season to Oaklawn and marking the permanent end of racing at Essex.

“Pending litigation and the Men’s Business League sponsorship, along with the banning of pari-mutuel betting, had allowed Oaklawn Park to have races until 1919 when Circuit Judge Scott Wood put forth the opinion that continuing to hold the races was illegal, and the track was again closed. In 1929, another bill made it through both the Arkansas House and Senate, only to be vetoed, this time by Gov. Harvey Parnell.

“Attempts to pass legislation to permit pari-mutuel betting on horse races in 1931 and 1933 failed, but in 1934 a group of prominent Hot Springs citizens and businessmen, including Mayor Leo P. McLaughlin, formed the Business Men’s Racing Association and announced that races would be held in March of that year. The move was inspired by growing interest in the sport of thoroughbred racing and the need to draw more visitors to the city. On March 1, 1934, Oaklawn reopened to a crowd of 8,000 spectators without the consent of the Legislature. Future legal ambiguity was avoided in 1935 with the passage of a bill to permit horse racing with pari-mutuel wagering. This time the bill was signed into law by Gov. Junius Futrell.”

The first Arkansas Derby was held in 1936 with a purse of $5,000.

In 1961, what had been a 30-day season was increased to 43 days.

By the early 1980s, the track was hosting races more than 60 days a year.

A couple of days after I had covered the 1982 Arkansas Derby for the Arkansas Democrat, Wally Hall called me into his office to inform me that the Democrat had lured Randy Moss away from the Gazette. It was the first high-profile Gazette defection of the newspaper war.

Moss and I were born the same year. He grew up in Hot Springs, and I grew up about 35 miles down Arkansas Highway 7, though we didn’t get to know each other until I began covering Oaklawn in college. Moss’ father, Jim, was a pharmacist for 18 years at the downtown Walgreens in Hot Springs before spending 32 years with the Arkansas Department of Health as an investigator. Famed thoroughbred trainer Bob Holthus was a neighbor of the Moss family, and Grisham was a family friend. Holthus would sneak Moss into the track, and by age 13, Moss was helping Grisham make picks for the Gazette.

“That sort of morphed into where I was actually doing the picking for the morning line under Don’s name when I was in the 11th and 12th grade and then in college at the University of Arkansas,” Moss explained in an interview for the Pryor Center’s Arkansas Democrat oral history project. “I kept doing the morning line for the Gazette with Don during that time in college. We had sort of an elaborate system devised. Don’s secretary would call me in the morning for the picks, and they would mail me copies of the Racing Form. I did that for two years in Fayetteville.”

After a semester of pharmacy school in Little Rock, Moss decided he would be bored with the work. He had gotten to know Gazette sports editor Orville Henry, and Henry offered him a job in 1979. Moss dropped out of pharmacy school, much to the chagrin of his father, to write sports for the Gazette. He moved to the Democrat three years later, went to the Dallas Morning News in 1989 and is now a lead analyst for NBC Sports coverage of the Triple Crown, the Breeders’ Cup and other top races.

Damon Runyon, who died in 1946 at age 66, was a well-known newspaperman and writer of short stories. He often wrote about racetrack figures with nicknames like Harry the Horse and Hot Horse Herbie. The term “Runyonesque character” has, in fact, become a part of the American lexicon.

I’ve been fortunate to know some Runyonesque characters at Oaklawn through the years.

May their tribe increase.

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