Robert Haydon Jones
and Matthew Levine

Matthew Levine
“Compo Beach, Looking North”
Inspiration piece

The Band Played On
By Robert Haydon Jones
Response

Looking back, Jimmy O’Hara realized there were only a very few times in his life, when he was so carried away that before he realized it, he was shouting as if his voice could change things — shouting as if the power of his yell could really make all the difference.

Life had made him cry out only a few times. That was enough to stamp each of those times as special. Even when it wasn’t a matter of life and death. (Although twice his screaming had saved his life.)

He saw the little surfing deer about an hour before he left with his wife for the special outing to the racetrack that the Hunt Club had arranged for the Executive Committee. An undefeated, five-year-old mare was running her last race before retirement and all the truly fortunate people in this part of the world were going to be there.

Jimmy got dressed up in his fancy outfit way too early – so, as usual, he waited while Anne primped and changed outfits and then primped some more like she always did.

His i-phone had transformed waits like this into opportunities. Jimmy watched a U-Tube video his sister sent him of a young deer cavorting at the water’s edge of a barrier beach. The footage was compelling. The little deer played with the surf just like Jimmy had played with the surf his first time.

The deer skitted about the edge of the surf and then advanced further until –- whoops a wave walloped him back –- then more surf line dancing until another deeper foray, another wave wallop and another hasty retreat. Jimmy had to smile. It was just like his first time at the seashore.

“The deer and me have this approach to the sea in common”, Jimmy thought.

The dancing deer got him thinking about the famous race mare they were going to see. The mare loved being loved. When the crowds cheered, she pranced like a fancy circus horse with a plume. For four years, she had won all of her races. She would rally from what seemed impossibly far out of it, charging down the stretch and drawing away at the wire.

She was a mare now, but she was still prancing like a filly. She pranced in the paddock and on her way to the starting gate. Then after she came from way, way back and won for fun — she pranced some more while the crowd cheered her on her way to the Winner’s Circle. She was a prancer and a dancer. She loved attention. Jimmy had to smile.

“We have this approach to being loved in common”, Jimmy thought. “The prancing race mare and me.”

Jimmy and Anne went to the mare’s last race via limousine with the three other couples from the Hunt Club. They had a box in the Clubhouse right on the finish line. The track was jammed. The unbeaten mare was everybody’s darling – and this time she was running against the boys. The best colts and geldings in the world were vying for the $5,000,000 purse. Still, she was a heavy favorite to win and head into retirement and the broodmare farm undefeated.

The clubhouse dining room was overcrowded and loud. There were droves of attractive women in designer dresses with elaborate hats. It was as if the track was throwing a gala for the mare and had invited anyone who had read Black Beauty. Fortunately, the Chairman of the Racing Authority was a member of the Hunt Club, so Jimmy’s party was ushered into a private dining room.

Just ten tables. A special menu. This was what being a Big Shot was all about!

Jimmy hadn’t been at a racetrack for at least five years. The last time had been a Belmont, with a Triple Crown possibility. It was strange. Thirty-five years back, in his bad old days, he went to the track four or five times a week. He stood on the finish line with the wise guys.

Now he was dining in a VIP room. Back in the day, a famous tout had told Jimmy that as far as the regulars were concerned, the Belmont Stakes was just the 8th race of the day. Jimmy wondered what the tout and his regular buddies would make of a day like this. A hundred thousand people come to see a mare prance.

He zipped through a dozen delicious Wellfleet oysters. His tablemates ordered another bottle of Champagne and more canapés, so Jimmy drifted out of the dining area to watch a preliminary race.

It was a 6-furlong stakes race for two-year-olds. He read the program and saw that he knew one of the owners. On impulse, he peeled off a $100 bill and played Easy Buddy to win. Two minutes later the gate opened and Easy Buddy rocketed away to a big lead and went wire-to-wire for a 4-length win. He had gone off at 10-1. Jimmy was up a grand!

It had been a long, long time since he had backed a horse. As he watched Easy Buddy come into the stretch with a comfortable lead and start to draw away, Jimmy felt the warmth of blessed Good Fortune throughout his being. This feeling of sanctification – of grace suffusing him – was the high he had chased for all those miserable years he had thrown his money and his life away at the track.

God, it felt wonderful! The sweet warmth of the entry of the Grace of Good Fortune. No wonder he had chased after it and after it and after it in the face of defeat after defeat. Then, suddenly the addiction was lifted from him. One day he was crazed as usual for the horses, the next day he was not. Next to the gift of life, it was the biggest gift he had ever received.

As he walked away from the cashier’s window, with his $1,100 in hand, someone yelled, “Lucky Jim!”

Jimmy looked for the voice and saw Tommy Ferrone and Phil Palazzo, two of his wise guy companions from way, way back. The years had been good for them. They were wearing Zegna jackets and all the fixings. Jimmy had heard they had risen to upper management positions in the Cosa Nostra.

“Hey, Tommy, hey Philly, how you doing?” Jimmy said.

“Doing good, Lucky Jim. Doing good,’” Philly said. “Where you been? It’s been a long time.”

“Just doing my thing with the family”, Jimmy said. “ I’m a total civilian. Out here today with the wife to see the mare along with the rest of the entire friggin world.”

“Well,” Tommy said, “You’re not exactly a civilian. I see you just cashed a nice ticket, Lucky Jim. I remember you used to drive us crazy out here with those long shot specials of yours.”

“No,” Jimmy said, “I’ve been out of it for years. I just bet this bird because I noticed his owner is a friend of mine. I’ve been away so dam long, you could almost call this win ‘beginner’s luck’. ”

“You gonna bet the house on that mare?”

“No. I’m done for today. Like I told you, I’m a civilian. Anyway, I’d never go for a 3 to 5 shot.”

Tommy and Philly exchanged a look. “Well, Lucky Jim,” Tommy said, “me and Philly are glad to hear that because the rest of the world, even the pros, think she’s a lock to win. And they couldn’t be more wrong. Our guys around the country are up to their eyeballs with action on that mare – and you know what? We’re booking it all. We aren’t laying off a nickel.”

Jimmy was surprised. This was the classic overlay situation where it was good business sense to layoff as much of the action as possible. You would only be taking this kind of action as a service to your good customers. The vast majority of the action would be coming from football and baseball customers.

“What’s going on?”

The angle was that the mare’s jockey, Bill Jones, had OD’d on heroin just last night. He had been in a crib with two high-priced hookers drunk as a skunk and as high as a kite. Earlier that evening, he had returned to his apartment in the Village much earlier than planed and had walked in on his fiancée, Candy Divers, having sex with his so-called, best friend, Marc Lieberman.

Bill Jones had run off into the night. Fortunately for him, the hookers had plenty of Narcan on hand. They injected Billy after he had turned bright blue all over – and in no time he came back into the world.

It was dawn before he could walk. He had the shakes bad. He pleaded with the hookers to give him some more heroin. One of the hookers called Tommy and told him what had happened and asked him what to do. Tommy had asked her if she was sure it was Billy Jones, the jockey. She said she was real sure. She said she felt real bad for him. He was a straight arrow. A nice guy who had lost his way.

Tommy told her to clean him up and to give him a half dose shot of the Narcan like it was heroin. They sent a driver to pick Billy up and book him into a hotel so he could get some sleep. At 11, the driver woke him up – gave him coffee with two shots of grappa and drove him out to the track.

Right before they got to the track, Billy Jones got sick all over the back seat. He had the shakes again. The driver gave him another coffee laced with grappa and he steadied down good. He thanked the driver and gave him a $100 tip. He told the driver to bet it on the mare.

It was a sad story but Jimmy had to laugh. “You guys, always looking for an angle. That mare is a whole lot of horse. Billy Jones may be sick – but if he can stay on her, I reckon he’ll win.”

Tommy Ferrone and Phil Palazzo weren’t laughing. “Like they say, Jimmy, that’s what makes horse racing”, Tommy said. “As a friend from way back, I’m glad you’re not betting on the mare. As your friendly bookie, I’ll be glad to take any amount you want to wager.”

When Jimmy got back to the table, it was clear he hadn’t been missed. He’d been gone ten minutes. He had made a thousand dollars and had said howdy to a life he had been very lucky to leave.

Later, his wife asked him to put a bet on the mare for her – and he did. A $10 place ticket. Jimmy passed on the race. At 3 to 5, he wasn’t even tempted.

As it turned out, the mare was much the best horse in the race. As usual, she dawdled at the start and trailed the field going into the first turn. Jimmy expected her to start moving up at the half mile pole on the backstretch but it didn’t happen. She started her drive much later than normal. She went inside, checked in back of a wall of tiring horses, then swung outside and came again.

Jimmy urged her on. “Come on,” he yelled. “Come on! Get her up!”

Everybody was yelling.

“Come on” Jimmy yelled, “Come on!”

The mare galloped by the field, closed on the leader and bounded by him at the wire. She was clear by a length but she had been beaten by a head to the finish line. Billy Jones had moved her too late.

A drawn out groan from the crowd said it all.

Later, during the television interview, Billy Jones cried and said the loss was on him. The TV commentators were too respectful of Billy to agree. He was such a good guy. It was a shame that the mare had lost – that she would not retire undefeated – but it was just one of those things.

Jimmy was amazed at the civilian crowd. It was not just one of those things. It was a terrible ride. When he got home, he looked at the replays of the race again and again. There was no question the mare was much the best in the race. Much the best. Billy Jones had urged her on way, way too late. And yet the commentary about the loss was restrained. Too bad. Just one of those things.

Tommy and Philly and the syndicate had cleaned up. Some times, inside information can really make all the difference. But, then again, as a famous Jockey, Eddie Arcaro had said, “Nobody wins at the races like the bookie in the jockey’s room.”

Jimmy forgot to cash his wife’s winning place ticket. He still carries it in his wallet in a secret compartment right under the big bills. It is a memento. Of what he is not exactly sure.

———————

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10 Comments

  1. Posted April 11, 2016 at 9:58 am | #

    A terrific inside look at the world of the track. What is not said is just as compelling as what is.

  2. Malachy McCourt
    Posted April 11, 2016 at 7:53 pm | #

    A well told tale of losers and winners . Us civilians don’t know the racing jargon and its an exotic journey to learn it Thanks for the ride Bob even if we only placed but we did finish

  3. Jack Orth
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 4:58 am | #

    Whatever R.H.J. writes I’m hooked after a few words! Jimmy O’Hara changed his life a number of years back, as I was able to do with the help on Bill Wilson and others. So–I relate to him in just about whatever he does–in fact I’ve always thought of myself as “Lucky Jack” long before reading Roberts wonderful writings. But-I’d rather be lucky than good. But Jimmy has the whole combination–he’s both lucky and good! You’ll never be disappointed with Roberts “Stuff”–it’s just great!

  4. John Haydon Tucker
    Posted April 12, 2016 at 3:35 pm | #

    Better late than never! I love that mare and all her dawdling. And I like Billy Jones. Sometimes it’s just about finishing the race and moving on, even in defeat. Great read!

  5. Dave Monroe
    Posted April 25, 2016 at 6:50 am | #

    Fun read. Get a glimpse into two worlds — the rich and famous, and mobsters — in a glamorous horse racing setting. Calls to question the reality and illusion of winning and losing. Sometimes what they appear to be is not what they are. Love the artwork, too.

  6. Charles DeFanti
    Posted April 26, 2016 at 8:23 am | #

    Depend on Jones for verisimilitude. We need to keep reassuring ourselves that this is fiction. Sometimes it gets scary.

  7. Sean Beaudoin
    Posted April 26, 2016 at 8:59 am | #

    Always up for a good racetrack story, especially when you throw in the mob and Kingsley Amis references…nice.

  8. Chris Egan
    Posted April 26, 2016 at 5:00 pm | #

    Ah! The “other creature” rears her sexy/ugly head! Feel the pull!

  9. Ed Lambertson
    Posted May 13, 2016 at 1:40 pm | #

    Another terrific yarn by Mr. Jones, his insights into the minds and feelings of the “addicted” is without parallel, this one gave me the “shivers”.

  10. JIM M.
    Posted July 20, 2016 at 9:50 am | #

    Great story ! You are one talented turkey Bobby J. !

    I can tell you’ve been around the block .

    Great job

    Jimmy M.

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