My grandpa used to tell me stories about the old days. He was a plumber by trade and loved to play the ponies. There couldn’t have been a better example of a small-time guy who gambled. He was taught by father to plumb, play the races, and his love of eating. Just a small town fella’ who enjoyed laying down two bucks and having a rooting interest. My Dad used to tell me he would go through his $30 bankroll betting the Daily Double as it was the only exotic wager on the card. “Papaw” smoked cheap Dutch Master cigars, ate more ice cream than the law allowed, and came home every night by 4:30 to be the first to sit at the dinner table. He was born on Valentine’s Day in 1903. He would have been 112 years-old this year, and it brought me fond memories.
Papaw was one-of-a-kind. He loved to laugh, work in his garage, tend to his Beagle hounds, and look over the old Playboy books the neighbor kid hid behind his garage. Just a common man with a big appetite. He never took a trip overnight away from home, and was always in bed early. I used to visit him all the time, and we would talk for hours. I knew about his tough upbringing, love of animals, and the big races he won. – He met my grandmother at Latonia Race Course, and they marries on the way to the Kentucky Derby. I have the program above my bar to keep him close. No matter what I ever did, he was always in my corner. I once went three-for-three in little league, and he never forgot. You would have thought I was the next Mickey Mantle. You could say we were pals. I was the last to see him in the hospital. Not that he wasn’t loved, but I was working near and it was an easy “sneak-away.” He talked about everything, and knew the end was closing in quickly. We held hands, talked, and told me how proud he was of me. He would have thought my time working at the track was better than being the president. Just a regular guy with a regular life.
One of his greatest stories was being at the track with his father. He witnessed the biggest $2 win payoff in history. That’s right, a $2 win ticket on a filly named Wishing Ring in the sixth race at Latonia in Covington, Kentucky, on the 17th of June 1912, paid $1,185.50. By far the largest single mutuel winner in North American racing history. In the 1970s, when the American Racing Manual stopped printing the highest mutuel payouts on record, Wishing Ring’s win stood well above the second highest winner at odds of 419-1 which came at Agua Caliente in 1933. Local records for odds on winner under the mutuel form of wagering were shattered in the closing race at Latonia this afternoon when the backers of Wishing Ring received $1,885.50 for each $2 invested. The posting of the price caused intense excitement and the four holders of winning straight tickets were the objects of great interest. The lucky ones were mere tyros in racing and included a lady who backed Wishing Ring because of her well-sounding name.“Bob” McMillan, the filly’s owner, was probably the most chagrined person at the course, for he neglected to have any sort of a wager on her. Previous to Wishing Ring’s victory, the record mutuel pay-off on a winner was a trifle over 400 to 1. The total amount wagered on Wishing Ring this afternoon was only $22, of which $8 was straight, $4 for place and $10 to show. The place pay-off of $644.50 for $2 also constitutes a record.
I read the account in Collin’s Ghost back in 2011, as I love to read about history. It takes me back to a simpler time. When going to the races was an event, and standing in a thick crowd was exciting. The top three sports of the time were: Horse Racing, Baseball, and Boxing. Tracks were used for political events, speeches, and the occasional pugilistic match. I loved hearing his stories. He used to bet with the local bookmaker, and they had a smoke filled back room where men would read the Daily Racing Form. He put in the plumbing, and I’m sure it was to pay off his monthly debt. He didn’t drink except for his once-a-year glass of egg nog he made. Well, my grandma made it, and he poured in the Bourbon.
I once read a book and can’t even remember the name…. But, there was a one passage that stays with me to this day. “If you could make one call to someone who has passed on, who would you call?” I’m getting a little bit older, and you can measure that by how many are on the other side. There would be many I would love to speak to, and others who stay in my heart daily. But there would only be one quarter going into the magic phone to heaven. – It would be to Papaw. – I would love to hear his laugh, the way he called me #1 (grandson), and what he thought about me getting to work in racing. I’m sure he would be proud. Not because I’m the end all to be all, but because I will always be his #1. I have his Sportsman of the Year gavel, measuring stick he used working, and his program from the day he married Mamaw. I was lucky enough to have owned a few horses. They were cheap claimers, but for him they would have been top-notch performers. When we won our first race, our group was running toward the winner’s circle. I looked up and wished Papaw would have been there on this day. Some years later, I was looking at the winner’s circle picture and realized he may not have been there in body, but his spirit was always with me.