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She Was My First

How my lifelong love affair with the sport of kings began

Her name was Saldina Lady. She was dark brown, with strong muscular legs and a shiny mane of hair that cascaded down her neck. When I first laid eyes on her, she was still a maiden. But all that changed one fateful day in 1963.

I was sitting in my third-period chemistry class, trying to stay awake as the teacher droned on about the magic of inert gasses. Suddenly, I noticed my friend, Eddie Lipke, outside the door, pressing a pack of Marlboro cigarettes against the window. I raised my hand to ask for the bathroom pass, interrupting the description of krypton's role in fluorescent lighting. I mean it's not like she was discussing Krypton's role in the life of Superman. Then, I might have stayed.

As we puffed away on the Marlboros in the boys' room, Eddie mentioned that he was skipping the rest of his classes and going to Aqueduct racetrack. His mother, the first Brooklyn female taxi driver, had gotten a tip on a 20-to-1 shot in the sixth race. The information came from a second cousin of the horse owner's manicurist. It was a "sure thing."

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I had fifteen bucks in my pocket; money I was going to use after school for a new Rawlings Mickey Mantle baseball glove. "When this horse wins, you can buy a glove for each finger," Eddie said. I had never been to the racetrack. Going would mean I would miss my last three classes: trigonometry, economics and Spanish. This was a relative no-brainer—if that expression had existed back then.

There's an eerie feeling when you sneak out of the school building while classes are still in session. It's kinda like a prison break and you want to get away from the facility as fast as possible. We ran up Ocean Parkway to the elevated subway station where the train took us to 42nd Street in Manhattan. There the Aqueduct Special awaited. This was a subway car that went straight to the track without stopping. Its passengers were mostly men, middle-aged and up, their wristwatches and wedding rings a distant memory.

Thirty minutes later, we arrived at the Aqueduct station. When the doors parted, the men, eager to get down on their own "sure things," burst through the opening like horses bursting from the starting gate.

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Legally, Eddie and I were too young to wager, so we had to find someone to do it for us. We approached a heavy-set man smoking a cigarette who looked a lot like columnist Jimmy Breslin. "Shouldn't you boys be in school?" Well, uh, yes, Mr. Breslin. "Don't worry," he smiled. "You'll learn a lot more about life hanging out at the racetrack than you will in any school." A Pulitzer Prize-winning writer making our bets for us. Not too shabby.

With pari-mutuel tickets in hand, we went out and secured positions on the rail by the finish line. That's when the heavens opened. Everyone scurried inside for cover. Eddie and I remained outside, braving the torrential downpour. By post time, the track condition had gone from fast to muddy and we went from dry to sopping wet. More importantly, what effect would the muddy track have on our horse?

We were about to find out, as the starting crew led the horses into the gate. A few acted up and were difficult to load. Our horse, Saldina Lady, calmly walked into the gate. She had done this before—eleven times, actually—without a win. Fact is, none of them had ever crossed the finish line first. It was a race for maidens.

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"And they're off!" Legendary track announcer Fred Capossela began his call as the field started on their one-mile journey. Saldina Lady broke poorly and within seconds was lagging far behind the others. By the time they hit the backstretch, she was last by twenty lengths, covered in mud, compliments of the horses in front of her. It was obvious the twelfth time wasn't going to be the charm.

I dejectedly started back for cover, the Rawlings Mickey Mantle glove now my own distant memory. I was almost inside when I heard four words that stopped me dead in my tracks. "Here comes Saldina Lady!" My girl was suddenly in another gear, passing horses like they were stationary on a carousel.

I ran back to the finish line and watched in awe as she charged down the stretch in a seemingly impossible mission to catch the horse in front. "Come on, girl!" Eddie cried while continuously smacking his program against the rail in cadence with the jockey's whip. The once insurmountable lead was dwindling with each powerful stride. She was no longer Saldina Lady, the cheap claiming horse. She was Man O War, Native Dancer and Seabiscuit all rolled into one, thundering down the stretch.

If I told you she won by her beautiful mud-covered nose, you'd think I was making it up. If I told you my winning ticket returned $150 and in just one minute and forty-one seconds, Saldina Lady had equaled my entire life savings account, you'd cite poetic license. Well, it's the truth. Straight from the horse's mouth.

It began a love affair with the sport of kings that continues to this day. In that time, I've made a whole lotta bets. Lost a bunch. Won my fair share too, many paying substantial amounts of money. But not a single one of those wins, have ever equaled the excitement of that first time. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to dope out tomorrow's races at Santa Anita.

Tags: memoirs
   
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