Valley Voices

Larry Hill: Belmont Stakes with Papa Joe

FresnoJune 20, 2014 

Three to five.

That was the line on California Chrome when, notebook and pen in hand, I sat down to watch the Belmont Stakes last month. I doubted many "Chromies" understood this meant they'd have to lay $5 to win $3 if they wanted to back their pick. They were too busy wearing purple adhesive strips on their noses and talking about how great a story it was going to be when the horse won.

"Good for the Valley," many said, reiterating the fact that the 3-year-old colt had been born in Coalinga, a town most locals knew mainly for its earthquakes and its Pleasant Valley prison.

Considering the Cinderella aspect to everything leading up to this event, I leaned in closer to the TV. There was a story here, one perfect for Hollywood.

Two good ol' boys, calling their small barn the Dumb Ass Stables, purchase a marked-down filly with hazy lineage, breed her to a stallion that worked on the cheap, and she gives birth to a handsome colt that goes on to win the Triple Crown of Racing.

Not poignant enough? How about we throw in a 77-year-old trainer looking for his last hurrah and a leading jockey willing to take a chance with the horse solely because he likes the way he seems to listen when talked to.

"You think he'll win?"

I turned to see my old bookie, Papa Joe Bedrosian. "Pull up a chair," I said, grinning, because Papa Joe wasn't there. Not really. I'd conjured him back to life for my own purpose. "You're looking good, man," I said.

He appeared to be unchanged from the old days, same rocky face, guilty of sinking a thousand ships and then salvaging them. "Using me as a shill again, eh?"

"Guilty," I admitted.

He looked at the TV. "Who do you like?"

"You know I never bet anything over a mile, and never a race this full of championship."

"There's the favorite," he said, pointing a crooked finger.

I felt my old handicapper's heart skip a beat. I'd watched the horse's previous two wins but hadn't studied him in full portrait like this. Now he filled the screen, his chestnut coat dry and smooth, the facial blaze and stockings that named him brightly lit in the New York afternoon light. A ripple moved along his muscular withers as he was led away from the paddock area.

"Three to five, Papa," I said.

"And still there's $6 million bet on him, right there at the track," he said, surely remembering the days when there was no legal off-track betting. Way back when we relied on phone wagers placed between men like him and me, men who trusted one another more than any stockbroker and investor would ever dare.

"Hear that?" he asked.

We both scanned the picture. Frank Sinatra Jr., looking like a real ghost on this hour of apparitions, had begun the song, "New York, New York."

"Frankie's little boy," Papa Joe said, "the one who was kidnapped."

"Wrong post parade serenade," I said, wanting to hear the melancholic ache of "Sidewalks of New York," the way the old song's strains could make me cry.

Papa Joe rose from his chair. Though a gentle and kind man under that dark fedora, he had learned to evade sad stories. "I'll leave you be," he said.

"Not sticking around for the winner?"

He began to fade. "Oh, I'll know the winner," he said, as if he would learn of such things through an endless eternity.

A few moments later, an exhausted California Chrome was led back through the tunnel to his stall, his head down, his great chest heaving, a hoof dripping blood. He had given his all to the race but had finished out of the money.

Still later, I watched the thoroughbred's co-owner, Steve Coburn, rant about his horse getting beat by those cowardly owners and trainers who had pulled their entrees out of one or two of the other races.

Cowboy hat squared above his flushed face, Coburn, who had been the fellow best met in this drama up to now, spoke of how the Sport of Kings was run not by bluebloods, but by blackhearts.

I partly agreed with that last part, and put a picture of the man in my head to follow.

Odds are, he will repent. Certainly, he will race California Chrome again. God willing it won't happen before the horse's foot is fully healed from where he had been stepped on at the break of this race today. And the line is maybe three to five, that he will race Chrome's two full sisters, both young fillies, spirited and showing signs of wanting to run like their brother.

And the "Chromies?"

Not to worry. My old pal, Papa Joe, would put it this way, "Everyone remembers only the winners they were on, and any other pick is as forgotten as its losing tickets."

 

Larry Hill of Fresno is an artist and writer.

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