By Ed Golden
Paul Kallai was a tough guy. At Garden State Park, which is now an elaborate shopping center in Cherry Hill, N.J., he once tried to scale a 12-foot wall to attack a fan who was criticizing him for his ride on a losing horse. This was in the 1970s, when he also fought four times at the Spectrum in Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Flyers captured their only Stanley Cups when they were known as the Broad Street Bullies. Kallai had a 3-1 record as a professional boxer from 1973 through 1976, beating fellow jockey Ralph Baker twice in bantamweight matches.
Winning as an underdog was nothing new for Kallai (pronounced KAY-lie). He held his own in a room full of roughneck jocks at Garden State, before the track burned down in 1977. Don MacBeth had a fuse shorter than his whip. The only thing Bill Hartack hated more than being called Willie was the press. Howard Grant wasn't labeled "The Little General" for nothing. Joe Culmone, who tied Bill Shoemaker for the national riding title in 1950 with 388 wins, backed down from no one, even in the twilight of his career. And nobody was anxious to cross the pugnacious Block brothers, Henry and John, who rode like they had Philly Mob boss Frank Costello in their corner, and they might have.
Despite his dwarf-like body and bulbous nose, Kallai fit among his peers like a glove, and not a boxing glove. He was no Braulio Baeza on a horse. His style was more Headless Horseman, but he loved riding. In fact, at age 73, he was still competing in his native Hungary before his death Oct. 13.
"Paul was strong as a bull," said former jockey Larry Gilligan, now 69 but active yet on horseback as the man who signals the "Quick Official" at Oak Tree, Santa Anita, and Del Mar. "He was in a concentration camp in Hungary and he would tell us stories about it. He said that's why he was deformed, from being starved in the concentration camp. His hands were twice the size of anyone else's. His feet were big, too."
The last correspondence I received from Kallai was postmarked Feb. 18, 2004. Paul wrote to me several times from Budapest, but the missives were brief, although some included pictures of him working out on Spartan-like equipment, such as wooden barrels with crude saddles. He also sent an Oct. 26, 2003, program from Kincsem Park in Hungary that included photos of him riding. A Christmas card dated Dec. 22, 2003, read: "Dear Ed! Merry Christmas and Happy New Year! From Hungary, Paul Kallai." A later postcard with a chestnut mare and her foal on the front read simply, "Hi Ed! My real address is: ______" and he listed it.
He did so because I had been trying to reach him without success since he first wrote me, but his return address never was legible enough to understand. Finally, I found someone who could translate Hungarian to English, and that did it.
Kallai never intended to return to Hungary, where, according to a Web report on his death, he "developed an aneurysm and collapsed after riding in a race at Kincsem Park. He was hospitalized and later developed a second aneurysm days later."
It went on: "Kallai earned his first of two wins in the Hungary Derby as a 17-year-old in 1950. He fled Hungary after a revolt against Soviet occupancy broke out, then returned and won the 2000 Hungary Derby aboard Rodrigo." He was 67 at the time.
Kallai left the United States never to return in the mid '70s. The story said he was one of five jockeys convicted of conspiracy, race-fixing, and/or attempting to fix races over a six-month period in 1974-75 at Garden State. The April 23, 1979, edition of The Blood-Horse
reported that he was given a 12-18 month sentence.
Rather than face the music, Paul chose to leave America, where he had so readily assimilated. In 1966, he rode in the race of every jockey's dreams, the Kentucky Derby, finishing 12th aboard Quinta. Kallai, who won more than 2,000 races, had a beautiful home and family in suburban Cherry Hill, where he would entertain his racetrack friends. He was a gregarious and gracious host. Socially, he was the life of the party, like Truman Capote. But professionally, he was like Harry Truman. On the track, Kallai gave no quarter and rode that way to the end.
You might say he went out like John Wayne. He died with his boots on.