The Circle Game

By John Angelo

The 17th century Japanese poet Basho intuitively knew the allure of the racing game: “The spirits of the road beckoned, and I could do no work at all.”

My call once again to distant post times began this past September when I heard from Michael Blowen, director of Old Friends, that Kiri’s Clown and Awad would soon join the farm’s other Thoroughbred retirees.

The late Hall of Fame trainer P.G. Johnson liked to call Kiri’s Clown “my little tank,” and cheering on the compact Kiri’s Clown from the Saratoga rooftop to a neck victory over Awad in the Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap (gr. IT) was a defining moment of joy in my first summer as a public handicapper covering the Saratoga beat in 1995.

In 2001, my last summer as a Saratoga-area newspaper race and weather analyst, I visited Johnson’s barn one morning with a friend and two of her young daughters. Johnson made them feel like they were special guests. When Volponi won the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) and Johnson cradled the trophy in the winner’s circle, I saw the joy in his face mixed with the illness that had aged him a decade in one year, knowing no one could exit with a bigger “Hurrah!”

Barbara Livingston generously gave me a photo of Kiri’s Clown’s Sword Dancer win shortly after the race. It now hangs at Old Friends.

We begin. We end. We begin again. That’s the appeal of the circle game.

The game beckoned again in January when Hard Spun won the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds. Hard Spun’s dam, Turkish Tryst, had been my “best bet” in a stakes race on the Saratoga grass one beautiful August afternoon in 1996.

I strode into the paddock with confidence, but got an unexpected dose of inside information from Turkish Tryst’s trainer.

“She’s a few months in foal,” the trainer told me matter-of-factly. “The owners wanted her last race to be at Saratoga.”

My best bet ran eighth, but Turkish Tryst has produced five winners from five foals including two stakes winners.

Bill Nader, Rockingham Park’s publicity director at the time, got me my first legitimate job at a Thoroughbred track in 1991. I called charts for the fledgling Racing Times. “Slowly clear” once came out in the paper as “slowly dear,” while “lacked strong finish” appeared in print as “lacked strong fish.” This leant a whole new meaning to “angled in eighth pole.”

Fortunately, I got to share the Rock’s press box with Jim Bishop, known to all then and now as “The Bish,” who called charts for Equibase at the time and yes, sports fans, we often consulted on things pari-mutuel and “marginally” related.

The Bish plies his trade these days as the program handicapper at Suffolk Downs, but his real calling came not in race margins but in handicapping the humor of the game. Before the start of the first race one June afternoon, we heard over the Rock security scanner: “We have a Domingo Hernandez in the track kitchen. He has no ID, no wallet, and no money, but says he works for trainer Ambrose Pascucci.”

“Of course he works for Ambrose,” the Bish deadpanned. “He has no money.”

Nader, one of the most optimistic people in the industry, was pained to have to enforce the removal of Racing Times Rockingham Park columnist T.D. Thornton from the press box after Thornton reported several incidents that reflected poorly on track management. Given the size of the press box, it was like losing your high school locker and having to set up shop in the hallway. Nader was claimed by New York Racing Association in 1994 and earned black type as senior vice president before recently taking the job as director of racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club.

T.D. Thornton? He just published Not by a Long Shot, an unflinching yet highly entertaining look at a season at Suffolk Downs. Legitimate literature and the racetrack have hit the quarter pole together again.

When informed by T.D. that a steed named Jim Bishop earned $5,318 for jogging around the track 43 lengths behind Dr. Fager in the 1967 New Hampshire Sweepstakes Classic, the Bish’s post-race analysis 24 years later made sense.

“I took it easy against Dr. Fager,” Bishop explained. “I wasn’t worried about nothin’. ”

The circling spirits of the track had beckoned, and he could do no work at all.

John Angelo is a special education assistant at a New Hampshire high school and a freelance writer.