By Joe Hickey
St. Michaels, a delightful riverside destination on Maryland's Eastern Shore, first gained fame during the War of 1812 when, in anticipation of a nighttime bombardment by a British warship, militia hung lanterns high in the treetops, causing hostile cannonballs to overshoot their targets. Shunning 21st century traffic lights and food on the fly, St. Michaels can be as beguiling as punch bowl coquetry. To official Washington, it's a liberty port for ships of state. Celebrity sightings are as common as crab hammers and Old Bay seasoning. Once reminded that His Majesty's Royal Navy had been duped here, Lady Margaret Thatcher winced, blushed, and went about her window-shopping. From time to time, visitors are puzzled why a wired busboy lurks behind a phony ficus--locals guess the Brady Bunch is coming to dinner--when in pops former Jockey Club chairman Nick Brady with guests Dick Cheney, Don Rumsfeld, and their ladies. Brady still beams over family-owned America Alive's victory in the grade I, $400,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic at Churchill on Derby day. That's a number even a former treasury secretary can appreciate, and it gave Mill House Stable its best day since the reign of homebred champion filly Sensational. This day, however, a tiny knot of vintage racetrackers had pressing business in St. Michaels, gathering before a churchyard columbium to give an old jockey a leg-up on eternity. John S. Covalli, 78, who had ridden Miche to win the 1952 Santa Anita Handicap (upon disqualification of Intent) was about to rejoin Sally, his wife of 51 years. Nary a blood relative present; funeral home staff matched mourners: two dolls and a pair of track-sore old-timers. The one on the gimp read committal prayers from a book borrowed from a priest. After reflection, mourners walked to breakfast at Carpenter Street Saloon, across from the Acme, where John had stocked shelves and bagged groceries, just to get out and meet people--to relieve the monotony of retirement. Covalli rode from 1946-60, mostly at "the bigs," though he'd served time at Charles Town, too. Of his saddle career, he was most proud to have been a founding member of the Jockeys' Guild. That, and being Eddie Arcaro's buddy. The second half of his career was as a racing official, capped by a stint as a steward in New Jersey and Florida. Over crab omelets (on John), his goddaughter recalled, as a college student on spring break in Ft. Lauderdale, she invited classmates to the races at Gulfstream Park. She called "Uncle John" in the stewards' stand to have passes left at the will call window. But she was stopped at the clubhouse gate because she was wearing shorts. Uncle John arranged with an elevator girl to provide a skirt for such dress code emergencies. "What size is this young lady?" the customer relations person asked.
Uncle John muttered something like, "Size? Cheez, I dunno. How'n hell wooda know? All's I can tell ya is she's bigger'n me, smaller'n you." John and Sally Covalli retired to a house in Neavitt, a waterman's village a few miles from St. Michaels. Sally loved the easy backwater pace; John, a gregarious "people person," was bored stiff. He always wanted to see what was over the next hill. Trouble was Talbot County's flat as a pool table. After Sally died in 1997, he eventually wound up at a retirement facility in Easley, a South Carolina college town. When we last talked, Johnny Goodheart was on oxygen, and tobacco had gone to the whip. "Hear you been trying to raise money to build a new Catholic church up there. Tell me about it," he rasped. As we spoke, his breathing grew more labored; his voice fell to a whisper. Then, "Gotta go...take care yaself." Alone, John S. Covalli died the day the Pimlico Special was run in the mud. He hated mud. In attendance were a motorized wheelchair, TV--and his oxygen tank. On leaving Carpenter Street, his executrix pressed an envelope into my hand, saying, "John left instructions for you to bet this on his horse in the last race. On the nose. Name's The New Church." Riders up!