King Knocker

By Neil Pessin
"ENTER THEN KNOCK." I will always remember that sign hanging on the office door of Fair Grounds racing secretary and director of racing Mervin Muniz. Quite a bit of "knocking" occurred in that little office over the many years that Mervin was racing secretary. If you were the subject of the knocking and were present at the time, it was futile to try and defend yourself. There was even a horse named after Mervin--King Knocker.

For all the knocking that went on in Mervin's office, there was still a lot of fun and camaraderie. Sitting there, listening and observing, I learned a lot about the management and daily operation of a racetrack. Mervin was amazing. He could take entries, hustle horses, set races, answer the telephone, approve checks, and carry on conversations all at once and do it with effortless ease. At any point during the day, Mervin could tell you if the betting handle was up or down.

It was a mixed bag that held court in Mervin's office while the races were running. The regulars included Lloyd Maestri (retired police captain), various trainers, chart-callers, and jock agents. Even Al Stall Sr. (chairman of the Louisiana State Racing Commission), who has a suite at the track, preferred to hang out with Mervin.

From first post to last, Mervin's office was action central. He had six televisions going at the same time. Five television sets were tuned to simulcast tracks like Oaklawn or Gulfstream. He monitored those tracks, calling the outriders occasionally to stretch post time by a minute or two so there would be no conflict or overlap. The remaining television was set either on the Weather Channel or a football game.

Mervin was a big Saints fan. Unfortunately, he will not be around to see them make the Super Bowl (then again, his nieces and nephews may not live that long either).

Mervin's passions in life were a New Orleans trifecta: horse racing, politics, and food--in that order. He was a diehard Republican, but even if you were a Democrat seeking re-election and you supported the racetrack, you would get Mervin's support. He seemed to know every politician--local, state, and national. Election night was tougher on him than trying to fill a stakes race with only two confirmed runners.

Another event that Mervin looked forward to was Mardi Gras. As a founding member of the "Krewe of Endymion," he loved to ride in the largest and best parade of the carnival season. This past year, his brother Ramon had to take Mervin's place up on the float. I was fortunate to ride in Endymion the past 10 years. I will always remember looking out at the sea of screaming faces while standing next to Mervin, who actually sat on an ice chest part of the time. It was wild and crazy. Mervin would throw one or two strings of beads at a time. He never could figure out why he had so many beads left at the end of the parade route.

One of the things I remember most about Mervin was his soft spot for the little guy, the small outfit trainer with one or two horses. In 1983, when I first came to Fair Grounds, Mervin made me feel welcome right from the start. He invited me, along with a couple of other out-of-state trainers, over to his house for Thanksgiving dinner. His mom cooked lasagna, oyster dressing and, of course, turkey. I felt like I was part of the family.

Most of us can count on one hand the number of "true" friends we have (especially in the horse business). Mervin was one of my true friends. He is what kept me going to Fair Grounds for 20 years. He was a constant presence through all the ownership changes and always a gentleman.

They say that the way a man lived his life is reflected at his wake and funeral. Horsemen like Bobby Frankel, Gene Cilio, Tommy Tomillo, Hal Wiggins, and many others traveled great distances to send Mervin off. Mervin was truly a New Orleans character, an icon, and a nice guy.

I am going to miss "entering before knocking." So will a lot of other people.

Trainer NEIL PESSIN has spent the past 20 winters stabled at Fair Grounds.