Press Box Reveries

By Morton Cathro -- After an absence of 50-plus years, I recently paid a visit to my old haunt, the press box at Golden Gate Fields. Like the racing strip itself, as well as the barns and grandstand, the sacrosanct inner sanctum of Turf writers has been spruced up under the aegis of Golden Gate's new owner, Frank Stronach. But the fresh paint and fresh faces of the new generation of writers -- far fewer nowadays -- couldn't prevent a wave of nostalgia from sweeping over me as I remembered the many oldtimers, and gazed down from the privileged perch at the track where, in my salad days, I had witnessed Turf history in the making.

It seemed fitting that my visit virtually coincided with the 60th anniversary of opening day of the 'Gate's inaugural meeting, which as a teen-aged schoolboy I had attended on Feb. 1, 1941.

I wasn't in the press box that day, of course, although as a budding race fan and sportswriter on my school newspaper I dreamed of one day being a newsman qualified to enter. Thanks to rainstorms of Arkian proportions that closed the track after only five days--and thanks to World War II, which kept it closed for the next five years--it wasn't until its grand reopening in 1947 that my dream was to be realized.

What followed for press box denizens was the stuff of which good stories are made: full fields, classy Thoroughbreds, top jockeys and trainers, big crowds, and world records shattered hither and yon.

Although few of us sensed it at the time, one of the most memorable events was the debut of a youngster listed in the program as W. Shoemaker, who as an unknown apprentice rode his first winner at Golden Gate on April 20, 1949.

I still have that keepsake, one of a small batch of spoiled programs from the printer which, instead of discarding, frugal track management had allocated to the press box along with the usual ham sandwiches, beer, and mimeographed overnights. It is intact, the type readable, but somehow a bindery malfunction had left extraneous inch-square pieces of paper dangling from the corners of each page. Dare I call them hanging chads?

Also stashed among my souvenirs are two mutuel tickets dated June 24, 1950, reminders of that historic afternoon when Noor beat Citation for the second week in a row. Reluctant to choose between the two champions, I had bet $2 on both, but never cashed the winning ticket.

Noor set world records on those successive Saturdays: 1:46 4/5 for 1 1/8 miles, and 1:58 1/5 for 1 1/4 miles. In all, nine world records were established between 1947 and 1950.

They were a hard-working, if odd, Runyon-esque bunch in that crowded press box of yesteryear, ready to back their picks with cash--without much success in the case of Lee (Owin') Owen of the Oakland Tribune. Owen was an ailing, battle-scarred septuagenarian when, still wet behind the ears, I arrived to contribute my best bets in verse form.

Six metropolitan dailies served San Francisco and Oakland then--only two do so today--and it was not uncommon for each to assign teams of writer-handicappers to Bay Meadows, Tanforan, and Golden Gate. When Owen died broke, the Trib sent Gus (The Bald Eagle) Scherck, a hefty ex-linebacker, and Arthur W. (Bud) Brown, a reformed bookie, to replace him. Brown, whose selections bore the heading "Eye 'n the Sky," nursed his asthma attacks with liberal doses of bourbon; he soon acquired the endearing sobriquet of "Face on the Floor."

Levity was supplied in the columns of Jack McDonald of the Call-Bulletin, whose Professor Ople Soss, the Equine Savant, lectured readers picking longshots. And when the track was sloppy, Tom Lennon of the Post-Enquirer dreamed up imaginary races featuring Clem the Clam and other crustaceans from adjacent San Francisco Bay.

In fancy I still see Abe Kemp of the Examiner chewing on his cigar as he hunt-and-pecks his Underwood; still hear the mellifluous calls of track announcer Hal Moore and the bellowing of track publicist Bob Wuerth rooting a longshot home; still marvel at the uncanny ability of veterans Oscar Otis and Mark Roberts of the Chronicle and Ed Romero of the Call to consistently pick the most winners.

Those were the days, my dear departed friends, those were the days. . . .