"Playing the Ponies" in Newark

by Jule Spohn


I have just bought, and received in the mail, the book "TWO MINUTES TO GLORY - The Official History Of The Kentucky Derby" by Pamela K. Brodowsky and Tom Philbin - available on Amazon.com. For those of you "racing enthusiasts" or for those with occasional interest, this is a great book, full of facts, stories, and photo's of every race, horse, and jockey, from the first race in 1875 right up to last year - 2006. Who can ever forget some of the greatest racing horses of all time - Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), Northern Dancer (1964), Affirmed (1978), and all of the rest.

This year's Kentucky Derby is coming up in just a few weeks on May 5th. I must admit though that I have never been to a track. Back in the 1940's and 50's my mother would, on occasion, go down to Monmouth Park for the day. I'll never forget the day when my mother didn't go, but gave a lady friend of hers some money to place on a horse. The horse won, and the woman told my mother that she "forgot" to place the bet. I was shocked to see how my mother reacted to this woman at that moment - after that they never spoke to each other again.

My mother and father both "played the ponies" several times a week. As a kid I remember having to go down to the corner store and get a copy of the "Racing Telegraph" and some of the other "racing result" sheets for them and watch as they plotted and calculated which horse to place their money on in that's day's race. Every evening at around 5pm the racing results came over the radio while we were having dinner at the kitchen table. Whenever my father's horse lost, he would bang his fist on the table and say "SON OF A PUP." My father did not curse and that was the strongest language he would use in front of me and my mother.

I remember my mother telling me when I was grown up how she took me across the street to the barber shop for my first haircut when I was around three years old. The barber shop had three barber's chairs right there in front and then had a wall made up of those frosted brick-like blocks and a door. The barber, who knew my mother, said to her: "I haven't cut hair in over 20 years." The barber shop was only a "front" for the bookies behind that glass partition.

One of the neighborhood bars, "Danny's Wonder Bar" on the SE corner of South Orange Ave and 10th Street, had several wonderful mural's and photo's of some of the great racing horses up to that time behind the bar and on the side walls. I can still picture this place in my mind. The place was packed on Saturday afternoons during the races which we watched on the old black and white TV set.

Well, with the race just a few weeks away why not consider throwing a "Kentucky Derby" party at home, invite some of your friends, make some mint juleps, break out that old bottle bourbon you've been keeping on the back shelf, put on a recording of "My Old Kentucky Home" and sit back and have a great time watching the race.


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