From the Around 2 Turns Archive (first published October 22, 2014): Sympathy Card to a Wealthy Widow

Oscar de la Renta died on Monday at his place in Kent, Connecticut. He left behind three sisters, a son, and a wife, the former Annette Engelhard Reed. Here is where the faithful reader may wonder why the demise of a famous fashion designer has turned up in a horse racing blog, which is totally a fair question. And the short answer is, well, this is a blog. It’s personal.

The long answer starts with a chance encounter in an elevator at the old offices of The New York Times on West 43rd Street. I can’t recall the exact date, but, for reasons that will soon be apparent, it must have taken place sometime between late 2001 and early 2003.

It was at least eleven-and-a-half years ago because Howell Raines was still the Executive Editor of the paper, and Jayson Blair was still plagiarizing. And I know it was no more than thirteen years ago because I had cleared lobby security by flashing my company ID, which, post-9/11, we were required to have on continuous display via lanyards roped around our button-down collars. I stepped into an elevator, pressed six for Circulation, and was then joined by Raines and a handsome, elegant and impeccably-dressed couple. The husband looked familiar, as well he should have; he was Oscar de la Renta.

Howell Raines was a pretty sharp dresser, but, by comparison, these two made him look more like Lieutenant Columbo on a bad day (below, from a different time, via the Daily News).

CFDA latestpix linkcelebs americaYes, it was a long way back to me in fourth place. Which was why you could have knocked me over with an air kiss when Mrs. de la Renta not only turned to me as if I actually existed, but almost seemed to compliment me on the sweater I was wearing. “Ooh!” she cooed, gesturing to the white stitched logo over my heart, “the Breeders’ Cup!

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For this one time at least, I knew exactly what to say. I held out my orange-colored lanyard to show her the blue stitching that read “2001 Breeders’ Cup World Championship” and replied “AND the matching lanyard!” She smiled sweetly; I gave a gentlemanly nod; and exited as the door opened on six.

Time passed. Jayson Blair’s serial plagiarism was revealed, and Howell Raines got the axe. Lobby security got beefed up, so I was able to put away the souvenir lanyard from the day that Tiznow “won it for America”. I wear the sweater every once in a while, but hadn’t really thought much about Annette de la Renta since then, until yesterday.

People with money and great thoroughbreds tend to go together, so back then it had not struck me as odd that the wife of the famous designer was familiar with the Breeders’ Cup. Perhaps I should have realized then that her familiarity with racing preceded her marriage to de la Renta. Their 1989 wedding was a second act for both; with the designer’s first wife having died of cancer, while Annette Engelhard Reed had been divorced.

Mrs. de la Renta was born Anne France Mannheimer in 1939. Her father was a German Jewish banker who died mysteriously before she was born (his bank-financed art collection and the Nazis may have been involved). Her mother was an outcross of a Shanghai-based German Jewish industrialist and a woman named Ignatia Mary Valerie Murphy (of the San Francisco Murphys). After the war, mother and daughter moved to the United States, where mother remarried well and young Annette was adopted by her stepfather, the industrialist Charles W. Engelhard, Jr.

Horseplayers of a certain vintage might remember Engelhard as the man behind Cragwood Stable, which campaigned great horses like Halo (the sire of two Derby winners) in the states. Engelhard also had some success in England. His best horse was purchased at auction in Canada and sent across the pond to Vincent O’Brien for training. That horse’s name was Nijinsky (and I will not sully his great name by adding the “II” you often see when he is referenced stateside).

So now when I think about that elevator ride, my first thought won’t be of Oscar de la Renta or Howell Raines, but of that warm and stylish lady who noticed my Breeders’ Cup sweater, and whose father (the only one she ever knew, anyway) owned the last horse to win the British Triple Crown. Today, she has all my sympathy for what must be an inconsolable loss.

Nijinsky and Lester Piggott claiming a historic Triple Crown triumph in the 1970 St LegerNijinsky, Lester Piggott up, photo from The Guardian

From the Racing Library: The Great American Racetracks

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Back in the days of Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, I was eager to learn about horse racing and started frequenting the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village. The silvery-blue glass of broken car windows was general along the city streets, and handmade signs taped inside parked cars advertised that the radio had already been stolen¹. Once inside, I would exchange my satchel for a numbered tag, weave my way through the crowded main floor, and take the stairs to the basement level to see what they had on the “Equine” shelves in the “Sports” section.

In those days, the Strand was your best bet for acquiring hard-to-find sporting titles such as Andy Beyer’s Picking Winners (Houghton Mifflin, 1975) or Tom Ainslie’s The Compleat Horseplayer (Trident, 1966). These books were key texts in the core curriculum of this handicapper’s elementary education.

The Strand’s decades-old slogan – “18 Miles of Books” – apparently understates its current inventory by about five miles, which means the store has enough books to cover nearly 16 circuits of the main track at Belmont Park. And even though the “Equine” shelves account for only maybe three-quarters of a length these days, just try finding that many horsey books at your local Barnes and Noble.

Today’s pickings are slimmer than in those days of larcenous crackheads, when I would often stuff that satchel with enough dead weight to have slowed even Ta Wee or Forego to a gallop. And while I have subsequently deigned to surf the net to obtain a rara avis such as Across the Board (Citadel Press, 1956) by Toney Betts (the wonderful “complete sentence as nom de plume” of one Anthony Zito), I still prefer this serendipitous, terrestrial method of book-buying. The anticipatory feeling generated by descending those basement stairs is not unlike walking into a racetrack … what glorious uncertainties await us today?

Sadly, we frontside folk won’t be able to walk into a racetrack (or even the Strand) for the “foreseeable future” (that oxymoronic concept has never seemed more bleakly laughable than it does today, when all our uncertainties seem far from glorious).

These are days for taking your comforts where you find them, and I’ve lately taken some solace in my racing library. Some of the books are favorites that have been read and re-read (and are odds-on to eventually be re-re-read). Others were purchased and placed on the shelves and have only gathered dust (but what’s the point of having a library if you’ve already read all the books?). Rather than indulging in pointless speculation, maybe these days of staying the eff home are better suited for pointless retrospection.

Towards that end, the “From the Racing Library” series kicks off today with one of the few so-called “coffee table” books in my collection, Nancy Stout’s Great American Thoroughbred Racetracks (Rizzoli, 1991).

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It’s a hefty, handsome book of black and white photography with quite a bit of text and history (relative to what might be generally expected in the “coffee table” genre). After I purchased it sometime in the early 1990s, it served less as a record of the great tracks I’d already had the good fortune of visiting (Arlington, Belmont, Del Mar, Monmouth, Santa Anita, and Saratoga), and more of an inspiration to eventually make my way to the remaining half-dozen of Stout’s “Greats”.

 

Churchill got crossed off the list when I attended the 1998 Breeders’ Cup. It would take 18 years to make any further progress, but in 2016 I was able to visit two more (however, by then the old Gulfstream grandstand had been trampled by a giant Pegasus and the lovely Hialeah clubhouse had been effectively reduced to the most architecturally significant off-track-betting parlor in the Western World).

The Fair Grounds, Keeneland, and Oaklawn Park complete the field, and remain prominent on my “would like to get there someday” list.

Looking at Great American Thoroughbred Racetracks today, it’s haunting to see so many photos of empty racetracks (even if that’s the whole point of architectural photography). Arlington remains a gorgeous dream of a racetrack, and – even before the pandemic struck – it was heartbreaking to think about its cloudy future.

Other photos (apologies for not being able to include them here or offer links) – in the context of these troubled times – have an eerie quality. Santa Anita’s Americana Room (page 199) and the Keeneland Room (also known as the “Clubhouse Entrance”, page 137) have the elegant but vacant look of black-and-white film stills from “The Shining”.

OK, perhaps Great American Thoroughbred Racetracks wasn’t the most uplifting starting point for some escapist, pointless retrospection. But it’s a wonderful book, and I’ve got dozens more where this one came from. And if old books can’t do anything to improve our current situation, maybe they can remind us of happier times, and help to convince us that, surely, there must be better days ahead.

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¹A popular urban myth of the time had the owners of these cars returning to find that their window had been smashed anyway, with the non-trusting thief having left a note that read “Just checking”. It was around this time I sold my car and started riding a bike.

Remembrance of the Spanish Flu

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My father gave me two great gifts. One was a facility with numbers (you could give him a dollar amount on a loan, an interest rate, and a term, and within a few seconds he could tell you what the monthly payment would be). The other was a conviction that I was truly one very lucky ten-year-old.

He was lit when he told me this. He was often lit in those days. But his argument must have been compelling – something about when and where I was born factored into it – because I believed it then and have never had reason to doubt it.

But mostly I took after my mother, whose presence during my childhood overwhelmed whatever influence my father was capable of providing. My many cousins all adored their Uncle Charlie, and with good reason. They saw him only on happy occasions and never really experienced the brooding, self-anesthetizing man who seemed intent on trying to ditch his demons at the Triangle Bar & Grill while his family was eating dinner. He hit bottom when I was 15, soon becoming another of AA’s success stories, and, out of a shared gratitude for his recovery, we all enjoyed 20 great years together by never once revisiting his troubled past.

My mother’s relentlessly sunny disposition, like oxygen and the empty place at the head of the dinner table, was a constant. It was also an act of steely defiance in a life that had more than its share of pain and sorrow. Always content with a single evening cocktail, she chose to slay the various demons from her past by talking about them.

Rita Marie Kelly was born in October, 1918, one year after the Russian Revolution and at the very height of the Spanish Flu pandemic.

Unlike today’s coronavirus, the Spanish Flu did not discriminate by age. Rita grew up in Brooklyn, hearing all about her various relations who had been victims of the pandemic, including an aunt who – devastated by the horror of losing her children to the virus – had died from what her doctor diagnosed as a broken heart.

Rita died more than 20 years ago, as sunny as ever. I still think of her often, though probably not as frequently as I once did. Until the last couple of weeks, that is.

Now I can’t escape the thought of what fresh pain and sadness this new virus might bring, and all the heartbreak that may ensue. Today’s Americans seem woefully ill-equipped to cope even with minor inconveniences such as not being able to go out to the movies or to dinner. To think of how the worst possible scenarios might be received, especially here in the land of plenty, makes the mind reel.

When Rita was about five, she and her younger sister went out on their front porch on a Sunday morning to play with a book of matches. Rita lit one, and attempted to put it out by shaking it back and forth the way she had seen adults do. But her frilly collar (she was dressed for church) predated the era of fireproof clothing, and up it went.

A neighbor from across her Flatbush street saw the small, red-haired girl catch fire, and rushed to save her (he was known to be a drinker, Rita always said). The outlook was grim. But the hospital had a young doctor who had in recent years learned a lot about treating burns incurred from mustard gas. The scarring around her neck and right shoulder grew up with her, and remained a testament to her strength and pluck.

Maybe my father knew for a fact how lucky I was, and just didn’t really want to talk about all the reasons why. Maybe it takes something truly horrible to make you realize just how lucky you’ve been all along.

In the end, seven years after my father’s death, Rita’s scars were clearly visible along the wide, loose collar of her hospital gown. Through the cancer and the morphine, she no longer recognized me. If she was ever fearful, it never showed. And she always did like meeting new people. “I don’t know the face,” she smiled up at me, “but it’s a good one.”

Doing the Right Thing (Whatever the Reason)

As a child of the peace-and-love 1960s who also happens to be a horseplayer, about the only thing I’m hawkish about is takeout¹.

That’s why I experienced a disorienting sense of appreciation when I learned that takeout rates for the inaugural Saudi Cup would be 25% to 50% higher than the juice that is regularly extracted from me by the New York Racing Association (win and exacta bets at NYRA tracks being my usual form of action).

I figured a salty race on dirt with top-class older horses during the month of February is a rare bird these days, and while the crimes against humanity that are routinely committed by Saudi Arabia might not be enough to encourage horseplayers to keep the rubber band taut around their bankrolls, excessive juice just might seal the deal. Politics, morals, and betting on horses can all make for strange bedfellows, and as long as  people end up doing the right thing, who am I to quibble with the purity of their motivations?

American Thoroughbred racing occupies a shady lane within the penumbra of the wider world of sports, and doesn’t really get enough sunlight to ever be properly disinfected. The end result is that while racing’s apologists kick and scream about a mainstream media that “reports only bad news” (such as on-track equine fatalities at Santa Anita), the industry largely flies beneath society’s radar, and has skated on its embrace of an authoritarian regime looking to “sportswash” its mortal sins of murder, misogyny, and war crimes.

It saddens me to think that American morality has become just another commodity that is for sale to the highest bidder. And it’s not just the tacit American approval of the state-sanctioned murder of a Saudi-American Washington Post journalist or the continued subjugation of Saudi women. Our president excuses the House of Saud’s crimes by noting how much they spend on American-made “defense” hardware, yet it is these products of the military-industrial complex that make us complicit in the (effectively) sub rosa Saudi war crimes that are ongoing in Yemen.

The idea that a sense of American morality can exist independently from the constant knee-jerking of politics has been lost. To paraphrase the McCarthy Era hero Joseph Welch, at long last, are we left with no sense of decency?

I tuned in to Saturday’s telecast of the Saudi Cup to see how this sordid affair would play out. The male host, Nick Luck, was his usual chipper and upbeat self. The female host, Michelle Yu, was similarly sunny and was swaddled in a long-sleeved mustard dress that, given the setting, suggested a “topless” burka purchased at Bloomingdale’s. Both were fine, in a blandly inoffensive way.

My main interest was in what companies would advertise on such a program. It was stated up front that the telecast would have “limited commercial interruptions”, which my gimlet eye viewed as not so much “we really care about the viewer’s experience” but more “we couldn’t give this ad space away”.

It was unsurprising to find the young sire Runhappy leading the advertising parade, as his people have yet to find a sandwich board or bus stop they didn’t feel like buying up. But I was extremely disappointed to see that the New York Racing Association’s wagering portal NYRA Bets was the other prominent advertiser.

It had been only a few days since NYRA generated much goodwill by announcing that the large, private “party tent” that had flanked and blocked much of Saratoga’s paddock for the last decade (presumably made redundant by the track’s shiny new 1863 Club) would no longer sully that sacred landscape. For me, that goodwill has now been written down.

It’s really not difficult to ensure that you are “doing the right thing”. Here’s how. Before taking any big step – such as selling off public space to the highest bidder, doing business with a monstrous regime, or rushing at the chance to win a boatload of blood-soaked money – ask yourself these questions: “Am I buying something, or selling something? And if I’m selling something, what is it that I’m selling?” It might just be your good name.

It will be nice to have better views of the Saratoga paddock this summer. But it would have been nicer still had NYRA done all the right things for all the right reasons.

***

¹Takeout is the fixed percentages of the betting dollar that is removed from racing’s pari-mutuel pools.

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Love

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One of the perils of going to an “art house” for some “cinema” is that you might be disturbed by what you see. After all, “Art”, as the saying goes, should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable (an idea also embraced by journalists).

Around this time last year, my wife and I went to see Yorgos Lanthimos’s Oscar-nominated “The Favourite” at our local art house. She liked it more than I did (there was mild disappointment in this corner that it wasn’t about a well-backed British racehorse), but we both left the theater curious to see more of the Lanthimos oeuvre.

A few nights later we screened the director’s “The Lobster” (2015) on Netflix. Once again, the title was somewhat misleading, as the film was not about lobsters per se, but about a man caught in a dystopia who – when offered the chance to possibly be changed into any species across the entire animal kingdom – decided he might join the Nephropidae family. His minder responded enthusiastically, “A lobster is an excellent choice!

Despite being categorized on the IMDb as a comedy/drama/romance, “The Lobster” is hardly a lighthearted romp. Apparently, darkly comic dystopian allegory is not a suitable capsulized description, even in the relatively highbrow pages of the New York Times (which, oddly, saw fit to add sci-fi/thriller to the IMDb’s rom-com-drama trifecta).

One of my failings as a moviegoer is a tendency to take allegories too literally. The “title” character’s choice was based on the lobster’s long life span, enduring fertility, and its “aristocratic” blue blood. While I suppose maintaining a good attitude is helpful even in the face of dystopia, I found it odd that the distinct possibility of being tossed headfirst into a pot of boiling water did not occur to the would-be lobster. That would be like opting for “Thoroughbred” on the magical belief that you will turn out to be AP Indy¹.

Dancing around the subject of death has been with us since humans first developed the habit of whistling past graveyards. People “pass away”. Beloved pets “cross the rainbow bridge” as they are “put to sleep”. Meanwhile, every year, the killing of thousands of unwanted Thoroughbreds is outsourced to abattoirs just across our land borders, largely out of sight and out of mind.

Here’s a sad truth. Slaughter is, effectively, racing’s market-based “solution” to equine population control. It is by far the worst part of American racing’s broken business model. There are more humane options worthy of consideration, but these would bear a financial burden and likely be viewed by racing’s power brokers as either unpalatable (euthanasia) or pie in the sky (a pension for every thoroughbred).

Unlike in the movies, racing will never be able to claim that “no animals were harmed” in the filming of its pictures. That just can’t happen. If American racing is to survive, it will need to show that Thoroughbreds lead long and rewarding lives, and that the inherent perils of racing are therefore risks worth taking. Leave dystopia to the cinema. Racing must show its love is real. This way, when people fantasize about which animal they would like to be, they might actually consider the Thoroughbred. Then, they could even be sincerely reassured that “a Thoroughbred is an excellent choice!

¹AP Indy is a champion racehorse, the most influential American stallion of the last 50 years, and, at 31, the greatest living equine pensioner. [Edit: 8 days after this was posted, AP Indy died peacefully at his home at Lanes End Farm in Kentucky.]

All About “The Pensioner”

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The Pensioner (pensionerspaddock.com) is the online home of Bob Barry. Here’s my story.

My first blog, Around2Turns (2014-2016), was a quirky labor of my love for thoroughbred racing. It was also a quiet act of desperation by a 57-year-old newspaper circulation analyst in dire need of a creative outlet¹.

Around2Turns² gained a following among certain curious subsets within the American racing cognoscenti. This resulted in an invitation from the (in utero) Blood Horse Daily to write a weekly Racing Commentary column. The column ran in most Tuesday editions of the BHD from its launch in August 2015 until August 2018³.

In August 2017, I left my day job with the New York Times to become a full-time resident of a small town in the southwest corner of Columbia County, New York. I started a consulting company and kept up with the column, but country living and semi-retirement only served to confirm long-held suspicions about the supposed salutary benefits of keeping one’s nose to the grindstone.

In late summer 2019, two years after quitting the NYT, a year after being let go by the BHD, and with the consulting work drying up, I filed the necessary papers and started collecting two small pensions (one via the NYT and another from an earlier long-time employer). These futures bets I’d made over 37 years of full-time employment had finally started to pay out. I was a pensioner, free of obligations. This verdant paddock beckoned.

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¹After getting a degree in Literature (Bard ’79), I moved to New York with the bright and original idea that I would work a straight job during the day and write fiction in my spare time. The former proved easier than the latter. The writing bug, however, had never been adequately squashed. On Memorial Day in 1998, at a barbecue in suburban Putnam County, my perceptive wife, sensing a looming mid-life crisis about to overwhelm her husband, cajoled a neighbor of ours who wrote a column for the New York Observer into suggesting that I should write an article about Real Quiet’s quest for the Triple Crown, and he could help the story find its way into print. He sold me on the idea as if it were his own. Thanks to my generous neighbor, my madcap wife, and a friend in the speed figure business who provided some tasty quotes, I had my first byline. But my second would be a long time coming. Right before the millennium turned, when blogging was well on its way towards being a thing, I took on a terribly demanding job with the New York Times. The prospect of writing in my now diminished down time seemed ever more unlikely. It was 13 years later – work demands having slackened – when another opportunity emerged. A friend from another speed figure company, having become aware of my bridled ambitions, suggested he too might be able to help. Thus, with a couple more bylines under my belt, a renewed desire, and a confidence that was perhaps unearned, I started writing regularly about the ponies at Around2Turns.

²Although I retain the rights to the domain, Around2Turns no longer exists (the URL re-directs to here). For every old blog post that still gave me pleasure, there were two more that made me wince. Besides, I needed a fresh start and wanted a different approach. [As a nod to posterity and sop to an ego that still needs frequent stroking, over time I’ll probably repost some of my darlings from @2T here.] This way, I can think of the old blog as just one more absent friend, remembering only the good times we had together.

³The Blood Horse Daily fired me, but it was out of kindness, I suppose. More like the columnist’s version of “suicide by cop”, only with editors pulling the trigger and no one dying. I had been thinking of quitting for a while, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I loved having the platform and the access that a NYRA press pass provided. I knew that, once lost, these things would not be easily regained. But columns that might have once been bittersweet started losing the sweet part. Some sacred cows got tipped and some columns got spiked (if your opinions don’t get spiked every so often, it means you ain’t really trying). I had been asking for it. When the axe fell, I knew I had it coming. I’ve had ten jobs over my lifetime, and this was the first one where leaving was not completely my idea. But I couldn’t feel bad about it or be angry with anyone at the BHD. It had been a great run, but it was time to move on. The events that made 2019 an awful year for American racing only served to confirm that the timing of my downfall was providential. I’d grown weary of cutting my content to fit the fashions of the Jockey Club (owner of the BHD). Trying to write Racing Commentary in 2019 would have only made things harder on everyone. The journalists who write for “the trades” (as Racing Twitter ace @o_crunk accurately refers to the Daily Racing Form, BH/BHD, and the Thoroughbred Daily News) are frequently on the receiving end of criticism that is, in my view, often misdirected. Freedom of the Press – as the old chestnut from the print era goes – belongs to the people who own one. If racing’s trades are serving the broader industry ill, that’s on the bloodstock industry bigwigs (BH & TDN) and venture capital titans (DRF) who own them. Humans – and this I know from personal experience – are pretty good at looking out for their own interests. Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, need all the help they can get.

Welcome to “The Pensioner”

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You can call me Bob, but I’m known around these parts as “The Pensioner”.

Home is an old farm in New York’s Hudson Valley, halfway between “The Graveyard of Favorites” up in Saratoga Springs and Jerome Park down in the Bronx. Once upon a time, these were two of the prettiest race courses in the world. But then – 125 years ago this week – one of them was taken by eminent domain so it might be turned into a reservoir.

As reported by The New York Times 125 years ago today …

With the passing away of 1894 there comes also the passing away of one of the most famous and charming spots in America that has ever been devoted to the interest of sport. – – – The men who brought the picturesque spot into existence as a pleasure resort are not those who are responsible for the fact that racing has degenerated until legislative enactments to restrict gambling, the curse of the sport, have become necessary. – – – That the waters may wipe out the remembrances of degenerate Jerome Park and leave only the memories of its brighter and earlier days is the fervent wish of every lover of sport.   

As my cheval pals across the pond might say, “Plus ca change, n’est-ce pas?”

These are hard times for anyone who loves American Thoroughbred racing. What was once unthinkable – that the terrible and degenerate beauty of Santa Anita Park could get wiped out by a cleansing rain in the form of real estate development – has become all too thinkable.

Still worse, the people tasked with navigating the sport between the Scylla and Charybdis of widespread sports betting and a tectonic cultural shift in animal welfare concerns seem to be asleep at the helm. In a feat with a degree of difficulty equivalent to converting the 7-10 split in bowling, racing seems determined to be swallowed whole by the sports betting monster and getting sucked down into the animal welfare vortex.

As a pensioner, I’ve felt fortunate to have watched racing’s annus horribilis of 2019 from a safe distance. I know I’m one of the lucky few. My races have been run, the roof over my head isn’t going anywhere, and there are fresh oats every morning. But it distresses me to see the sport I have loved for so long being led astray. There is nothing in this for me, but that disinterest alone is probably my best reason for speaking out.

Thus, I hereby proclaim that I have rejoined the fray. American Thoroughbred racing, by the combination of its minders’ actions and inactions, doesn’t really deserve to exist. But its thoroughbreds do. They have earned their place in this world, and not just in some fabled lost city of Atlantis that people won’t even remember 125 years from now.

From the Around 2 Turns Archive: May, 2015 – The Smell of Victory

IMG_1039Not to condone the breaking of the ninth commandment, but one of the things that can make journalism fun to read is that the people who participate in its creation are not under oath. It’s no surprise that a reporter’s subject may misspeak for any number of reasons: guilt, ego, money, or, in the notable case of Richard Nixon, because his lips moved. Outright lies are scattered throughout every one of these “he said, she said” newspaper stories, hiding in plain sight, often within quotation marks, like the telltale clues in a well-plotted murder mystery. The fun resides in spotting them out.

Sometimes you need a couple of different angles. Especially when the story unfolds over fifteen years and has a cast of characters that includes Ahmed Zayat, the owner of Triple Crown contender (and scourge of spellcheck) American Pharoah; a convicted felon named Howard Rubinsky; two wayward brothers from New Jersey; offshore bookmakers; and agents from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Zayat declined comment and lawyered up when Joe Drape of the Times was breaking this story last week. Zayat is the defendant in a breach of contract suit brought by Rubinsky, a former recruiter for offshore bookmakers. Rubinsky claims to have fronted for Zayat, advancing him two million dollars in credit that Zayat subsequently lost to the bookmaker, leaving Rubinsky to suffer the actual loss. Zayat was deposed in the case last November and has denied owing Rubinsky anything. At least one of them is lying.

One of the rare facts on which both Zayat and Rubinsky agree is that they were introduced by two brothers, Michael and Jeffrey Jelinsky, sometime in the early 2000s. The brothers arranged for Rubinsky to be a surprise guest at a breakfast meeting at Zayat’s home in Teaneck, New Jersey. Zayat testified that he thought of himself as a mentor to the two enterprising young lads (whom he had known since the early nineties when they were still in high school), and that the meeting was an investment pitch on which he took a pass. Rubinsky claims that this meeting was the genesis of an eventual contractual relationship regarding lines of credit with the offshore bookmakers whom Zayat subsequently stiffed.

Regardless of which side you believe, there is little doubt that fortune has favored Zayat since this foursome sat down to breakfast more than twelve years ago. His Zayat Stables has been one of the leading North American stables since 2007 with horses like Pioneerof The Nile and Nehro and Bodemeister (all Kentucky Derby bridesmaids) and now the Triple Crown aspirant with the misspelled name. Rubinsky has seen financial ruin and pleaded guilty for his role in the operation, leaving him a convicted felon. Michael and Jeffrey Jelinsky were convicted of illegal bookmaking in 2009 and sentenced to 15 and 21 months in prison, respectively, along with a combined forfeiture of nearly $5 million.

But while Ahmed Zayat has seemingly flourished, he is apparently the talk of the offshore betting set for having left bad markers in and around the Caribbean. Three days after Drape’s bombshell dropped on nytimes.com, Ken Kurson reported in the Observer (he is its editor) that two men presumed to have a working knowledge of the publicity-shy offshore betting industry contend that Zayat “still owes quite a few sports books quite a bit of money”  and has “a lot of debts”. While you may be skeptical about someone who loves being called “The Gambling Globetrotter” (and who, despite all that globetrotting, still finds the time to publish a website dedicated to cataloging Zayat’s less-favorable press), the fact that there are others who support Rubinsky’s assertions suggests there may well be some pale fire here and not just smoke.

It seems Kurson did a great job of getting under Zayat’s skin, because rather than say “no comment” and refer to counsel, the defendant opened up his yap and proceeded to protest just a bit too much. Maybe it was Kurson’s sources with inside information about the offshore books. Maybe it was the odd bit that Kurson related firsthand from his previous stint in politics, where Zayat apparently did not vet out sufficiently to be cleared for hosting a 2007 fundraiser for the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani. Whatever the reason, Zayat did himself no favors with this interview.

Kurson quotes Zayat as saying “He’s talking about me betting overseas in Costa Rica. I’ve never in my life been in Costa Rica.” Whom is Zayat trying to fool with such inanity? Even a piker of a punter such as your correspondent knows the advantage to having an offshore account is that it allows you to bet beyond the reach of the US government while keeping yourself safely onshore.

Zayat told Kurson “He’s talking 2003. I was in Egypt, as CEO of a beverages company. I was working 18 hours a day. It’s an insanity.” Back then Zayat was spending roughly three workweeks out of every month in Egypt. But he was also spending weekends and down time with his family at his home in Teaneck, which is where he acknowledges meeting with the Jelinskys, who were by then based in Las Vegas and becoming well acquainted with high-stakes offshore bookmakers.

Zayat’s testimony suggests that the Jelinsky brothers reconnected with him after reading a glowing article about his business triumphs in Egypt in the Christmas Day 1999 edition of the New York Times. [Zayat was born in Egypt and came to the US as a teenager. After college he worked in New York real estate and on Wall Street before making his fortune in 1997 by arranging the purchase of a monopoly beer and beverage company from the Egyptian government and then taking it public. The company was subsequently sold in 2002 to Heineken for $280 million – roughly four times greater than what Zayat’s group paid for it.]

In 2013 Zayat suffered the embarrassment of having an untruth detected in his official biography. Even after all of his success in business, and despite actual degrees from Yeshiva and Boston University, Zayat continued to list a nonexistent MBA from Harvard on his CV. It was only when the Record of New Jersey raised the fact that Harvard had no record of his ever having attended that Zayat had the bogus degree scrubbed from his stable’s website. But old habits are hard to quit. About 18 months after the Record revealed his ivy-covered untruth, Zayat found himself in an east side law office, under oath, being deposed by Rubinsky’s lawyer.

Q: Where did you attend (college)?

A: Yeshiva University, Harvard University and Boston University.

If Zayat cannot bring himself to be truthful about his classroom achievements while under oath, how can you believe anything he might say to a newspaper reporter about millions of dollars in illegal offshore betting?

In his sworn deposition, Zayat stated that he handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Jelinskys and smaller amounts to Rubinsky, but he represents these as loans and acts of charity to beleaguered individuals, and not the partial settling of gambling debts with three soon-to-be convicted felons.

The $600,000 in purported loans to the Jelinsky brothers caused a stir when they became part of the public record after Zayat Stables went through bankruptcy proceedings in early 2010. This came roughly a year after the Jelinskys pleaded guilty to illegal bookmaking and would seem to put Zayat in the unenviable position (for a big-time thoroughbred owner) of having associated with known bookmakers. But Zayat seemed to have dodged this bullet back then, owing to his long personal history with the brothers, and his insistence that these were mitzvahs, and not payoffs on gambling debts. But one line in Joe Drape’s February 20, 2010 story about this episode clearly shows that Zayat is all too willing to dispense with the truth whenever it suits his purpose.

Zayat told Drape in 2010 that he had never been contacted by law enforcement authorities about the Jelinskys’ illegal activity (presumably because that would have indicated that he had been knowingly dealing with bookmakers). But in his deposition from last November, Zayat not only testified that he had been visited by agents from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in May of 2008, but that he had placed bets with Michael Jelinsky during the time period when Jelinsky confessed to having been illegally booking bets.

Should American Pharoah go on to win the Belmont Stakes and you happen to hear a mighty rumbling when Ahmed Zayat raises the Triple Crown trophy above his head, don’t worry: it’s probably just the sound of Jule Fink (the most unfairly maligned owner in racing history) turning over in his grave.

We close this inquiry into untruths and their seeming lack of consequences with this: The Observer reported that Zayat cited the timing of Rubinsky’s suit as a way of capitalizing on the sudden fame of American Pharoah and Zayat Stables. Rubinsky filed his suit in March of 2014; five months before the start of American Pharoah’s racing career. If Rubinsky had American Pharoah in mind when he brought this suit, it would represent the greatest futures bet in the history of throughbred racing.