LAUREL -- "I was aboard ship, about to leave for Africa," Alfred Vanderbilt said. "I was going shooting. It was OK to do in those days."
One of those days, in September 1933, a messenger hurried to the ship with news that would set the course of Vanderbilt's life and change the course of American horse racing.
"He said the horse was mine," Vanderbilt recalled. For $25,000, Adolphe Pons, the founder of Country Life Farm in Bel Air, was selling him Discovery, 2-year-old chestnut son of the long-winded Preakness winner, Display.
For his 21st birthday (Sept. 22) Vanderbilt's mother gave him the original 280 acres of Sagamore, the many-splendored farm at Glyndon, in the Worthington Valley.
As handicap champion of 1935-36, Discovery would win 17 of 33 starts under an average weight of 131 pounds (Secretariat never carried more than 126). As a stallion he begat Miss Disco, who gave birth to Bold Ruler, sire of Secretariat and 81 other stakes winners.
"I guess I had as many as 60 horses at one time," Vanderbilt said of his racing stable at its peak, after Sagamore's fabulous "Class of 1950," including the great (21-for-22) gray, Native Dancer.
The numbers have diminished, but the enthusiasm has not. Vanderbilt was at Laurel last week to see Up in Front in a race of 3-year-old maidens. The roan gelding is half his racing stable now.
"I don't 'see' my horses anymore," corrected Vanderbilt, who is almost totally blind. "But I like to be there when they run."
His other runner, Upon My Soul, is at Gulfstream Park with trainer Rick Violette. "He wanted to take this one to Florida, too," Vanderbilt said. "But it occurred to me that what I've always had horses for is my pleasure. I'm having fun today."
He moved very close to the television monitor in the clubhouse box as Up in Front broke slowly, as is his wont, in the 1 1/16-mile race. Mary Eppler, Up in Front's trainer, "saw" the race for Vanderbilt.
"He ran pretty well," Eppler concluded as Up in Front came under the wire third, and she left for the unsaddling area.
So did Vanderbilt. "I want to go hear what the jockey has to say," he said eagerly, as if it were 1953 and he was heading for the winner's circle at Saratoga to hear Eric Guerin's report after Native Dancer buried them in the Travers at 1-20.
Vanderbilt got there in time to hear jockey Edgar Prado say that Up in Front hadn't run badly at all. He had run dismally three times since Sept. 10, when he almost caught the winner in the last sixteenth.
"The purses are smaller here," Vanderbilt said, "but he's got a better chance. Anyway, I'm having more fun here today than at all his [seven] races in New York last year."
Back at the box seat, Timothy G. Hulings of Elkton introduced himself. Wearing a tam decorated with a tartan band and an American Legion button, he extended his hand and said: "Mr. Vanderbilt, I've wanted to meet you. I believe we were in the Pacific together."
"Well, it could well be," Vanderbilt said. "It's a big ocean."
But a small world. "I was on a minesweeper," Hulings said. "You were in PT boats, weren't you?"
He was, and the two old sailors chatted until it was time to watch Hulings' horse in the next race.
"Yes, I knew Frank Roosevelt." They were talking about FDR Jr., a contemporary in the Navy.
"That was fun," Vanderbilt said later. "You know, we were talking about things that were 49 years ago?"
Fifty years ago Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was serving a third year as operating officer of Pimlico. He had taken over the leadership of the depressed track at age 25, in 1938, and effected improvements. (Removal of the storied "Hilltop" in the infield was, he says, a mere detail.)
But there were no gimmicks or giveaways, even though depressed movie theaters in those years were giving away dishes and raffling off Ford V-8s (manufacturers' recommended price: $695).
"There's nothing wrong with marketing," Vanderbilt says of latter-day huckstering, "but why don't they market the product: horse racing?
"It used to be a spectator sport, but now they think you've got to be a rival of the casinos."
Vanderbilt has fought the good, if quixotic, fight for his spectator sport. He was president of the Westchester Racing Association, predecessor of the New York Racing Association. He was chairman of the NYRA for four years and remains a member of the board. The New York Turf Writers Association named Vanderbilt "The Man Who Did Most For Racing" an unequaled four times.
His sense of humor has always been reflected in the naming of his horses. Most notorious of the names he has sneaked past the Jockey Club censors over the years is Social Outcast, of that Class of 1950. He was by Shut Out out of Pansy.
"Oh, they made a big thing of that, but it was by no means the best," Vanderbilt said. "I'd say Splitting Headache [The Axe-Top O' the Morning] was good."
So were Bare Facts (In Reality-Showoff) and Cold Comfort (Nearctic-Scarlet Letter). Up in Front, last week's runner at Laurel, is by Mr. Leader out of Low Cut.
Vanderbilt is appalled by the NYRA's more-is-better logic in extending the August meeting in Saratoga to five weeks. Racing draws big crowds at Saratoga and doesn't anymore in New York.
"Couldn't that be because they're not doing something right in New York?" Vanderbilt asked. "Now I hear they're going to have the concerts at Belmont again. That's dumb."
In recent years there have been rock/pop concerts as a side show near the Belmont Park paddock, with mixed reviews.
He can hardly read his scrapbooks now, but Vanderbilt cherishes them. "Hundreds of newspaper clippings," he said. "All about horses. Nobody wrote about handles or double-triples. They wrote about horses, and people."