In the home stretch McMullen retiring after life in racing

March 07, 1991|By Ross Peddicord | Ross Peddicord,Evening Sun Staff

LAUREL -- It would take just a couple of trips to the hot box and Eddie McMullen could get down to riding weight.

At 64, he weighs 119 pounds, not much more than he did as a young jockey who rode such horses as Black Canasta and Fire Fox at local tracks nearly 40 years ago. He later became a trainer, and then in 1962 McMullen switched from the care and feeding of racehorses to the care and feeding of racing writers.

Another link to racing's good old days will be gone next week when McMullen retires on the last day of the Laurel meet.

He has been the major-domo of press boxes at Maryland's thoroughbred tracks for almost three decades. He's a candidate for one of racing's all-time unsung hero awards, said former Pimlico general manager Chick Lang. "Success in racing is based on two things: past performance and the ability to go a distance. Eddie has both qualities," Lang said.

"He's also an absolute doll," said Donna Donovan, a former assistant in the public relations department. The press box cafe at Pimlico is named McMullen's Pub and, at times, he's been jokingly referred to by his press corps colleagues as Eddie McMuffin.

Ever since he was solicited to help run the press box on Preakness Day in 1962, McMullen has passed on his knowledge of racing -- gleaned from the hands-on experience of riding and training and hotwalking -- to the press corps. He has honed his diplomatic skills to satisfy the demands of the most egomaniacal writers, especially during the Preakness media circus.

"He takes care of everybody, and that's hard when you have racing 52 weeks a year," Lang said. McMullen has become such a fixture at Maryland tracks that more than 100 friends, mostly all racetrackers, are expected to attend a party at Laurel Friday night thrown in his honor by track owner Joe De Francis.

When McMullen started riding at age 18, racing was a lot less sophisticated. He remembers being pulled off his horse by another jockey during a race at Rockingham Park. "That was before video patrol cameras, and jocks got away with a lot of rough riding," he said. "Now, with closed circuit TV, you can practically see the filling in the jocks' teeth when they leave the starting gate."

McMullen was one of four riding brothers -- George, Leo, Eddie and Bill -- who rode principally in New England, but also on the Maryland and Delaware circuits. He estimates that in an era before year-round racing, they collectively won more than 1,000 races. His other brother, Roger, is a priest who walked hots before he attended seminary.

Recently McMullen sat in the club basement of his suburban Laurel home and leafed through a couple of boxes of win photos. There seemed to be a story connected with each one.

One old photo is inscribed "Got The Money, Eddie," referring to when McMullen booted in a 190-1 long shot named Buddie Bones at Randall Park. The horse paid $385 to win.

Pointing to one photo, McMullen says he's angry in the picture. "Yancey Christmas [the late trainer] told the stewards that the race was fixed and that I was going to be put on the lead," McMullen said. "I got so mad, I refused to ride, but the stewards made me." He did win the race, at Randall Park aboard the filly Endear, but he came from off the pace.

Then there is the picture of River Play, his first winning mount, in 1948 at Monmouth Park. "In those days, the riders had contracts to ride for certain outfits," McMullen said. "I rode for a trainer named Charlie Grande. River Play had been sick and I'd come back in the afternoons and taken care of him. I'd let him graze and gave him special attention. He became my mount, and my first win."

McMullen finally gave up riding when he broke both of his legs in a spill at Waterford Park.

He then turned to training, and "was known as a thorough horseman," recalls Muggins Feldman, former PR director at Bowie.

McMullen's best horse was the filly Daring Step, but she invokes some bitter memories. He lost the job training the filly after he ruptured his spleen during a training accident. When he recovered, the filly's owner had turned the horse over to his son-in-law to train, and she became a multiple stakes winner.

But mostly the memories are good.

McMullen is a family man, married to his wife, Angie, for 42 years. After the early years of the itinerant life of racetrackers, they settled in Laurel, about 5 miles from the track. They met at the bTC beach near Monmouth Park and have three grown sons -- Eddie Jr., Pat and Kevin. None are in the horse business. Angie, who didn't care for her husband's life as a jockey, quipped, "I fed the boys a lot when they were little, so they'd grow up too big to ride."

McMullen said the best racehorse he has ever seen is Spectacular Bid. "He could do anything," he said. "He'd run to his workouts. He didn't have to be in front. He could be placed anywhere and still win. He was as game as they come."

He thinks Chris McCarron is the sport's best jockey: "He tries all the time, and he's got such a good pair of hands. He gets horses to really run for him."

Typically, McMullen, the consummate racetracker and family man, said his favorite track is Laurel.

Why?

"Because," he said, "it's close to home."

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