Is Maryland's racing industry sick? Paging Dr. Mutt!

May 18, 1994|By Jim Sizemore

DURING the 50 weeks a year when Maryland racing industry honchos aren't hyping the Preakness, they are crying and whimpering that business has fallen off so much that the tracks deserve to be on the endangered list.

I'm not worried. From close observation of the lemming-like behavior of my pony-playing friends, I doubt that any fiscal problems in what I call the Sport of Fools are terminal.

To illustrate, I'll use a newspaper comic strip first published Nov. 15, 1907. The strip was called A. Mutt in those days, and its creator, Bud Fisher, became a rich man simply by pointing out, in endless variation and with great humor, how dimwitted -- or, to put it in politically correct language of 87 years later, how intellectually challenged -- the horse-race gamblers are.

In the beginning, the strip featured only one main character, a tall cigar smoker with the appearance of a gangly water bird -- one "Augustus Mutt." Mutt was short for "muttonhead," a description of someone not too swift. So right away the reader was given an important clue to the content of his character.

A. Mutt, which flourished and became the first successful daily ,, comic strip, was clearly not designed for children. It ran across the top of the sports page (Bud Fisher was originally a sports cartoonist), and its intended audience was adult. (The only regular comics in those days appeared on Sunday with colorful features pitched to kids.)

Mr. Augustus Mutt was certainly concerned with an adult endeavor -- the obsessive pursuit of a big killing at the track. He spent all his time trying to come up with the loot he needed to achieve that end, and when he wasn't thus occupied, he was mulling over creative ways to choose which horse to bet on. At the former he was ingenious but, ultimately, inept. When it came to losing the money he managed to raise, though, he was all too accomplished.

Anything might attract him and suggest the name of a "sure thing" -- a word or phrase he read in the newspaper, something he overheard in the street, the name of his toothpaste. In one episode he jumped into San Francisco Bay to rescue a woman from drowning, and when she uttered "Thanks be" in gratitude, Mutt, realizing it was the name of a nag running in the third race that afternoon, left her to her fate and swam off to place his wager.

On another occasion, sick and in the hospital, he heard a doctor recommend rest and "sea air" to another patient. Mutt leapt from his bed and out the hospital window. In the last panel of the strip we see him at the $2 window, placing a bet on a horse with the same tag.

Day after day the punch line of the strip had Mutt --ing up to the betting window, arms flapping out from his body, angled at the elbow like broken wings, cash in hand, desperate to give it up.

In a March 1908 episode, Mutt got into trouble for one of his less-than-legal money-raising schemes. He was arrested and taken to court. During the trial his sanity was called into question, and he was committed to a local insane asylum. At the "bughouse," he met people who fancied themselves to be Shakespeare, George Washington, the czar of Russia, assorted millionaires, poets, kings and captains of industry.

Among these lost souls he also met a short, bald fellow with muttonchop whiskers who claimed to be Jeff Jeffries, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world.

The diminutive and gentle Jeff was no such thing, of course, but after repeated appearances in the strip, including one 1908 sequence in which he and Mutt ran for president on the Bughouse Party ticket, he became a regular. With his calm, confused, sweet nature -- and short stature -- Jeff served to counterpoint the obsessive, money-grubbing, something-for-nothing gambling drive of the much taller Mutt.

By 1910 he had distinguished himself as the perfect foil for Mutt, and they became permanent sidekicks. On Sept. 15, 1916, the strip was renamed "Mutt and Jeff." In that year Bud Fisher (who would have had a field day in 1994 with a horse called Go For Gin) was making $150,000 from the feature. Five years later -- 1921 -- Mutt and Jeff animated cartoons, merchandising and the increased circulation of the strip pushed Fisher's income past $250,000.

A very smart rich man was writing and drawing a comic strip about "the Sport of Kings," a strip that had as its two lead characters a bumbling compulsive gambler and a sweet-spirited lunatic. Both were losers, and both, in the opinion of their creator and thousands of fans, represented humorous versions of the horse player's doltish persona.

So it's 1994, and once again the racing moguls are asking for help, telling us they are in grave financial trouble. As I say, we've heard this song before. As recently as 1981, similar distress calls came from Bowie, Laurel and Pimlico. But after much wringing of hands and media attention, the tracks managed to turn it around and survive. I think they will again. They always do because the problem with horse racing is also its strength. As Balzac said, "The gambling passion lurks at the bottom of every heart."

Jim Sizemore is a Baltimore writer.

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