At Pimlico, big whinnies get a bit of a pun-around

May 19, 1994|By Alan Goldstein | Alan Goldstein,Sun Staff Writer

There are horse players, and there are racing fanatics. Harry Tendler, alias "Harry The Horse," belongs in the second category.

After all, it isn't every man who has his wife's ashes scattered over the winner's circle at Gulfstream Park, as Tendler did last February, with approval from track officials who made an event of the occasion.

As Tendler told Miami Herald columnist Ed Pope, "Janice died just three weeks short of our 36th wedding anniversary. She loved racing as much as I do. This way, we made sure she went out a winner. And some day, my ashes will be mixed with hers in the winner's circle."

Asked how he explained this unusual wish to the Reform rabbi presiding at his wife's ceremony, Tendler said, "Because all men are cremated equal."

Such irreverent wit is how Harry The Horse, a spry 85, became the scourge of press boxes at Pimlico and Gulfstream, where he has worked as a public relations aide for close to 20 years.

When Tendler heads their way, racing writers run for cover, but there is no escaping his puns, one-liners and traveling salesman jokes, a profession he held most of his life while peddling beer, booze and neckties.

"He's incorrigible," said Pimlico oddsmaker Clem Florio, a longtime racing writer and analyst. "With Harry, nothing is sacred."

Florio recalled the time ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, the driving force behind the Maryland Million racing day, was having difficulty breeding a winner.

"Jim just couldn't get a break," Florio said. "He finally invested a bundle to get the best mare available, and she was ready to foal right around Preakness time.

"Well, the day before the race, Jim shows up in the press box, near tears, and says, 'She lost the baby.'

"And Harry walks by and says, 'No foalin' ?' I thought Jim might strangle him, and it might have been ruled justifiable homicide. But Jim knew Harry and just smiled and hugged him."

That's Harry Tendler, who was born in Philadelphia, but grew up lTC in a rough section of the Bronx, N.Y.

"My neighborhood was so bad," Tendler said, "they tore it down to build a slum. We had our own chapter of Murder, Inc."

But for Tendler, the racetracks at Jamaica and Aqueduct were a means of escaping the humdrum.

"I got smitten early," he said. "But I was never much more than a $2 bettor. I just loved hanging around the characters at the track. I still believe the words of [late columnist] Red Smith when he wrote, 'The best stories in sports are on the backstretch.' "

As his close friend, Al Perlo, said: "Harry never saw a 99-1 long shot he didn't like. Everybody gives him tips, but most of his horses finish so far down the track, you can't spot them with a telescope."

After relocating in Baltimore in 1968, Tendler met then-Pimlico general manager Chick Lang. When his salesman days ended in 1980, an invitation to work at Pimlico was like "looking a gift

horse in the mouth."

"Harry is racing's answer to Henny Youngman," Lang said. "I don't know a soul who doesn't like this man. Around the track, he's like a utility infielder. He'll do whatever you ask."

One of Tendler's duties is helping entertain VIPs during Preakness Week, including Red Skelton, Mickey Rooney and his comic idol, Youngman.

Tendler's favorite recollection was meeting George Steinbrenner when the New York Yankees owner had his horse, Eternal Prince, entered in the 1986 Preakness.

"Chris McCarron was riding the horse. I've known Chris since he was an apprentice jockey here 20 years ago. Chris introduced me to Steinbrenner, and our conversation turned to the annual Federico Tesio Awards dinner for Maryland horsemen, which I helped get started.

"Steinbrenner told me his son breeds horses in Florida and was a big fan of Tesio's training methods. So I ask George if he wants to attend the banquet next year, and he says, 'Sure, put me down for a table.'

"Well, it's getting near banquet time, and I've got no deposit from Steinbrenner. I've sent letters and made calls to his office. Nothing.

"A few days before the Tesio dinner, his secretary calls and says real sweetly, 'Mr. Steinbrenner wants to confirm his banquet tickets.'

"To which I replied even more sweetly, 'Tell George he's a late scratch.' "

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