Harry Tendler, 94, fixture at Pimlico racetrack

October 12, 2003|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Harry "The Horse" Tendler, an irrepressible wit, punster and horse player who was a fixture in press boxes at Pimlico and Gulfstream Park in Florida for years, died of cancer Tuesday at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. He was 94 and formerly lived in Northwest Baltimore.

A larger-than-life character, Mr. Tendler was born in Philadelphia, the son of immigrant parents from Bucharest, Romania, and reared in a section of the Bronx, N.Y., that later was known as "Fort Apache."

"My neighborhood was so bad," Mr. Tendler told The Sun in a 1994 interview, "they tore it down to build a slum. We even had our own chapter of Murder Inc."

After his father took him out of high school, Mr. Tendler went to work in a factory sorting bales of stuffing used to upholster furniture. He later was a salesman for a Park Avenue interior decorator who fired him after finding out he was Jewish.

"He was told, `We don't have Jews working here,'" said his wife of six years, the former Gladys M. Wilson.

During the early years of the Great Depression, Mr. Tendler waited in hobo jungles on the fringes of railroad yards for the slow freights that carried him across the country in search of work.

"While hitchhiking from Miami to New York in 1933, he was arrested by the police for vagrancy in Savannah, Ga., and only escaped being placed on a chain gang after a Jewish man whose name he picked out of a phone book vouched for him," said his wife.

Once back in New York City, Mr. Tendler continued compiling an eclectic resume of jobs. He sold dry goods at B. Altman & Co., waited tables at the Village Barn in Greenwich Village, and sold beer for Anheuser-Busch.

During World War II, he served with the Army Air Forces on Tinian until being discharged in 1946. He returned to Anheuser-Busch briefly before joining Schenley Distilling Co. and later was promoted to regional sales manager of the company's George Dickel Division. He retired in 1968 and moved to Baltimore the next year.

Restless, Mr. Tendler went back on the road for 11 years as a sales representative for a manufacturer of ties and belts. In 1980, he arrived at Pimlico as a public relations aide.

Mr. Tendler's love of the racing life began in his youth when he hung around the Jamaica and Aqueduct racetracks.

"I got smitten early," he said in the Sun interview. "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.'"

Mr. Tendler was a major-domo of sorts at Pimlico for 12 years, until moving to Florida in 1992.

"He was as lovable a character if there ever was one. He was right out of a Damon Runyon story," said Chick Lang, former Pimlico general manager. "Everything he did, he did with a big smile. `How nice to see you,' was Harry's battle cry."

"No circumstance was too dire for him. He had a great appetite for life and seemed to put it in its place. However, he was relentless with those puns," said Vinnie Perrone, an author and former Washington Post racing reporter.

Jim McKay, the former ABC sports broadcaster and founder and chairman of the Maryland Million racing event, was in the press box one day informing friends that his mare had lost her foal. He was near tears but the arrival of Mr. Tendler seemed to break the tension in the room.

"It was a terrible day. She had lost the baby. And then Harry walked by and said, `No foalin?'" Mr. McKay said.

"Harry really was one of the kindest men I've ever known and he loved horse racing. But he couldn't wait to get at you with those puns. He loved watching the reaction on your face," he said.

"Those puns were terrible and he never seemed to run out of them," said Joseph B. Kelly, retired Washington Star racing editor, laughing.

When Mr. Tendler's wife of 56 years, the former Janice Rapp, died in 1994, he had her ashes scattered over the winner's circle at Gulfstream Park. He explained to the skeptical rabbi officiating that he was able to pull off this feat because "all men are cremated equal."

On a more serious note, Mr. Tendler told the Miami Herald, "Janice loved racing all our lives. This way, we made sure she went out a winner."

"He told me when he died he was going to have his ashes scattered in the winner's circle at Gulfstream where most of his winners had never been," Mr. Lang said with a chuckle.

In 1992, Mr. Tendler left Baltimore and moved to Fort Lauderdale to be near his daughter and grandchildren. He worked as a public relations aide at Gulfstream Park until 2001 and continued attending the races every Saturday.

A memorial service was held Friday. Plans for scattering his ashes at Gulfstream were incomplete yesterday, family members said.

In addition to his wife, he is survived by a daughter, Susan Bobrick of Boynton Beach, Fla.; a stepdaughter, Pamela Wright of the British West Indies; a brother, Dr. Jack Tendler of Greensboro, N.C.; four grandchildren; and a great-granddaughter.

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