Pimlico's cast of characters

The horses are nice, the food is swell, but it's the lovable oddballs that keep one coming back for more

May 04, 2010|By Dan Rodricks

The food was great, the service good, the company excellent, and while I always enjoy watching the horses come down the stretch at Pimlico from a table in the Terrace Room — or from just about anywhere, if you want to know the truth — I was more taken with the very loud, very animated, very stressed ponytailed gambler a couple of tables to our north.

I mean, you want entertainment, you can't beat the people at Pimlico, even on days when the attendance is thin.

First of all, on my way up the stairs to the clubhouse and the restaurant, I meet Tony Sassafras. You know what? As time goes by and old friends or acquaintances fade into retirement or go off to the lovely bye-and-bye, you count on seeing certain people, just for assurance that you're docking in the right port. Al Isella, the old bookmaker and Little Italy maitre d', died recently, at the age of 94, and I remember every good, funny and wise-cracking thing he ever said to me. I recall every cringe as his horses failed to show at Pimlico, every smile as he schmoozed with guests at Sabatino's. Baltimore's real-life cast of "Guys and Dolls" has been slip-sliding away for years.

That's why I was so happy to see Tony Sassafras.

Always the sharp dresser — the first time I met him was at the Preakness, and he was attired in a shiny gray pinstriped suit, gold tie and square straw hat smartly cocked — and always pronouncing his name, "Sahss soo frahss." He always has a firecracker smile and a chummy wink.

If you're lucky enough to be standing next to him when one of his horses is closing down the stretch, you can hear Tony sing, ""All the way, bay-BEE! All the way, bay-BEE!"

Maybe if you're nice he might give you a tip.

A lot of the bettors I've met over the years — in fact, most of them — don't want to say anything about the races. They are quiet handicappers. They don't want to give away what they're thinking. A lot of them get nervous about a $10 bet, and they're superstitious about conversations.

Rating the horses, handicapping a race: That takes concentration.

When I go to the track with friends, I find it difficult to both socialize and to study the field. Also, if you don't get to the track much — and with Pimlico's short spring meet and Maryland's daytime racing, that includes a lot of Baltimoreans — then you get rusty and forget what all the numbers and abbreviations in the charts mean.

Each spring, until I get up to speed again, and take a day to study the horses and jockeys away from the chatter, I keep my bets modest.

So anyway, it's an exquisite sunny day and my friends — Turkey Joe, Howard Who Sells Pork, Beatle Frank and Ingmar Burger — all settle at a linen-covered table in the Terrace Room for lunch, friendly conversation and a few casual wagers. (That's another thing that happens at the track: Everybody gets a nickname.)

Anyway, so we're reading the program and comparing the handicapping of various experts, and we're ordering lunch, and talking about all kinds of stuff, and no one is really concentrating. So no one is winning anything expect Beatle Frank's secretary, and she's not even there. She sent picks from the office — and had the winners in the first three races!

Can you beat that?

A chubby guy in a striped polo shirt, obviously disappointed in his wagering, comes by our table, stops and says, "There was a nice horse in that last race. You guys should have him for lunch."

Now let me tell you about the guy at the next table: middle-aged, blond with ponytail, sharp features, particularly the nose and chin. This guy is a serious horse bettor. He's dining alone, papers and programs everywhere on the table, and I gather he's betting races at Pimlico and at other tracks being simulcast from all over the country. I couldn't help but notice him because, in the quiet of the Terrace Room, he was yelling at the small television monitors at his table and pounding the linen. Veins in his neck and temples looked as if they would pop. "Come on, eleven! Come on, eleven! Come on, eleven!" His nose, at one point, nearly touched one of the small televisions.

"Don't make eye contact," Ingmar Burger says at my table.

But I just have to watch. "Close, seven!" the guy's yelling now. "Close, seven! Close, seven! Close, seven! CLOSE, SEVEN! YES!"

I can't take my eyes off the guy, he's getting such a rush from a stretch run in Florida or New York, between races at Pimlico.

Years ago, the first time I dined in the clubhouse at Pimlico, it was with Henry Clark, in a seersucker suit, and two gentlemen who owned an interest in a horse Mr. Clark trained. The men sipped bourbon and quietly assessed each field and left the table only to make a bet. Another time, I sat with Cab Calloway, who insisted on limited conversation as he handicapped each race.

These gents neither exclaimed joy nor cried disappointment at the results of the races outside the large windows of the Pimlico restaurant. They did not pound the table.

I am not complaining about the guy with the ponytail. "Close, seven! It's about time!" I just have never seen such an animated railbird brought to the linen — and still using his "outside voice."

But, as I say, no complaints. It's the sideshow. It's why I go to Pimlico, for the kooks as much as for the crab cakes and camaraderie.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. He is host of the Midday talk show on WYPR-FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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