The tale of how the late veteran upstate New York turf writer Matt Graves came by his nickname is well told by now and like the man himself it never fell short of being entertaining.
Graves, who passed away last weekend at 70, came by the moniker “Toughest Man Alive” during his days covering racing at Saratoga. Longtime colleague Tim Wilkin recounted the story in a tribute titled “Graves leaves a legacy of humor and wit” that appeared Monday in the Albany Times Union, where Graves worked as racing columnist and handicapper for the better part of his 43-year career.
“During his summers at the Spa, he worked hard, played hard, too,” Wilkin wrote. “Somewhere along the line he got the nickname TMA, which stood for Toughest Man Alive. I am pretty sure the story went something like this:
“One day at the Spa, tough as nails jockey Eddie Maple and his mount were on their way out of the Saratoga paddock and another former colleague, Keith Marder, turned to Graves and me and said, "there goes the toughest man alive. Matty, jaw clenched, retorted, ‘second toughest.’ Message sent. The name stuck.”
Wilkin’s story was one of several Graves’ friends and colleagues, who intersected as most Turf writers who work together and play together often do through the years, recounted this week. We reached out to several to ask for their remembrances of Graves, an award-winning writer, four-time handicapping champion at Saratoga and all-around good guy.
Here’s a sampling of the responses – those suitable for print – and a link to Graves’ full obituary.
Phil Janack, former turf writer at The Daily Gazette and publicist:
Former longtime Maryland Jockey Club publicity man Mike Gathagan had a fondness for Matty, as we all did. One year, when Matty and I were working together as part of the Preakness publicity team, the boss asked me to blog something about Matty. I cranked this out in about 15 minutes. It was one of easiest and most fun things I have ever written, and Mike recently recalled it being one of the favorites he’s ever read. Matty Graves. A true original.
When I first met Matt Graves in 1989, on a summer afternoon in the Saratoga Race Course press box, I was afraid of him. Maybe not so much afraid, exactly, but certainly intimidated. He had a way about him, a confidence and a worldliness that only comes from experience. It was something where I, as a 22-year-old cub reporter fresh out of college thrust into covering a sport with a nuance and language all its own, was severely deficient.
I remember being in the press box one Sunday morning after the Travers, typically quiet after the bustle of the big day, seeing Matt walk in and make a beeline for the landline near his seat. No cell phones yet. Matt picked up the receiver, punched the keypad with the same authority as he did his keyboard, and waited. When prompted by the answering machine, Matt left a short but strongly worded message about the way his morning column had been edited to leave out the last line – the one that brought it all together – and slammed the phone down so hard the table shook. He never knew until years later when I told him that I was in my seat behind him the whole time. He laughed and said, “Well, he deserved it.”
Working at competing newspapers brought Matty and I together for many events over the years, primarily horse racing, whether it was Saratoga or Long Island or the Breeders’ Cup. For the last several years, we worked together on the Preakness publicity team under both Mike Gathagan and Dave Joseph. I’m already dreading the feeling of walking into the Pimlico press box and seeing Matty’s empty chair.
For a few years, Matty and I covered the Triple-A American Hockey League’s team in Albany, N.Y. The River Rats, as they were known, were one of the AHL’s best team’s through the 1990s, winning the league championship in 1995. By the time Matty came along, they were struggling to win games and one year, in fact, flirted with having the worst record in pro hockey history. As it happened, those were also some of the best years on the beat because, through all the losses, there was Matty with his wit and observations, making it not just bearable but downright delightful to come to the rink. Having Matty around always made things better.
Beneath a crusty exterior, Matty had a heart of gold and pipes of iron. The man could sing. Roy Orbison was his favorite, and his specialty. Everyone waited for him to have the mic at karaoke (there was one particularly memorable performance at the media hotel following the Monmouth Park Breeders’ Cup) and Matty always obliged. He even carried two hand-written song lists in his wallet – his so-called “drunk” and “sober” selections. I only know because one night when we were out, he didn’t have his glasses and he asked me to read which songs were on which list. “Can’t mix them up,” he said.
His heart and voice came together March 26, 2005, when he left a message for my then 3-year-old daughter on the digital tape recorder I used at the newspaper. It was the night before Easter, and we had just covered a River Rats game (a 1-0 win over Springfield. I looked it up). After a couple of beers at the local tap room, and some prodding, Matty wished her a Happy Easter and sang the first few strains of “Ring of Fire,” a song my daughter loved to hear and sing herself. “Nobody ever hears that but her,” was Matty’s command. To this day, that message is on the recorder that I still use for my job. And to the day he passed, she and I were the only ones to ever hear it.
Matty didn’t just write stories, he crafted them. He had a way to not only tell what happened, but seamlessly mix the facts and the history and his own observations without being obtrusive. He combined the old-fashioned style he was weaned on with a contemporary flair that made him easy and entertaining to read, one of the best compliments any writer could receive.
Perhaps the best tribute to Matty Graves came from Ed Gray, a longtime Turf writer for Boston papers and now my colleague at Gulfstream Park. “I wish everyone had known Matty,” he said. “He was a special, special man.”
And, really, that says it all.
Tony Podlaski, publicist for the New York Racing Association:
Matt Graves was my idol when I was a teenager in the mid 1980s. Each Wednesday and Sunday, I always looked forward to reading his horse racing columns in the Times Union. Of course, I also read his racing coverage and followed his daily horse racing selections for the newspaper. (One of my favorite columns addressed the Allumeuse disqualification in August 1986 with the opening one-sentence paragraph: If it had happened at Aqueduct, they’d have set the joint on fire.) Putting this all together, I wanted to follow Matt’s path of covering horse racing and handicapping races.
After graduating from Morrisville, I was fortunate to start working on the Times Union sports desk in January 1994. Little did I know that my idol was on the other side of my desk. Star-stricken, I was intimidated and speechless, even when Matt looked at me and said the simple “hello” in his somewhat Clint Eastwood voice, which was easily transformed into Roy Orbison during one of his singing performances.
From there, I got a 10-minute overview of using the monochrome computer system before Matt handed me a stack of bowling scores to type into the system before the phone calls of high school scores through the sports desk. However, there was a brief moment – about two hours into my shift – in which Matt said something that pretty much set up my future: “I heard you like horse racing. Maybe, you might be able to do something down the road.” I was silently elated, but I responded to Matt with a “Thank you.”
Matt did pave that road by helping me get a temporary (or seasonal) position as a communications assistant for NYRA during that summer, which included watching perhaps one of the best Travers finishes with Holy Bull and Concern in the press box.
Since then, Matt has been part of my journey on that road as a mentor and a friend. There have been so many awesome memories and experiences with Matt, including the car pool trips to Aqueduct for the Wood Memorial or to Belmont for Super Saturday and Jockey Club Gold Cup Day, the endless humorous moments in the press box or the backstretch (and even in the Times Union office), or gatherings with other friends.
I consider myself extremely fortunate to have Matt as part of my life. I am also extremely grateful for everything that Matt has done for me. I am going to miss my teenage idol who later became my friend.
Joan Lawrence, senior manager of communications for National Thoroughbred Racing Association:
I just fell in step or maybe he let me tag along all those years. Matt always had a warm smile when I would show-up and accepted me into the circle without too much difficulty and along the way took me under his wing, especially after turf writer and our friend Paul Moran passed away.
One of my fondest memories was when it would be just Matt and me walking around Belmont Park during Belmont Stakes Week enjoying the morning and laughing at what we haven’t done yet, who we need to see yet (good or bad) and sometimes double team to get quotes and share. Matt used to always come up to me in a rush and ask for sidebar cheesy stuff he needed for filler for the paper. I loved it when I had something good for him to run with. I learned so much from him. Matt was all class, witty and very smart.
What I will treasure the most is driving him back to his hotel room during Preakness Week when again it was just the two of us shooting the breeze, sometimes important stuff and me just talking and always getting advice from Matt. He always had my back. I don’t know if I can ever find my way back from Pimlico to my hotel without Matty. I don’t want to know.
I will miss especially the interaction Matty had with his boys at Pimlico on the notes team. Pure love and art.
Glen Mathes, former director of communications for NYRA:
We were all at the Belmont Stakes press party at Belmont Park. I don’t remember what year it was but it was before cell phones. I went down to the party straight from my office. During the course of the evening everybody is mingling. As the party was winding down, Matt asked if I would give him a ride to his car in the parking lot since I was parked immediately adjacent to the clubhouse entrance. So off we went.
We drove to the press lot and his car wasn’t there. He starts to think his car was stolen so I said we should check more of the parking. We checked them all and Matt’s car is nowhere to be found. Now he is sure his car was stolen.
Finally I said ‘let’s go over to Esposito’s (a racetrack bar right near the Plainfield Avenue gate),’ where we could use John Esposito’s phone to call NYRA security or the police. As we made the turn onto Plainfield Avenue, there is Matt’s car, plain as day, in Esposito’s parking lot.
Needless to say, he never heard the end of it from me. He and Eddie Gray had gone there for a drink before the party and he rode to the party with Ed.
… We were also partners in the weekly Saturday afternoon handicapping pool in the press box during the Saratoga meet. He made the vast majority of the selections. We ate a lot of chalk.
Mike MacAdam, turf writer at The Daily Gazette:
The Saratoga press box lost some spark and vinegar when we lost Matt Graves Saturday.
If you busted his chops about something, it was with a masochistic form of glee. You knew he would rejoin on a par with Blind Luck's closing kick in the 2010 Alabama, after the pace of your initial attempt hit Matt at “a crawwwl,” to quote Tom Durkin.
It was always in the sharpest and best of humor, which pretty much defined Matt, a witty sun around whom we orbited.
He was a serious handicapper and cared deeply about the Times Union product being as topnotch as possible.
He never, ever failed to crack me up, a gift.
Shortly after the handoff from Matt to the estimable Tim Wilkin as TU racing columnist, we were sitting around Trinity tavern in Floral Park during Belmont Stakes Week, and Timmy launched a salvo at Matt, who responded, “Yeah, well, good luck filling these size-40 boots, buddy.”
Because of his persona and bent toward handicapping, it’s easy to forget that Matt was a forceful and effective writer as racing columnist. He used an economy of language to crystallize his thought with a few sharp words.
Even though I worked for the competition, he always encouraged me and offered support that I cherished, coming from a friend I respected and admired.
One sunny afternoon in the Saratoga box several years ago, important information circulated that I had had a rough night. I just wanted to get my stuff done and get out of Dodge.
Matt came over and disgustedly said, “You want me to get you a glass of milk?”
“Get away from me.”
“Don’t get tough with ME,” he said.
I cracked up. The milk stayed in Pedro’s fridge.
Mike Gathagan, former director of communications for the Maryland Jockey Club and current director of communications for the Maryland Catholic Conference:
Matty was a larger than life character. He had a sharp wit with tremendous timing. They broke the mold when they made him.
I was fortunate he joined our Preakness notes team after retiring. It was always one of the best days of the year when he walked into the Pimlico press box, ready to make us laugh and help the handle.
Matty’s interviews with the likes of Nick Zito, Tony Dutrow and Bill Komlo made Eddie, (Mike) Kane and I laugh out loud. I am going to miss seeing him in May. Always seemed to be in a better mood after hanging with Matty.
Michael Veitch, former longtime columnist for The Saratogian:
Matt Graves was a professional and a gentleman. There was no doubt he loved Thoroughbred racing, and he made the press box a better place with his approach to the game.
Lynne Snierson, turf writer and publicist:
Matt’s passing leaves a void in sports journalism and the Turf writer ranks. He and I worked together for years on the Breeders’ Cup Notes Team and after a long day of serious and tight deadline work at the track, he was always an entertaining dinner companion with pretty good stories to tell as we sat around the hospitality suite table with an adult beverage in hand.
He was a welcoming presence to me in the NYRA press boxes from Day 1, and it won’t be the same to cover the races without him.
RIP, dear Matty. You left us with a lasting legacy and will be missed.
Mark Cusano, former Turf writer, handicapper and recently retired host and producer of Capital OTB’s long-running Down The Stretch:
Matt and I competed against each other at Saratoga handicapping for 28 years and that press box could be, let’s face it, it was a working atmosphere, people were on deadlines, and handicapping the Saratoga meet during that era was a very big thing to newspapers and to us. We always had a very friendly working professional situation. I liked Matt for a long time, even though we competed it certainly never affected us in any way.
Matt was always very, very generous in his praise for the television show. Matt always said to me how much he enjoyed the show. After the final show … when I got home I went over my emails and one of them was from Matt. He wrote me and said, ‘great job,’ and he thought we should have won at least one Eclipse Award, he said he watched every Saturday that he could and said, ‘I’m a little upset with you that you decided to retire, what the hell am I going to do on Saturday mornings now?’ I wrote him back and said, ‘do the same things I’m going to do, chores, helping around the house.’ That was the last time we communicated.
Any time a viewer stopped me and said they really liked the show it meant a lot to me, but when one of your peers says that, that’s really meaningful.
Matt was a very, very good handicapper. He was the leading public handicapper either three or four times. I’ll tell you, we started in the era of Russ Harris. It was very difficult. When you win the handicapping title at Saratoga once that’s a pretty good accomplishment, but it’s possible that everything could have fallen into place, you could have been a little bit lucky for that one summer, but when you win three or four times it shows just how good you are. Matt was in contention and the handicapping was outstanding summer after summer after summer. That shows you how good he was over an extended period of time.
I remember one year it was Closing Day and he and I were tied going into it. We rode up the escalator together. We talked about how we liked the card that day and we got to the top, shook hands, wished each other good luck and I remember turning to him and saying, ‘I hope we tie.’ He ended up beating me by one. It was a big thing, but very friendly competition. He and I had known each other for so, so long. We respected each other and it was a lot of fun. It was fun to compete against each other and to work with each other for those summers at Saratoga. I have very fond remembrances.