The Inside Rail

Contributions from TIHR co-founder, editor and writer Sean Clancy.

Cup of Coffee: He Read It

He was our first reader. Well, he was our first reader who wasn’t named Clancy, wasn’t a trainer I rode for during a summer in Saratoga or wasn’t somebody who knew Joe from his backstretch days at Delaware Park.

I don’t know how he found us. Nobody found us that summer. 2001. Tom Coyle walked into The Special’s office in an empty yoga studio in the Palio Building on Broadway. 

He just walked in, introduced himself, said he might like to write for us, maybe sell some ads, said he liked what we were doing. We gave him a sign with The Special logo that said, “We Read It” and he wedged it in the driver’s side back window of his two-door BMW.  

Looking in the archives, it took him until Aug. 25, to write something for us or that long for us to print something he had written. It was Travers Day, Point Given on the cover, and we had pages to fill. A whopping 28-page, the biggest of the year, needed copy. “Brass-O-Mania band looks, sounds good” filled out page 21, right above ads for Lyrical Ballad and Albany Cigar & Pipe. A music buff, Tom loved listening to the music at the track and wrote about the 16-piece band. 

Perception sometimes can obscure reality. This was evident after their first season performing at the track. Someone from management felt their bright Hawaiian shirts might be a bit too much and suggested more sedate uniforms would be more appropriate. So, in their second season, they appeared in white polo shirts. After receiving a comment from a listener at the track that “They were good, but not as good as those guys in the Hawaiian shirts that were here last year,” they abandoned the white polos in a heartbeat. And, if anyone asked, “what happened to the guys in the white polo shirts?” they had their answer ready…“Oh, they were fired. They just weren’t that good.” 

Classic racetrack. Classic Tom Coyle.

Over the next 18 summers, we would run into each other at the track or in town, we’d catch up on our lives, talk about a few races, share a few tips. I’d see him sitting on the steps in front of Section F or at the paddock rail for the stakes or in his BMW as he rolled down East Avenue at the end of the day, always the same time, a few minutes after the last. Sometimes with some cash from his only bet, the grand slam. The sign was always in his window, faded by the sun, cockeyed, but always there. 

From Dayton, Ohio. A member of the musical group, The Campus Owls. A graduate of Miami University. The United States Navy. Distribution sales manager for Globe Motor Industries. An avid bridge player, a Diamond Life Master (that’s big in bridge). A racing fan. A Saratoga fan. 

Two sons, Ted and Andrew. Two daughters, Pam and Betsy. Grandkids. And Glenn, a friend of Ted and Andrew’s who came to Saratoga every summer with or without them to stay with Tom, a place to stay, a friend at the track. 

Not a gambler, a two-dollar better at the most, the grand slam his quest. He loved the horses, the music, the vibe, he simply loved the track, loved Saratoga. The magic of meeting people and sharing this place with his friends, his family. He visited on weekends, then retired in 1997 and came here every summer after that, rented on Clinton. East. Broadway. His favorite horse, Spend A Buck. Saved every issue of The Special, they’re still in piles back in Dayton. He took a photo of every horse in the stakes, deleted all of them but the winner and put them in a journal, a binder, maybe the first blog and give them away at Christmas. The daughters have every one of them. 

He would listen to Reggie’s Red Hot Feet Warmers and the other bands, walking the beat for the beat, but always start and end at Section F, in front of the grandstand, about halfway up the stretch. Put his cooler down in the morning, come back in the afternoon, the unwritten, understood decency of the track. It’s really what life’s about, the people you meet, the impact they make on your life, the positive difference. There was a community in Section F. He met Ann, she’s still here, they would go to happy hour. Barb from Cohoes would sit over there on her towel. Bill would bring his whole family, homemade picnic, stand by the rail for the finish. 

Thomas W. Coyle died Aug. 10, 2020. 

Sunday morning, we gathered in front of Section F to celebrate a father, a grandfather, a friend, a reader, a racing fan. His family asked me to say something. I gathered my nerve and scoured by memory, by the end, I wasn’t sure who was talking, me or his sons or his daughters. All of us, I guess. “There are a lot of Tom Coyles around this track.” We nodded, smiled and thought about the one we knew, the one we lost. 

His family found the sign in the garage. 

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Cup of Coffee: Lucky Work

Guy Raz asks the same question on every edition of my favorite podcast, “How I Built This.” 

“How much of your success is because of luck and how much of it is because of hard work and talent?”

It’s a simple but brilliant question, asked to entrepreneurs who have made it big. I’ve listened to all of them, from Ben Chestnut of Mailchimp to Carla Bartolucci of Jovial Foods to Steve Ells of Chipotle to Herb Kelleher of Southwest. 

Each business mogul answers the question slightly different but ultimately the same, always near the end of the show that has included the highs and lows of starting a business. 

Hard work and talent are important, necessary, but you need luck. But not just random luck, it’s more like luck somehow presents an opportunity, an opening, a moment and then it’s up to you to seize it. If you had to order them, luck comes first and then you need hard work/talent to capitalize on the luck. 

I asked Hall of Fame jockey Ramon Dominguez the same question on “In the Room” for HRRN’s Equine Forum this winter. I liked his answer.  

“I was extremely fortunate, you can say, ‘Gosh, you were so lucky,’ to have the agent I had for the last 13 years, without question, he was a key component to our success,” Dominguez said of Steve Rushing, who now books rides for Irad Ortiz Jr. and Javier Castellano. “You can say, you were lucky, but if you peel the onion so to speak, on how I got to connect with him, he didn’t choose me for something in particular, like I looked good on a horse. He actually did his work and realized that maybe I had what he was looking for, let’s put aside the needed physical abilities but of equal importance was character, how you conduct yourself, you are someone who is dedicated, you are someone who is responsible. I know I had that…if you look at it from that view, the so-called luck doesn’t seem to be so much about luck. But the fact that I put the work in, that I did things correctly.” 

And then he paused and thought about the question like only Ramon Dominguez can do and started again. Back to when he was a kid in Venezuela, a fledgling show jump rider without a lot of talent (his words) and without a lot of direction. 

“There was a key and pivotal moment when I was taking a bus from the show jumping school to my house. A kid in the back of the bus asked me if I was a jockey because I had my helmet and my whip,” Dominguez said. “He said he was riding horses at a nearby training center. He told me where it was and the next day, I ended up going there and getting on my first racehorse. And it wasn’t until recently, a few months ago, because we’ve stayed in contact, he’s actually galloping horses in Japan, he said to me, ‘Ramon, I don’t think I ever told you why I was on that bus. I was talking too much in class and the teacher told me to go home.’ ”

It was the first and only time he was on that bus at that time, the bus that Dominguez was on every day. Now, that’s luck. 

I was thinking about that conversation earlier in the meet when Dominguez and I stood along the outside rail of the main track, horses and riders whizzing past after the break. Two retired jockeys, content with being retired, delving deep into the art of riding races, about the center of balance, about keeping a horse light on his feet, about riding on heels and waiting for that opening. Dominguez was an artist, a masterpiece of hard work, talent and, I guess, luck. 

As I’ve talked to owners, trainers and jockeys who have enjoyed success in the early days of the meet, each one has talked, directly or indirectly, about hard work, talent and luck. I have not asked Guy Raz’s question but it’s always there. 

I had just finished interviewing Eddie Barker about his debut winner on opening weekend at Saratoga, he had talked about luck, about hard work, but a lot about luck. He trained for Seymour Smith, his only owner for most of 10 years, before he died, he suggested to his daughter-in-law, Iris Smith, to get Barker to buy a few horses for her. He did and they had an impressive 2-year-old winner at Saratoga. He’s turned luck into opportunity. 

Steeplechase jockey Tom Garner works hard but he also got lucky in the A.P. Smithwick Thursday. He was meant to ride Winston C. The two-time Grade 1 winner got hurt two weeks ago. Garner had taken off Redicean and couldn’t get back on him. He wound up on Baltimore Bucko and won the race. You need hard work and talent to be a jump jockey, luck doesn’t hurt. 

Around this office, we’ve balanced hard work, talent and luck through 21 years of The Special. I got lucky to have an older brother, who could write, knew horses and who kept me on the tracks. Joe got lucky to have a younger brother who didn’t know what he didn’t know. Tom, got lucky when he jumped from the bankrupt Thoroughbred Times to the burgeoning Special in 2013. Come to think of it, we all got lucky there.

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Cup of Coffee: For Dad

Vinnie Viola flipped his straw hat onto his head. 

“I’ll put my hat on in memory of my dad,” Viola said.

And, oh what a memory.

Moments after winning the Sanford Stakes with Wit at Saratoga Saturday, Viola walked out of the Saratoga grandstand, past the 1863 Club and thought back to the man who started it all. 

John Viola. 

Italian immigrant. Truck driver. Teamster Union organizer. World War II veteran. Racetracker.

“My dad used to always say there are no two races the same. That’s why we keep coming back,” Viola said. “My dad turned me on to the whole thing, he handicapped every day, he came to the track as much as he could.”

He took his son as much as he could. 

The first time was at Aqueduct. Kelso ran that day. Memories are tricky, could have been a $4,500 allowance race with jockey Walter Blum in July, 1960. Son would have been 4, so maybe not. Or maybe so, it was a different world back then. Perhaps, later, for one of Kelso’s four Jockey Club Gold Cups (he won five, one was at Belmont Park). Maybe the Woodward, Suburban, Brooklyn, Met Mile, Discovery or the Jerome, yeah, he won those at Aqueduct, too. Or perhaps, the Stymie, the five-time champion’s last win, in September, 1965. Kelso made 27 starts over six seasons at Aqueduct. One of those times, or probably several of those times, Vinnie Viola was there, with his dad to see the great Kelso. Remember, there are no two races the same.  

“My first day, I don’t know how I got in, but I watched Kelso win a stakes race, that was on the card, I remember that like it was yesterday,” Viola said. “He taught me a lot about the sport, about movement of odds, calculation of odds. Just a great guy. A great father.”

John Viola fought in “just about every” campaign in World War II, came home to New York, drove a truck, became a union guy, started a family, went to the track. Belmont Park and Aqueduct. Always Belmont Park and Aqueduct. 

“In those days, you couldn’t find a seat, even in the grandstand,” Viola said. “They had an honor system, the guys would fold their newspapers and weave them in the chairs, it was honored, that was their seat. The order to that, almost an elegance, a natural solution to a difficult problem. Blue-collar guys, hard-working guys, it was special. The sport is special.”

If you look along the back wall of the grandstand or on the benches out front at Saratoga, you’ll still see that honor system, sometimes, with The Special.

Vinnie Viola graduated from West Point in 1977, New York Law School in 1983 and went hell-bent into business. He watched his dad’s health wane in the late 1990s. That’s when son thought he could complete the circle from watching Kelso at Aqueduct to joining his dad in the winner’s circle. Of course, Belmont Park and Aqueduct. Vinnie Viola got in the game.

“I never thought about owning a horse until my dad eventually got very sick, after a few major heart attacks,” Viola said. “In the last three years of his life, I did what I could do and claimed a couple of horses, bought a couple of horses, he designed his own colors, that was the highlight of his life in the last year and a half or two.”

John Viola died in 1999. 

Twelve years later, Vinnie Viola got back into the game after a phone call from fellow West Point graduate Terry Finley.

“Why aren’t you back in this sport, you love it?” Finley asked.

“I really actually think it took that long for me to say, ‘All right, I could do this without my dad,’ ” Viola said. 

Viola and his wife, Teresa, whose grandfather took her to the races, invested in Finley’s West Point Thoroughbreds and have grown from there, owning all or part of Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming, Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Liam’s Map, Florida Derby winner Known Agenda, and, of course, Sanford winner Wit.  

“We really do try to own horses with a lot of different people, for the social experience,” Viola said. “It’s a great sport and it’s quietly getting bigger than it’s ever been, quietly. They’ve done some good work, making it more transparent, we feel really blessed to be part of this sport.”

As for Dad, if he was here for the Sanford…

“My dad was a cool customer, they didn’t have replays back then but if he was alive today he would watch that race many, many times, really trying to understand the horses,” Viola said. “He would be over the moon, we would be going out right now to some Italian restaurant somewhere on Hillside Avenue in Queens. That’s what we would do.” 

Father and son. The Sanford. And a corner booth at Salerno’s. 

Cup of Coffee: It's Good

“It’s good to see you.”

You hear it all day, every day. You say it all day, every day. 

And then, every once in a while, you really mean it. Like, really mean it. Coming back to Saratoga after missing last summer, yeah, we really mean it. 

I heard myself saying it – and meaning it – at the track Thursday and on the backside all morning Friday…it’s good to see you…it’s good to see you…it’s good to see you…

It’s good to see Mike Hoffman and the Weekend Hideaway crew, saluting their mentor, their friend, Anthony Smith with an Opening Day celebration. 

It’s good to see Tracy Attfield walking the beat, iPad tucked like a pistol in her holster, an entrepreneur who created a product to solve a problem and has done it her way ever since. 

It’s good to see turf works.

It’s good to see Dick Knapp and Bob Agnello on the Bill Mott turn, fiddling with technology while enjoying tradition. And it will be good to see Doc Richardson and Bran Laue at the same spot, same conversation sometime later in the summer.

It’s good to see Mott training his dog, Winston, to sit, lie down and jump in the air like Jordan from the foul line.  

It’s good to see the brewing brouhaha between John Shapazian and Tom Law (come on Charles, Rob and Jessica) in The Saratoga Special handicapping showdown. Tom picked five on Opening Day and four on Friday – but who’s counting, right?

It’s good to see Rodney Paine, Simon Harris, Harry Rice and all the valets. They never change, nine, 10, 11 races a day, week after week, year after year. 

It’s good to see a 2-year-old filly who walks into your frame and doesn’t leave. Hello Microbiome. 

It’s good to see my brother, Joe Clancy, and my friend, Tom Law, at their desks late into the night, juking and jiving with another deadline. We were three islands last year, a socially distant newspaper is not a newspaper. 

It’s good to see and listen to the bands. Don’t walk past, just stop and listen to a note or three. 

It’s good to see jockey Mike Luzzi, cast and all, driving his golf cart, nothing to do but wait and heal, a racetracker at heart. 

It’s good to see Alysse Jacobs at her corner desk in her corner office, oh, how good it would be to see Carmen Barrera there as well. 

It’s good to see the print edition of The Special, our 21st year, our 20th print run.

It’s good to see Bryan Walls, clicking stopwatches and working his magic from the Oklahoma clocker’s stand.

It’s good to see the tomato plants, just a couple more weeks, boys. 

It’s good to see Phil Gleaves’ smiling face and corner string. 

It’s good to see the jockeys walking through the crowds again. 

It’s good to see Gary Sciacca win one Thursday and inch ever closer to the 1,000-win milestone…three to go.

It’s good to see Steve Asmussen win two early and inch ever closer to the all-time win record…18 to go. 

It’s good to see fans. Fans at the track, the way it’s meant to be.  

It’s good to see Keith O’Brien still riding his own, same hands, same balance that won the 1996 Turf Writers. 

It’s good to see Dr. Jazz opening the paper box for the first edition. 

It’s good to see Marylou Whitney’s eton blue and brown silks in the winner’s circle. 

It’s good to see Manny, Patrick the Mailman and the Times Union paperboys. 

It’s good to see my old friend jingling for the Salvation Army outside the gate. 

It’s good to see the Morning Line Kitchen abuzz with cups and tips, war horses and wannabes, bankrolls and bacon rolls. 

It’s good to see Dominick Schettino get one on the board early. 

It’s good to see George and Cindy Weaver standing outside the back door of their barn, looking at horses on the wash rack and trying to figure out which one needs Cindy’s second-nature coddling.

It’s good to see racetrack dirt caked on racetrack shoes. 

It’s good to see the racing office, agents working phones like air-traffic controllers, trainers watching replays, pills being pulled and claim slips being dunked. 

It’s good to see the regulars at the Paddock Bar. Did they ever leave?

It’s good see a copy of Saratoga Days behind the bar in the Founders’ Room at the 1863. Thanks Caroline. 

It’s good to see the chipmunk story by Carole Williams land on my desk. 

It’s good to see my old friend directing traffic at the Union Avenue gap. 

It’s good to see a last-night pizza box from 9 Miles East sitting on the office table the next morning.  

It’s good to see exercise riders Rob Massey, Roger Horgan, Carlos Correa, Lena Lorieul and all the other sure-handed magicians. You’ve still got it. 

It’s good to see horses flitting past the trees on Clare Court, a kaleidoscope of motion and movement. 

It’s good to see the battered “Jerkens” sign at the end of Barn 75, like they built the barn around the sign.

It’s good to see Pat Kelly.

It’s good to see the old girl brimming with vibe and verve, fans rushing in, horses bounding home, just like old times. 

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