Eddie Arcaro walked around the house, counting to 12. He drove his car, counting to 12. He walked to the jocks’ room, counting to 12. He walked out of the jocks’ room counting to 12. Never 11. Never 13. Always 12.
“If you can go an eighth of a mile in 12, you know the time of the race. It’s your barometer,” Arcaro would say. “If you know how fast you’re going for that eighth, you got it. No one has to tell you. If you do it often enough, it becomes an automatic. By the way, if you go enough 12s in the mile, you go in 1:36 and you just win the race.”
Arcaro counted to 12 enough times before a race and after a race to become a master in the race. Actually, that’s what they called him, the Master, as he won 4,779 races, two Triple Crowns, a total of five Kentucky Derbys, six Preakness Stakes, six Belmont Stakes, 10 Jockey Club Gold Cups and rode 11 Hall of Famers. All of those came to life Thursday morning as Arcaro’s son, Bobby, held court at a picnic table at the Morning Line Kitchen.
It took Ralph Theroux to introduce the son of a legend.
“You’ll know who he is when you hear his name,” Theroux said.
Like opening a door to Camelot.
Growing up, Bobby Arcaro spent most summers at Saratoga, eating hot dogs, drinking soda pop, watching races from bales of hay on the backstretch. He walked hots, groomed horses, went to the packed-house barn-against-barn softball games, the boxing matches at the rec hall. He drove a Corvair his dad gave him when he turned 16. He shot woodchucks and caught bass from the ponds at Yaddo, handing off his quarry to legendary groom, Duck Butter.
“He made sure we were having fun, with all the traveling, he tried to include us,” Bobby Arcaro said. “I loved coming to the track, to Saratoga. He did pretty well up here and we always did well.”
Bobby Arcaro heard all the stories about all the greats, with a little prodding, he began to roll out the champions, quicker than Ed Bowen at the Hall of Fame induction Friday morning.
“Citation, he said he was just a push button horse,” Bobby said. “When he went into the Derby, he said, ‘Am I really on the right one, Ben?’ Ben Jones said, ‘Let me tell you, any time you want to go get Coaltown, go ahead, Citation is just a better horse.’ ”
Citation trounced Coaltown in the Derby and won the Triple Crown (with the Jersey Stakes in between). Arcaro never asked again as Citation became his favorite horse, winning everything from the 2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup to the Sysonby Mile in, you guessed it, 1:36 flat.
Then there was Allaire du Pont’s Kelso, who Arcaro guided to 12 wins in 14 tries at the beginning of an illustrious career that netted five Horse of the Year titles.
“A lot of people don’t realize how good Kelso was when he was young, because I tried to keep the weight off him, have him win by a half length,” Eddie told his son.
The owner wanted more.
“Eddie when are we going to show the world that he can really run?” du Pont asked Arcaro.
He let the big horse run, winning the 1961 Woodward by 8 lengths, going 10 furlongs in 2 minutes (yup, there are those 12s again).
Bobby Arcaro laughed at the memories.
“He had a scary moment on him one day,” Bobby said, then let his dad’s voice take over.
“I came around the bend and went to the lead, I started to ease up and I look up, Holy ****, there’s a horse out there, 10 lengths in front, All Hands. That sucker dug in and went and got him, just got him.”
Kelso nailed All Hands by a neck in the Metropolitan at Aqueduct in 1961.
Of course, like all jockeys, there are the ones who got away.
“He won two Triple Crowns, he really thought he should have had three. He said he misrode Nashua, he was running the race against Summer Tan, tracked him and got too far back behind Shoemaker on Swaps,” Bobby said, then let his dad’s voice take over in a lyrical, natural kind of way.
“Shoe had Swaps on an easy lead and I pull up alongside him and Shoe says, ‘Hi, Eddie.’ Nashua was a great horse, a tough horse, he’d be working and he would turn around and look at me, just look at me.”
The stories of a bygone era flowed on another serene morning at Saratoga, a way of life came back to life.
Asked if the Hall of Fame jockey, the legend, was a good father, Bobby smiled.
“Oh yeah,” Bobby said. “And, I knew how to count to 12.”