Weekend Interview: Ralph Theroux

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Ralph Theroux is ready for the next adventure. He certainly deserves one or two, or even 20, after a more than five-decade career in racing. Theroux retired Monday from positions in the racing office and as a placing judge with the New York Racing Association, which followed lengthy stints working on the backstretch for the late Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens and then as a jockey’s agent.

Theroux, 69, spent Tuesday and Wednesday packing up the last of his and his wife Karen’s belongings, dropped his car off in Linden, N.J., to get it shipped to the West Coast and was on a plane Thursday and off on that adventure.

An avid musician who plays annually with the popular Off Track Band at The Parting Glass in Saratoga Springs, Theroux sold his house on Long Island and is planning to spend time with his daughters in California and British Columbia. He plans to make it back to Long Island – for doctor and dentist appoints and such – and to Saratoga for the 2016 meet that opens July 22.

Theroux was under New York City Wednesday afternoon – inside Penn Station – when This Is Horse Racing’s Tom Law caught up with the self-described racetracker, fresh off one train, ready to get on another and then to the airport the next day. Planes, trains and automobiles indeed.

This Is Horse Racing: You’re not wasting anytime are you?
Ralph Theroux: No. The house is sold, we shipped our stuff and we’re going to be bouncing around between Vancouver, British Columbia, Southern California and Saratoga. I will see you up there. It’s not 100 percent definite yet but … I’m hoping to work for that meet in the racing department. I’ll know over the next few months.

TIHR: How’s it feel two days into retirement?
RT: It’s still pretty hectic. Until we get settled and start mapping out a month-to-month plan, we’ll be playing it by ear. We’re literally treating it like an adventure but a welcome adventure. We’re looking forward to it. It’s another chapter in the life of a racetracker. For now I’ll be a gypsy for a while, but occasionally I’ll come back to earth and do some work.

TIHR: What was the last day like? I saw they ran a race in your honor at Aqueduct.
RT: It was great. Originally they scheduled the race for Saturday but we canceled the weekend. Everyone was so kind. I was embarrassed by all the nice things they were doing for me. It went well. Both my sisters were there. My mom was there in the winner’s circle, in the snow. We tried to talk her out of it, but she insisted. My sister asked her before they left the house, ‘mom, if the weather’s so bad and it’s too much of a day and you die in the paddock with Ralphie will you be happy?’ She said, ‘yes, I will. I got my hair done yesterday. I’m going to the races.’ Like the rest of us she’s a racetracker. She and my dad got married in 1945. She knows the drill.

TIHR: Speaking of being a racetracker, what’s longest you’ve ever been away from the racetrack?
RT: Two weeks. We went to Hawaii in 2010.

TIHR: You’re going to top that pretty soon.
RT: Yes, but the thing about it is there’s racetracks everywhere so you can always visit and get your fix. I’m going to visit Del Mar, my youngest daughter lives not far from there. Of course there’s Hastings in Vancouver. We’re going to make some road trips, see some national parks that we haven’t seen. We’ve seen some but we’ve got a few more we want to see. We’re going to take it one day at a time. It will take time to get settled, get the car delivered, the clothes hung up and no sooner do we do that then we’ll be planning another journey somewhere.

TIHR: You mentioned Saratoga earlier. That’s part of your plans?
RT: Yes. I’ll probably visit there this spring, too. I’ll visit in July prior to the meet and then hopefully work the meet.

TIHR: So what’s the future of the OTB Band?
RT: That’s part of being there. The band plays on. My friends have been just so supportive, so congratulatory, so kind. It’s a blessing.

TIHR: How’d you get into music?
RT: I took guitar lessons when I was a kid. I was always active in school in glee clubs and choir, things like that. My senior year of high school my guitar playing was good enough by that point to where I joined a bar band. I was 17 playing in bars when I was in high school. Even though I was working for Jerkens in the summers, and a few of those years I worked for him on weekends as well, until a year after I got married in 1970 I was playing in bar bands. I enjoyed it and the extra money always helped.

TIHR: Did you have a favorite bar or place to play?
RT: Back when I was a kid I played at a place in Malvern on Ocean Avenue called Colonial Village. I played in the same place under three different ownerships. It was the original Dirty Ernies on Long Island, where they threw the peanut shells on the floor and danced on them, and then it became the Colonial Village and then it became a joint called Uncle Al’s. I probably played there off and on for six years. It was a good gin mill, a real bucket of blood, 50-cent pitchers of beer, 10-cent eight-ounce glasses, it was a trip but we had a lot of fun back then.

TIHR: Speaking of bars, what’s your favorite racing spot, past and present?
RT: Oh man, from the old days, there was a gin mill right out the back gate at Saratoga. I don’t even remember the name of it. Kind of where the Mexican Connection is now. When I rubbed horses for the Chief all of us were living in the dorms back in Clare Court and we’d just walk right out the gate. Not too many of us had automobiles back then. Then of course in later years Lillian’s became the spot on Broadway in Saratoga and eventually The Parting Glass.

TIHR: You mentioned seeing some national parks, what else is on your bucket list?
RT: We want to get back to Hawaii. We went for two weeks in 2010. One of the first national park trips we take might be to Wyoming to Grand Teton. We’ve been to Grand Canyon. We’ve been to Yosemite. We’ve been to quite a few, but there’s several more to see. Each month we’re going to plan a little excursion. Of course where my daughters are located in Vancouver and Southern California, a little town called Aliso Viejo right next to Laguna Beach, it’s just absolutely gorgeous, both spots. You can go to more gorgeous places based where they are. You can go be in the mountains, you can be in the ocean, you can be in the canyons. Trips back to Long Island, trips to Saratoga. We’re going to try to not let any grass grow under our feet.

TIHR: What’s your favorite track?
RT: Saratoga, then Belmont. Growing up as a racetrack kid Saratoga becomes your second home very early.

TIHR: Best race you ever saw?
RT: The best race? Oh I remember as a young child, the earliest race I remember watching and we watched it on a black and white television was when Dark Star beat Native Dancer (in the 1953 Kentucky Derby). It sticks in my mind because everyone was at the house watching it and my dad was there with some of his compatriots in racing and it was such a commotion when Native Dancer got beat. In later years the matchups between Kelso and Gun Bow were great. The 1962 Travers, where Jaipur and Ridan went at it for a mile and a quarter. These are all races that stick in my mind as a child. I remember the first time my dad won the Santa Anita Handicap with a jockey he represented, jockey Bill Boland, on a horse named Terrang (in 1959). He beat a very good field that day. That was a thrill as a youngster because by then I had an idea what the game was about and how important winning was. Then in later years I remember Forego, seeing the three Triple Crown winners in the ’70s and some non-descript races with horses I rubbed for the Chief. There’s been so many. The great thing about our game is there’s nine new ones every day. I’ve gotten to see a lot of great horses and champions and I have a great appreciation for the horse.

TIHR: Who was your favorite horse you rubbed for the Chief?
RT: A filly called Wakefield Miss. Bill Christmas bred her. She was by Towson and she had broken her maiden for $12,500 in Philadelphia. (Jack Dreyfus’ Hobeau Farm) bought her for $16,000 and wound up winning about 10 or 11 races with her. She won the Ladies Handicap. At that time the Ladies was a very prestigious filly and mare race in the fall of year.

TIHR: Who were your mentors?
RT: That’s an easy one. My dad and the Chief. I spent maybe a lifetime learning 1 percent of what I know and the other 99 percent came from what they taught me, exposed me to or showed me. They were best of friends. To sit down and listen to the stories, we shared a lot of laughs and a lot of joy together. A lot of wins and a lot of losses. It’s never fun to lose but it was fun to be a part of the entire game, the winning and the losing. That’s part of the racetrack. Woody Stephens had a great quote once. He said, ‘in this game you win a little and you lose a lot, but it’s the greatest game played outdoors.’