My friend Wass asked the question during his first visit to Saratoga. Back in 2001, when we were trying to give wings to The Special. Coming from Wass, short for Paul Wasserman, it was a funny question. A Jewish kid, who grew up in Rockland County, he had never seen anything like the racetrack. He asked a lot of questions.
“Man, these are some characters. Do they all have nicknames?”
Well, not all of them, but plenty of them.
There was Cadillac Jack. The quintessential racetrack gyp, he used to stand his horses in a metal trashcan because he was too cheap to buy a rubber tub. He could get one leg in, never two.
Two Hour Lou, he was good for two hours, that’s it. He walked hots for my dad at Timonium. He came to the paddock, wearing a sport coat (and shorts), on a sweltering summer day. Dad said, “Lou, you look great, but aren’t you hot?” Lou took both hands, gripped the lapels and opened his coat, there was a bottle in each pocket. “I don’t wear it for the look, Joe.” George Strawbridge leaned over and told my dad, “Don’t anybody light a match.”
Every Other Day Ray, his name said it all. If you could just find two of him, you’d have full-time help. He taught me how to say “Whoa-back” during a summer at Timonium.
The jockeys get nicknames faster than anybody else. They called Shoemaker Shoe, of course. Garrett Gomez answers quicker to Go Go than anything else. The Mig, that was an easy one. Johnny V. stuck early. Ted Atkinson was called The Slasher for the way he whipped horses, Jerkens says he never left a mark on them.
Some have nicknames for their routes, Ussery’s Alley. Calvin Bo-Rail. You know you’re good when they name a part of the track for you.
When I had the bug, we played basketball in the back of the Monmouth Park jocks’ room. They called me Manute, after Manute Bol, because I was so skinny. It didn’t last long, as I didn’t stay skinny. Just as well. I never got another nickname, probably just as well too.
Sometimes, a first name is so good, so simple that it becomes a one-word symbol of greatness. Irish jump jockey Ruby Walsh is simply Ruby. It’s like a nickname. His British counterpart, Tony McCoy goes by his initials, A.P.
My dad had a lot of names for a jockey who rode for him. At Delaware Park one day, he opened up 50 lengths on the field but stayed five wide on the turns, losing acres of ground (even for jump races). When my dad asked him why he didn’t save more ground on the turns, he said straight and true, “Then I would have been farther in front.” My dad simply nodded. The jockey didn’t make it. I can still hear Dad call him all those names.
The horses always got nicknames. George, Rich, Mikey after the people who sold them, owned them or gave them away. Cage, short for Cage Rattler, which wasn’t his name at all. Gump. Buddy. Money. The White Man. Dad is famous for naming horses after the people he bought them from – Rich came from Richard Trimmer, Mikey from a guy named Mike.
The old grooms in the ’70s and ’80s were brilliant. Shaky, because he shook. Spoon, because he was missing three fingers on his right hand. Boot, because he word a therapeutic boot with a three-inch sole.
Crazy Sam who worked for Leatherbury? Well, he was crazy and he carried a machete.
Irish jump jockey Boots Madden had a son, the aptly named Slippers Madden.
Apples. A legend at Mike Freeman’s so many years ago, I wish I asked him why they called him Apples.
Toadie, who some call Frog. Possum Head. Chicago Dave. Because he was from Chicago, of course. Duck Butter.
Lasses, short for Molasses. Suitcase Simpson. Then there was Bubba who worked for Hall of Famer Burley Cocks (who was simply the Boss).
Sometimes, your occupation becomes your moniker. Clocker Bryan, Clocker Joe, Clocker John.
Sometimes, nicknames verge into titles. At the Great Barrington Fair back in the ’90s, trying to get out, I couldn’t decide who I should bet in the last. An old racetracker, leaning on the rail, spit a stream of tobacco and looked at me with disdain. “Carlos Figueroa.” I said, “Who?” He spit again. “The King of the Fairs.” They say Figueroa anointed himself with that title after so many years of success on the fair circuit.
Train Robber got his name when he was a kid and his baseball coach asked him to go to the store and buy a bag of lime for the base paths. He stole a bag off the train car, he was Train Robber from that day forward. His mother came to the barn looking for Willie Capers. The Chief shook his head, ‘No Willie Capers, here.’ His mother said, ‘The boy they call Train Robber.’ “Oh, Train…”