One of the most unforgettable characters I ever met in Las Vegas was Motown Mike. I never found out his last name for the simple reason that Mike didn't tell me it. There is an unwritten code that lingers on in the Old West that you never pry into a man's background if he doesn't want you to go there. Since I am a cowboy at heart, even if it's an urban cowboy, I respect that code. The Las Vegas regulars who hung out at the Fremont and Binion's Horseshoe in downtown Glitter Gulch nicknamed him Motown Mike he had once worked as an A&R man for Berry Gordy in Detroit.
There were two things I liked about Tony the moment I met him in Costa Rica. He was eating a fresh mango just picked from a tree in his front yard. And he offered me one. Slurping the juice of the ripe mango, Tony, an Italian with a barrel chest and grandfatherly looks, said, 'This is the healthiest fruit in the world. I eat it every day and I've never had a problem with my constitution. But you can't eat it with good manners. You have to slurp it like the Ticos do.' We were in the horse betting parlor at Europa Europa, which had invited me to be its guest for a poker tournament.
For horse racing fans Christmas day happens on the first Saturday in May. On May 2nd, 2015 the Kentucky Derby will take place at Churchill Downs race track. Dating back to 1875 when the first race ran, it holds a rich family history to those who grew up in the fast lane of racing. Growing up there was an extra spark in dad's eyes on Derby day. For most, childhood memories of springtime were the smell of fresh cut grass and the sounds of buzz of bees on blooming flowers. For the child of a race track dad memories of spring are quite different.
George E. Smith wasn't much of a talker. Born in 1861 in Sewickley just outside Pittsburgh, PA., he grew up as a quiet introspective young man who paid great attention to others and the world around him. Everything in life fascinated him. He loved baseball and he admired horses so much that he began attending horse races at tracks in Pennsylvania, New York and surrounding states. The owner of a pool hall where Smith spent some of his time learning how to shoot pool gave him a nickname that stuck -- Pittsburgh Phil.
Beautiful women intrigue me, which should be no surprise to the average male. Men should be fascinated by women and listen to what they say, even when they might disagree with their feminine observations. Lynnette was a lovely island girl I met while working as editor of a newspaper in the Eastern Caribbean. She was Rastifarian, had a younger brother Steve who had a job parking cars at the Jack Tar Village Resort which operated a casino next to the beach, and she braided the hair of tourists who visited St. Kitts, the island where she and her family lived.
Down Mexico way where the senoritas and the chili peppers are nearly as hot as the fiery desert sun, there is something known as the bet of honor. You can find it in many places. At the horse races or the cockfights, or a cantina where cerveza and Cuba Libres flow freely and a card game is always in progress. Gambling south of the border is not nearly as well regulated as in the United States or the United Kingdom. That isn't to say it is less honest.
Before I became a winning poker player, I thought I could earn my first million by betting on horses. Yep. I admit it. I traveled to Arizona in a beat-up car with four worn tires, settled in Phoenix and began spending my time at Turf Paradise Race Track where I put my limited knowledge of horse racing to the ultimate test, which, of course, was wagering my hard-earned money on an animal with four slim legs and toting a tiny jockey who sometimes seemed to enjoy tormenting me by finishing next to last when I picked him to win.
Every person who has ever watched a horse race, at one time or another in his life, has wanted to be a jockey. It doesn't matter how old, how tall, or how large the person is. He (or she) watches the Belmont Stakes, the Kentucky Derby, or just a seven-furlong event at Turf Paradise in Phoenix, AZ. and they are convinced if they had been on the horse they bet on (and lost), they would have won the race. If you're a city slicker and have never lived in the country, you may find this premise hard to believe, but it's true.
When you have wagered on horses for the better part of your life, you tend to develop certain characteristics that are recognizable only to other horse players. Now these are not obvious characteristics like a tic in the eye, or a scowl that suddenly crosses your face for no apparent reason. Oh, no, these are much more subtle -- and personal. My friend Sheldon is a good example.
I have sat on the back of a thoroughbred race horse only once in my lie. It was a thrilling, almost supernatural moment I will never forget. Rincon was a deep red roan with a lighter colored mane. It had a small well defined head, darkly deep intelligent eyes, a white stripe down its nose, and it could run faster than the wind. Faster.
Miracle Used Cars was a different kind of place to buy a used vehicle. The car lot sat on a piece of property just off Grand Avenue, the boulevard that dissects Phoenix, AZ. and rolls on through Glendale, Circle City and Wickenburg before it veers north to Las Vegas. I had just accepted a job as a reporter in Phoenix and was shopping around for a used car.
About 10 miles from where I was born is a small town called Coulterville. The locals refer to the community as Coulter. My home town is Sutersville, PA., pop. 950. Coulter is much smaller than that. It has several things going for it. Some of the best pheasant hunting in the State of Pennsylvania is available at Guffy's Hollow within walking distance of the town limits.
When I interviewed Milton Berle for the Phoenix Gazette at Buster Bonoff's Star Theater where he was appearing, I asked him a favorite question that I ask most of the celebrities I interview: 'Mr. Berle, if you could change one thing in your life, what would that thing be?' Berle gave me a thoughtful look, puffed his always present cigar and said, 'I wouldn't have gambled away the $4 million I lost at the race tracks.'Thoroughbred horse racing has been called 'The Sport of Kings,' and with good reason. In the olden days, kings were thought of as the only people with enough money to participate in the sport.
Next time you'are at the Arizona Casino just outside Scottsdale, AZ., pay attention to the players at the $4-8 limit Omaha High-Low game. If you notice a tall, well-dressed black man wearing lots of gold -- he has the biggest hands in the poker room -- say hello to him. You just met Connie Hawkins, one of the most phenomenal basketball players to ever perform with the NBA. The Hawk, as Connie is fondly known by his fans, works for the Phoenix Suns front office these days after retiring from pro basketball in 1972. I didn't know who Connie was or what he had done on America's NBA courts when I met him.
Someday before I get too old to enjoy it, I want to buy, raise and train race horses. My weight (I'm 6-1 and tilt the scales at 205) prohibited me from following my childhood dream of becoming a jockey. But that hasn't lessened my love of those four-legged animals that run like the wind.
He said his name was Black Mike from Detroit. I never knew his last name, or if he told it to me, I don't remember it. Last names are never much consequence when you are living in a place like Las Vegas. Like a lot of divorced men looking for a home port, I had arrived in Las Vegas more by accident than by design. I was actually on my way to Los Angeles to try to talk my way into a screenwriting job at one of the studios. Instead I got sidetracked to Las Vegas by a beautiful Russian woman I had met at the AMTRAK in Pittsburgh, PA.
Doyle Williams and his brother, Red, were real cowboys. They owned the Skyline Ranch along Baseline Road in South Phoenix. It was a beautiful ranch with trees that produced artificial oranges, great desert landscape with those red rock formations that made John Ford's movies so famous and even palm trees that Doyle had imported from Palm Springs, CA. The Skyline was famous for three things: the cute rodeo girls who would gather there on weekends to practice barrel racing in an arena the brothers had set up for them, the Saturday bull riding where Doyle and his son, Eddie, would teach students how to ride Brahma Bulls and the horses the Brunsons would take on consignment to sell to willing buyers.
When writers, publishers and promoters get together, you're hoping for good things, but bad things often happen. Fate seems to deal only so much good luck to an individual. Everyone has a splash of good luck from time to time. It's almost as though we are being tested by a Higher Power (I call Him LORD) who wants to see how we handle His talents. At any rate, there I was in Miami at a hotel resort just off Biscayne Boulevard.
There are few things more beautiful than watching a thoroughbred race horse in full stride. Well, maybe a few. A view of a young Bridgette Bardot, Sophia Loren or some other nubile young starlet off stage or screen bathing beneath a rainbow waterfall in a blue lagoon may top it. But not by much. As a former saddle bronc rider in weekend rodeos in Arizona and New Mexico, I have ridden some fast horses None of them was as fast as Rincon, a red roan with a light colored mane that I almost bought one sunny day in Tucson, AZ. I say 'almost' because I got there too late with the money and lost that incredible horse to another buyer.
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