Delaware Park is such a part of my past that I remember specific days, moments, horses and long-gone locations.
Sleeplytime Gal’s off-the-pace charge in an otherwise non-descript race where Lottie the gambler told me, “Always bet to win.”
The day Spectacular Bid won his comeback race with Willie Shoemaker.
The Delaware Handicap battle between Our Mims and Mississippi Mud.
The hot dog stand at the end of that ramp in the clubhouse (an area open only to employees now).
“Aunt” Millie Hanford working the paddock gate.
Her husband Carl up in the stewards’ stand.
My real aunt, Aunt Joan, getting dressed up and betting the jumpers.
Watching races outside from the stand-up rail on the second floor. Always. We never watched inside.
That bar/lounge around the corner from the betting windows upstairs.
The valets saddling horses and talking smack (though nobody called it that then) to anyone who would listen.
The outdoor ramp to the grandstand.
The Harry M. Stevens cups. The flat soda in those cups.
The ice cream stand on the first floor of the clubhouse.
Those cool red tractors, small compared to anything in use today, pulling harrows on the track.
Today it’s called The Grove, but we just said the playground and it was full of dangerous and wonderful things – rocking horses on coil springs, a dome-shaped jungle gym that felt like it was 100-feet tall, a pump-action merry-go-round that would scare a Red Bull driver and the tallest sliding board I’ve ever been on. Predictably, most of those are gone now.
The track kitchen when we wanted to eat on the grounds.
Mary’s Kountry Kitchen when we wanted to eat off the grounds.
A cast of characters in the clubhouse and grandstand who would have made a great movie. We called them Pizza Man, Ice Cream Man, Hot Dog Man and so on. They bought those things for us, so that’s what we named them. I ran around with Bobby Connors, whose father (like mine) was a trainer. I think the food was in exchange for information about the horses in the barn, but we’ll never know for sure.
Air conditioning. Air conditioning. Air conditioning. In the summer, Delaware Park had its own climate. Cold. Imagine the electric bill.
Announcer Tony Bentley’s calls that ended in, “. . . In front,” or “. . . And they won’t catch her today.”
That paddock, still the best in the country.
The stable-area roads which meandered through and around green barns and bunkhouses – Marvin Kuhn, C.V.B. Cushman, Del Carroll, Henry Clark, Delp, Dutrow, Leatherbury, A.J. Foyt III and the rest.
Roy Orr, the hay man, getting me to drive him over to the track in my dad’s car as the crew unloaded bales from a big truck. I was probably 13.
The rec hall, with its boxing ring and basketball court out back.
The crazy announcements that came over the stable-area speakers: “Cornbread, you have a visitor at the stable gate.”
There are dozens and dozens more.
In the mid-1970s – man I’m old – my family moved to the Brandywine Stable farm within the grounds of the track. The Ross family owned the track and that farm, and employed my father. I was in fifth grade and had the run of the place – racing season or not. In the summer, I’d work in the barn all morning and go racing all afternoon. In the winter, I was somehow permitted to ride a motorcycle on the empty grounds – pretty much anywhere but the track itself. I’d wave to security guards and keep riding. Anyone else who tried this was chased, caught and – as far as I knew – arrested and thrown in jail.
It was a crazy way to grow up, and oddly magical. Pretty much none of that would fly today.
I thought of it all again in August when, after a funeral for Aunt Joan (my father’s sister who died at 86) we went to the races. Yeah, yeah, it sounds weird but it felt natural for some odd reason. We wore dark suits, ties, dresses, heels. We bet some races, showed the youngsters among us around and told old stories about all those places and moments. Some of us went to the casino and played blackjack or slots. Everywhere we went, people stared and asked questions. “Are you guys part of a conference?” the subtle ones asked. “What’s with the suits?” came from the more direct.
We told a handful of white lies to some people, the truth to others and thought about Aunt Joan. She was classy, generous, shy, easily the best-dressed relative we had, a racing fan without working directly with horses. She’d lived in the Virgin Islands for a while, drove a cool car. She helped raise another generation of Clancys – Ryan (26), Jack (23) and Nolan (18) owe their table manners and love of snacks to Aunt Joan. And we’ll all remember her every time we see Delaware Park.