The little girl in red is now 50 years-old, and is the mother of our granddaughter who is 20 and our grandson who is 15. The author (binoculours) is holding the winner.
In June of 1947 at age 13, I was dreaming out loud one day and telling my mother, who earned .35 cents an hour at a hosiery mill in Tennessee, that when I grew up, I was going to make a lot of money and build us a house on top of the hill overlooking the Tennessee River. Like the positive, supportive, loving mother she was, she hugged me and said something that has impacted my life from that day, “Don’t ever stop building those air castles.” I didn’t know it at the time, but “she gave me permission to dream.” She in effect validated me as a dreamer.
That dream of building us a house for her at the top of the hill never came true as she passed away with cancer at the young age of 55, and I never became rich. My next childhood and adolescent dream of being a professional baseball player and playing with the Yankees, also died early in my life at age 21 in 1955. Quitting school and being married at age 18, I was signed by the Chicago Cubs in 1954 and assigned to Visalia in the California State League. Before spring training, I sustained a lower back injury lifting in a creamery, which has been a major issue in my life since then. I tried to deal with it in 54’ and 55’, but I was on the disabled list more than on the field. With a wife and young daughter to support, I reluctantly gave up my dream, came home to Pasadena California and began a career in the newspaper industry.
When one dream dies, one has to begin another one. As fate would have it, I had given birth to a new dream 2 years earlier in June of 1953, shortly after my wife Arline and I were married. That dream was the dream that inspired this book. Working at the creamery where in early 54’ I injured my back, I met a friend a few years older than me, who in early June of 1953 had the same day off as I did. He asked me if I would like to go to the races with him at Hollywood Park in Inglewood. The idea sounded great to me as I had only seen horse racing in movies of the 30’s and 40’s, and in news reels. I had heard about horses like Citation, Count Fleet, Sea Biscuit and others. I knew that movie stars went to race tracks and thought that I may see some of them there. This may sound a little silly to some, but growing up in the 40’s, movies and movie stars played a major role in how a “Chattanooga Street kid” developed his view of how successful adults lived their lives. To this day, I watch those old movies on Turner Classic Movies and relive my childhood and adolescent years through them.
So, I took $20 from the cookie jar and told my wife that I was going to the races with Jimmy Higgins. If he is still alive today somewhere and reads this book, he will attest to every word about our day at Hollywood Park. Just thinking about it as we drove from Pasadena, the excitement began to build. When we pulled into the parking lot and I saw the structure and all the cars, my heart began to beat a little faster. As I remember, the parking was about 25¢, and admission to the Grandstand was about $1.25. A program was about 15¢ and a hot dog and Coke cost about 20¢. When we reached the paved area in the Grandstand by the finish line and the winner’s circle, my heart was beating even faster. All the time Jimmy was telling me about things, the program, the horse numbers, the odds etc, etc.
Just then, we turned around and looked at the Grandstand and the box seats area. Jimmy pointed to a box in the front row just opposite the finish line and asked me, “Do you know who that is in that box?” I walked a little closer and said, “That is George Raft, Betty Grable and Harry James.” Now I am really getting excited. Jimmy continues to explain things to me as the horses came out to the track for the post parade. I was all ears and eager to learn. Being the outgoing confident, if not over-confident person that I have always been, I walked as close to where George Raft, Betty Grable and Harry James were sitting as I could get, looked up and called out to George Raft. “Hey George, who should I bet in this race?” Standing up just above me, with that signature hat of his on, he replied, “Put your money on Fullback.” I thanked him and returned to Jimmy telling him what George Raft had told me.
Jimmy told me to go the window that had the sign $6 combination on it and buy a $6 ticket. I was uncertain of what I was doing but, I followed orders and bought a combination ticket on Fullback. I can’t remember what the odds were, but Fullback won and Jimmy told me that I would get back over $42.00 for my $6 ticket. Standing there by the winner’s circle when they took the picture, was at that time, the most exciting moment of an 18 year-old married man’s life. As they unsaddled Fullback to take him to the barn, I made a statement that took 22 years to fulfill. I told Jimmy, “I will have a horse that I own in that winner’s circle some day.”
There is a picture in the winner’s circle at Hollywood Park taken in 1975, wherein I was able to fulfill that promise made in 1953. Needless to say, I was hooked on my first visit to a race track, movie stars, race horses, winner’s circle and I had doubled my bank roll on my first bet. My thoughts were something like, “How long has this been going on without me knowing about it.” I couldn’t wait to get home and tell Arline about the day. And, I couldn’t wait to learn more about horse racing. I saw people reading this newspaper that Jim told me was the Racing Form, that at that time cost 35¢. Later in the day, we picked up a copy thrown away and he tried to explain how to read it. I didn’t really understand most of what he told me, but I was determined to learn how to read the past performances.
A few days later, the accountant at the creamery who played the horses told me where to buy the Racing Form. I bought it one night and went to his apartment for a lesson from the master. I had several other lessons before I went to the track again. Like probably most everyone who had a positive experience in their first visit to a race track, I could hardly wait until I could go there again.
The thinking of course was, if I knew how to read the past performances, I had a good chance of picking three or four winner’s each time and making some extra money, which I could really use in my young married life. So at that point in my experience, it was all about picking winners and enjoying a day at the races, where you could see and talk to movie stars and successful people.