Every night after finishing up at the track Ronny would head for The Pig Farm to wind down, have a few drinks, and wait for Clara to clock out.
A place like The Pig Farm sees its share of peculiar people, so it was not unusual for an entourage of bizarre characters to find their way through the front door. Although on this particular evening the group of misfits that were headed to Ronny’s table must have had some trouble squeezing through the front entrance.
The man in front was huge; he must have tipped the scales at no less than three hundred and fifty pounds. The fact that he was over six feet tall didn’t hide the fact that he was a giant mound of perpetual motion jiggling blubber. Add to that a greasy mop of long stringy hair that framed a swarthy pockmarked face, and you have a thoroughly detestable looking villain who smelled of trouble.
At his side were two semi attractive skinny whores that looked decidedly like they had passed their best use-before-date, and behind him were two supposed bodyguards that looked like they had succumbed to the same genetics of ugly and fat as their boss.
The band of blubber and bones shimmied and shook its way across the barroom floor until it stood towering over Ronny who was sitting at a table instead of one of the more private stalls.
“I am Nabo Polassar, King of the Chaldeans,” the grease ball announced, as if Ronny was supposed to know who and what the hell he was talking about.
Ronny looked up at the elephantine cartoon figure standing over him; he took a sip of his drink in a very deliberate fashion. He looked directly into the man’s glassy inflamed eyes, and replied, “I am Ronny Kleinberg, King of The Jockeys.”
Nabo Polassar was a Syrian gangster who ran a chain of soon-to-be condemned grocery stores that catered to the Syrian population of Detroit. Chaldeans, as Ronny found out later are Assyrian adherents of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Nabo Polassar was not this fellow’s real name but an alias he adopted from a legendary Babylonian king from Chaldean history.
Nabo’s self-image was as inflated as his gargantuan belly. The fat man looked at one of the women who pulled out a chair so Nabo could sit. The poor wooden chair creaked and groaned under the stress and exertion of supporting Nabo’s swollen carcass.
“We do some business little man,” says Nabo as he slides an envelope across the table to Ronny.
Ronny lifts the corner of the envelope to peek inside. He’s sees a wad of cash that turned out to be three thousand dollars.
“We do business little man… Yes?”
Ronny was not in the habit of turning down money. “I’ll let you know,” Ronny answers.
Ronny checks the fat man out with his buddy Sal, and decides that it’s worth doing business with him. A week later he informs Nabo that he’s set up a trifecta score that would pay a hefty return. Nabo is pleased.
The race goes as planned and Ronny is inline for a big payday, except Nabo is nowhere to be found. Eventually Nabo shows up at The Pig to inform Ronny that he was delayed and didn’t get to the track on time to place the bets, therefore there was no payday for Ronny.
Ronny doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t want to create a scene in the bar, if he did, Clara would be pissed. Nabo promises to make it right and slides another bulging envelope of five thousand dollars in Ronny’s direction.
Ronny takes the money but after Nabo leaves he calls his buddy Sal who has connections at the track. Sal finds out that Nabo did indeed place the bets, and collected quite a large sum. When you deal with low-lifes it’s not unusual for people to try and screw you, but do it to Ronny, and it will be the first and last time.
Ronny decides to keep the money and do nothing with it except take Clara on the town for a nice expensive evening out. It’s Nabo’s own fault for not playing straight. Ronny tells Nabo that he’s set up another trifecta for an even bigger payoff.
He gives the fat man the names of the three horses to bet on, and he tells him what order they’re going to finish, but Ronny hasn’t paid anybody. When the race goes off, the first two horses finish just as Ronny predicted but the third horse finishes fourth and Nabo’s bet is busted. Nabo hits the roof.
While at the track Ronny gets a call from his wife. She tells him there are a bunch of tough looking guys who keep circling the neighborhood in a big black Cadillac. They’re obviously keeping an eye on Ronny’s house, waiting for him to come home. Ronny calls Sal to find out what’s going on. An hour later Sal calls Ronny back and informs him that Nabo has put a hit out on Ronny.
So, Sal and Ronny hatch a plan. Ronny calls Nabo and tells him it’s all a big misunderstanding and he’ll straighten the whole thing out. They arrange to meet at The Pig at their usual time.
He calls his wife and tells her to pack up the kids and everything that isn’t nailed down including the getaway cash he’s hidden under the mattress for just this sort of situation. She’s to wait and if he’s not back by morning, he tells her, “Take the car and head for your parents, because I’ll be dead.”
That night Ronny positions himself at a table close to the dance floor. Sally is sitting next to him, and Bats, Sal’s sometime partner, is sitting at the next table. At the appointed time, Nabo waddles into the bar, sans hookers, but with his two bodyguards, Dumb and Dumber.
Half way to Ronny’s table he notices someone sitting with Ronny, and he recognizes who it is. Sal is a well-known figure in the local criminal community, and Nabo has no intention of getting on his wrong side. By the time Nabo has huffed and puffed his way to Ronny’s table he has changed his strategy.
He sits on the wooden chair accompanied by the usual straining of wood fibers on the brink of exploding. “Well, well,” he says. “Things have certainly got a little out of hand. We’re all professionals here, so let’s just put this whole thing behind us and call it even.”
Sal leans forward and says. “Do you know who I am?” Nabo nods in the affirmative. “Ronny is a friend of mine, you understand; and this gentleman over here,” as he motions in Bats’ direction, “is another friend. Mr. Palossar, I have a lot of friends. And if anything happens to any of my friends, I won’t be happy, and my friends won’t be happy. Am I making myself perfectly clear?” Nabo nods again.
“So why don’t you tell your goons to get lost and we can discuss what’s gong to happen next?” Nabo tells his bodyguards to wait for him at the bar.
“We can continue to do some business,” Ronny says, “but now my friends here, will look after the money for a small commission, just so there isn’t anything further misunderstandings.”
Nabo has no choice but to agree. For the next couple of weeks Nabo keeps arranging deals, but instead of doing anything with the money, Ronny, Sal, and Bats just pocket the cash. Eventually, Nabo stops coming around, but that isn’t the end of the Nabo saga.
The big Syrian is steamed, and when some low-life he lent money to fails to pay him back, he decides to make an example of him by planting a bomb under his car. Instead of having one of his men do it, he attempts to do it himself.
The problem is Nabo is too fat. He gets halfway under the car and he gets stuck. He’s yelling and screaming at his two bodyguards to get him out but they have enough trouble just bending over, let alone pulling their boss out from under the automobile.
The bodyguards go for help, but by the time they get back Nabo has made so much noise, and caused such a commotion, somebody called the cops. The fat Syrian was arrested and eventually went to jail for attempted murder, and that was the end of Nabo Palossar, King of the Chaldeans.
Because of Ronny’s association with Sal he could go to any bar in Detroit no matter what part of town and nobody would bother him, no matter how rough the neighborhood. Everybody in town knew if you messed with Ronny, you answered to Sal, and that was something nobody, no matter how tough, wanted.
Ronny would make the rounds of a number of hotspots before ending up at The Pig to wait for Clara. During one of these bar-hopping excursions Ronny was approached by a big guy in expensive clothes accompanied by a good looking tall-drink-of-water with a bored expression on her face.
The guy looked like he watched too many reruns of The Sopranos or Goodfellas. He was a real cuff-shooter with diamond cuff links, a gold Rolex, and an open shirt displaying more cleavage than the bored hooker who accompanied him.
The movie style Mafioso and his call girl friend take seats at Ronny’s table without asking. “You’re the fixer, ain’t you?”
This was not a good approach. The place is crowded, the tables are close together and the broad is sitting right there. This is not the way things are done; smart guys show some discretion, but obviously this guy wasn’t smart.
He reaches into his jacket pocket pulls out a thick envelope of cash and tosses it to Ronny. “Instructions are in the envelope along with ten thousand, call me when it’s setup.”
The envelope is lying out in the open and the people in the surrounding tables can see and hear everything that’s happening, not to mention the seemingly disinterested hooker who is a direct witness.
Ronny wants no part of this guy or this deal. You don’t survive in the business as long as Ronny without being smart. You deal with people you trust and you pick your spots carefully. You know when to score and when to walk away, and this was definitely a walk away situation.
“You’ve got the wrong guy Mister,” says Ronny. “I want no part of whatever you’re up to.” And he pushes the envelope back across the table.
The guy looks at Ronny in disbelief, obviously not used to people saying no. A smirk crosses the hooker’s face like she’s hoping to see someone get smacked, but the guy just stands up, picks up the money, reaches around the table, and jams the envelope into the side pocket of Ronny’s leather jacket.
“The instructions are in the envelope, call me when it’s setup.” He signals to the girl the conversation is over. She gets up and they leave.
This is not good; the whole thing stinks, and Ronny has no intention of getting involved with a guy he doesn’t know, and who acts so recklessly. Ronny goes home, shoves the money under his mattress and waits.
A week goes by and Ronny still hasn’t done anything. He’s at home getting ready to go to the track when he gets a call from Sal. “I’m coming right over, be ready.”
“What’s up?” Ronny says.
“Just be ready and bring the package or whatever is left.”
Ronny knew there would ultimately be repercussions but he didn’t know Sal would get involved. This could turn out worse than Ronny imagined. When Sal shows up Ronny grabs the unopened package and goes out to meet his friend. Ronny gets into Sal’s car, and before Ronny can say anything Sal speaks.
“How much you got left?”
“I didn’t touch it. It’s all there,” Ronny says.
“Good!” Sal responds.
The two friends remain quiet for the rest of the ride. After about a twenty-minute drive in silence, they pull up to the back door of the Amici Delicatessen and Bakery, headquarters for Sal’s boss, the man known simply as The Man. Sal turns to Ronny, “You’re on your own. Just tell him the truth. There’s nothing I can do. Just play it smart and watch your mouth.”
They get out of the car and enter the back of the bakery where the offices are located. They walk to the back door where one of Sal’s colleagues is standing guard with his arms folded. Sal tells Ronny, “This is as far as I go. You’re on your own.”
Ronny goes into the office. The Man is standing there and the cuff-shooter is standing next to him looking smug in his movie mafia outfit. Another thug is standing behind Ronny next to the door. Ronny was surrounded. There was no escape. He felt like the Jewish cream filling in an Italian Oreo cookie, and he was about to be eaten alive.
“Did you bring the package?” asks The Man.
“How much is left?”
“All of it. I didn’t touch it.”
“Good,” says The Man, and he motions to Ronny to hand it to the thug standing guard at the door.
“Tell me exactly what happened. Don’t leave anything out, and don’t give me any bullshit. You try and bullshit me, and this will not end well for you.”
So, Ronny tells The Man exactly what happened: about how the wiseguy approached him in an overcrowded bar where people could overhear their conversation, and about the hooker who witnessed the whole thing. Ronny finishes the story and The Man turns to Ronny’s accuser and hits him so hard across the face that the guy is knocked on his ass dirtying his expensive custom tailored suit.
“My son,” The Man says, “is not too bright. Sal told me you were okay. It’s good to know some people still have integrity.” Ronny doesn’t say a word. “It seems to me you’re entitled to some compensation, what do you think is fair?”
“How about half?” Ronny says.
The Man laughs at Ronny’s nerve, “How about a thousand,” he says. It’s a statement not a question. The Man turns to his son who has managed to get back up on his feet. He’s still rubbing his jaw where his father whacked him. “Give the man a grand,” says the father.
The cuff-shooter reaches into his pocket and pulls out a wad of cash. He peels off a thousand dollars and hands it to Ronny. The thug guarding the room opens the door and Ronny goes out into the hall where Sal is waiting.
“I see you’re still vertical,” says Sal.
“Oh yah, me and The Man got along just fine, can’t say the same for his kid. So how about we go get drunk?”
“It’s kind of early don’t you think?” says Sal.
Instinct… it’s the difference between a toe tag and a nametag. You’ve got to know who you are and where you came from. Ronny wasn’t religious, but he’s a Jew, and that defines him like it defines all Jews, both in each Jew’s mind, and in the mind of the rest of the world. Ronny’s father was a holocaust survivor and that has an impact. The world may define Jews by their ritual but Jews define themselves by their survival.
Ronny never had much of a formal education, but sometimes, for some people, it just gets in the way. People often forget we’re all just animals, and that it’s the instinct to survive that drives us. A millennium of persecution has made the Jewish people pretty good at surviving.
When Ronny decided to try his hand at being a jockey, he knew his life would be at risk on a daily basis. Horse racing was and is a dangerous business, and it isn’t just the racing and the horses you have to worry about. Whenever there’s money at stake, you know corruption can’t be far behind. Degenerate gamblers, vicious gangsters, corrupt officials, and crooked cops, all inhabit the racing environment. It’s a cesspool of dirty business dealings.
If you want to survive you learn to deal with it and to be good at it. You find out very quickly whom you can trust and whom you can’t. You develop the ability to distinguish between an offer you can’t refuse, and an offer you better refuse. If not, you’ll end up buried in a New Jersey swamp or Nevada desert. You never know where the next deal is going to come from and sometimes the offer comes from an unexpected and unwanted source. And sometimes Brutus has no choice but to stab Caesar in the back.
Sal saved Ronny’s ass a number of times; and to this day if Ronny got in trouble he’d be there to get him out. Sally had the looks and charm of a movie star and the style and grace of someone on the best-dressed list: think Liev Schreiber in Ray Donovan.
Salvador Latorre is a man who says, ‘please and thank you’ before putting a bullet in the back of your head. That’s Sally, Ronny’s best friend. But, that said, Sally’s a Wop and Ronny’s a Heeb, not something either one of them can forget.
Ronny tells the story of the day Sally gives him a call. Not the usual “I’ll be there in an hour. Put some pants on. We’ll grab a few drinks and have some fun.” It wasn’t that kind of call. This day Sally was as chipper as Steven Wright on Valium.
“We gotta talk.”
Ronny figures he screwed something up and the shit was about to hit the fan, but things had been quiet, and Ronny had been laying low for some time. He couldn’t figure out what the problem was, but if Sally said they had to meet, they had to meet.
Now Sally was the most polite guy you’ll ever want to meet. All ‘Yes Sir, No Sir’, sweet as maple sugar. A real gentleman, extremely well dressed too, nothing fancy mind you, just sharp, if you know what I mean. Custom tailored stuff, silk ties, and a Rolex. Like I said, sharp. But if you ever got on the wrong side of old Sally, you could very quickly find yourself playing Captain McCluskey to Sally’s Michael Corleone.
Sally was pretty high up in the food chain, but everybody has bosses, and Sally wasn’t any different. If the boss told Sally to whack Ronny, Ronny was dead. It’s as simple as that, and it didn’t matter that Ronny and Sal were best friends. Nobody fucked with Sally or Sally’s boss.
The two buddies arranged to meet at The Blow-Out, a darkly lit nightclub catering to jockeys, gamblers, mobsters, and woman looking for an easy payday. On a small stage in the center of the club, an attractive black jazz singer did her Eartha Kitt thing: a pretty good rendition of “Just An Old Fashioned Millionaire”.
The two men sit in a secluded cubicle in the back. A knockout cocktail waitress wearing the world’s shortest mini skirt, not much more than a wide belt really, delivers two drinks dipping seductively toward the tall, well-dress man, while winking at the little guy sitting opposite. Two men, one tall, handsome, and well dressed; the other just as handsome but short and less well turned out. Sally breaks the silence.
“So, how ya been?”
“Good Sally, I’ve been good.”
“You look like shit you know. You really gotta start taking care of yourself. Cut back on the broads and the booze.”
“Ya, ya, you give me that crap every time I see you. So, what’s with the mortician face, did I fuck something up?
“Na, nothing like that. Good news really. You know, an opportunity to grow.”
“What’s that, some kinda short-crack? I’m not laughing.”
“Take it easy little fella, don’t get your telfillin in a twist.”
“You’re in a fucking mood. First the short jokes and now attempts at ethnic humor. You’d kill ’em in the Catskills.”
“Is that literally or figuratively?”
“Seriously, what’s this all about?”
“The Man wants to offer you a spot? Like I said, opportunity knocks.”
The blood drains from Ronny’s face. There’s a long awkward silence while Ronny tries to lower his temperature. This was no time to lose control. Ronny finally speaks, still pissed off at the very idea of his best friend putting him in this situation.
“You fuck’n serious? Mr. Big is looking for a pet Jew, and you finger me? I thought you were my friend?”
“Jesus, are all you Heebs so excitable? You could make a pile of dough. Buy some big boy clothes, so you could charm the ladies with something other than your jockey-sized dick.”
“Fuck-off you big Wop. Mr. Big decides Yom Kipper shouldn’t be a holiday and I end up bunking with your old pal Hoffa.”
“Take it easy for Christ sake and keep your god-damn voice down. It’s just an offer and if The Man tells me to make you an offer. I fuck’n make you an offer!”
“Sure, sure… the first time The Man wants to downsize, I’m the one at the other end of that bulge in your jacket. Go find yourself some dumb Wop look’n to make a name for himself.”
“Christ all mighty, take it easy!”
“I’ll tell you something else, you back me into a corner you better hope I don’t get to a piece before you do, cause buddy or not, I’ll blow your brains out all over that pretty custom-made suit.”
“Jesus, enough already, I’ll tell him you’re not interested.”
“The fuck’n nerve of some people.”
“So, you want another drink?”
“Ya. Get the broad who gave you the tit sandwich with your last one.”
“You’re a testy little prick you know.”
“You go’n to buy me that drink, or what?”
The evening didn’t end on a sour note. Ronny and Sally finished up back at the waitress’s apartment, where they shared a bottle of Scotch, the waitress, and her roommate.
Chapter 17 | Rock, Paper, .357 Magnum
You may have a little trouble believing a little guy like Ronny would have the nerve to stand up to killers. Perhaps you’re thinking Ronny wouldn’t stand a chance against his buddy, Sally, or anyone else that was over five feet tall. If that’s what you’re thinking, you may change your mind when you hear about Ronny’s run-in with a couple of wannabe stickup artists.
One night at The Blow-Out, while Betty, the black jazz singer was belting out a hell of a rendition of Gloria Gayner’s “I Will Survive”, a hot tall blonde number decides to make a play for Ronny.
She’s wearing white short-short hot pants and a white silk blouse open to just above the waist, and no bra. Ronny spots her at the bar. Men surround her all jostling and shoving in an attempt to get close and make their pitch. They close in like rabbits during mating season.
Every one of these bozos is trying to buy her a drink, and she resists each drooling testosterone-engorged bulvon. She laughs and giggles and generally creates quite a scene, but then she sees Ronny eyeing her from his table halfway across the room.
“Excuse me boys,” she says, “I think I see my date.”
She pushes herself off the bar stool letting her lovely well shaped breasts dance in acrobatic accompaniment to her movements. She walks across the room like a runway model displaying the latest D’or, but in this case, it’s her ass that’s on display, at least from the vantage point of the disappointed lotharios.
It was Ronny who had the best view. Each stride taken was poetry in motion as her beautiful small breasts bounced in excited anticipation of escaping their white silk prison.
When she got to Ronny’s table she leaned over, her breasts fought hard to make a run for it. Their escape was thwarted by her slim, delicate arms forcing them back into their silk prison. She rested her perfectly proportioned face on long slender hands supported by unusually sexy elbows.
“Hey sailor, buy a thirsty girl a drink?”
Ronny smiles. The woman, not much more than a girl really, takes one of the chairs and moves it close to Ronny’s. She balances her perfectly round butt on the chair and looks straight in Ronny’s eyes.
“Cat got your tongue big boy?”
“It’s not my tongue that’s at issue.”
She laughs and runs her delicate fingers up the inside of his thigh. “I have some booze at my place,” she says, “maybe you come over and we can have a drink or two. I’m dying to get out of these clothes.” She squirms somewhat overly dramatically causing those breasts of hers to bounce to attention.
Ronny didn’t need any further encouragement. The tall blonde beauty and the short handsome athlete leave The Blow-Out for her apartment. Along the way they see a blue Chevy stopped in the middle of the road. The hood of the vehicle is up, and a young man with a very worried look on his face is standing over it trying to decipher why his jalopy won’t start.
Ronny’s new friend pipes up, “We should stop and try to help the poor guy.”
Ronny is anxious to get to the girl’s apartment but figures stopping will earn him a few brownie points. Ronny slows his car and pulls off onto the dirt shoulder behind the young man’s automobile. Ronny and the blonde get out of their car and walk toward the stranded driver. The young man seems to be very relieved to get some help.
“Need some assistance?” Ronny asks. “I’m pretty good with car engines.”
“Sure,” the young driver says as he pulls an illegal switchblade out from under his sleeve. “Hand over all your cash. Hand it the fuck over NOW!”
The blonde moves away from Ronny to stand next to the budding stickup man. She kisses him on the cheek, looks at Ronny, and makes a sarcastic pouting face.
“Poor little Ronny thought he was going to get lucky. Sorry to disappoint you baby, but I like ’em big and your little pecker just won’t do.”
The knife wielding punk asks, “Did he give you any trouble?”
“Trouble, what trouble could he be? He’s just a wee little thing. No trouble at all.” She gives Ronny another sarcastic pouty face.
“You better hand over your cash baby, I wouldn’t want to see that perfect little face of yours get carved up like a Christmas turkey.”
Ronny is standing in the middle of the road with his hands up. “No problem,” he says, “I don’t want any trouble. My wallet is in the glove compartment. Let me get it?”
“Hurry up, be quick about it.”
Ronny lowers his hands and goes to his car. He reaches across the front seat and presses the button to get into the glove box. When he emerges from the front seat, he’s holding a giant .357 Magnum. The gun is big, and in Ronny’s hand it looks even bigger.
“Your girl said she likes them big,” as he holds up the monster handgun to admire it. “And I believe, mine is bigger than yours.”
The kid drops the knife. The blonde starts to say something but Ronny stops her with a little wave of the gun. They both look terrified.
“This should be a lesson for you both. Never bring a knife to a gunfight.” He looks at the young man, “Now toss your wallet on the ground.” He moves his gaze to the blonde, “You too sweetie, drop the purse and kick them both over to me.” They do as they’re told.
“Now get down on your knees.” The young man drops to the ground, but the blonde hesitates.
“I’ll get dirty.”
“Your choice sweetie, you can get a little dirt on those lovely knees, or you can get a lot of blood all over your nice white silk blouse. The choice is yours?”
The blonde drops to her knees. Both would-be criminals place their hands behind their heads. Ronny walks over to the girl and puts the gun to her forehead. She starts to whimper, tears run down her face, mucus drips from her nose. She’s never been so scared.
“Please don’t hurt us,” the young man pleads, “take whatever you want. We’ve learned our lesson.”
Ronny looks at the kid and moves the gun from the blonde’s forehead and aims it at her boyfriend.
“Get under the car.”
“You fuck’n heard me. Get under the fuck’n car now!”
The kid starts to crawl under the car but he gets stuck part way under. “I can’t get any further.”
Ronny kicks the kid hard in the side. “There, does that help?” The kid manages to get most of the way under the car.
“Your turn blondie, move that sweet little ass.” The blonde doesn’t hesitate. She slides right under the car without saying a word.
“You said you had car trouble.” Ronny points the .357 at the front driver’s side tire and fires. BANG!
“Now you got car trouble!”
The tire wheezes its last dying breath as the weight of the car lurches downward. Ronny empties the kid’s wallet and the blonde’s purse of all their cash, gets in his car, and drives away. As he looks in the rearview mirror he sees the two erstwhile criminals scrambling desperately to get out from under the car before they’re crushed.
He mumbles, almost to himself, “Amateurs… I’m surrounded by amateurs.”
There are things that happen around a racetrack that you can’t just make up; nobody would believe you. The reality is: horse racing is an alien world, separated from the rest of society by a brick wall of silence, and an established code of conduct. If you were searching for a parallel, the closest would be the bizarre world of the traveling circus.
Like the circus, horse racing is a self-sustaining universe populated by incredible nomad athletes who can perform amazing death-defying stunts alongside exotic wild animals, midway freaks, and carny conmen. It’s a universe wrapped in colorful pageantry that hides the seedy underbelly of corruption. The glitzy wrapping helps perpetuate its existence, enabling it to take advantage of the greed fostered by desperation and foolishness.
Take for instance McCoy Downs, a dilapidated Kentucky bullring nicknamed ‘hillbilly alley’ for its often-lethal farces and feuds. The track was in such bad condition, both financially and physically that the owners declared it open season for just about anything. The conditions were so dangerous jockeys would take bets on how many horses would finish each race.
The owners had to do something so they installed a drainage pipe that ran horizontally across the track near the eighth pole. The company that installed the drainage pipe tried to bury it properly but because of the unseasonably cold weather, it kept popping up creating an even worse hazard. If a horse hit the ditch at full speed it would go down; and more than once the entire field was wiped out.
Racetracks are dangerous places at the best of times when they’re in perfect condition, but this place was a nightmare waiting to happen. As bad as it was, not all dangerous situations occurred on the track. Because jockeys fall and get hurt, an ambulance is required to be on standby.
Unfortunately, the track owners couldn’t afford to pay for a proper ambulance and crew. In order to meet the requirements, they purchased an old hearse that was going to be scrapped. They converted it into a makeshift ambulance. The resurrected hearse actually looked like the real deal, and was manned by licensed paramedics.
As long as nobody needed to go to the hospital everything was fine, but with the track in such bad condition it didn’t take long for a disaster to happen. A friend of Ronny’s, Nicky Larsen, soon-to-be dubbed Lame Duck Larsen, was riding in the fifth race on a horse that was flaky at best.
Luckily for everyone else Nicky was last when his horse hit the drainage ditch throwing Nicky hard into the rail. Nicky was bruised and sore, but nothing appeared to be broken. Despite the injuries being minor, the paramedics insisted on taking him to the hospital to be checked out.
So, Nicky Larsen is strapped onto a stretcher and loaded into the makeshift ambulance. As he’s being lifted into the back he comments to the pretty redhead paramedic, “If it weren’t for the white paintjob this ambulance would look just like an old hearse.”
The female paramedic thinks, ‘if he only knew.’
Halfway to the hospital the driver hits a speed bump at top speed. The ambulance and Nicky are launched into the air like a Space Shuttle liftoff. When the ambulance lands, the latch holding the rear doors together snaps, the backdoors fly open, and Nicky, who is still strapped to the stretcher, is thrown onto the busy road.
The two heavy-duty canvas straps securing Nicky to the stretcher remain connected to the inside of the hearse-mobile. Nicky is bouncing and flopping around on the highway like an oversized tuna trying to escape being reeled in by a big-game fisherman. Cars are blasting their horns and drivers are yelling and pointing but the paramedics remain focused on getting to the hospital safely.
When Nicky Larsen hit the rail on the track he was bruised and sore, by the time he got to the hospital he had several broken bones including one severely damaged leg causing him to walk with a waddle and a limp.
Hence forth, Nicky Larsen was known as Lame Duck Larsen.
Ronny and Nicky were extremely close despite being very different. Of course, they had a lot in common: they were both jockeys, both crooked, and both wild, with Nicky being even crazier than Ronny. Nicky was a Kentucky hillbilly while Ronny was from the big city.
When people think of hillbillies the first thing that comes to mind is the infamous feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. A disagreement that supposedly started over a stray pig, but that could be more apocryphal than accurate. The central characteristic of these Appalachian clans was there get-even mentality that led to feuds that lasted generations, an aspect of personality bred into them from their historic Scottish and northern Irish roots.
This was the background of Nicky ‘Lame Duck’ Larsen. Despite their differences the country born farm boy and the big city Jew were best of friends. Their different backgrounds had one overriding common personality trait: live fast and the hell with the consequences.
Nicky lived on a farm with his wife on the outskirts of town. Ronny would go over for dinner or to just get drunk. One lazy afternoon while Nicky’s wife was hard at work cooking, cleaning, and tending to the couple of horses and the few chickens they kept, Ronny and Nicky sat drinking.
Nicky’s wife was a beautiful girl, smart, and hardworking but she was also deaf, and she couldn’t speak. She communicated with notes from a pad and pen she carried in her apron pocket.
When she came into the parlor she noticed both men were hammered, fall-down-drunk.
She takes out her pad and scribbles a note on it. Her husband is slouched spread-eagled in his easy chair with his legs splayed. She takes the note and slams it hard onto Nicky’s forehead. Ronny looks on in amusement.
She scribbles another note and plasters it to Ronny’s forehead. Nicky doesn’t move. His wife is standing with her hands on her hips waiting for a response. Ronny removes the note from his forehead and looks at it.
“What does yours say?” asks Nicky.
“Hmm… what does mine say?”
Ronny gets up, moves to where Nicky is sitting, removes the note, and reads: “DRUNKEN ASSHOLE! MAKE YOUR OWN FUCK’N DINNER!”
Nicky’s wife looks at the two men, mouths the word “ASSHOLES!” and storms off into the kitchen.
“Why did you marry her?” Ronny asks.
“If I was out drinking, my first wife would take all my stuff, pile it up on the front lawn, and wait on the porch with a can of lighter fluid ‘til I got home. When she saw me drive up she would pour the lighter fluid all over my stuff and light a match. Replacing all my shit was getting expensive…”
Nicky ponders a moment, “This one can’t even yell at me.”
There was an old wino owner-trainer at the track that had three excellent horses that Ronny wanted to ride. The horses were money in the bank but the trainer was committed to another jockey and he wouldn’t switch riders.
Ronny and his agent had to figure out a plan that would get the old man on their side. If there was an angle to be played, you can be assured Ronny would find a way to play it.
Ronny went to the local liquor store and bought a cheap bottle of Portuguese wine for a $1.49: the kind of plonk that has a screw top instead of a cork. The next morning Ronny and his agent went to the trainer and told him he’d been nominated for the prestigious ‘International Fellows of the Grape’.
When the trainer asked why he was selected to join, Ronny told him the association needed a fine wine connoisseur like him who had contacts in the racing community. Not only would his membership be free, but as a preferred member in good standing, he’d receive free wine to sample.
Then Ronny handed the old wino the cheap bottle of Portuguese wine. The wino smiled like he’d just won the lottery. The next day, Ronny and his agent delivered another bottle of cheap wine, this time they splurged for some German mouthwash that cost $1.99. They explained this was part of the society’s ‘Wines of The World Program.’
The following day the world wine tour took the wino trainer to Australia as Ronny and his agent presented the trainer with a bottle of $1.69 Australian wine. Ronny continued the plan for about a week, each day delivering a bottle of wine from a different county, none of which cost more than two dollars.
By this time Ronny and his agent are the drunken trainer’s best friends. Ronny gets to ride the horses and they continue to win. Everything is working out well, so Ronny decides the trainer deserves a special reward.
He buys the wino a bottle of $4.95 French wine. Ronny presents the old man with the wine explaining that this is a very special vintage, and not every preferred member gets to try it. The trainer takes the wine and disappears into the tack room. A few minutes later he comes out looking very sad.
Ronny asks him, “What’s the matter, don’t you like the wine?”
“This wine has a cork,” he says, “I’ve never had a bottle with a cork in it. I don’t know how to open it.”
Ronny takes the bottle and removes the cork with the Swiss Army Knife he carries. The trainer lights up like a Christmas tree.
Ronny continues to ride the trainer’s horses and he continues to win. Every day Ronny and his agent deliver a fresh bottle of screw top wine. The trainer is perpetually drunk. This continues on for a while.
Since the horses are doing so well they decide to enter one into a big stake race and Ronny wins. Everybody is in line for a big payday. When a horse wins a big race, a small tag is placed on the bridle signifying the horse has to go to the Pee Barn for a urine drug test.
The trainer and the groom are so wasted from drinking the wine supplied by Ronny they forget to take the horse to be drug tested. The head steward was just about ready to disqualify the horse for not being tested but Ronny knows the steward as a former jockey who was every bit as shady as Ronny.
Ronny reminds the steward that he knows his history, and it wouldn’t be wise to disqualify the horse. If he did, certain information might come out that would not be good for the steward’s new career. The guy backs down, the horse is awarded the win, and Ronny gets his big payday.
During the winter Ronny would head down to Florida or Louisiana. When he was in Florida he would usually have lunch at the track, but sometimes it was important to get away and clear his head.
A short drive from the racetrack was a place called The Exacta Diner. It catered to people who worked at the track, offering good food at inexpensive prices. A nice old Jewish couple ran it. It was a good place for Ronny to meet his jockey friends out from under the watchful eye of track snitches and stewards.
The Exacta was a classic vintage diner crammed with racetrack memorabilia and jukeboxes with hits from the 50s and 60s. The menu featured blue-plate specials, all-day breakfasts, and muffins as big as a colt’s testicles. Customers drove up to a long shiny silver trailer attached to an old clapboard shack that housed the kitchen. From the outside the place looked like it had time-traveled from the 1940s.
If you didn’t know better, you would have thought The Exacta Diner was a well-earned income supplement for a hardworking retired couple, but that wouldn’t really be an accurate assessment. The sweet elderly owners, Sid and Geraldine, more commonly known as Sid and Gerry, were active professional con artists who used the diner to collect information about the goings-on at the track.
If you wanted to know the inside scoop about what was happening, all you had to do was listen to the gossip among the jockeys and stable hands while they wolfed-down a plate of scrambled eggs and sausage.
Every day a nice young man would come in for lunch and order the blue-plate special. The kid liked hanging around the colorful characters that frequented The Exacta. He especially liked Sid and Gerry, and the chopped steak and eggs they served every Wednesday.
The kid told Sid he worked for the telephone company, and that got Sid thinking that here was an opportunity that shouldn’t be missed. Sid knew that Ronny was into fixing races and distributing diet supplements and pills to the jockeys. Sid let Ronny use the diner for his nefarious meetings in return for the occasional tip on a sure thing.
Sid approached Ronny with the idea of using the young telephone employee to tap someone’s phone. Ronny agreed to the plan and promised to keep his eyes open for the right situation. Sid approached the young man who readily agreed to his end in return for a month’s supply of free steak and eggs.
Ronny does some poking around and finds out that a trainer who works for a well-known heiress has been consistently scamming her for substantial sums of money. On one occasion the heiress gave the trainer thirty thousand dollars to bet on one of her horses that he told her was bound to win. But instead of placing the bet, he pocketed the money and paid the jockey to hold the horse, guaranteeing it would lose.
On another occasion, the trainer was told to negotiate the purchase of a horse the heiress wanted to buy. The trainer tells her he can get the horse for seventy thousand dollars. She agrees to the price and gives him the money. In fact, the owner only wanted fifty thousand and the trainer pocketed the difference.
Sid and Gerry figure there’s got to be a way to make some money from one of these deals. Sid gets the young telephone repairman to tap into the trainer’s phone. He sets it up so they can listen into the trainer’s conversations from their house.
Sid and Gerry alternate between running the diner and listening to the trainer’s telephone conversations. They bide their time until they hear the trainer is going to fix a race involving a long-shot. It could be the big payday they’ve all been looking for if they can find out all the details about the fix.
Unfortunately, nothing goes as planned. The Exacta had become the place to go for lunch, so Sid and Gerry were both needed at the diner. Who was going to listen in on the trainer if they were both at the diner and who was going to find out the details of the fix?
They speak to Ronny who tells them there’s an old-timer at the track that would gladly man the phone tap for a few bucks, and an occasional hot meal. The old–timer takes the job but fails to tell anyone he suffers from the occasional bout of narcolepsy. When the call with the needed information about the date, the race and the horse finally comes in, the old man is sound asleep.
Sid and Gerry decide that they should continue listening in to the trainer’s telephone calls as he is bound to fix another race. Sid is left alone to handle the diner while Gerry stays home to listen, hoping for another opportunity.
Every day Gerry gets up, has breakfast, and sets herself up beside the front window listening for the next potential score. After a few days she notices a cop car pull-up in front of her house. Two large police officers get out of the cruiser and start up the front walk.
Gerry gets scared. She quickly rips off the headset, grabs all the telephone paraphernalia, hurries into the kitchen and jams everything down the garbage disposal. She flips the switch hoping the officers don’t hear the horrible grinding and crushing of electrical components. The two cops knock on the door and she answers.
“Good morning Madam, were collecting for the Policemen’s Benevolent Society, and we’re wondering if you could help us out with a donation? Like all good citizens we’re sure you’d be happy to lend your support,” says one of the officers.
Gerry nods, asks them to wait a moment while she gets her purse. She hands one of the policeman a twenty-dollar bill. The cops thank her and go on to the next house on the block.
Gerry goes into the kitchen and looks at the mess of wires and gadgets half sticking out of the garbage disposal. She picks up the phone and calls her husband.
“Sid… I know you’re busy, but do you have the number for the plumber? The garbage disposal is broken.”