Belmont Stakes, a legendary columnist, and twilight of a lost world

·13 min read
Big Brown led off the track with the Belmont Stakes banner
Big Brown led off the track with the Belmont Stakes banner

Just after 8 a.m. on a cool June morning in 2008, a dozen or so children from a Long Island daycare gathered at the stables of Belmont Park. On the other side of a fence stood a horse named Casino Drive, a top contender in the upcoming Belmont Stakes.

As the children began to serenade Casino Drive with “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” he bent his head as if to listen. “He’s such a sweet horse,” his racing manager, Nobutaka Tada, practically whispered to me.

I left this dreamy scene swollen with inspiration. I was two weeks out of journalism school and on the second assignment of an internship in the vaunted sports department of the New York Daily News.

Horse racing held romance, in the same way that baseball and boxing and newsprint did. It was part of the ink-stained world that I was so excited to join.

A few hours later I was at the barn of Big Brown, the star of the week. A majestic horse — it didn't take a trained eye to see his advantages of presence and power — he had captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and was trying to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

An elderly man limped toward the crowd of reporters, notebook in hand. An air cast wrapped one of his feet.

I recognized the bald head and smirk, but not the gray beatnik beard, from his column picture: It was the great Vic Ziegel.

Heart pounding, I approached and introduced myself.

"Nice job on those Mets sidebars last week," he said. "Very clean writing, but don't be afraid to talk back to your copy, have a little fun with it. If you need any help this week, just lemme take a look.”

With one easy compliment, Ziegel had invited me in. I didn’t yet realize how little time or light was left when I got to the party. The light was still on, though.

Vic Ziegel (Photo Courtesy of Pat Carroll/New York Daily News)
Vic Ziegel (Photo Courtesy of Pat Carroll/New York Daily News)

***

The early 1960s saw a group of young disruptors arrive in press boxes, many in New York and Philadelphia. They asked chippy questions, wrote with humor, and were more Lenny Bruce than Leave it to Beaver.

Legend has it that the iconic older scribe Jimmy Cannon once saw them talking amongst themselves in the Yankees clubhouse and said, “You sound like small, furry animals. You’re making that kind of noise. You sound like a g----mn lot of chipmunks.”

He meant this derisively but the Chipmunks appropriated it as a badge of honor.

The group included many who would become New York and Philly’s best in the decades to come: Larry Merchant, Stan Hochman, Stan Isaacs, Steve Jacobson, George Vecsey, Phil Pepe, Paul Zimmerman, Maury Allen and Leonard Shecter, who collaborated with Jim Bouton on Ball Four.

They were all white and male, with a perspective limited by that commonality. In their time, though, the Chipmunks busted in doors of tone and style in ways that endure today.

One famous example of their irreverence came when Yankees pitcher Ralph Terry mentioned after winning a game in the 1962 World Series that his wife was at home feeding their baby.

“Breast or bottle?” asked Stan Isaacs of Newsday.

This might seem sophomoric or even inappropriate today. But at that time, reporters were expected to treat athletes with reverence. Isaacs’ question disgusted the old guard and stood as a symbol of the authority-challenging decade to come.

The early Mets of Casey Stengel were the perfect subject for the Chipmunks’ spunky writing. If the Jimmy Cannons of the world treated Yankee Stadium as the sacred cathedral of baseball, the youngsters preferred to be in Queens, cracking wise about Marvelous Marv Throneberry.

I knew this because I’d read about the Chipmunks in David Halberstam’s book October 1964, and dreamt of becoming part of a modern wave of the same tradition.

One of the saltiest and most enduring of the group featured in Halberstam’s book was Vic Ziegel, then of the New York Post.

Born to immigrants from Eastern Europe in New York City in 1937 and raised in the Bronx, Ziegel was at the Post by his twenties. He made a name for himself writing with knowledge and humor about baseball, boxing and horse racing among other sports.

Ziegel remained at the paper until 1976, also writing for magazines and even collaborating with Bouton on a short-lived Ball Four sitcom. The News hired him in 1985 as executive sports editor and later made him a columnist.

In 2005, when I was a 24-year-old schoolteacher in Brooklyn desperate to write baseball, I started a blog about the Yankees. I sent a clip to Ziegel’s publicly available email address, hoping for feedback but not expecting it.

He responded with an encouraging note from his AOL account. “Learn it and burn it,” he wrote of the personal address. It was my first invitation to the other side of what seemed like a velvet rope. Learn it? What a thrill.

Three years later, I was covering Belmont with the same guy, though he didn’t know about our earlier email exchange and I was too sheepish to remind him.

I had done well to show up at the stables early that morning and interview Casino Drive’s trainer, but lacked a feel for the language of the sport. After banging out a first draft of the feature, I feared it wasn’t right.

Vic and I were sitting across from one another at a folding table in the back of the press box.

He asked me how it was coming and offered to take a look.

“Turn it around,” he said, motioning to my laptop.

He read quietly for several minutes, squinting at the screen. To my relief, he said it was good overall, but had a few terms that would reveal to a serious reader of turf writing my inexperience.

This sentence was courtesy of Vic:

“His dam, Better than Honor, gave birth to the two most recent Belmont Stakes winners, Jazil and Rags to Riches.”

I had written “mother,” and he’d changed it to dam. A tiny but significant tweak. Imagine how many times Vic Ziegel appeared in the paper in similarly invisible ways.

“I believe in the esprit de corps,” he said, shrugging, when I thanked him.

***

The next morning Vic and I were in the front row at the main track, watching Big Brown run.

From a distance, the horse was beautiful; when he drew closer, his size and power made him almost demonic. His hooves pounded the dirt and a hissing sound burst from his nostrils.

Big Brown’s trainer, Rick Dutrow, stood mesmerized next to the track. He had been bragging for days about how Big Brown couldn’t be beat, amusing the other trainers.

“I fully expect Big Brown to win,” he’d said the week before, eschewing any pretense of modesty or sportsmanship. “He's in a zone right now and I don't see how he can get beat. I've been trying to be humble and modest, but ... I just feel we have the best horse and he will do what he has to do.”

Vic nodded in Dutrow’s direction.

“He’s fallen in love with the horse,” he said. “That can happen.”

I wanted to fall in love with the horse, too. Though my goal was to write baseball, the finest work of longform sports journalism I’d ever read — one that could stand with nearly any great American short story — was Pure Heart, by William Nack at Sports Illustrated.

In the piece, Nack describes waking at six every morning for a stretch in 1972 to visit Secretariat's barn at Belmont. That’s why I was up so early to see the children singing to Casino Drive; it was an attempt to imitate what had worked for the great writer.

The section in Pure Heart that describes Secretariat’s triumph at Belmont, which he won by an astonishing 31 lengths, is paced in a way that leaves the reader’s heart pounding, and ends like this: “I bolted up the press box stairs with exultant shouts and there yielded a part of myself to that horse forever.”

That was how I aspired to write about sports.

In the afternoon of my second day at Belmont I saw William Nack in that same press box.

I recognized him from a guest speaking appearance he’d made that spring at my J-school. That day, he’d mesmerized the students not only with stories of horse racing, but by closing his eyes and reciting -- almost singing it like a cantor, actually -- the final paragraphs of The Great Gatsby.

“Hi Bill,” Vic said.

“Hey there, Vic.”

As the two legends talk about Big Brown, I couldn’t quite believe what I had tapped into.

June 7, 2008; Elmont, NY, USA; Big Brown (1) ridden by Kent Desormeaux finishes 9th in the 140th Belmont Stakes after Big Brown was eased up on final stretch at Belmont Park. Da' Tara (6) ridden by Alan Garcia won the race.
June 7, 2008; Elmont, NY, USA; Big Brown (1) ridden by Kent Desormeaux finishes 9th in the 140th Belmont Stakes after Big Brown was eased up on final stretch at Belmont Park. Da' Tara (6) ridden by Alan Garcia won the race.

***

On Sunday, June 7, the morning of the race, it felt like we’d lost something. For days we’d had Belmont Park to ourselves, wandering the stables, chatting with the trainers and jockeys, walking right up to the horses.

We’d been able to hear Big Brown’s thunderous hooves as he warmed up every morning on the track and watched his trainer stare at him with love and faith.

Now, more than 94,000 people poured in for the big event, taking from us our quiet, special access. They wore bright dresses, big hats and seersucker suits. They waited in 95-degree heat through a day’s worth of races until Big Brown’s coronation — the horse was too majestic to imagine any other outcome — and we all felt the excitement build.

Casino Drive was scratched with an injured hoof, making Big Brown’s win even more inevitable. I bet a dollar on him and figured the ticket would be a keepsake for life.

As the race approached, I found my way down the paddock. The network cameras and broadcasters were in place, as was our celebrity columnist, Mike Lupica. He wore a blazer and chatted up fans.

Big Brown’s handlers walked their horse toward the starting gate, the muscles in his legs rippling.

When Dutrow peeled off to take his seat, I followed, planning to write a piece describing his reactions. I stood in the aisle nearby.

From the start of the race, Big Brown seemed to be lacking the power we’d seen in his early morning jogs that week. He was in third place for a time, and seemed in position to speed into the lead, but it wasn’t happening.

I looked at Dutrow. He was sweating through his blue dress shirt and scowling at the track. Heading toward the final turn, Big Brown had not yet led or come close.

Jockey Kent Desormeaux pulled up, conceding the race. Dutrow dropped his head and let out one of the saddest breaths I’d ever seen.

It happened so quickly. I didn’t understand. Big Brown had finished last, the first Triple Crown hopeful to do so.

His failure was never adequately explained. He had raced with a quarter crack in a front hoof, but Dutrow’s veterinarian later determined that it wasn’t a factor. A photo later revealed a loose shoe in his right hind hoof, but the impact of that wasn’t deemed significant, either.

As Desormeaux put it, Big Brown simply “had no gas left in the tank.”

Loss shrouded the entire park. Ninety-four thousand heads seemed to drop along with Dutrow’s.

Back up in the press box, Vic decided he was going to write about the trainer, and I was glad to defer. I dictated my notes to him.

While typing, he shouted across the table at me for reminders.

“What did he do again on the final turn?”

“Sighed, exhaled and dropped his head to his shoulders,” I said back, banging away on my sidebar.

“OK, thanks.” It felt like we were a couple of three-piece suits and fedoras away from the 1920s.

A few hours later, on the LIRR train back to Brooklyn, I cracked open a tall boy and sunk into my seat.

A surprising depression set in. It turned out that I wasn’t witnessing the moment in history that I’d assumed.

June 7, 2008; Elmont, NY, USA; Kent Desormeaux sits aboard Big Brown (1) after finishing in 9th place in the 140th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. Kent Desormeaux eased up on Big Brown (1) on the final stretch.
June 7, 2008; Elmont, NY, USA; Kent Desormeaux sits aboard Big Brown (1) after finishing in 9th place in the 140th Belmont Stakes at Belmont Park. Kent Desormeaux eased up on Big Brown (1) on the final stretch.

***

The following spring I got my first full-time newspaper job, covering the Phillies for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Three days later, the paper declared Chapter 11 and froze our company credit cards. So began many years of barely outrunning the contraction of an industry.

Rushing to move to another city, I’d missed several goodbyes, including with Vic. Upon taking the Philly job, I’d switched phone numbers to one provided by the paper and forgot to check messages on the old one.

Months later, I discovered that I’d missed a long voicemail from Vic, congratulating me on the move. In the interim he’d been forced into retirement.

I emailed to apologize for not getting back to him. He responded:

So you're a 2-cell guy now. Congratulations. I'm still coming to grips with [his ouster at the News]. I would say that's an improvement. I guess I am going to think of my next move. Any time now. Just working with you for that short time I had no doubt that your future was in this business. If this business has a future. — cheers, vic.

The News brought me back to cover the Mets in 2010. The paper still seemed to be thriving. Most of the big names — Lupica, Bill Madden, John Harper, Frank Isola, Filip Bondy and more — were still there. We broke stories and published longform every Sunday. Our back pages drove the conversation. Working there was still like being on the top of the mountain.

Vic emailed.

Andy, You're a homing pigeon. Good to see you back at the old (no longer mine) shop. Must have happened in a hurry. If the Mets go bad again (If, that's a joke) you can have a lot of fun with them. Come to think of it, you should be having a lot of fun with that beat anyway. Hope to see you soon. — vic

I’d heard he had cancer, but wasn’t sure if it was serious, so decided to just interact with him normally. I thanked him for the support and said it was good to be back. In return I got another brief, private Vic Ziegel column.

Good to be back??? We'll see about that, methinks.

If all goes well, I'll be grabbing column inches at the end of April for my Kentucky Derby drivel. It's a great gig, because the stars — the horsies — don't talk and the trainers lie only 80 percent of the time.

The fact is, nothing happened in all my years on the scene. I got married, helped raise my daughter, moved to a place with trees and flowers and broken water pipes. That's enough inside baseball for one day. — cheers, vic.

I was in a hotel in Los Angeles that July when our sports editor emailed the staff that Vic died.

Upon returning home, I rode with a car full of Daily News titans — Roger Rubin, Kristie Ackert, Anthony McCarron and Peter Botte — to New Rochelle to sit shiva.

Of that group, by the way, only Ackert is still at the paper. The physical newsroom closed in 2020. William Nack died in 2018 and so has his version of Sports Illustrated.

The business is now brimming with a young, ambitious and diverse group of writers who have very few places at which to earn decent money practicing their craft.

In her living room, Vic’s wife of 34 years, Roberta, told us softly about “Victor” and the Chipmunks. She told us about how he bonded with Orlando Cepeda over jazz and developed a close friendship, and she briefly alluded to his heartbreak over how it ended at the paper.

I said that Vic was kind and helpful to me, but kept the story of our week at Belmont tucked away, where it remained until now. It’s finally clear to me what it means: It was a flash of the old light, allowing me to glimpse and store it before it faded forever.