08/24/2015 12:45PM

Fornatale: Horses and the radio, a perfect segue


Sunday would have been my father’s 70th birthday. He was a rock ‘n roll disc jockey in New York from the 1960s until his untimely passing in April of 2012. He was also a racing fan. Not a read-the-Form every day type, but definitely a visit-Saratoga-every-year guy. He loved the place, and it was always a pleasure to introduce him around to people at the track who’d been listening to him for many years.

I wasn’t working as the Daily Racing Form Tournament editor when my father was alive, but we did once play in a contest together. It was televised, with a head-to-head structure, on the old New York City OTB channel. The host, Mitchell Fink, would bring in pairs of people every week to compete. My dad, not a proper handicapper, relied on rock ‘n roll related hunch plays. I’m happy and embarrassed to admit that on this day, that was the proper strategy. We both cashed a few tickets, but he won the hour with big place points on an Elusive Quality gelding named Sly – think Sly and the Family Stone -- an obvious pick for a guy who would go on to write a book about Woodstock.

My earliest memory of my dad and horses was him and my mom coming home from Roosevelt Raceway with stacks of colorful tickets that I’d play with as a little kid. “With all those losing tickets, I must not have been a very good player,” he joked when I told him that story years later.

I also remember him telling me that if his book "Radio In The Televison Age" did well enough, he and his co-writer Josh Mills were going to buy a horse. While still somehow in print, the Overlook Press title never did generate horse-friendly royalties but that idea always stuck with me – if you have a little extra success, buy a horse.

Not surprisingly, Secretariat was his favorite. Before I was even a racing fan myself, he explained to me that while Big Red’s Derby and Preakness were amazing, the Belmont Stakes, with its marathon distance, was where he truly stamped himself the greatest. Because of my father, the Test of the Champion has always held a special allure to me.

It still happens, though with less frequency than it once did, that people will hear my name and ask, “Any relation to the DJ? I listened to him since I was kid. . .” I typically say to them that just by virtue of their knowing that name I know three things about them: 1) they are from the tri-state area 2) they have great taste in music and 3) they are at least 40 years old.

I’m happy to report that my daughter, whom he never got to meet but whose name is inspired by him, shares many of my dad’s qualities. She loves horses. She’s only 2 1/2, but was perfectly behaved for the entire day on a recent trip to Saratoga, melting down only at the end of the day when informed that the races were over.

She’s also got the broadcasting gene. She made her first radio appearance at six months and is comfortable with a microphone. At the Capon Springs talent show this summer, she enthralled the crowd with her rendition of “Wheels On the Bus,” segueing into “Old McDonald” for an impromptu encore. No pressure intended, but we might just be looking at the first full-time American female racecaller.

My dad frequently liked to acknowledge racing on his radio show, Mixed Bag. On Derby Day, he would typically play Dan Fogelberg’s “Run for the Roses,” if not a full set of equine-inspired tunes. One year, on the National Day of the Horse, I co-hosted and we did a couple of hours of horse songs, from the sublime (“Chestnut Mare,” “The Race Is On”) to the ridiculous (“Wildfire”).

My dad’s handpicked replacement to follow him as the host of "Mixed Bag" was his longtime producer and friend Don McGee. Don has kept the tradition of having me on the show to discuss racing alive. This year, on June 6, Don had me on to discuss the Belmont Stakes – I just wanted to make sure that the show’s listeners knew to turn on the TV to watch history being made. "Mixed Bag" was on the air as American Pharoah crossed the wire that afternoon. Come to think of it, I might owe Don a visit. My dad would have loved the idea of a Triple Crown winner running at Saratoga. I bet we think of something fun to play.


Thomas Riccobono More than 1 year ago
So glad to have met you at Sarstoga this year at dinner after the nyra handicapping contest. As i said that night your dad and his radio show was a big part of my life from my early teens up until his passing in 2012. Between "Mixed Bag" with your dad & "Idiots Delight" with Vin S. my Saturday evenings were magicalm What more can a father ask for than to be remembered fondly by his son. Hope to see you next year at Sarstoga & keep on writing from the heart. Regards, Tommy R.
Peter Fornatale More than 1 year ago
Wow, man, thanks. That's as nice a compliment as I've ever received and I appreciate it more than you know. I hope to see you again soon.
Peter Merchant More than 1 year ago
Nicely written column. Remember your dad very well and, although I grew up in Brooklyn/Queens/LI (my family moved a lot in those days) I now reside in the Saratoga area but am not a real racing fan, I've watched American Pharoah and you can bet I will be watching him in the upcoming Travers. Thanks for an enjoyable piece and good luck to you and your emerging DJ.
Yuwipi More than 1 year ago
Haven't enjoyed a column as much as this one is a long while. I bought your "The Winning Contest Player" when it came out a year and a half ago and enjoyed it a lot. Still haven't pulled the trigger on contest play though. Maybe someday. When I finished with it and went to put it in the horse racing bookcase I hesitated a second, looked across the room and decided to put it next to "Back To The Garden." When Don played "Every Grain of Sand" (pretty sure he chose Emmy Lou Harris' version - which is a beautiful cover) to open the first Mixed Bag program after your Dad's passing it was very tough. He is truly missed. I fulfill your three criteria above, but would never have to ask if you're a relation. Didn't catch you on FUV this Belmont day, but enjoyed your visit on Derby Saturday in 2014 and hope the beer book you spoke about comes to fruition.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Thanks for the kind words!! That other book was about distilling actually, not beer, and it came out and has sold well. BROOKLYN SPIRITS it's called if you want to check it out. Thanks again for taking the time to comment and I hope we meet someday. LMK if you have any questions regarding contest play.