05/29/2008 11:00PM

Clem Florio: Racing's one-of-a-kind winner


On a drizzly Saturday morning in 1983, May 21, black-and-white editions of The Washington Post were lined with gold. In the belly of the sports section, Clem Florio foretold the 108th Preakness Stakes, the crystal-eerie vision shared with three-quarter million readers:

"Desert Wine should surrender after the far turn, with Deputed Testamony and Bet Big challenging turning for home. In the run to the wire, Deputed Testamony, the iron horse, will hook and pass Sunny's Halo after a furious stretch duel between jockeys Donald Miller and [Eddie] Delahoussaye . . . The running time should be around 1:55 3/5 if the track stays fast."

Through the rain and muck, Deputed Testamony loomed a dark and gathering wave on the far turn, splashed powerfully along the rail and was gone - in 1:55.40. For 20 cents, Clem had given Post readers a $31 winner on a $2 bet. Had Deputed Testamony not raced as a coupled entry with the better-credentialed Parfaitement, he might have paid $50.

"Thirty-one hammers," Clem would say, the word "hammuz" tipping his Queens, N.Y., beginnings. "Whaddya, find it in the street?"

For nearly 40 years, Clem enlivened Maryland's Thoroughbred-track press boxes and radio waves as a jaunty impresario - Dead End Kid turned P.T. Barnum. He spun yarns of his days as a toddler actor on the Italian-American stage, of youthful misadventures in gritty Ozone Park, of his star-crossed boxing career, of racetrack fortunes gotten and missed. He relished history made and unmade, for every waiting horse race brought the chance to score a wager and a story.

Clem left Maryland in 2005 for Florida and the closeness of his children. Recently, he had become gravely ill with cancer of the lung and pancreas. Last Sunday night, he died at 78.

Word sucker-punched the few remaining denizens of the Pimlico Race Course press box during Monday's holiday card, fled through the track, through the streets and boccie courts of Baltimore's Little Italy and beyond. To Clem, life was The Race, marked by time, oozing action, filled with intriguing principals, ever uplifting. He'd hobnob with actor Vincent Gardenia and interviewer Larry King, both old friends, with major league ballplayers and with any shopworn railbird who might approach him, ending with, "Go get 'em, Rock." He filled press boxes and restaurants with sweeping arias on a whim, the vibrato baritone firm and bracing.

He was a merry iconoclast, a willing nonconformist. During the races, Clem occasionally would pull from God-knows-where a gray and matted toothbrush and begin brushing. He drank red wine from a brandy snifter. He was a Caucasian member of the NAACP.

His only blatant ruse was born of necessity. To boost family income during World War II, Clem became an underage club fighter at 14 and took the ring as an impostor: as Clem Fitzpatrick, Ray Dooley, Clem Fitzgerald. He did his roadwork at nearby Aqueduct Racetrack, shimmying beneath a rolled-up fold of chain-link fence to run laps. The deep and pillowy dirt brought fatigue, and useful insight.

After boxing and a brief stint as stable-hand to Hall of Fame trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Clem took a job as turf writer and handicapper for a Florida newspaper. When a Baltimore News-American editor looked to fill such a vacancy, the sharpies touted Clem.

Through his work at the News-American from 1965 to 1978, his 10 years at The Post, a few as oddsmaker for the Maryland Jockey Club and racing host of various Baltimore radio stations, Clem became a regional turf icon for his wit and magnanimity, his voracious appetite for life, his equine insight. His handicapping bore a tasty brew of math and alchemy, observation and intuition.

Time is the true barometer of racehorse ability, Clem stressed, but not the only one. From his days trudging through the dirt at Aqueduct, he observed fatigue- and pain-wrought variations in his gait, applied the theory to racehorse handicapping, embellished it. To Clem, the post parade was a peephole to the race.

Even the luminaries took note. In his first book, "Picking Winners" (1975), Post turf columnist Andrew Beyer devoted a chapter to racehorse appearance, citing Clem's visual epiphanies. Clem's prerace ruminations became grist for press box punters, the race often concluding with Clem's sing-song exultation, "Oh, you baby doll," or, "I am now a man of means."

Before the 2002 Belmont, with the racing world atwitter with the Triple Crown prospects of War Emblem, Clem offered a sober counterpoint. Training patterns meant much to him, and the longshot Sarava was working toward the Belmont with new vigor. That was the play. At 70-1, Sarava tripped a $142.50 win mutuel and Clem's known refrain: "What's that, tin?"

Across the years, he would take pieces of his horseplaying catch, wrap it in aluminum foil, and mail it to family or friends. In this and other ways, Clem Florio made lives richer.

(c) 2008, The Washington Post