06/27/2006 11:00PM

Dave's Friend a true bettor's buddy


PHILADELPHIA - There was actually a time when players knew horses by name and not number. It was not just, "Come on with the five!"

Everybody playing the horses in Maryland during the late 1970's and early 1980's knew one horse by name. When he raced, you never had to search to find him. And if you bet on him, you shouted his name because he was money.

Dave's Friend was euthanized at Franks Farm in Shreveport, La., on June 14. For those of us who were gambling in Maryland back in his day, he lives forever.

When he ran, he was just "Dave" as in "Come on Dave, dig in Dave, don't let them pass you Dave."

The great 3-year-old class of 1978 gave us Affirmed and Alydar. It also gave us the fastest, most versatile, and toughest Maryland-bred of all, Dave's Friend.

Dave's Friend started 76 times and won 35, including 17 stakes. He earned $1,079,915, one race at a time, when a million was a big number. He set six track records from five furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. Think about that.

Dave never got an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter, which was the fault of the voters who often went for the winner of the Vosburgh Stakes and ignored everything else. If you saw Dave race, you could not ignore him. And you could not miss him.

Dave's Friend was pure speed. He came out of the gate running and never slowed down. He was a front-runner with heart, a very big heart.

They ran the Marylander Handicap on closing day of the 1978 Pimlico meet. Trainer Allen Jerkens was bringing in Sensitive Prince from New York. The colt had been unbeaten going into the Kentucky Derby and chased wild fractions set by Raymond Earl before taking the lead and then retreating in the stretch. Later that summer he came within a nose of defeating Affirmed in the Jim Dandy.

This was a serious horse. My friends and I laughed at him. Sensitive Prince had no chance against Dave. Sensitive Prince was fast. Dave was faster.

The race was at 1 1/8 miles. Dave led. Sensitive Prince chased. Dave kept going and set a track record. Sensitive Prince tired and missed the exacta. We cashed.

Later that summer, we chased Dave up to Monmouth Park for what is now the Haskell. He led in the slop before getting caught at the finish by mud-loving longshot Delta Flag.

We were all stunned, certain that Dave would never lose. We were new to the game, naive, but never in doubt.

So we went to Atlantic City that night. It was just a few weeks after the first casino, Resorts International, had opened. There were so many people on the boardwalk just trying to get inside that we ended up buying our way in.

When we got into the casino, they were 10 deep at every blackjack table, all of which seemed to have a $50 minimum that made us yearn for another chance to bet about 10 times that on Dave against any horse, anytime, anywhere. They were letting four and five people bet on the same hand. We wanted to bet on Dave.

Sometime later, in the midst of a personal losing streak, Dave was entered at The Meadowlands. We drove up, bet all of our money, and Dave, somewhat less than his best, held off all comers. When you really needed to cash, you waited on Dave, a horse that never waited on anything.

Dave was bred, owned, and trained by Bob Beall, who owned the old Fireside Restaurant, a few miles from the University of Maryland campus in College Park.

Beall was not a major factor on the Maryland circuit, but he knew how to train Dave.

When John Franks made Beall an offer he could not refuse in 1981, Dave, then 6, was sold. He won the Count Fleet Stakes at Oaklawn Park as an 8-year-old in 1983 and again as a 9-year-old in 1984.

At one time, Dave was the all-time leading Maryland-bred earner. Inflation did away with that number. It can erase nothing else.

In the end, Dave was just old, 31. In the beginning, he was just fast, as fast as any horse I have seen. In the middle, he was just a horse that made you believe that this sport really was about horses and not numbers.