06/23/2008 11:00PM

Death of a heavyweight

Email

Back in the 1970s, while I was just starting out my professional handicapping-writing career, I met a former boxer who probably knew more about watching races and spotting sore horses than most of the vets and trainers in the game.

He died in Florida three weeks ago, having fought under many different names as a welterweight and middleweight boxer, yet only his eight wins and six losses under the name Clem Florio remains stamped on his official record.

A great obituary column was posted in the Washington Post on May 28 by a former colleague, Vinnie Perrone, and it is not my intention to do the same thing here. But, Clem Florio should not pass on without some words in Daily Racing Form that relate specifically to the contributions he made to the art/science of playing the horses and the lessons he tried to teach Washington-based Andy Beyer, former Washington Post racing writer Gerry Strine, and myself as we worked alongside Clem in Maryland, marveling at his keen eye for the running horse.

It was Clem Florio who first pointed out the controversial effects of the drug Lasix, which now is under discussion in the United States Congress as part of racing's need to address its drug problems. It was Florio who woke up the Maryland press box in the early 1970s to the possibility that this drug might have performance-enhancing properties.

"You see that horse," Florio would say as he pointed to a $10,000 claimer in the post parade. "He's brand new!

"Last week he looked so dull, but this week he looks like he wants to run through a brick wall. Nature alone can't do that."

Florio probed his backstretch contacts, spoke to vets in confidence who explained the positive side of the drug - it could limit bleeding in the lung capillaries caused by the stress of racing and help horses breathe better after ingesting crystallized stall dust at winter tracks. Yet, a few vets admitted to Florio, Beyer, Strine, and myself that Lasix flushed out so much water from the horse so quickly that it could be used to limit the effectiveness of urine-based drug tests.

Florio brought special expertise to his powers of observation that exceeded anyone I have ever met in any press box anywhere in America. As a boxer he understood athletic fitness, and as a hot walker for Hall of Fame trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons in Chicago, he could spot lameness and body soreness with considerable accuracy.

"Throw the four horse out," Florio would say when a 3-5 favorite was taking short choppy steps in the post parade. I can't tell you how many times such open proclamations were followed by a march to the windows to bet the second or third choice with gusto. Florio made visual handicapping and trip handicapping an essential part of the game before anyone labeled it so.

Florio also schooled us on the telltale signs of a horse he believed was juiced, and while that is a more complicated endeavor today, due to so many sophisticated drugs that the industry is now trying to deal with, Florio was among the very first who recognized the need to keep the public in the loop.

Taking Florio's lead, Beyer wrote columns in the Washington Star pointing out the need for prerace disclosure of Lasix and Bute information to the betting public. I used my radio and magazine forums to make similar points, and Strine slipped in a line or two about Lasix in his Washington Post news reports that were far more subtle, but also helped bring the issue front and center.

Florio took his argument for public disclosure to Chick Lang, general manager of Pimlico Racecourse, a former jockey and one-time jockey agent for Bill Hartack, and was brushed off, just as he was brushed off by Newton Brewer, chairman of the Maryland Racing Commission.

In those days, track officials and racing commissioners feared a horsemen's rebellion at the entry box should a list of Lasix-treated horses be made public.

"It will only confuse the bettors," was the common refrain to explain the decision to keep the info in the hands of racing insiders.

Eventually, through persistent pressure from Florio and his press box disciples, Maryland succumbed reluctantly to post Lasix-treated horses on a single sheet of paper placed in a glass viewing case on the grandstand floor. Somewhat later that charade evolved into Lasix info being published on overnight entries.

"See that horse out there," Florio would say several times a day, "not only does he look brand new, but now we know why, he's on Lasix."

Florio's contributions to handicapping, including ideas I have used through the years, go deeper than his keen eye for lameness and ultimate fitness. In an era when public handicappers only were given the entries for tomorrow's races - not 48 or 72 hours in advance - Florio set up an index card system for every horse on the Maryland circuit and included some of the top horses in New York and California, too. His thoroughness is something that boosted a young handicapper's passion into a more professional approach.

Every time a horse ran, Florio would clip out the past performances from DRF and paste the new past performance profile on the index card. This, by the way, was the same method used by DRF statisticians at the DRF offices until we entered the world of computers. While past performances are now readily available in DRF at least a day in advance, astute players certainly can build a strong game using Florio's index card method to compare past performances of several horses trained by a given trainer to detect winning patterns.

Florio would make trip notations, add comments about workouts he personally timed early in the morning, and double check the final-time clockings against his own stopwatch clockings. Florio timed these races himself because he had indisputable evidence that the Pimlico timer malfunctioned many times. Fact is, it was no surprise to Florio that the Pimlico timer screwed up Secretariat's track-record clocking, which still is incorrectly listed in the record books despite a mountain of contrary evidence.

He even told Pimlico officials that the filly Frances Flower did not deserve credit for a six-furlong track record, that she had actually run her race in 1:12, not 1:09. The huge discrepancy was dismissed by Pimlico officials as the whining complaint by a horseplayer. It also was the first time I ever heard somebody say with a straight face that racetrack clockings "are not important. Time is only important for people in jail."

For all his strong efforts on behalf of the game and the people who play it, Clem Florio was far from a winning horseplayer. He did see greatness in Secretariat well before all but a very few saw the same thing. He did pick Deputed Testamony to win the 1983 Preakness at a boxcar mutuel, and he was right about many other important races. But, Florio's workload and rich life in the Baltimore community probably limited him to fewer winning days than were within his reach.

Yet, his legacy to the game is significant. He helped teach things to budding reporters and horseplayers who drew from his knowledge and wrote books and shared their thoughts just as freely as he shared his own. Moreover, Florio's public handicapping column in the Baltimore News American before that paper folded spoke to what he saw on the track in previous races and what he really wished he had not seen. While he was doing his thing - guiding others towards more insightful handicapping, more respect for the $2 bettor - Florio pulled no punches even after he left the ring.