12/07/2012 4:31PM

Hovdey: Runyon's name and spirit live on at the track


For anyone clinging to the idea that the way things are today are not the way they have always been, it undoubtedly does their heart good to know that somewhere there is a horse race named for Damon Runyon.

The race, in fact, comes around about this time every year at Aqueduct, as it does again on Sunday for a field of 2-year-olds bred in New York and running a mile for a purse of $80,000. Not to be morbid, but the date brushes up closely against the anniversary of the death of Runyon, on Dec. 10, 1946. He died in Manhattan, New York, from throat cancer after smoking Turkish Ovals most of his life, which was a long way from his hometown of Manhattan, Kansas, a coincidence that by then had long outlived any traces of irony. His ashes were scattered down Broadway.

It is an unusual instinct, the naming of a horse race for a racing writer. Management, as a class, is not known to be overly populated by fans of the Fourth Estate. Still, the idea is harmless enough, as quaint as a card stamped “Press” stuck in the hatband of a fedora, and Runyon is not the only well-known writer of racetrack tales to be remembered with a New York race of his own.

There is Red Smith, Evan Shipman, Daily Racing Form ’s own Joe Hirsch and Charles Hatton, although the Hatton is no longer around. California got into the act when Hollywood Park began running the Jim Murray Memorial Handicap since 1990, which means Murray was able to enjoy the first 10 runnings before his death in the summer of 1999. Murray’s final column, by the way, was about horse racing.

Once he figured out the newspaper business was hard work for table scraps, Runyon made a fortune writing short stories and selling them to Hollywood. Most of his characters spent their days at games of chance and behaviors that pushed the limits of legal tolerance. But also had such memorable names that horse racing owners could not leave them alone.

That is why there have been Thoroughbreds take the track named Nathan Detroit, Sorrowful Jones, and Dave the Dude, among many others, and were it not for Runyon, there would be no Lemon Drop Kid. Sure, there would still be the horse, and that horse was a champion, but he would have won races like the Belmont Stakes and the Travers under some other, far less creative handle than the one summoning the famous short story of the same name.

“The Lemon Drop Kid’s business is telling the tale,” goes the story, written by Runyon in 1934, “and he is finding it very difficult indeed to discover citizens who are willing to listen to him tell the tale. And of course if a guy whose business is telling the tale cannot find anybody to listen to him, he is greatly handicapped, for the tale such a guy tells is always about how he knows something is doing in a certain race, the idea of the tale being that it may cause the citizen who is listening to it to make a wager on this certain race, and if the race comes out the way the guy who is telling the tale says it will come out, naturally the citizen is bound to be very grateful to the guy, and maybe reward him liberally.”

This would be the job description of a tout, and the kicker is that The Lemon Drop Kid – along with characters like Slats Slavin, Nathan Detroit, Harry the Horse, Last Card Louie, Milk Ear Willie, and Nicely Nicely – were not very nice people at all. They were not just racetrack touts, either. They were grifters, sharps, bookies, crooks, and thugs, but they were made by Runyon to be entertaining, likeable, and even sympathetic.

Runyon had a great ear for the street vernacular of the time. He remains one of the most quoted American writers, although some of those quotes were grabbed from the atmosphere of Lindy’s Delicatessen and massaged into memorable Runyon dialogue.

For instance:

“One of these days in your travels, a guy is going to come up to you and show you a nice brand-new deck of cards on which the seal is not yet broken, and this guy is going to offer to bet you that he can make the Jack of Spades jump out of the deck and squirt cider in your ear. But, son, do not bet this man, for as sure as you are standing there, you are going to end up with an earful of cider.”

As delivered by Marlon Brando as Sky Masterson in “Guys and Dolls,” that one is hard to forget. Runyon did not live long enough to see his wisecracks and characters come to life in the Broadway play or the subsequent movie, just as he was long gone before the Damon Runyon Stakes was introduced in 1979. But that does not mean the spirit of Runyon has not lived on.

I went combing through the list of winners of the Damon Runyon, just in case a name jumped out as particularly Runyonesque, other than horses like Haynesfield and Fourstars Allstar who went on to bigger things. There was Naughty New Yorker (too obvious), and Lawrence the Roman (possibilities), but then the eye came upon Montreal Marty, who won it in 1991. Who could I ask about him?

“Sure I remember Marty,” said his jockey, Julie Krone, who was on her way out the door when I asked. “Let me tell you a story about him.”

Which is exactly the way the Runyon narrator would have begun.

“He was a Mt. Livermore, a beautiful chestnut, but tough to ride,” she said. “Scotty Schulhofer trained him. The Runyon I don’t really remember, but I was disqualified on him twice, both times at Saratoga. How many horses does that happen to?

“The first time it happened was a maiden race,” Krone went on, as if picking at her Lindy’s cheesecake. “Big crowd. He’s odds on and wins for fun.”

By 7 1/2 lengths, in fact, at 90 cents on the dollar.

“I get back and Art Madrid says he’s claiming foul on me. I beg him not to. He does anyway, and they take me down. We get back to the room and after a few minutes we start smelling smoke. Chris Antley comes in and says, ‘Hey, a guard just told me the crowd is setting fire to trash cans!’ ”

Tell me Runyon wouldn’t have had fun with that.