02/28/2017 10:32AM

Jay Cronley, racing writer and author, dead at 73


Jay Cronley, the writer whose book “Good Vibes” was turned into one of the most iconic racing films of all time, the comedy “Let It Ride,” died on Sunday night of a heart attack at his home in Tulsa, Okla., according to reports. Cronley was 73.

Although Cronley was a longtime newspaper writer who frequently wrote about racing and had three books turned into films, “Let It Ride” was by far his crowning achievement for racing fans. Released in 1989 and starring Richard Dreyfuss as a degenerate horseplayer, “Let It Ride” did not receive rave critical reviews from mainstream critics, but many horseplayers adored the film, recognizing their own racing experiences in its eccentric cast of characters and sharp racing-centric dialogue.

Cronley was a degenerate horseplayer himself, and his deep knowledge of racing and racetrack life permeated the film, many times in jokes that few outside the racing culture would recognize. In one scene, Dreyfuss’s character, Jay Trotter, is escorted into the track’s money room, and in the background, a sheikh can be seen crying. It’s still common to hear horseplayers mimic one of the lines in the film during a day of bad betting, by explaining that they based a bet on the fact that the horse has “the same name of my cat.”

“Let It Ride” follows Trotter, a down-on-his-luck gambler, through a single brilliant day at the track, in this case, Hialeah Park, where the film was mostly shot. Trotter starts the day making a single winning bet, and over the course of the day, the onetime grandstand denizen graduates to the clubhouse, attempts to mend his fraying relationship with his wife (played expertly by Teri Garr), befriends a surly mutuel clerk who eventually calls Trotter his hero, and navigates the pitfalls and bad betting advice of his Runyonesque posse, which memorably included the actor David Johansen, the former lead singer of the protopunk band New York Dolls, who played Looney, everyone’s worst friend at the track.

Cronley received a credit for the screenplay of the movie, and he praised the adaptation of his book for the big screen. “I loved every second of this movie,” he once said. “It is the book.”

Born in Nebraska, Cronley spent his entire professional life in Oklahoma, and he was a regular at Blue Ribbon Downs, a small track in Sallisaw. He worked at the Tulsa Tribune for 22 years and then joined the Tulsa World in 1992. His last column for the paper appeared in March 2016. He was also a frequent contributor to ESPN, with his columns focusing nearly invariably on gambling.

Cronley was inducted into the Oklahoma Writers Hall of Fame and the Oklahoma Journalism Hall of Fame. His daughter, Samantha Noel, told the Associated Press that writing was her father’s life.

“He would find humor in the most mundane parts of life,” she said. “He didn’t like praise. He didn’t like attention. He just liked to write and be read.”

Two of Cronley’s other books were turned into films, both of which have a cadre of devoted fans. “Funny Farm,” released a year earlier than “Let It Ride” in 1988, starred Chevy Chase as the male half of an urbanite couple who move to the country. “Quick Change,” released in 1990, starred Bill Murray as the head of a crew of bank robbers on the run from the law.

Cronley is survived by a son-in-law, two grandsons, and his “ex-wife and best friend,” Connie Cronley, according to the Associated Press.

If Cronley is in need of an epitaph, it is likely found in “Let It Ride,” in a line uttered surreally by a clerk in the racetrack’s deli who urges Trotter to make his bet: “You could be walking around lucky, and not even know it.”