11/20/2013 1:43PM

Jay Hovdey: Half-century after Kennedy's death, memories of day remain vivid


Fifty years ago, on Nov. 22, 1963, at 12:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, President John F. Kennedy was shot while his motorcade drove through Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas.

At that same moment, although the clocks read 1:30 p.m. Eastern, a field of allowance horses was entering the starting gate for the fourth at Aqueduct, a six-furlong race worth $6,000. A crowd of more than 24,000 was in the house for the Friday program, and those who bet on Don Pierce and the 5-year-old Tom Fool gelding Trial Balloon were rewarded with a payoff at 5-1.

Pierce dismounted, headed back to the jockeys’ room, and picked up where he had left off at the card table. He did not ride the fifth.

At 1 p.m., Dallas time, 2 p.m. on Long Island, President Kennedy died.

“I think I was playing with John Rotz, but I can’t remember who else, when we heard it over the television,” Pierce said. “The President was shot. Everybody was flabbergasted. It was amazing, because he was so popular. I think they called off the last two races when it happened.”

Pierce had it right. Aqueduct officials ran both divisions of the Epinard Handicap and then canceled the final two races on the program. Bud Lamoreaux, former executive producer of CBS News “Sunday Morning” and a four-time television Eclipse Award winner, was in the newsroom in New York when anchorman Walter Cronkite delivered the grim bulletin to a stunned television audience.

“I was a very junior news writer at CBS News and I remember the silence when Cronkite removed his glasses, took a gulp of air, and announced that President Kennedy had died,” Lamoreaux said. “It was a deafening silence, broken only by the clacking of the wire service machines and the repeating five bells of bulletin after bulletin.”

And the news spread. Narragansett Park in Rhode Island, just 60 miles from the Kennedy home on Cape Cod, ditched the remainder of the card after reports of the president’s death were confirmed. Pimlico, the track operating closest to Washington, D.C., scrapped its program after the fifth race on Friday. However, Pimlico raced the following day to the protests of many, including Bill Shoemaker, who refused to ride favored Quadrangle in the Pimlico Futurity. He said it just wasn’t right.

“I was in my third year of teaching English at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, one year before I found my way into racing journalism with Daily Racing Form in Chicago,” said John McEvoy, award-winning author and former editor of the Form ’s Midwest edition. “Classes were canceled the rest of that week as most of us – faculty and students alike – struggled to come to grips with the horrifying fact of what had been deemed impossible.”

Michael Blowen, former journalist and now president of Old Friends Equine in Lexington, Ky., was a high school junior in Enfield, Conn.

“I was in Mr. Gross’s history class waiting for the afternoon dismissal bell so I could go out and play football,” Blowen said. “The announcement came over the intercom, and I just remember Mr. Gross breaking down in tears and a deafening quiet enveloping the room. In the 90’s, I used to go to Suffolk Downs with my friend Billy Sutton, who was JFK’s roommate during his Congressional years. Apparently, Sutton and Kennedy cut a wide swath through D.C. and Kennedy patriarch, Joseph Kennedy, ordered Billy out of the apartment. Billy couldn’t even speak about ‘that awful day.’ ”

It was awful everywhere, although institutional reactions varied. Management at Waterford Park in Chester, W.Va., offered their entire afternoon card on Nov. 22, but Shenandoah Downs, their sister track in Charles Town, canceled its evening program. El Comandante in San Juan, Puerto Rico, suspended racing after the fourth.

“I was in Florence, Italy,” said Bill Barich, author of the seminal racing book “Laughing in the Hills,” “a semester abroad age 19, first time out of the States and feeling relieved to be away, able to imagine myself as something other than an American – meaning in my case sports, beer, etc. – and possibly a writer when, while shooting pool and drinking wine in a little café the entire place went silent. News had come over the radio in an Italian I’d only begun to understand. The woman behind the bar said, ‘Your president is dead.’ ‘Scusi?’ I asked. She tried to explain, with lots of emoting and signaling of hands, until I got it, to which I could only respond, ‘Oh, no.’ And then set off on an aimless wander through the ancient streets.”

Not long after his return, Barich joined President Kennedy’s Peace Corps.

“I was in Chicago, studying as a research fellow in medical school, but I wasn’t sure at the time if I wanted to be a doctor or not,” said Peter Blum, who went into real estate instead and did well enough to enjoy a long run as an owner and breeder.

“On that day I was in a lab, and the head technician came in and said President Kennedy had been shot,” Blum said. “I became almost paralyzed with the shock and the grief. You can’t comprehend it’s really happening. I went home to Forest Park and turned the television on. I don’t think I turned away from it for days.”

Still, life went on, or at least tried to. Joe Harper, president and CEO of Del Mar, was a student at Chapman College in Southern California and a week away from his wedding.

“A maintenance man comes running into the classroom, wakes me up to say that the Russians killed the president and we were at war and nukes were on the way,” Harper said. “Barbara, a junior at Tucson, was trying to organize our wedding, but I figured that with the biggest SAC Air Force Base in the country being in Tucson it was probably high up on the A-list of Russian ICBM targets, so we might have to adjust the ceremony. We did manage to survive, but it was a bizarre week. Calling the caterer, watching [Lee Harvey] Oswald shot on live TV, the funeral, the rehearsal dinner. It was all so surreal, so hard to understand. I was only 20 at the time, but I sure felt a lot older by the end of that week.”

Arnold Zetcher, owner, breeder and retired chairman of Talbot’s, was fresh from finishing his active duty with the Air National Guard and working for the industrial electrical supply company Cutler Hammer in Milwaukee.

“I had spotted a secretary I wanted to go out with – in those days it was not unusual to date someone at work – and on that day we had a very nice lunch,” Zetcher said. “We were driving back to the office when we heard on the radio that President Kennedy had been shot. I had to pull over and stop. We couldn’t believe it, because we loved Jack Kennedy. In 1960, when I was in college in St. Louis, I was involved in organizing a speech for Bobby Kennedy when he was there to campaign for his brother.”

The president had been dead in Texas for nearly an hour and yet Sunland Park, just across the New Mexico border from El Paso, ran its entire 10-race program for a crowd of 1,899. Golden Gate Fields near San Francisco went on with the show that afternoon for a crowd of 6,574, and it was business as usual that night at Jefferson Downs in New Orleans, where 2,352 sought solace in the nine-race card.

“I was a 19-year-old college freshman on Nov. 22, 1963,” said Vic Zast, racing writer, businessman, and reality show host. “I heard the news of JFK’s assassination on the radio of a stranger’s car while hitchhiking from Albany to New York City.

“You know how some things that you witness or experience make you feel like you’re at the beginning of something and some things make you think it’s the end?” Zast said. “Well, this felt like the end. Sensing my ennui, the driver asked me if I wanted to continue on to New York, and I said that I did – but I don’t know why I did. Nothing there would go on for a week.”

As Zast mourned in a stranger’s car, Lamoreaux busied himself at CBS, and Barich wandered the streets of Florence, Arthur Hancock – destined to be master of Stone Farm and breeder of two Derby winners – could be found at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.

“I was in the dorm, on my way to class, and I remember right where I was, standing with a couple books in my hand, heading for the staircase,” Hancock said. “A guy came in shouting, ‘President Kennedy’s been shot! President Kennedy’s been shot!’ I really didn’t believe it at first. Then I thought if he got shot he didn’t have to be killed, but the news was spreading by the time I got out on campus.

“And you know,” Hancock added, “the president had been to Vanderbilt to speak not too long before that. I heard him. Pretty much everybody went over to the football stadium to hear him.”

The atmosphere in the nation was tense, just days after an uneasy cease-fire had settled onto the violence-torn city of Birmingham, Ala., to which President Kennedy had deployed 3,000 federal troops. On that bright spring afternoon at Vanderbilt’s Dudley Field, celebrating the university’s 90th anniversary, Hancock heard the president say, among other things:

“In these moments of tragic disorder, a special burden rests on the educated men and women of our country – to reject the temptations of prejudice and violence and to reaffirm the values of freedom and law on which our free society depend.”

That was also 50 years ago, on May 18, 1963. Then later that same day, in the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, Candy Spots and Bill Shoemaker won for fun.