Suffolk is Gone but its Memories Win Going Away


Suffolk Downs

by Leo Vanderpot
The good news about the destruction of Suffolk Downs racetrack (b. July 1935 / d. June 2019) is the recent report that the new construction at the site–a huge business and housing development–will be done entirely with union workers. This brings some comfort to me. It suggests that for an extended period of time before gentrification sets in with its ever-oozing imprint, those acres that in some mischievous way formed a portion of my youth will retain the blue collar spirit that always made the track accessible.

Suffolk Downs was for the most part located in East Boston; only the stables were in my town, Revere, Massachusetts, and Beachmont, the section of Revere where I lived, was where one of the gates to the stables was located. Perhaps because of this geographical split, the comforts that the track's club house provided were never pursued by me and my friends. On the other hand, those of us who walked to the track and smelled the stables along the way, were more likely to be seen in the paddock area before a race–more often than not within close proximity to the winner's circle at the finish of a race–and, in my case at least, likely to be a consistent supporter of the philosophy that the dream of winning need not be destroyed by the reality of one day's losses. I loved going to Suffolk Downs, and there is no question that from very early on in my life its gates were always open for me, in one way or another.

One of my brothers had a friend who was the winter caretaker at the track; and after he opened a gate one Sunday afternoon when I was five or so, say 1937, my brother took me ice skating for the first time–with my strap-on double runners. I watched him and his friends play hockey within the shelter of the trees surrounding the kidney-shaped lagoon.

Five or so summers later, I would crawl under the track's wooden fence with my friends and watch the races under cover of the evergreens along the back stretch. Behind us, parallel to Bennington Street, trolley cars click-clacked past on their way to Beachmont, Revere Beach, or East Boston, and the subway station at Maverick. But the sounds we heard most clearly were the jockeys shouting (often profanely) as they came out of the gate at the start of a six-furlong race. We were never seen, never caught, and in the years to come, we would never get that close to the action on the track.

In those coming years, like people of all ages and both sexes from Beachmont, I became a seasoned patron of Suffolk Downs, not always (old habits fade slowly) paying an admission fee: In the late 1940s, my friends and I could be seen standing waif-like at the entrance gate after the end of the seventh race. We'd ask men to take us into the track with them. The policy was that a child could only enter with an adult, and the opportunity for us was made doable by the fact that entry to the track was free after the conclusion of the seventh race. Ours was not a very sophisticated con, but we were happy with its easy execution. It is the horses I saw then and in the 1950s that I now remember more than anything else. Three horses in particular stay with me from those happy days:

Don Godfrey, a Beachmont friend, would usually only bet on a horse with a good record, a class horse in track language, a horse that went off at very low odds. But sometimes Don bet mystically on a horse by hearing the horses name called as the winner, before the race was run, over the public address system by the track's announcer, Babe Rubenstein.

One late afternoon when we were old enough to not need a volunteer parent, and prior to our being drafted into the Army, Don and I, and Earl Cross, another friend (alas, both no longer with us), took advantage of the track's free-entry to bet on the eighth and ninth races. At this point in his life, Don was an apprentice tool and die maker at General Electric in Lynn. He wore the blue chambray work shirt, commonly back then signifying employment in a trade, only much later becoming a staple of shabby-chic painters, writers and wannabees. Don had no money that day, borrowed two dollars from me, and using his aural crystal ball bet on Rodman, a horse that was a 30-1 longshot. And, yes, Rodman won and, yes, Don bought a round!

Seabiscuit and other famous horses won races at Suffolk Downs. It is a testament to my youth that I did not spend all my days in the poolroom or at the track, and therefore did not see Seabiscuit or any of the others. But I did see Stymie.

Six days of the week, when the police were not bothering him, a local Beachmont bookmaker (he ran a poolroom) took bets on the races at Suffolk and other tracks. I used to see him on Sunday as he and his wife came through the lobby of The Boulevard, the movie theater on Revere Beach where I worked as a doorman and usher. Men wore jackets and ties on Sunday in those days, and this guy did a lot for his reputation by setting himself out in spiffy Palm Beach suits that left no doubt about his affluence and his taste.

Sunday morning, gossip told us, he tallied his accounts with those who made it possible for him to stay in business: by laying-off his bets to The Big Guys all week, he was protected from a series of winning bets that could wipe him out. A hit on a Number (three numbers derived by a set formula from the mutual payoffs for that day) paid forty five dollars for each nickel that was bet–nine-hundred dollars for a dollar. Rarely, someone would put five or 10 dollars on a number, which to my knowledge never was a hit, but that possibility was very real. On the lower end of the scale, some men would bet fifty cents on a horse, a glimpse of what the economics of those days were, when a pack of cigarettes was always a quarter. I once dreamed that three eights was the next day's number, bet a dollar on it eagerly because the statistical unlikelihood of it being the number came with an even higher (but now forgotten) payoff bonus. Another lost dream.

Guys hanging out in his poolroom during the week, and especially on Saturday, were sometimes invited by this friendliest of bookies to ride in his car to watch a race from a hill overlooking Suffolk Downs: East Boston's Orient Heights. Such was the case on July 7, 1947 when he took a carload of loafers, myself among them, to watch Stymie win the Massachusetts H. To quote the Suffolk Downs website on that event, “Stymie…becomes the first horse to eclipse the $700,000 earnings mark with a $2.60 Mass' Cap win. Stymie is so heavily bet that a minus show pool of $25,887 is created. The tote board actually jams briefly due to the flood of money bet on the favorite.”

I remember that afternoon very clearly (at the age of 87, the year 1947, when I was a highschool freshman, is sometimes clearer than the year so boisterously labeled 2020). Stymie was  at the half-mile pole, far, far back, when the rest of the horses in the race were entering the stretch, with only an eighth of a mile to go. And then Stymie started to run like none of us had ever seen a horse run and won the race going away. The exciting drama–and  awe–of Stymie's victory was beyond words, but was cooly described by one realist that day when he said, “They didn't truck that horse up here to lose.”

Gold Gin may not have come from a famous stable. But this horse was, nevertheless, as rare as rare can be, a 9-year-old horse who loved to run on the grass, a turf horse that won two years in a row on the turf in two-mile races–quite a way to go for a 4-year-old–let alone eight or nine. The Mass' Cap that Stymie won was a mile and an eighth, and in later years the race went to a mile and a quarter.

The second win by Gold Gin (the only one I witnessed) was, of course, called by Babe Rubenstein. Babe may have been the best announcer in the business; the legend is that he once got an offer to announce at a track in New York, but turned it down; they wanted him to change his name, and he said, “I was Born Babe Rubenstein and I will die Babe Rubenstein.”

That day, when the horses came out of the gate, Babe gave it his usual shout, “They're off!” But as the horses came past the grandstand for the first time, he calmly announced, “They've got a long way to go.” Indeed, the horses had to go past the finish line in front of the grandstand three times. The turf track was small  (it was inside the regular dirt track) and the starting gate for the race at two miles was to the left of the grandstand. The first two trips past the finishing-line wire meant nothing, because the money only goes to the ones who have something left at the end. Gold Gin saved something for the end, won the race, and paid off at good odds.
Present Day
Last year, I edited the Beachmont entry on Wikipedia, in an effort to bring up to date what remains a happy memory, now fading into ancient history. I wrote, in part: The disposition of the stable area and the rest of the Suffolk Downs property continues into the year 2019 after, first, the loss of the possibility of a casino came about when Everett was chosen by the Wynn organization; secondly, and sadly for many who welcomed the chance to have the site taken over by a non-gambling organization, Amazon decided to also say no.

The planned development of the land that used to be the home of Suffolk Downs has been estimated to combine 10,000 apartments and condominiums, with commercial office space that would employ 25,000 workers. This seems to be a historical undertaking that is being built to last. That, of course, remains to be seen. In any case, those of us with memories of the track will have to testify that, like Gold Gin, we have something left at the end. It may be the only truly “permanent” record available to us; for whatever reason, the Wikipedia entry for Beachmont no longer exists.

   Leo Vanderpot moved to New York after graduating from Boston University in 1961. His father was a union representative on the Boston docks circa 1917. Now retired, he was for 30 years an advertising copywriter in the pharmaceutical industry. As a stock clerk with American Airlines at Logan Airport, Leo was a dues-paying member of the Transport Workers Union for nine years.

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