Thursday, July 23, 2015

One last ovation for Dave Feldman

     When Dave Feldman walked into the newsroom, the sports department would stand and applaud.
     A mixture of admiration and gentle mockery of the man everyone called “The King.” Feldman, the paper’s turf reporter, was a king with a bad back and a heart condition, the dean of horse racing in Chicago who would reply to the question, "How are you?" with a snarl of "I'm dyin'!"
     So let’s potch our hands together and maybe we can conjure up Feldman one last time in honor of 100 years since his birth, July 24, 1915. Clap, and squint, and maybe we can see him toddle in, looking like an unmade bed, perhaps slightly raising a regal hand to acknowledge his subjects, a short, paunchy, sad-eyed man, lurid shirt untucked, fly perhaps undone. A man who lived for horses, who not only wrote about them, but owned them, trained them, bet on them, and announced their races.
     "I could enter my horse in a race, handicap the event, call him home to the wire, and interview the winning owner and trainer—me," he wrote in his memoir, perfectly titled “Woulda, Coulda, Shoulda,” written with Frank Sugano. The book is an urn containing Feldman's enormous spirit; crack it open and he lives again.
Dave Feldman

     "Dumb, right?" Feldman writes, of buying his first horse. "Yeah, but as they say, when you get an itch, you've got to scratch it. The thought of owning a horse had spread in my mind like a rash. I probably picked it up in New Orleans, where I had spent the winter covering the races at the Fair Grounds … My partner and I got the horse cheap because we promised to pay the owner $1,000 when Oomph Girl won a race. Hah! The first three times we ran her she was beaten like a flyweight matched against Jack Dempsey.”
     Born on the West Side, Feldman began delivering the Herald-Examiner at 6. A neighbor took him to Arlington Park when he was 12, and he was hooked.
     "Other kids my age read comic books," he recalled. "I read the (Racing) Form."
     Feldman took bets from Damon Runyon. He was the mascot for the Chicago Blackhawks in 1929, the year, as a student at Lindblom High School, he began handicapping races and took a part time job at the Chicago Herald-Examiner. When it merged with the Evening American in 1939, Mr. Feldman became turf editor of the resultant Herald-American, later Chicago's American. He moved to the Daily News in 1969, and to the Sun-Times when the Daily News folded in 1978.
     He wrote as he spoke:
     "Girl jocks?" he mused, on the advent of female jockeys in 1969. "I'll be honest with you. I don't care for them. But they're here to stay. Follow?"
     "You know, horses are smarter than people. People bet on horses, but horses never bet on people."
     Feldman died at 85—of the heart condition he worried about for decades—in 2001. I wrote his obit, but left out one story I cherish about Dave.
     The Sun-Times had many larger than life characters, and another was the high school sports editor, Taylor Bell, at least in his estimation. Feldman had a way of spreading into Bell’s space, and Bell resented it. Words were exchanged.
     Feldman got back this way. He visited a high school with a tape recorder, and went up to students who looked like athletes. “Do you play football?” he’d ask until he found one who did. “Do you know Taylor Bell?" he’d continue. If the student did know Bell, he'd thank him, rewind the tape, and look for another. If he didn't, he'd push a bit. "Really? What position? Quarterback? And you've never heard of Taylor Bell? Really? No idea who he is!?"
     He ended with a string of student athletes, expressing bafflement over this mystery man, Taylor Bell. Then he played the tape for Taylor to the permanent delight of all present.
     Feldman was president of the Horsemen's Benevolent & Protective Association, the union that represents owners and trainers. He described the job this way:
     "I hate being president of the HBPA. It's tougher than being president of the United States. At least the president has a party tin back of him. I have nothing—no party, no friends, no flunkies, just a board of whiners and backstabbers. Then there are the horsemen, another bunch of stakes-grade squawkers. It's been that way since 1975 when I was first elected. So why didn't I quit after the first three-year term? Hell if I know. My whole life has been like this."
     Unlike most of what he wrote, that was not quite true. Feldman had many friends, from broke stable hands to millionaire horse breeders—Arlington International owner Dick Duchossois was one of his pall bearers.
     A horse race lasts a minute or two, a human life, a little longer. When it's gone, sometimes those you touched remember. I didn't know Dave well, and couldn't tell a thoroughbred from a mule. But I admired the way he manifested himself. On Dave Feldman's centennial, it seems fitting to saddle up his spirit, to let him flash around the track of our minds one more time before retiring out to pasture for keeps.

25 comments:

  1. I used to read Feldman, even though I had zero interest in horse racing, he was an excellent writer.
    But at the beginning of the 1990s, He lost his mind over the drugging of horses. Specifically, Lasix & Butazolidin. Lasix made the horses piss gallons before the races & dehydrated them, I know because I take it for my blood pressure. Butazolidin or 'Bute" is an anti-arthritic drug, also used by people, but in horses it was used to mask any pain they had & caused more horses to 'breakdown', certainly one of the more offensive euphemisms around. A horse that can't feel pain, even though it's in extreme pain without the drug, is one that is going to be seriously injured when it steps wrong & can't feel the track or even the relatively soft pasture. He was totally in favor of it, even though it was a form of cheating, but far, far worse, it was a terribly abusive thing to do to the horses.

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    1. IIRC, Lasix was used to treat blood conditions that racehorses often get because they're inbred. The problem, as you say, is that it's a diuretic that could be used to mask illegal performance-enhancing drugs (their traces would wash out with the extra urine). I think a compromise was reached in which horses could be treated with Lasix but would have to be identified as such in listings. A silly compromise for a silly "sport" that, again as you say, can be abusive to animals.

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    2. Correct, the Lasix was used to mask drugging of the horses. But the Bute was worse, since many horses broke bones & had to be killed, because horses with broken leg bones, just don't take well to casts or any other treatment.
      Feldman also went on a constant crusade against the track owners, who claimed they were losing money. Time has proven them correct as horse racing will be almost dead in 10-15 years in this country.

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  2. "...Feldman began delivering the Herald-American at 6." Quite an abundance of titles he was involved with, but that should be the Herald-Examiner, no? : )

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    1. Hope you day is all better now, Jakash.

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    2. Good points, Clark St.

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  3. I can hear that one of a kind voice even now. "Here they come spinning out of the turn into the stretch..." Still gives me chills. Dave loved what he did and you captured it. A life well lived indeed.

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    1. "Here they come, spinning out of the turn...". That was the voice of Arlington Park's legendary Phil Georgeff.

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  4. It was a pleasant surprise to see Dave Feldman's photo on the front page of the Sun-Times, and read Neil's fine eulogy. Mostly because of Dave's influence, I discounted concerns about drug use in horse racing as PETA noise. Clark St. makes a compelling argument for banning the use of pain killers before a race, or when training a horse.

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  5. Nicely done. I read Feldman's column religiously, even though I hardly ever bet on horses. The "Woulda, coulda shoulda" still comes in handy to explain minor and major gaffes in my life.

    john

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  6. It was certainly different to see your column in the sports section of the paper today.

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    1. My idea. I thought it would get better play there.

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  7. This nice tribute, in addition to honoring Mr. Feldman, certainly brings together two ailing, once vigorous institutions. The recent Triple Crown winner seems to have prompted a flurry of interest, but it's getting hard to remember a time when horse racing was a significant force in the culture.

    I'm more interested in the reference to all the Chicago papers, and their various incarnations, that he was involved with, though. It's interesting to me that Neil and at least a couple of commenters refer to enjoying Feldman's work, though they had no particular interest in horse racing. This concept is pretty well on its way out, right? Reading a general-interest newspaper and stumbling across stuff that is compelling, or just well-executed, and appreciating it on its own terms, independent of one's own predilections? With the avalanche of info RELEVANT to them constantly sent tumbling their way, the twitterized, iPhone-dependent whippersnappers of today can barely be bothered to read about the things they're interested in. The idea of just picking up a paper and reading something in it that you wouldn't even realize you'd like seems to be left to those of us who grew up in a different culture. Not that there's not a tremendous upside to the ready availability of information about topics one follows from all around the globe, but something is being lost, as well.

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    1. I don't think we have to despair yet. Although I do have fears for the printed newspaper, I think younger generations are feeding their appetite for good stories in different ways. There are some excellent podcasts out there, some focused on a particular topic or area, others more wide-ranging. This American Life is probably my personal favorite, and I've heard great things about the TED Talks. I just got back from my daily walk, taken while listening to The Moth, StoryCorps, and Here's The Thing. I know that both my son and daughter have their own favorites.

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    2. Well, that's a good point, Coey. Damn it! ; ) Though, I gotta say, I've watched a fair number of TED talks and I can't say that I've personally found any worth the 20 minutes, when compared to reading a version of the same material in, say, a third of the time. Now, listening to stuff while driving or walking -- can't argue with that, though, like our friend below, I've never jumped on the earbud bandwagon, myself.

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  8. Well, just like vinyls made a bit of a comeback, I think the paper might be perused by a few milennials. At least I know of some that look it over.

    A good day for a walk, Coey-which reminds me, I better go on mine. I only listen to the sounds of nature when I walk though.

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  9. I don't get those audio books, I don't want to be read to.

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    1. I'd find it difficult to just sit down and listen to one, but I enjoy it while walking or running. Sometimes I can visualize a story even better than from reading.

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  10. Youtube can be a wonderful thing to revisit some older, entertainment material, as well as new.

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  11. For driving, I like the car radio for music or news radio/political talk shows.

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  12. To me, horse racing is a "sport" like poker is a sport. It's gambling. If nobody bet on horses, no one would give a damn how fast they ran.

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  13. Never thought of it that way, but it makes sense.

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  14. I was agent for Dean Kutz back in the early 80s, and Dean rode winners for Dave. One winner in particular meant much to us: Dean was coming back after an injury, a broken collar bone, and the first horse he rode was Dave's and it was a winner. Thanks, Dave, you're not forgotten.

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