Annette was excited. “Richard and Helen have invited us to go racing,” she said, smiling as she walked through the front door. “They’re such a nice couple. I can’t believe I got the job. He’s a brilliant man, and he knows everything about racing.”
Richard Johnson was a famous racehorse owner and breeder, Annette had told me, before she’d applied for the position. After she’d got it, we’d met them for cocktails at their Upper East Side residence last week. They liked to knock back drinks.
“Is Richard a bit eccentric?” I’d asked after we left.
“Eccentric? Why in the world would you think that?”
“Did you notice that he’d slipped into his slippers at some point?”
“Well, it’s his house.”
“But when we were leaving, he was barefoot.”
“Barefoot in a blue blazer?”
She didn’t think anything about it. But I told Annette I’d noticed Helen giving Richard a look, “Oh honey, it was nothing,” Annette had said.
Annette, as far as I’m concerned, is brilliant, and she knows everything about horse racing and pedigrees. She’d grown up riding. I gave her a kiss, smiled, and told her I was happy for her and looking forward to a day at the track. I’d made dinner, and I told her I was going to open a bottle of wine to celebrate. Not too many people get to go racing with Richard and Helen, I was told again as she slipped into the bathroom to freshen up, “I’m really looking forward to going to the track with them,” she said again as she took the glass of wine I’d handed her. She gave me a kiss.
“Are we going to Belmont Park?”
“Yes. They have a colt in a big race on Monday. The Metropolitan Mile. Very prestigious. They want us to be their guests in their private box. Richard said I might as well start the job with a big win under our belts.” She was downright beaming at this point, and she did a bit of a jig that made us both laugh.
She was to begin on Tuesday at his midtown offices. She’d be his personal assistant on stable matters, and her hope was to eventually advise him on the pairing of stallions with his mares. Not too many people know that sort of stuff, and I’d been intrigued by her passion and knowledge from the beginning. I like to bet now and then, but this stuff was all Greek to me.
“Itsallgreektome was the name of a good horse,” she’d said on our first date, “He wasn’t a Secretariat, but he was good.”
Of course, I knew about Secretariat. Who didn’t?
“Secretariat was the greatest horse of all time,” Richard said on a gloriously sunny day as we sat in his box at Belmont; “He won the Belmont Stakes, the last leg of the Triple Crown, by 75 lengths!”
I was impressed and nodded, “Amazing,” I said. The place was crowded in our section and Helen was speaking to a dowager in an adjoining box.
“Thirty-one lengths,” Annette said.
“What’s that?” Richard said, turning to her.
Annette sheepishly reiterated what she’d said, “He won the Belmont by 31 lengths.”
“Oh,” Richard said. “Well, it was a lot, anyway.” He laughed; “Let’s get lunch.”
Richard and Helen had a reservation for us in the dining room of the turf club, and we followed them in. The captain greeted them warmly and took us to our table overlooking the finish line. “Let us know if you need anything, Mr. Johnson,” he said. We had a great lunch – and plenty of gin and tonics – and I could tell that Richard and Helen were impressed with Annette’s knowledge. She was pointing out this sire and that one in the program and spitting out stats like no one’s business.
Just after dessert, Richard told Annette that he had a wonderful painting of Secretariat at their Palm Beach home. “I paid a lot of money for it,” he said proudly; “Helen, can you show Annette a picture of it from your phone?”
Richard didn’t use an iPhone – or a computer, for that matter. He was a dinosaur, Helen said, and still had fax machines at the office, “Annette, maybe you can bring him into the 21st century,” she said, fiddling on her phone for the photo. “Here it is,” she passed her phone to Annette, who was eager to see it.
“It’s lovely,” Annette blurted, which made Richard smile. “Isn’t that great,” he said. I heard him snort.
I noticed, however, that Annette’s expression was changing as she kept looking at the photo, and her face was turning color. It seemed like she was holding Helen’s phone for an eternity, “This isn’t Secretariat,” she finally said, obviously embarrassed to have to break that news. That caught all of us like a rock shattering a window.
“What do you mean?” Richard said, his smile evaporating. Helen’s eyebrows were arched.
“What the hell?” I thought. I put my hand on Annette’s back and rubbed it slowly.
“I’m sorry, Richard,” she stammered, “but Secretariat had three white socks. This horse has four.”
Richard reached over and grabbed the phone from Annette and started studying the image for almost as long as Annette had. Everyone had gone silent. Then he chortled and said, “You’re wrong.” He handed me the phone and said, “Look, it says Secretariat in the left-hand corner. Look hard. What does it say?”
I looked at it, and I blurted that it did say, “Secretariat” on the left corner of the painting. Everybody at the table breathed a collective sigh of relief, including Annette. She took the phone from me and again scrutinized the photo but didn’t say anything.
Richard started fiddling through his wallet for his credit card to pay the bill. “Do you have my Amex?” he asked Helen, who shook her head. “Oh, I may have dropped it in the men’s room,” Richard said, and he abruptly got up and headed in that direction to look for his card.
Annette gave the phone back to Helen, who stared at Richard walking away. “He can get absent-minded,” she said matter-of-factly as she took another sip from her drink.
About 10 minutes later, Richard heads back our way, and he’s smiling and holding up a black card. “Got it,” he said triumphantly. We noticed that his cream-colored suit is streaked with dirt, with dark stains at the knees. Annette shot me a wide-eyed look.
“What happened to your suit?” Helen asked.
“Oh,” Richard replied, looking down; “I hadn’t noticed.” He told us that he’d walked into the men’s room, to the stall where he’d relieved himself earlier, before lunch. “Well, it wasn’t there, but I couldn’t remember if that was the stall or not,” he said. “So, I started to crawl through each stall, checking behind the toilet of each one, and then I saw it on the ground three stalls down. I started crawling to it, and that’s when I noticed it was being used.” He paused for a second and then continued, “A guy is sitting – taking a dump. I can see his shoes. I peeked underneath and looked up, crawled in a bit and grabbed the card. But he looked down and saw me,” he said, and he made a face.
“What?!” Helen said, eyes bulging. “What’d you do?”
“I said hello, apologized, and left quickly,” he replied. We all laughed at this point, really not knowing what else to do.
“Did you recognize the gentleman?” Helen asked. Richard told us it was the man who owned the champion 2-year-old colt Red Letter. He couldn’t quite remember his name and was stammering, thinking of it.
“Daniel Thompson,” Annette blurted.
“That’s him!” Richard said. “Nice guy, but I don’t really know him too well.”
“Now you do,” I said.
Annette’s face was red. Daniel Thompson, she’d tell me later, is one of the biggest owners in California, and he was at Belmont for a supporting stakes race. And this guy would have looked down, while taking “a dump,” and seen her boss Richard Johnson on all fours looking up at him
Anyway, Richard dusted himself off, and we went back to the box outside to catch the two races before the main event. No one mentioned the incident again. And later, all of us walked down to the winner’s circle after Richard’s horse won the Metropolitan Mile. We were elated by the win and headed to the city with Richard and Helen to celebrate. On the way to the limo parked outside, Annette had noticed a flapping piece of toilet paper stuck to Richard’s shoe. She’d ribbed me with her elbow and asked if I’d seen it.
“No,” I’d said. I’d lied.
“Richard is a bit eccentric, isn’t he?” she’d asked.
“Honey, he’s a brilliant man. He just won the Metropolitan Mile,” I told her.
It took a few seconds, but then she smiled.
Sid Fernando is a horse racing columnist and recently moved to Tampa from Brooklyn. He lives with his wife and three cats.