Niagara Gazette — Like countless others, you probably remember exactly where you were Nov. 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Or that night, April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in Memphis.
On a much lighter note, I will never forget Sept. 2, 1961, when I went with my dad to the horse races at Fort Erie, Ont., near the Queen Elizabeth Way and the Peace Bridge. Sadly, the financially-strapped oval — once described as one of the most beautiful thoroughbred tracks in North America — ended its operations last month after 115 years.
That day more than 50 years ago, my dad suggested we each invest a buck on a 2-year-old horse called Puss ‘n Boots who had displayed little promise in his three previous races on a dirt track and his lone outing on the turf course. I quickly agreed on the wager since my father faithfully followed the nags and knew some savvy trainers. “I think we’ve got a winner here,” he said, scurrying off to the parimutuel windows below the grandstand. Apparently a lot of other bettors got the word too. By post time Puss ‘n Boots would go off at 2-1 odds. That wouldn’t be a big payoff, of course, but it at least it covered the bridge fare.
I never took my eyes off jockey Ronnie Behrens’ green cap from the second they left the gate. Down the backstretch, he seemed to be in full command of his mount, steadily gaining ground on the outside. Around the far turn, he kept moving up until he was in front of the pack, heading for home.
“Where are you going?” my dad demanded, surprised that I was walking away from all the action. “Down to the cashier’s window,” I hollered. “No one’s going to catch him and I’ll be first in line.” He called me back. “You’ll need this to collect,” he said, handing me the $2 win ticket.
Little did I know that I was in for the shock of my life. No sooner had I arrived at the window (an elderly woman beat me by two lengths) than the grandstand was rocking with laughter. What in the world could be so funny? What did I miss?
Bells ringing all over the place. Red lights flashing. A guy running behind me shouted, “My God! I’ve never lost a race this way!”
My dad and I would soon realize we were losers too. Still leading in the stretch and some 200 yards from the finish line, Puss ‘n Boots — maybe it was the scorching heat or the roar from the stands that scared him — left the turf track by leaping over the hedge to his left, spilling the jockey on his butt, and then sliding through a flower bed into one of the three infield lakes.
No one seemed to share the pain. The smirking clerk at the cashier’s window announced, “Sorry, folks, no payoff on Puss ‘n Boots.”
Back at the railing, my dad updated me. Frank Merrill, the trainer who looked like he had just walked out of Brooks Brothers, and Reggie Anderson, the stable foreman seized a rowboat behind the tote board and led the rescue mission into the lake. A young groom, who didn’t care what the 14,106 fans thought, dropped his pants and started swimming toward Puss ‘n Boots. (Later, I met 21,000 people who also were there that same day.)
The late Bob Summers, a Niagara Gazette reporter before he joined the Buffalo News staff, told how at one point Merrill yelled, “Reggie, get out of here before you drown.!” Reggie shot back: “Boss, Roxie (Gian, a co-owner) is up in the clubhouse. If we don’t get this colt, there’s no use getting out of the water!” Though he was a good swimmer and runner, Puss ‘n Boots was eventually rescued.
The same day when Puss ‘n Boots captured all the attention, I went into the Gazette sports department to begin my late shift. Sports Editor Mike Quinlan asked me how I did at the track.
“I was doing okay until my horse found that infield lake,” I said.Contact reporter Don Glynn at 282-2311, ext. 2246.