For nearly four decades Ernie Munick has been giving his heart and mind to thoroughbred racing. He is a writer, a vlogger , a musician, but most devotedly a handicapper and horseplayer. He can be seen twice a week on the NYRA Network's RACEDAY, and his videos for the Breeders' Cup can be found by clicking here.
Twice, I've been chased by Mr. Peanut: first at the 1976 US Open Women's Singles Finals, and second, after the 1982 Preakness. You haven't quite lived until you've been hunted by an eight-foot peanut with white fisted gloves and top hat. This was in Forest Hills at the old stadium. I aged a year that day, my voice changed. But the Preakness was worse.
We need to start in Forest Hills, when I was 12, to understand the events six years later in Baltimore.
On Saturday, September 11, 1976, I attended the Open with my dad and my friend George. My father was a rabid Chris Evert fan (two years earlier, her equine namesake had won the Filly Triple Crown). I grew up just blocks from the coliseum-shaped stadium, which was homey yet so obviously inadequate, in retrospect, to the modern one in Flushing. I'd watch Borg go baseline on McEnroe on CBS and then hear the eruption from my 14th-floor apartment. Forest Hills Stadium in the off-season staged concerts for Hendrix, Dylan, The Who. I was born the year Woody Allen and the Beatles performed in that very space.
Anyway, my friend George and I got bored in set 1 while Chrissie and her epic ground game were razzle-dazzling poor Evonne Goolagong. Evonne, en route to her fourth straight second in the Finals, had become the Jacques Who of Women's Tennis. My dad took to calling her Evonne Goolagone. As George and I left the benches for the concession stands, he kept slapping the heads of younger strangers, saying, GoolaGONG! GoolaGONG! Almost two years my senior, George could be mean, but he never got beat up, at least never with me.
Down below in the limestone corridors worked Mr. Peanut. He moseyed among the tents of Wilson T-2000s and Fila apparel, near the food and beverages, handing out pamphlets containing literature about Planters, I guess, I don't remember. But those pamphlets were shiny and colorful and felt expensive. Whoever stood in as Mr. Peanut that day could barely see through his dark mesh grill, and if you really got close to him, you could fly beneath his mascot radar. The monocle was creepier in person. There's a line about a pirate from television's Odd Couple that I still associate with Mr. Peanut. "I've got my eye on you."
George, Grade I prankster, sensed Mr. Peanut's vision difficulties and peer-pressured me into an evil scheme that had the two of us swooping in for pamphlet after pamphlet, until all of Mr. Peanut's prized pamphlets were no more, Goolagone. This was the first and only time I ever felt bad for a peanut, yet I thieved away like a five-star punk apprentice. George was laughing and gloating. We escaped to the other side of the stadium, stowing dozens of pamphlets under the bleachers, when we were jolted by a voice evocative of Morgan Freeman, who at that time I remembered mostly for The Electric Company. "Children! Drop it! You stop it! You drop it right now!" We dropped the goods and bolted in terror and, when I looked over my shoulder, here came the giant, anthropomorphic peanut in full flight. Small and pliable, we escaped in the cracks, through the masses, unsure if Mr. Peanut had followed, and made our way back up to my father, who wouldn't be told this story until I was old enough to bet. (My dad loved Chris Evert but was grumpy by day's end because he'd bet $100 on future champion Late Bloomer, who got beat at 9-2 in a Belmont maiden race that would've paid for our Finals tickets.)
Cut to Baltimore, 1982. I'm a senior in the final lame-duck days of high school. I'd never been to the Preakness. I convinced three of my friends (not George, whom I gradually lost touch with in the months after we absconded with the pamphlets) to take a road trip to Pimlico. As always, I was, to the people I wanted to impress the most, the horse racing savant who gave out loser after loser. But I nailed Aloma's Ruler. Trainer Butch Lenzini, Jr. famously instructed 16-year-old Jack Kaenel, better known as Cowboy Jack, to "break good and find the wood," and the teenager drove Aloma's Ruler to victory over Linkage and his 50-year-old rider, Bill Shoemaker. The key was the scratch of the speedy Cupecoy's Joy, enabling the front-running Aloma's Ruler to get loosey goosey Landaluce (free on the lead). My friends and I had pooled our remaining funds, not even $50, and let'er rip on the 6-1 Aloma's Ruler. It was a long but happy trek back to our homefront parking space, more than a mile. When we got there, and with traffic barely penetrable, we decided to accept an invitation to a Nerf football game at a woodsy schoolyard across the street.
These guys, early to mid-twenties, were all in low-budget tuxes, from a trashy Preakness wedding in the infield. They too were just waiting for the traffic to ease. With crushed cans tossed about their coolers, they were obviously still Bud-lit.
I nicknamed my defender Mr. Peanut. He was at least 6'5" and 300 pounds, easy - no monocle but he wore a top hat. I can sometimes see the irony in top hats, but they've never amused me. This version of Mr. Peanut, even after a long day, never took off the top hat. He turned it slowly in huddles. He ran carefully. He respected his lid. He had a huge ruddy face and a deep grizzly baritone. He called out teammates for the wrong patterns, took this touch Nerf football very seriously. I feared for my pre-collegiate life when he lined up against me.
Touch football - admit it, guys - is really more shove-as-much-as-you-can-get-away-with football, especially on grass. Yet Mr. Peanut was gentle. His hands were like catchers' mitts but twice as supple. (The wind at my back felt stronger.) As a receiver, he was unguardable; lob after lob found the end zone above my reach. He kept calling me City. CIty out right! City out left! "I'm sorry, City," he said after a score, breathing heavily, mitts on knees. His small-town crew was from Mount Aetna, Maryland. I didn't recall anyone that large in Forest Hills, either. "My momma's big, too, City."
We weren't long before quitting when I fell in the sinkhole. It might not have been shallow enough to qualify as a sinkhole, but I was nearly six-feet under, literally, stunned in the leaves and sludge. City had been way out right. As he raced to get under the Hail Mary, looking over his shoulder, he could glimpse the giant in heavy pursuit, and he was back there immediately in the corridors of Forest Hills Stadium. This might've been karmic retribution, but City suffered only fractured dignity and a slight scratch to the cornea. Mr. Peanut lifted him out by the hands, never losing the top hat.