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.
Here come the cheaters, one by one, clicking "Hint" or "Solve" until my puzzle is done. Call me paranoid but I anticipate a 93% cheating rate. Even I cheated on the puzzle, and I wrote the clues. Barry Manilow wrote the songs and, you know what, I don't trust him, either.
Just minutes ago I learned that I am the only winner of the $188 million Mega Millions lottery jackpot.
It's official: Charlize Theron and I are engaged.
Are you ready for this? My dog…he could talk.
Do you notice anything missing at the end of the above sentences?
I am off exclamation points, done - until I'll Have Another crosses the finish line in front on June 9. This means I will not, for the next 15 days, not even once, whether on Facebook, in E-mail, text messages or blogs, employ an exclamation mark. I've borrowed money from dozens of good people over the years, I'm sure I've even borrowed from you, but this is my first ever Lent. Abstaining from exclamation points will not only intensify the joy of experiencing our first Triple Crown winner in 34 years, but will also show a sort of solidarity with the celebrated horse and rider. Mario and "Nutha" are (Joe Hirsch word coming) imperturbable. Remember the training montage in The Right Stuff, when Dennis Quaid as Gordon Cooper nods off in the simulated space capsule, amid the turbulence of noise and light? This is Mario, and this is his horse.
Giving up exclamation points isn't nearly as drastic and lengthy as other legendary displays of solidarity. At least Marcel Marceau, lifelong Red Sox fan, got to speak again, for almost three years, before passing in 2007. ZZ Top might be unrecognizable after I'll Have Another wins the Belmont Stakes. That's how much they've wanted a twelfth Triple Crown winner.
Dropping the woo-hoo of pronunciation marks might be an easy task for some, but for me this is a demanding sacrifice. I am bred to be noisy. You can't fire off a one-liner at my family's Thanksgiving table unless you're louder than the big mouth next to you. I am by Airhorn out of Megaphone, by Jackhammer. My mother writes in capitals and speaks as if she's always at the back of the room. She could empty a meditation retreat, yet she's always accusing me of screaming into the phone.
"You just punctured my left eardrum" is my mother's standard line.
There will be great temptation between now and the Stakes to lapse into serial exclamation, especially with the looming presence of a robust undercard, not to mention the Metropolitan on Monday. Also, I am known on Facebook for wishing people happy birthday with a row of exclamation points. I often do the same in texts, to save time and thumb labor. This approach can sometimes seem confusing to relatives and friends.
Text from friend: "Hey. Sorry I been outta touch. My turtle finally passed last week. Forty-five years. I know no life without Shelly."
Me: (Row of exclamation marks.)
Well, in the even manner of Mario, or of Stevie Cauthen circa 1978 ("I don't get psyched up, I get psyched down"), I hereby pledge myself to quiet coolness. The bigger the moment, good or bad, the smaller the stress. What about the brutal beats between now and the Stakes? the stirring stretch duels? the terrible rides? the carryovered Pick 6 I win by a schnoz?
And what if I'm assaulted by the voices of gloom who continue to soundtrack our sport???
Maybe I should swear off question marks. Or, like Mario, like Coop, I can keep cool. Cooper famously fell asleep in orbit, as did Nutha between Kentucky and Maryland. Equanimity rhymes with low humidity. No sweating. Albert Collins never lost his cool. Neither did Sondheim and Bernstein, real cool.
The melody of Maryland, My Maryland was borrowed from a German folk song called O Tannenbaum, whose melody was borrowed from Charles M. Schulz’s O Christmas Tree, whose melody was borrowed from the biblical O Finkelstein, whose melody, of course, was borrowed from O Monzonite, that neanderthalic ditty about mist and stones. I asked the Library of Congress if I could borrow the rarest of recordings, and, WOW, its similarity to Maryland, My Maryland is not only eery, but nosey and toothy as well. (O Monzonite).
So, borrowing is OK. But if you borrow without permission, you must attribute, or at the very least allude. For instance, in 1986 I wrote of a meek thoroughbred, who in deep stretch turned certain victory into pathetic defeat, that he "hung like a chandelier." Since then, the phrase has been appropriated many times with neither attribution nor allusion. Zero props. This is not OK. No one's ever said, "Ernie, may I use "hung like a chandelier?" or "Ernie, may I kind of glow in the lingering craftiness of 'hung like a chandelier'?" No one ever asks. They just take. This deserves immediate burial under the three-eighths pole at Aqueduct.
Me, conversely, I have asked and received permission from the National Bartenders Association to use, this one time, for the 2012 Preakness, the Oldest Bartender's Trick Ever: Give every customer a different horse, and one person is likely to come back and tip you. If you do this repeatedly, you will increase your tips. The Trick is absolutely bulletproof, still. The idea is to make every horse sound unbeatable. By starting them with a Tossed Salad (telling them the horses who have no chance, even for the superfecta), I guess I'll be using a modified version of the Oldest Bartender's Trick Ever. I can't share with you my heavy-pocketed clients, but here's what I'll be telling them, in hushed tones, after the Tossed Salad.
The Tossed Salad
Tiger Walk, Pretension, Zetterholm, Daddy Nose Best, Optimizer, Cozetti. Tossed.
The Five Sure Things
Bodemeister, bang, zoom, gone. Loosey goosey Landaluce. If I'll Have Another challenges Bode early, he's fried. If I'll Have Another shadows him, above his natural cruising speed, he'll peter. There isn't a horse in the crop who could do what Bode did in both the Ark and the Derby - especially the Derby. That pace was too hot for heat. He's not that big of a horse, Bode, but there's no one in this group who can boogie with him for nine-plus furlongs. Not even close. Before the speed poppage of 1982, trainer Butch Lenzini told jockey Cowboy Jack Kaenel to "break good and find the wood." Jack and Aloma's Ruler obliged. Mike Smith aboard Bode might employ a different strategy, though, the same he used with Lion Heart, floating Smarty Jones wide on the first turn. But Bode's better than Lion Heart and I'll Have Another's no Smarty, so better Mike keep a straight line. Bode's on the right end of a LOSE/WIN/LOSE/WIN/LOSE… pattern. Baffert will wear the Susans yet again and then, unfortunately for New York, he'll point his son's namesake for a race that fits the colt like Speedos, the Haskell. He cannot lose on Saturday.
I'll Have Another will beat Bode by twice the margin he did the first time. I'd advise against eye-balling Bode a la Canonero (Eastern Fleet), Slew (Cormorant) and Rachel (Big Drama), in favor of the stalking strategy of War Emblem (Menacing Dennis) and Shack (Flashpoint). Obviously, Bode will be three handfuls till headstretch, but, at that point, the only horse ever to win the Kentucky Derby with a nasal strip will dig down with an underrated heart and deliver us the second of the three straight Jewels we so desperately need. Some say I'll Have Another has enjoyed three consecutive perfect, traffic-free trips. Special, agile horses make perfect trips. You can put him anywhere; he is mature beyond his years. Heck, he even tolerated Creative Cause's incessant cheeriness on the flight to Louisville. I'll Have Another, perfectly named, cannot lose on Saturday.
Went the Day Well, NY, NY, is ready to Funny Cide this field. His trip in the Derby wasn't as brutal as Rags', but his excuses are legit. "Welly" was steadying almost immediately and repeatedly, was steadied again and bothered around the first turn, then rallied very wide before closing fastest of everyone. He way outran my pre-Derby statement, that there's only one Animal, and that dirt might be his third best surface. Did you see him play-training in the thick open brush of Fair Hill? There there's a happy Classic-meant horse who's peaking in the masterful hands of a future Hall of Famer. Bode and I'll Have Another can lean on each all they want. And, just in case, expect Teeth of the Dog to keep the early pace honest. Welly will be there to pick them all up. He cannot lose on Saturday.
Creative Cause needed to get out of Louisville. He just doesn't love Churchill Downs. He also needed to be noise-toughened; the mad Derby atmosphere has prepared him for his best race since the San Felipe, when he wore down Bode despite carrying five more pounds. CC projects for an ideal second-flight trip. With less pace and fewer runners in Pimlico, he can keep Bode and company in his crosshairs without having to extend early to stay close - the exact circumstances of his best performances. You can't keep a good man down, or a good horse, and both the supremely talented Joel Rosario and Creative Cause are sitting with big odds on the performances of a lifetime. They cannot lose on Saturday.
Teeth of the Dog is cresting for a trainer who deserved better in Kentucky. Michael Matz, like Graham a traditionalist with a patient agenda, has gradually raced this guy into preparation for the big time. Teeth of the Dog has position speed that was severely compromised into the first turn of the Wood Memorial, when Joe Bravo was forced to ease back from that piling front end. While this might've discouraged a lesser thoroughbred, he troopered on for third with a finish that said, NEEDED IT. Bravo's ride on Little Mike at Churchill was so Hall of Fame it hurt, literally (cost me 31 grand by not using him in the Pick 4), and Matz will find that winning a Classic with the second string is almost as tasty. This here's your real Pimlico Special. He cannot lose on Saturday.