As 85,495 racing fans at Pimlico, several of them still more or less solvent, watched the 118th running of the Preakness Saturday, we headed for Washington to surround ourselves with horse players the likes of whom no longer exist and maybe never did.
At the John F. Kennedy Center, they were showing the immortal stage production "Guys and Dolls," drawn from Damon Runyon's stable of characters with names such as Sky Masterson, Nathan Detroit, Miss Adelaide the eternal fiancee and Harry the Horse.
Does anybody still remember Harry the Horse? Runyon discovered him a long time ago at Pimlico and never let him go. Harry got his nickname one time from stealing a horse, although this was not precisely the story he told when brought to criminal court here.
"One day I just pick up this piece of rope," Harry declared. "Then I look around. It got a horse on to it."
Runyon called Harry his turf adviser, which was a fancy name for tout. Once, in a piece of fiction, Runyon wrote that he didn't think Harry had ever stolen a horse "but it is the consensus from coast to coast he may steal one if the opportunity presents itself."
The ones like Harry charm us more than ever today, owing to the general homogenization of the racetrack populace and the general deterioration of American criminal behavior. More and more, criminals are less entertaining. As Jimmy Breslin writes in his merely wonderful biography, "Damon Runyon: A Life":
"While there are still plenty of thugs about who seem lovable at first, it all winds up with them selling drugs to kids. At least in Runyon's time, the drugs were going to high rollers and other nitwits. In New York now, the Lady Boncile takes the bail money for boyfriend C.J. and she buys a liquor store and he sits in a cell. But the money all comes from selling crack to thirteen-year-olds, and I don't know how to make that bright and funny."
In "Guys and Dolls," we return to a time of criminal innocence from the opening moment, when the gamblers Nicely-Nicely and Benny Southstreet sing:
"I got the horse right here
The name is Paul Revere
It's from a handicapper
That's real sincere. . . ."
The fictional Nathan Detroit, having been engaged to his Miss Adelaide for a mere 14 years, is forced into a quick wedding on his way to a game of dice. Why not go to Maryland, somebody suggests, which has a town where they don't require blood tests.
"What's it called?" Nathan asks.
"Pimlico," he is told.
At the real Pimlico last Friday, we had the principal owner, Joseph DeFrancis, strolling about and showing a facade of calm. It was the day before the Preakness, but already the day of reckoning has arrived for thoroughbred racing.
"A crossroads year," DeFrancis acknowledged.
Over the last three years, both attendance and wagering have dropped at Pimlico. Every year, the track draws its 85,000 for the Preakness, but the rest of the year is a struggle to average 10,000 a day.
DeFrancis, a bright young fellow who dresses as though he just stepped from the pages of fashion magazines, talked enthusiastically of change: of televised races, of off-track betting, of the values of modern video.
This is tricky new ground. You encourage people to bet their money from a distance, and you run the risk of losing a certain atmosphere: not only a love of the equine set, but a loss of the characters who once populated the tracks.
Not long after Damon Runyon's death, the racing game went into the business of trying to make itself look respectable. It missed the point about the Harry the Horse types, finding them embarrassing and branding them undesirable.
Barred from the track, the real Harry the Horse turned to bartending for a while, then managed a bookstore on The Block, and quietly admitted, "When Runyon died, I died."
Now the tracks themselves are fighting for life. The Harry the Horse types still charm us from a stage in a theater, but they fade from sight at the tracks.
Harry the Horse was allowed back on the track late in his life. But then, just before the first race of Pimlico's 1973 meet, he collapsed and died at the $50 window.
Runyon himself couldn't have written a better finish.