Clem Florio, a former prize fighter and newspaper handicapper who was a fixture at Maryland race tracks for 40 years, died of pancreatic cancer Sunday at a Hollywood, Fla., hospice. He was 78.
"He looked, spoke and acted like he stepped out of Guys and Dolls. He was Damon Runyon to the core," said Ross Peddicord of Frederick, The Sun's former racing writer. "Racing was his whole life, and he practically lived in the Pimlico, Laurel and Bowie press boxes."
Born in Queens, N.Y., he grew up in Ozone Park near Aqueduct Raceway. As a teenager, he dropped out of school and lied about his age to start a boxing career. He went into the ring at age 14 and competed in 85 fights. He later told a Sun reporter he had 50 victories, 30 losses and five ties. He boxed under the name the Ozone Park Assassin.
He later told newspaper reporters he smoked in the dressing room before his matches and that the use of tobacco hurt him in the ring.
He then turned full time to racing and became a groom for thoroughbred horses, working for trainer James E. "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons. He also handled Nashua, the winner of the 1955 Preakness.
"Nobody knows this game like I do. I know it all," he told a Washington Post reporter in 2001. "I've spent my whole life at the track. It took up a lot of time and cost me a marriage. But I never had a bad day."
He was working as a handicapper for the Miami News when he met Baltimore sports columnist John Steadman, who helped recruit him to the old News American in 1969, where Mr. Florio worked until the paper ceased publication in 1986. He regularly wore a diamond-studded ring in the shape of a horseshoe.
In describing 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat, Mr. Florio said, "He ran like a giant wolf." He regularly referred to the Preakness as "the greatest two minutes in sport."
"Clem was one hell of a handicapper," said former Sun racing reporter Dale Austin. "There used to be a real camaraderie at the tracks, and Clem appreciated the humor that abounded in the press box. He had such a good time and would say, 'I hope I never die.' "
In the late 1980s he was an oddsmaker for The Washington Post and became the house handicapper and oddsmaker at Pimlico and Laurel. He also did racing reports for WITH-AM radio.
Plans for a memorial service in Little Italy are incomplete.
Survivors include a son, Louis Florio of Boca Raton, Fla.; three daughters, Clemma Florio and Mary Lou Hutter of New Bern, N.C., and Lonna Florio Pizarro of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.; a brother, Patrick Florio of Pembroke Pines, Fla.; 10 grandchildren; and a great-grandson. His three marriages ended in divorce.