By Warren Eves
Barry Irwin’s book Derby Innovator is as good as it gets.
It’s a plethora of intriguing stories.
Here’s one story involving Don “The Flamingo” Fleming, the editorial chief of the Daily Racing Form.
Irwin tells story after story. Here’s an example:
“Early one afternoon in the summer of 1976 at Del Mar racetrack, I received a phone call in the press box with a tip to beat it downstairs to the valet parking area near the main entrance gate to the seaside track.
When I got down there, the Del Mar security officers were just wrapping up an incident involving Y. Charles “Chet” Soda, one of the original partners of the Oakland Raiders who always spent his summers at the beach. The chairman of the California Horse Racing Board was a tall, heavy-set gentleman who wore the kind of thin mustache favored by actors of an earlier era. The 68-year-old had pulled his car up to the front gate at Del Mar. In order to proceed to the restricted parking area, he needed a credential for his car, which he did not have.
Soda tried to explain to the two officers in charge that he had taken his wife’s care and he was anxious to get inside to play the daily double. One officer spoke to Soda while the other officer stood directly in front of the car. Soda must have really wanted to get down on the double, because at one point , out of frustration, he took his foot off the brake, and proceeded to prop one of the security officers onto the hood of his car.
The officer, enraged, opened the driver’s door, pulled Soda from the car, pushed him down to the ground and cuffed him. Soda then was escorted to a holding cell in the security office. He was “released on his own recognizance” later that evening.
I interviewed the officers and witnesses, sprinted back to the press box elevator, phoned the Flamingo and told him what had happened. I then asked him what to do. I had the scoop. I was excited to have a real-life breaking news story to write. If I worked for a real newspaper, I would not have had to make the call. But I worked for the national house organ for racing, aka Daily Racing Form.
The Flamingo thought about it and finally said “Hmm. You go ahead, go ahead and write it, but just sit on it. I will phone you back.”
I had not finished writing my report by the time The Flamingo called back to tell me “the Ambassador doesn’t want to run the story.”
Interestingly, the following morning, the major San Diego daily newspaper put the incident where nobody could miss it as its front-page headline story. Yet, Daily Racing Form–self proclaimed as “America’s Turf Authority since 1894″–contained not a single word about this incident.
Things had become so sensitive at Bimini Place, that I found myself unable to even get a normal sports story in print. Jockey Don Pierce, a specialist in come-from-behind rides, was a top jockey on the circuit and regularly rode for Charlie Whittingham in big races. Pierce had one flaw–he had trouble getting out of the gate.
So I decided to interview Pierce and do a story about a guy who was incredibly successful in spite of a weakness. Word got back to the Flamingo, who told me to stop writing the story because he feared a potential lawsuit. if Pierce sued the DRF for the loss of income from as little as a single mount. I thought it was a preposterous notion.
Irwin’s book takes you behind the scenes in horse racing circles like never before.
Notes scribbled across my official program–That sure was an impressive win by Stanford in the Harlan’s Holiday on Dec., 17………….Veteran jockey agent Vince DeGregory knew Garrett Gomez well. “I know when he came out to California he brought his own agent,” he recalls. “Success never changed him one bit. “Then there was a time when Harry Hacek had his book. He asked me if I wanted to take his book when Garrett was having substance issues. I told him no. Later on I remember talking to him near the jocks room. He said he had things under control. But when he died, he was away from them all–his friends and family. Drugs just got ahold of him. It’s oh so sad.”……………..As a turf writer I never was close to Garrett even though I had talked and interviewed him many times. When I was well connected with the Barbary Coast and racebook manager Muggsy Muniz, I got Garrett accommodations at that famed property. The only thing we asked him to do was to go to the racebook and sign a photo for Muggsy. He never made it down to the racebook counter as planned. Muniz left Michael Gaughn’s Barbary Coast in 2001. He passed away on March 23, 2016………………Driver-trainer Lloyd Daulton passed away Nov., 18 at the age of 88. We watched him win many a race over a long period of time……………..An announcement came regarding veteran jockey agent Vince DeGregory and Tom Knust. DeGregory, who is recovering from spinal surgery, is going back to work as soon as his back is strong enough. In the meantime Knust will handle the business of jockey Rito Almanza. It’s a heart warming story, because Knust has said that DeGregory will get the percentage when Almanza wins a race. Wow! Talk about a good samaritan. That would be Knust who knows DeGregory has been out of action since he parted ways with an apprentice Chad Lindsay and had surgery. Almanza, from Peru, has already has a win in the west and has been getting on horses for Doug O’Neill and others. He’s a close friend of Rafael Bejarano who is also a Peruvian.