Jun 15, 2010

Mervyn LeRoy

While Kentucky Derby fever swept the land in recent weeks there were stakes contests honoring the memory of two of the most disparate characters that you could imagine.

Mervyn LeRoy liked to spend his time as the head man at Hollywood Park when he wasn't making films like the immortal "Wizard of Oz".

Allen Lacombe ruled the Fair Grounds press box where, on any given day, he might be promoting a boxing match and presiding over a crawfish race down at the finish line.

I had the opportunity to interview LeRoy in 1969 during the Thoroughbred Racing Association convention in New Orleans. E.P. Taylor and Wilie Shoemaker had already kindly consented to suffer a cub turf writer. LeRoy proved just as gracious.

After a brief chat he asked if I had any tips for him to bet. My selection was a horse named Easy Lime, ridden by a jockey named Esteban Medina who was new in town, having migrated from Agua Caliente race track in Tijuana.

"Medina!" LeRoy fairly shouted. "He's my favorite jockey whenever I go to Caliente".

So we bet and Easy Lime wins. I'd never met a Hollywood mogul before and it was something to see his excitement stoked so much by a $9.00 winner. While taking his leave he issued an invitation to drop in any time I might be near Hollywood Park.

Allen Lacombe conferred the moniker ("Black Cat") on himself as the result of a losing streak that began when he dropped out of school. He had to hustle to make ends meet in the rough-and-tumble neighborhood known as the Irish Channel, hard by the Mississippi River docks.

Allen never met a favorite he couldn't bet and the shorter the price the better. The inevitable punishment this policy dished out left him undaunted. In fact, the only times I saw him really upset was when he cashed a bet, a situation rectified as soon as the next chalk struggled home.
I decided to leave it to Freud or Jung to figure what that was all about.

Unlike Hollywood swells, the Cat hung out with people named Hard Times, Pickle Nose Willy,Chew Tobacco Sam, Eatin' Pete...you get the picture.

Hard Times was a Nom de Tout whose real name was Earl Vince. He was a survivor as a jockey on the West Virginia leaky roof circuits. The Cat kept him around because he might hit one occasionally. When Hard Times ran cold the Cat would retract his press box sandwich credential.

The Cat had other friends on the dole and he looked the other way as the press box began to resemble "The Grapes of Wrath". Hard Times had a daughter who owned a beauty shop near the track and she would give him a double sawbuck every Saturday with which to try his luck.

LeRoy was as good as his word when I showed up for my first look at Hollywood Park a decade later. He set me up with a champagne lunch. I began to wonder if it was a case of mistaken identity. By then I had graduated to Daily Racing Form columnist and, in those days, The Form carried a lot of weight as America's only national daily devoted to picking winners. A decade or so later I was hired to serve as host on Hollypark's nightly recap. Another movie guy, Howard Koch, also helped my career on its way.

The Cat's tragicomedy might have come from the pen of Tennessee Williams (who resided a mile or so from Fair Grounds in the French Quarter) but I witnessed his antics both puzzled and amused.

I often tagged alone with The Cat because you never what might happen next. One night we took a launch out to an ocean-going vessel in the Mississippi where we dined with the Argentine ambassador. Another jaunt came l25 miles downriver to board the USS Tirinte, a WW II era submarine. We dove twice during the lengthy sailing...Ah ooga, Ah ooga came the siren which gave you 60 seconds or so to "clear the bridge" or you were going to get wet. Years later I saw the Tirante on a popular TV show of the time, The Silent Service. The Tirante crew was heavily decorated for having penetrated Tokyo Harbor during the war..

About 40 years ago I rode a camel in a race at halftime of the NFL Saints. Beat national jockey champion Larry Snyder.

Mervyn LeRoy richly deserved to have a graded race in his honor.

Allan (The Black Cat) Lacombe and his crew may have had more run.