Sports

Mike Bello

An ode to Suffolk Downs, and the grandfather who taught me all about horse racing there

BOSTON, MA - 7/9/2016: Jockey Kieran Norris (cq) and horse Reporter (cq) win Saturday's first race at Suffolk Downs in East Boston. It was the first of six days of racing at Suffolk Downs this year. (Timothy Tai for The Boston Globe)
2016 file/Timothy Tai for The Globe
Sunday will be the final live racing card at Suffolk Downs, which was built in 1935.

For me, the end of live horse racing at Suffolk Downs this weekend means I really have to say goodbye to my grandfather.

I can remember going to the track with him as far back as 1972.

We would sit in the grandstand with blue painted wooden seats with his friends, Hy the plumber, Moe the cab driver, and a cast of characters from Chelsea and Revere.

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On a Saturday, there could be 14,000 people there.

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He knew all the horses at the track, having gone there five days a week for decades.

He was working in a Lynn shoe factory in the morning and betting races in the afternoon in East Boston, and I became a willing participant in gambling despite my grandmother’s stern warnings.

I never figured out how he had the money to keep betting on all those races.

Grandpa Louie had all the answers at the track.

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Did the horses run well in the mud or on a fast track? Were they good closers or would the horse blow past everyone in the race?

One time, he won a trifecta, picking the first three horses in a race, and we were jumping for joy.

He would get mad when I didn’t take his advice on a bet. “See, I told you that horse was going to quit,” he said.

It was a long walk back to a triple-decker on Thornton Street in Revere when we lost.

Mike Bello (left) and his grandfather, Louis Bello, in 1983.
Mike Bello
Mike Bello (left) and his grandfather, Louis Bello, in 1983.

There was the immortal horse Boston Doll, who always battled to get to the finish line in the early ’70s.

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I bet on a horse named Israeli Jet and it came from behind to win. I thought I had won the World Series. It went off at 5-1.

There was legendary track announcer Jim Hannon, who called the races with a booming voice.

There were the dueling newspaper handicappers, Sam McCracken for the Globe and Dave Wilson for the Record American.

And I remember jockey Carl Gambardella, who seemed indestructible. He rode horses in thousands of races, enduring numerous falls only to keep on racing.

From seventh grade through high school and college, my friends and I would journey to Suffolk Downs on the subway to meet my grandfather.

Well into his 80s, he still went to Suffolk until August 1984 when he got sick and died months later.

But I kept going, sitting in the grandstand with my childhood friends, imagining my grandfather was still there. I felt close to him sitting in those blue seats.

I saw the Massachusetts Handicap (or MassCap), once the premier race in New England, which attracted some of the best horses and jockeys from around the country.

I saw the legendary thoroughbred Cigar race at Suffolk. And watched in awe another time as jockey Angel Cordero Jr. rode to victory.

Then, in later years, there was jockey Tammi Piermarini, who was often in the winner’s circle.

I never won many bets on races, but it was the thrill of watching those magnificent horses compete on a sunny day around an oval track.

It was our escape.

Screaming in victory or swearing in defeat; I have endured both.

Goodbye Suffolk and goodbye Grandpa . . . thanks for the memories.

You’ll always be with me.

Suffolk Downs’s final race weekend

When: Saturday-Sunday, 12:55 p.m.

What: 12-race cards both days.

Notable: More than 130 horses are entered in Saturday’s races; the average field size is 11 . . . The $100,000 James B. Moseley Stakes is the weekend’s featured event . . . Commemorative Suffolk Downs T-shirts will be sold Sunday, with the proceeds helping to finance thoroughbred aftercare . . . After Sunday, Suffolk will continue to operate as a simulcast betting facility.

Mike Bello can be reached at mbello@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @thebelloblotter.