Racing / 1992 Breeders Cup: Fast talk from racing's old folks: 'What's that accent? You Cuban?', Paul Hayward is asked at one of Florida's lesser-known tracks

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The Independent Online
HANK COHEN talks like Jack Benny with the verbal accelerator flat to the floor. He tells you about the time he was talked out of placing a bet that would have changed his life (it was a winner). 'Yeah', he says, appealing to the hot Florida skies, 'I had diarrhoea for a month afterwards.'

Calder racetrack, north of Miami. Unsolicited, Cohen emerges from the mass of ageing expatriate New Yorkers to introduce himself. 'It's a good Irish name,' he says. 'No, I'm only kidding. Really. I'm Jewish. This is a terrible place. No, really, watch your things . . . ' He doesn't stop. Hank Cohen does not stop. 'I used to know a guy. He sold hamburgers for a nickel and gave you a drink free. No, really. You think he went bust? The guy's a millionaire.'

And so he continues, as you stand amid the Fifties decor and folksy ambience of the poor man's Gulfstream Park, trying to decipher the betting system, and wondering by what law of economics, or health, or age, half the over-60s of north-eastern America came to be wandering round Florida in checked shorts and Bing Crosby 'Gone Fishin' hats.

The only person missing is Alan Whicker. The same pot-bellied retirees you see hopelessly swinging golf clubs around their feet are the staple audience of this mundane afternoon's sport, and if the American presidential election was confined to the patrons of Calder, George Bush would be long odds-on to remain in office.

Bill Clinton and his mantra of 'change' is not the first thing that occurs to you as you watch these garrulous leisure-addicts, chomping on pretzels and mashing Polish sausages between immaculate dentures.

'What's that accent. You Cuban?' Cohen asks. No, but the the most fervent punters are, the ones who shout loudest during a race. Three rows back, two of Cohen's fellow ex-Manhattanites (Tom and the club-footed Joe) are exchanging apocalyptic remarks about their mutual failure to get the Trifecta (the first, second and third horses) right. 'Again he died, Tom,' Joe says of the horse who finished fourth. 'I did it again: two, five, three. What am I, brain-dead? I did the same thing yesterday. I got wiped out.'

His mood is darkening, and fairly soon, you know a jockey is going to get the blame. 'That banana', he says, right on cue, 'He can go and stuff himself - and his horse.' After 10 minutes, Tom is ready to file the memory of this failure along with all the others. He says: 'Don't worry, Joe. Better days are coming.'

Indeed they are. Calder will suspend racing this weekend to accommodate the Breeders' Cup meeting at Gulfstream, and the unappealing equine fare of this outdoor retirement home will give way to racing's world championships. Regular Calder jockeys like Ric Squartino, Nat Ramos and Jesus A Bracho, will do well to pick up rides at the Breeders' Cup.

If they ate the food at Calder they would never ride again. 'Where Excitement Runs Wild,' is the track's proud legend, but for excitement you could just as easily substitute 'cholesterol'. It seems to matter not in this American version of Eastbourne that the diet so fatteningly contradicts the doctors' orders on which many of the punters have been sent here. There is always the golf, walks along the beaches, the thrill of trying to get the Trifecta up, to offset the Jumbo Hot Dog, consumed while wives with Big Hair peck at popcorn.

No atmosphere without bookmakers? You must be joking ('any person convicted of bookmaking on a racetrack shall be guilty of a felony,' runs a notice in the racecard). You can barely walk a yard without an elderly stranger wanting to introduce himself, and there is nothing missing here that you would find on a British course.

'Watch your camera, though,' Cohen says, his paranoia returning. 'I got robbed here once. Chased him right round the track. He's in gaol now, and he can't come out till he gives me my money back. No, really . . . '

(Photograph omitted)

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