I've always loved horses. No, I've never been on the prairie or the buttes in the Max Brand novels. But to look at the beauty of a thoroughbred, to be at the track on a sunny afternoon, to meet the people who make it all happen — jockeys, trainers, owners — that's a treat.
In the early '80s, I gained a little celebrity with a radio show I did each morning on WRFM in New York City. I had a lot of sponsors. I sold Blackberry Julep. I pitched Ben Ric fur coats. I spoke for Mercedes-Benz Manhattan. And then, a racetrack joined the show. I was in heaven.
My interest in horses started with my father. He read Western novels every weekend, sitting in his Morris chair in our old living room. That chair was great. It was leather-bound cushions on a wood frame that adjusted like a lawn chair. You could have it straight up, partly reclined or even zonked out as a bed. He had it way back like a sleeper. He didn't sleep. He read about horses, gunfights, bunkhouses and corrals.
I do the same thing today. I found out my father was onto something. The old Western novels are a thrill to read. Great writing. Terrific plots. People and places you care about. Escape!
In those days my dad didn't have Dick Francis. I have read and re-read all of the 45 Francis novels, and the new ones with his son, Felix. Francis doesn't do Westerns; he's British. But he does horse racing and every aspect of it with stories that hold you page after page, to the final word.
So when Monmouth Park, Monmouth, N.J., joined the show, I was at home with them, and I think they were at home with me. Before long, someone suggested I might like to do a Jim Aylward Day at the track in which I would present the award to the winning jockey, trainer and owners at the feature race. I agreed to do it, and I have a couple of trophies to prove it. I did the first Aylward Day, and shortly after they sent me a sculpture of a racehorse on a block of walnut with the inscription, "Jim Aylward Day Monmouth Park July 16, 1981." It sits on the top of my desk today, as it has for years.
In 1982 they sent me another sculpture — a bronze jockey with a saddle at the foot mounted on another block of walnut, a pole rising behind the figure, making it into a lamp. It's been the lamp on my desk ever since.
We did the event for three years. We'd take a limo to the park, sit in a VIP box, have crab cakes and cold beer, and then I'd go down to the track. The third year we arrived, it was hot and muggy. I said to our host, "Bill, the first year we came here, there was a lovely breeze. The second year a breeze. This year we hit hot and humid!"
Bill said, "Oh, Mr. Aylward, would you like a breeze?" And he threw a switch on the wall and the hidden fans above went on. There was my soft summer breeze. Electric!
The VIP boxes were surrounded with geraniums. The flags were flying. We sat in green metal chairs with matching green cushions. It was easy to love Monmouth Park.
Twenty-six years later, as I write this column, I'm complete with little bandages on my face and forehead from a visit to my dermatologist. Removal of mysterious little growths, needles in cheekbones, stitches are forgotten as I look at photos of the days at Monmouth Park — the good old days when I was just 51.
New Port Richey resident Jim Aylward was formerly a nationally syndicated columnist and radio host in New York City. Write him in care of LifeTimes, St. Petersburg Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.