Christine and I were anxious to get a bet down on the 145th annual Kentucky Derby in Louisville, and my friends in Largo, Florida, Alan and Lori McIlvaine, whom I bet on football games with, were even more excited about the prospects, since they wanted to wager $50 across the board.
Our thoughts were a bit more modest as we were going to bet $20 each across the board, in other words, to win, place, and show, but then I thought to myself that seven or eight years ago, Alan wouldn't have known there was a Derby taking place. So he shamed us into upping our ante to $50.
As far as football, Alan's knowledge of the game didn't reach past the University of Florida in Gainesville when we were hanging out at the Oasis Lounge in Waldo, Fla. No matter how big the crowd was when Christine and I arrived, I had a seat because Alan gave me his, and that's why I gave him the nickname of Standing Man.
Once I introduced him to betting, he immediately got the bug. Now we find ourselves wagering on 30 or more football games on fall Saturdays, and all of the professional contests on Sunday. One of my late sports auditors, Beverly Larson, who owned the Flamingo Lounge in Nashville, wondered when Alan made his first bets, whether I had informed him that he didn't have to put down money for every game—something that he did, earning the monicker of there's the guy who bet on every game.
The computer system we use for football wasn't working, only offering the chance to bet one horse against another. Two sports auditors we had dealt with before, one in Nashville, couldn’t be reached, and the other in Mississippi, offered no solution. We tried another guy in Nashville, referred by Ronnie Hobbs, owner of the Scoreboard Lounge. He said he didn't do horse races. Also, we couldn’t find anybody who was going to the track, or even the one for off-track betting just across the Kentucky line.
Suddenly, a light went off and I thought about Charley Cox of Concessions by Cox. For the last 12 years, he has worked The Derby in conjunction with Levy Restaurants, a Chicago-based hospitality company. Cox does the entire infield, plus several stands. He also does the Kentucky Derby Festival, including Thunder Over Louisville, where Zambelli Fireworks puts on a dazzling display.
Cox said business was good despite it being a dreary Derby Day, with lots of rain and mud. “Despite that, we were still up over last year,” he said, after I asked where I could send the money I owed him.
Yes, I had called his permanent office at the Georgia National Fairgrounds in Perry, and was given another number to reach him, which he didn't answer. Then I looked him up in the OABA Midway Marquee Directory and Resource Guide. There I found his number from his second permanent location, the Ohio Exposition Center on the grounds of the Ohio State Fair in Columbus. Lo and behold, he answered the phone and when I asked if he could place our bets, he said he sure could, and he did.
Cox and Alan were unlucky enough to bet on the horse who actually won the race, Maximum Security, only to find out some 20 minutes later that he was disqualified, and the winner was a 65 to one shot, Country House. For us, and just about everybody everywhere, I believe, it left a sour taste and definitely rubbed off any sheen that might have been placed on the upcoming Preakness race. My horse, Tacitus, was moved from fourth to third, so I got back $140 for my $150 investment.
I asked Cox about people from the carnival business who had worked the ancillary Derby events with him. He listed Lou Pacifico of the Meatball Factory and his son-in-law, Ryan Collmer, Brent Kennedy, who has Fire In the Hole Pizza, Frank King's Foods, and Jay and Vicki Clements of Triple Treat Shows.
Cox stated, “This was the first time we sold tickets.” He predicted that in two or three years there would be no cash on midways. “Right now, at what used to be Tropicana Field, where the Tampa Bay Rays play baseball, there are no cash transactions.” I asked a dumb question concerning whether Cox liked the latest trend, and after pausing a while, he answered, “It keeps our employees honest.”
I recalled the first time I met Cox, or was it vice versa. I was walking on the grounds of the Florida State Fair, Tampa, having already visited food concessionaires John McCarthy, Butch Netterfield, and John (The Peddler) Curtis, when I heard a booming voice call out my name on a loud speaker. I stopped, spent a long time talking to him, and that was our introduction to each other. Since that opportune occasion, he has allowed me to park in one of his spaces at Super Bowls and been a great news source. I have visited his operation at many fairs, including Perry, Columbus, Tampa, Ladson, S. C., and numerous others. He is also involved in setting up where natural disasters strike.
This weekend, Cox takes his massive operation to automobile races in Indianapolis, gearing up for another appearance at the Indianapolis 500, which will be held May 26. At 82, he said he thought he'd be retired by now, with his children taking care of him, but we agreed, neither of us is ready for that.
Speaking of the Indianapolis 500, I received a call from Suzette Hooper yesterday, who said she and her mom, the effervescent Marilyn Portemont, and several friends will be passing through Nashville on their way to the race. They want to stop and see Johnny Hobbs and me. Marilyn, of course, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from OABA during the Gibtown trade show last year. Approaching the age of 94, she will be attending the race for the 72nd straight year. It reminds me of the classic Alan Alda movie of Same Time Next Year, because Hobbs and I get the identical phone call every May.
The Indy connection goes way back for me. I covered the race and time trials from 1958-1972 when I was a sports writer for The Nashville Tennessean. A Nashville-based contractor named Eph Hoover owned cars driven by Don Branson and Bobby Marshman. I had a plane at my disposal and Hoover's chief mechanic, Johnny Wills, one of my neighbors, for the entire month.
I was able to interview all 33 drivers, chief mechanics, Flagman Pat Vidan, Track Owner Tony Hulman, PR man Al Bloemker, and anybody who moved since I was doing a radio show with Sprite as a sponsor. They paid me the whopping sum of $10 for every interview. After I left the newspaper to become editor of Amusement Business, I kept asking for credentials each year for myself, photographer, and our wives, which I received until Bloemker passed away, and it ended.
During those years, I was able to obtain silver badges, which enabled users all access, and tickets for a host of Johnny and Marilyn Portemont's guests. They included Monsignor Robert J. McCarthy, Jo Ann, Larry and Tom Davis, Rod and Rita Link, J. D. and Ann Floyd, Rolly Larson, Harold and Marge Chance, Gary Otterbacher, Jack Libbertt, and the Coca-Cola man, Joe Oblander. Father Mac used to tell me that all the race drivers were happy to talk to a priest before driving in a very dangerous race.
Marilyn has a group that wears tee shirts saying they are members of her pit crew. The native of Brazil, Indiana, used to make banana pudding for Hobbs when Johnny's United Shows, or All American Shows played the Wilson County Fair in Lebanon, Tennessee. He's 91 now, I'll be 86, and we're both slowing down, but Marilyn doesn't appear to be losing any of her marvelous energy as she approaches 94. If she keeps going at this pace, OABA may decide to present her with another award—for longevity.
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