Falcon Points

Saying goodbye to an old friend

Ordinarily, this column appears on Wednesdays. But I decided to take a break from bashing Bill O'Brien or praising the Astros to talk about a great sportsman you have probably never heard of unless you spent time at Sam Houston Race Park.

Jerry Mantooth was a huge fan of horse racing. He spent countless hours at SHRP, often betting tracks most people would not touch. He was a fixture and a character.

Most importantly, he was my friend.

Jerry passed away last week in a tragic accident that also claimed the life of one of his workers. John Andrew Satterwhite, or "Andy," who also died trying to save Jerry. I have no doubt Jerry would have done the same had the roles been reversed. It was a terrible tragedy for both families.

Jerry was a fantastic handicapper, but a better person. He had an amazing heart and would do anything for anyone. And he did many things to help me when I was at my lowest point.

Part of a family

I first met him when Sam Houston opened in 1994. I thought he was loud, a little obnoxious and extremely cocky. And then I got to know him. And yes, he was loud, a little obnoxious and extremely cocky. But he also would do anything for a friend, and he had a great view on life.

Long before we made the term "degenerate" a positive on the Blitz, Jerry and several others of us did it at the racetrack. We would often spend seven days a week hanging out and betting on the ponies.

I have spent most of my life around gambling. The closest and most lasting relationships I have had started at the racetrack or poker table. In the early days of SHRP, many of us would hang out at the same table. Jerry and I had some massive scores together. We also had some rough days where we never cashed a ticket. Good day or bad, though, we always had fun.

There is an almost spiritual connection you share in the gambling world. Even in poker, you root for each other, even if you are playing against each other. At the track, we always had a mantra; "I win, everybody wins." If somebody had a big score, they would buy drinks for everyone. It was a bond that was so strong, I made it they key basis for my novel Jesus Just Left Chicago.

We all came from different worlds. But we had so much in common. We loved the rush of winning. The commiserating of losing. But mostly we loved spending time with people who had the same view on life. Yes, we drank. We gambled. But we all worked our ass off at our jobs so we would have the time and money to have that bond.

Positive attitude

Jerry was a landscaper, and his clients were the most important thing. He was damned good at it. And then he would go to the track where we would relax and enjoy the gambling and the company. We took trips to Vegas and Lake Charles together. We played countless rounds of golf together. We played racquetball together. And we gambled together.

One of our best scores came in 2003 Kentucky Derby, when we hit the Pick 4. Funny Cide upset Empire Maker that day, and Jerry had insisted on using Funny Cide on the ticket. I wanted to single Empire Maker. Funny Cide paid $27.80 to win. Jerry also insisted on a 35-1 long shot earlier in the sequence. That horse won as well. We split almost $8,000. He never let me forget who came up with those horses.

I was able to return the favor a year later in Vegas, when three of us split an $18,000 score on a trifecta I came up with. He always forgot about that one.

Regardless, we lived by the same philosophy; work hard, play hard, have fun, enjoy every day, and if somebody needed help, you do it.

Some of you may know I fell on some hard times in the late 2000s after I left the Chronicle. For a brief time I had to live in my car. Jerry called me and told me to come to the track and he would stake me a couple hundred. When I told him I could not afford the gas to make it out, he came and picked me up. I made his money back plus another $500 each that day. He did that for me several times over the next year. I didn't always win. But I did well enough that he always got his money back. When he had a rough spell a few years earlier, I had done the same thing. It always came back to us. I learned that from him, when he took a disabled man who always hung out at the track under his wing and always made sure the man had money. I learned from Jerry to always look out for people when you could afford to do it.

We stayed close ever since those early days. When I married my current wife, I took her to the track to meet Jerry and the guys. They all loved her and made her feel at home while I did the radio show. I knew they would look after her and made sure she had fun. Because that is what we did.

Common bond

One of the best things about my job is our relationship with Sam Houston Race Park. During the live meet, I get to spend a lot of time at the track. I got to see Jerry and some of my other friends quite a bit over the past few years. We would always talk about the good old days and trying to get together for another round of golf or to play racquetball again. We never did, but I cherish the times this year where we made a few bets together and had a few drinks. It was just like old times.

This past meet was the best. I got to see him more than in recent years, and we spent a lot of time together for the first time in a while. He always greeted me with a big hug, a smile and a reminder who had hit that big pick 4 for us.

The last couple months have been rough on Jerry. He lost his only son, and it hit him hard. We talked on the phone a few weeks ago, and I could tell it was devastating. The old smile, the fun loving attitude was gone. I could not imagine what he was going through. We talked about people we have lost over the last few years, and about how important it was to enjoy the people you love every day. But I could tell it rang hollow to him. It made me profoundly sad, but I can't even conceive of what it must have been like.

One last moment

So I am going to remember him from the last time I actually saw him. It was Belmont Day this year. I went out to the track to make a couple bets and go home. I stayed a little longer and had a couple drinks with Jerry and the gang. It was against my better judgement, but in retrospect I am so glad I did. I told him I loved a long shot on the undercard right before I left, and pointed the horse out to him. He circled it, then circled the horse he liked and said he was going to bet a $20 exacta box on the two for old times.

I left, and was halfway home when he texted me to tell me we won big. My horse won, his was second. It was our last bet together, and it was a huge win. I planned on bragging about whose horse finished first for the next few years.

I won't get to do that now. But I will not delete the text, either. At least I will have that.

Jerry Mantooth was an amazing person, and more than a friend. I loved him like a brother. I'm sad he is gone. I'm reminded again to enjoy every day we have on this planet. To remember the good times. To be a good degenerate. To help people who need it.

I wish I could get one last smile and hug from him, just to remind me of that.

You probably did not know Jerry Mantooth. But if you are a Blitzer, you would have loved him. He was one of us. And hopefully now you know a little more about him.

More than anyone, he deserves that.


Santaanita.com

In 2018, Justify won horse racing's Triple Crown, sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. It was the second time a horse had accomplished the feat since 2015. Before that, the last winner was in 1978. It is one of the most difficult accomplishments in sports.

The horses that have won it are instantly enshrined in history and compared to the all-time greats, like Secretariat and Seattle Slew. When American Pharoah won in 2015, that was indeed the case. He would go on to win the Breeders' Cup Classic, becoming the first horse to win the Triple Crown and the Classic. It was an amazing year, and he was truly a brilliant race horse who captivated fans around the country.

When Justify won just three years later, it did not feel the same. He beat a very suspect group of three year olds, and was not impressive doing it. And then he retired as if his connections were afraid to see him lose against older horses and taint his legacy. No one compared him to any of the all time greats. It simply felt weird.

Now it makes sense

As the memory of Justify was slipping into history, a bombshell broke on Wednesday. Joe Drape of the New York Times dropped an in depth piece on the horse. Justify failed a drug test after the Santa Anita Derby. He should have been disqualified from his win in the race, and would not have even been in the Triple Crown. But the ruling was put off, kept under wraps, and the horse was allowed to race. After he won the Triple Crown, the board lessened the penalty for use of the particular drug he was caught with, effectively changing the rules to avoid a bad look.

Then it was somehow kept under wraps for two years.

Bad looks all around

As a longtime fan and supporter of the sport, stories like this are beyond frustrating, and goes to a deeper problem: Inconsistent rules. Each state has its own set of rules, and they are not all enforced consistently. When Maximum Security was disqualified from the Kentucky Derby, it was a controversy of the first order. Whether or not it was the right call varies from state to state, and even track to track. Stewards make those calls, and they are subjective. What is enforced in one place is not in another. Not everyone plays by the same standards.

Why Justify?

There is no reason to doubt Drape's reporting. He is one of the best in the business, especially when it comes to the news of the sport, and his story is well worth your time. So the real question is why?

The California Horse Racing Board took almost a month to confirm the results, ostensibly because they wanted to be sure. But that put them up against the Derby, and a DQ at that point would have been problematic. There is nothing wrong in being sure and getting the ruling right. But then once the horse wins the Triple Crown, imagine the outrage had it gone public.

There were three real problems; the lack of transparency, changing the rules and potential conflict of interest. Some of the board members are horse owners; the chairman owns horses raced by Justify's high profile trainer, Bob Baffert.

The board may have very well been, er, justified in all of its moves. But these three issues make it a very bad look.

The ruling that it was accidental, then, is easy to question. Baffert has had a ton of success and does not need to cheat, but he is not the only one in the barn or with contact to the horses. So it is possible the ruling was the right thing, but the way it happened is simply unacceptable. That the rules were changed after the Triple Crown makes it look even worse.

Black eyes? 

Those calling it yet another black eye on a sport that has had its share this year - the deaths at Santa Anita and the Derby itself - are merely scratching the surface. The sport has no eyes left. They have been beaten so hard it doesn't begin to tell the story. I have seen it all over the years; fixed races, horses being held back, inconsistent rulings, high profile cheating trainers. There are more good people than bad in racing, as there is in all of life. But it's always the bad that get the attention and ruin it for everyone else. Were these bad people? No. But when you try to hide something like this, there is no way to spin it into a positive.

The biggest issue - players have no rights

Lost in all this is the person who bets. Those of us who bet against Justify have no recourse. As sports betting becomes legal everywhere, these are issues that will impact more than horse racing. We already see it in boxing and MMA; you bet on a fight, lose and then a few days later whoever won failed a drug test and is disqualified. What if you bet on the Saints to cover Monday night, and two days after Deshaun Watson is suspended for PEDs and should have never played? While that is extreme - you made your decision based on the fact that he was playing - the player has no voice.

Horse racing should be more cognizant of that than any sport. Without betting, it does not exist. With sports betting coming to more states, horseplayers will gravitate away, especially as controversies like this keep happening. It is a sport that has been filled with controversy with years. Horse racing is where steroids started. Everyone in the sport should be aware of that.

There aren't a lot of us broken down horseplayers left. Decisions like this make it harder to keep trusting that the races we are betting on are honest.

The final analysis

Justify's breeding rights were sold for $60 million. As for his legacy? Most considered him the worst Triple Crown winner in history before. This won't do anything but reinforce that, but the breeding money spends just the same. Drape's story doesn't really change anything in the grand scheme. It simply casts light on a problem that needs to be dealt with whenever gambling and people's investments are involved: Transparency. Honestly. Consistency.

I won't hold my breath.

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