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.
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.
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.