In his heyday, the late Philip “Pacey” Silbert earned a living both honestly and otherwise. He booked bets on the old three-digit street number, and he booked bets on thoroughbred horse races. Boy, could Pimlico Race Course use some guys like Pacey today.
He was part of a beautiful cast of Runyonesque characters that once included such track legends as Frank “Mister Diz” Rosenfeld and Nathaniel “Nookie the Bookie” Brown and Harry “The Horse” Caplan.
Harry the Horse naturally got his nickname from stealing a horse, an act which he defended in criminal court one afternoon by explaining, “I seen this piece of rope and picked it up. How did I know there was a horse attached to the other end?”
Mister Diz, who lived in an apartment just off the three-quarter pole at Pimlico, hustled balloons on the track’s parking lot for a living and depended on folks he called his “angels” for loaning him betting money.
One time, he made a list of the people he owed dough. Diz said the list was 82 pages long.
I thought of Mister Diz and Harry the Horse and Nookie the Bookie the other day when the Maryland Stadium Authority issued its big report on the shaky future of racing at Pimlico.
We’re talking here about the possible end to a colorful legacy — not only the track, but all those colorful ghosts who once made the sport such a great gathering place for street hustlers who avoided numbing work lives and instead artfully ad-libbed their way through daily life.
That included Pacey, who loved going to the track until the day they barred him as an “undesirable” because of his off-track bookmaking ventures. Undesirable? You lose those like Pacey, you lose the very lifeblood that made going to the track one of the most popular pastimes of mid-20th-century America.
It wasn’t just about gambling your money on some horse — it was about mixing a little with the cast of “Guys and Dolls.”
So there we were, some years after Pimlico barred Pacey from the premises, when he phones me at the newspaper where I once worked. “Come with me to the track today,” he says. “If I get kicked off, you’ll get a good column to write. And if I don’t get kicked off, we’ll have a nice afternoon.”
We sat in the track’s sunlit dining room, and Pacey pointed to the first-race entries. “Pick a horse,” he said.
“I don’t know much about racing,” I protested.
“Go ahead. If he wins, we’ll split it.”
“Well,” I said, “there’s a horse running called Of Counsel. If they arrest you, you might need legal counsel.”
Of Counsel goes off at 7 to 1. Pacey puts down $50 to win. Of Counsel wins. “Pick another,” Pacey says, pointing to the second-race entries. “Mike’s Delight,” I suggest, showing a little pride in personal nomenclature.
Mike’s Delight goes off at 5 to 1. Pacey bets another $50 on our behalf. Mike’s Delight wins. We are now holding money approaching my weekly paycheck. “Pick another horse,” Pacey says.
“Pacey,” I say, “if I get this one right, I’m changing professions.” But before he can get another bet down, two officers from the Thoroughbred Racing Association arrive and tell Pacey he’s still regarded as an undesirable and insist upon him vacating the track.
Well, it’s their loss.
One by one, the tracks weeded out the bookmakers and street hustlers, until there was nobody left but respectable types. With them went much of the sport’s very oxygen. At least Pacey had a sense of humor about his livelihood. He’d laugh about the time a vice squad cop nabbed him for bookmaking. Pacey attempted to avoid arrest in the time-honored way. He dropped a $20 bill on the pavement.
“Officer,” he said, “did you drop that $20?”
“Not me,” the cop said. “I dropped a fifty.”
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, most recently “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).
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