Steinberg: A last ovation for Dave Feldman

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When Dave Feldman walked into the Sun-Times newsroom, the sports department would stand and applaud. A mixture of admiration and gentle “You’re alive!” ribbing for the man everyone called “The King.” Feldman, the paper’s turf editor, was a king with a bad back and a heart condition, the dean of horse racing in Chicago who would reply to the question, “How are you?” with a snarl of “I’m dyin’!”

So let’s potch our hands together, and maybe we can conjure up Feldman one last time in honor of 100 years since his birth, July 23, 1915. Clap, and squint, and maybe we can see him toddle in, looking like an unmade bed, perhaps slightly raising a regal hand to acknowledge his subjects, a short, paunchy, sad-eyed man, lurid shirt untucked, fly perhaps undone. A man who lived for horses, who not only wrote about them, but owned them, trained them, bet on them and announced their races.

“I could enter my horse in a race, handicap the event, call him home to the wire and interview the winning owner and trainer — me,” he wrote in his memoir, perfectly titledWoulda, Coulda, Shoulda, written with Frank Sugano. The book is an urn containing Feldman’s enormous spirit; crack it open, and he lives again.

“Dumb, right?” Feldman writes, of buying his first horse. “Yeah, but as they say, when you get an itch, you’ve got to scratch it. The thought of owning a horse had spread in my mind like a rash. I probably picked it up in New Orleans, where I had spent the winter covering the races at the Fair Grounds. . . . My partner and I got the horse cheap because we promised to pay the owner $1,000 when Oomph Girl won a race. Hah! The first three times we ran her, she was beaten like a flyweight matched against Jack Dempsey.”

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Born on the West Side, Feldman began delivering the Herald-Examiner at 6. A neighbor took him to Arlington Park when he was 12, and he was hooked.

“Other kids my age read comic books,” he recalled. “I read the [Racing] Form.”

Feldman took bets from Damon Runyon. He was the mascot for the Black Hawks in 1929, the year, as a student at Lindblom High School, he began handicapping races and took a part-time job at the Chicago Herald-Examiner. When it merged with the Evening American in 1939, Mr. Feldman became turf editor of the resultant Herald-American, later Chicago’s American. He moved to the Daily News in 1969 and to the Sun-Times when the Daily News folded in 1978.

He wrote as he spoke:

“Girl jocks?” he mused on the advent of female jockeys in 1969. “I’ll be honest with you. I don’t care for them. But they’re here to stay. Follow?”

“You know, horses are smarter than people. People bet on horses, but horses never bet on people.”

Feldman died at 85 — of the heart condition he worried about for decades — in 2001. I wrote his obit, but left out one story I cherish about Dave.

The Sun-Times had many larger-than-life characters, and another was the high school sports editor, Taylor Bell, at least in his estimation. Feldman had a way of spreading into Bell’s space, and Bell resented it. Words were exchanged.

Feldman got back this way. He visited a high school with a tape recorder and went up to students who looked like athletes. “Do you play football?” he’d ask until he found one who did. “Do you know Taylor Bell?” he’d continue. If the student did know Bell, he’d thank him, rewind the tape and look for another. If he didn’t, he’d push a bit. “Really? What position? Quarterback? And you’ve never heard of Taylor Bell? Really? No idea who he is!?”

He ended with a string of student- athletes, expressing bafflement over this mystery man, Taylor Bell. Then he played the tape for Bell to the permanent delight of all present.

Feldman was president of the Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association, the union that represents owners and trainers. He described the job this way:

“I hate being president of the HBPA. It’s tougher than being president of the United States. At least the president has a party in back of him. I have nothing — no party, no friends, no flunkies, just a board of whiners and backstabbers. Then there are the horsemen, another bunch of stakes-grade squawkers. It’s been that way since 1975, when I was first elected. So why didn’t I quit after the first three-year term? Hell if I know. My whole life has been like this.”

Unlike most of what he wrote, that was not quite true. Feldman had many friends, from broke stable hands to millionaire horse breeders — Arlington International owner Dick Duchossois was one of his pallbearers.

A horse race lasts a minute or two, a human life, a little longer. When it’s gone, sometimes those you touched remember. I didn’t know Dave well, and couldn’t tell a thoroughbred from a mule. But I admired the way he manifested himself. On Dave Feldman’s centennial, it seems fitting to saddle up his spirit, to let him flash around the track of our minds one more time before retiring out to pasture for keeps.

Follow Neil Steinberg on Twitter: @NeilSteinberg

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