LAS VEGAS — A year into creating a comedy career that would become legendary, Shecky Greene sat at a blackjack table at the Riviera when a publicist darted up to him one day in 1954.
Mr. Greene, you’re due at the track! Nearly noon, he had forgotten. A big handicap race was being staged at Las Vegas Park, the ill-fated thoroughbred venture that hosted only a few weeks of racing in 1953 and 1954.
The 95-year-old Chicago native said he still might have been ill from a late night.
“They introduce the presenter of the second race. Me! And I roll from
the grandstand onto the track, to the infield, through horses—t and everything else.
“[Jockey] George Taniguchi wins the race. I go behind the judge and, in my drunken stupor, I kiss the horse’s ass. George jumps off and runs away. They didn’t see him for a week! One of the last times I drank.”
SHECKY, THE HORSE
Kentucky Derby day summons special memories for Greene, the inveterate horse-playing son of a degenerate — his word —shoe-salesman horseplayer.
Carl Greenfield took the youngest of his three boys to watch the ponies when he was 6, hooking Fred Sheldon Greenfield (he’d -legalize his stage name in 2004) for life. They would frequent six Chicago-area tracks, the most in any metropolitan region.
That Arlington Park for a few decades staged a Shecky Greene Handicap might have matched, in honorifics, his March 2020 induction into the National Comedy Hall of Fame in Florida.
Employing a walker and usually donning a beige flat cap, Greene is a sportsbook regular at Green Valley Ranch, a casino tucked into the Henderson foothills. He typically bets a buck or two on races all over the country.
People greet him, nod in respect, whisper tributes. He sits among friends. He bemoans the recent passing of pal Eddie. With a sly bill cupped behind fingers, he’ll tip those who provide him with a winner.
He delivers impromptu Italian arias, as if he’s at La Scala. But it’s a concocted, -nonsensical dialect. He caps French gibberish with ‘‘Dipinto Di Blu.’’ Crooning was part of a Vegas lounge act that brought him six-figure weekly checks in the 1970s.
For today’s Derby, Greene likes the price on O Besos, a Greg Foley-trained colt who was 35-to-1 at Circa Sports this week, 40-1 at William Hill.
For Derby drama, though, nothing touches 1973. Owner and friend Joe Kellman named a fast bay Shecky Greene, a sliver of which the comedian bought. But he objected to the sprinter being run in the demanding 1¼-mile Derby.
A son of famous Aussie chestnut stallion Noholme, Shecky Greene, a 6-1 choice, set a blistering pace out of the Louisville gate but, as predicted by the comedian, flamed out, finishing sixth. He’d win the Eclipse speed award that year.
“My horse didn’t belong there,” Greene said.
Secretariat relished the rabbit, covering each quarter of the race faster than the -previous one to set a Derby record of 1 minute, 59.4 seconds that stands today. He would clinch the Triple Crown in a record 31-length triumph at the Belmont.
Greene’s largest hit was a $12,000 win at Del Mar. Vince Edwards, star of the hit TV series “Ben Casey,” who had a crippling gambling addiction, begged for a loan at the -window.
A nearby racetrack during the day, the show at night — Greene’s road routine.
“It’s just the way my life went,” he said. “I think as long as the horses are running, I’ll still be living.”
SHECKY, THE MAN
Manic depression, a bipolar condition, agoraphobia and anxiety and panic attacks all have consumed Greene. It’s in the genes, he said, that also have provided him with such durability.
Clips of him from TV shows in 1959 and 1963, featuring Ed Sullivan and Groucho Marx, are magnificent. Audiences howl at his quick and clever wit, shifting gears, singing, rhyming on the fly. Confident, in total command.
“Anything but,” he said. A façade. “Doing what I did in show business, it’s really a shock to me.”
Six or seven therapists prescribed everything from Ativan to lithium to Zoloft. He has taken no medication for five years. He said he didn’t enjoy his career or stardom.
“People really didn’t know me. Matter of fact, I didn’t know me. My psychiatrists didn’t know me . . . when I look back, I don’t like 90% of the things I did and the way I was.”
Like the Las Vegas Park incident, or drunkenly steering his rig into the fountains at Caesars Palace.
“It’s been a curse living to 95.”
The blessing has been Marie Musso, Greene’s third wife, whose jazz-saxophonist father, Vito, roomed with Frank Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey’s band.
Musso told the Los Angeles Times that Greene would cry and shake in bed. The 1980s were a wash. Getting him to walk took effort. She’s his rock.
“But we never lost our sense of humor,” Musso said.
He might not prefer 90% of it, but Greene does believe that frank details of his past could help someone else’s future.
“Not giving up on yourself is the most important thing,” he said. “Surround yourself with people who like you, who understand you. Anybody who has an adverse effect on you, get rid of them. Look for people who are gentle and kind. There are a lot of those.”