The only thing I remember about the last time I went to the horse race track many years ago was that it smelled awful, the food was expensive and terrible, and I lost a lot of money I could not afford to lose. Saturday afternoon was an entirely different experience.
While I still lost some money I really could not afford to lose, there were no objectionable odors, the food was free and delicious, and I was surrounded by some of the biggest names and most popular figures in Suns history. With my girlfriend of eight years, Teresa, I was honored to attend the private party celebrating Turf Paradise’s third annual running of the Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile.
We were among the first to arrive and got to spend some time with Cotton’s wife, JoAnn, who shared some great stories about Cotton’s passion for the horses and how the Cotton Mile came about.
• After Cotton’s death, JoAnn received correspondences from several organizations wanting to honor Cotton’s name, but the majority of them wished to use in conjunction with some fund-raising event, which JoAnn felt was not appropriate. Turf Paradise was the first to pitch an idea whose sole purpose was to celebrate his life without any other ties. The fact that among his greatest joys was horse racing in general and Turf Paradise in particular was just icing on the cake.
• Cotton would spread out all his racing forms and papers, and pore over all the statistics and notes like preparing to coach or broadcast a basketball game. He had a rainbow of colored markers which he used to code the various notes and trends for the upcoming races. The bag he toted back and forth to the track that kept all his notes and markers has remained unopened since his passing. JoAnn has gone to open it on a number of occasions but cannot quite get herself to do it.
• At his passing, the Turf Paradise staff that waited on him for years placed purple and orange flowers on “Cotton’s table” and allowed no one to sit there for several weeks.
• Saturdays were his favorite days to spend at Turf Paradise. He would hang out all day and bet on every race. He would call JoAnn and ask, “When do you want me home?” She would reply, “Don’t put that on me. You tell me when you’ll be home.” He would then hem and haw, citing when the last race started and approximately what time he thought he would be leaving, but then would add, sweet as could be, “But I can come home now if you want.” Of course, he would always stay.
• This year, the Cotton Mile had a $75,000 purse, which Tom Leander explained to me did not go to the horse, but to the owner of the horse. (Thanks, Tom, I was really just asking if it had anything to do with the betting.) It was the highest purse of the day and meant that the race had reached a kind of status which brought in some of the best race horses around.
• After getting the rundown on how methodical he was about analyzing the races, the jockeys, the horses, the weather (“His father was a mudder! His ‘Mudder’ was a mudder!”), trying to take in every angle, I asked JoAnn if he was any good at picking the right horses. “No,” she replied very quickly with a sly grin as if that was among the most stupid questions ever asked.
We were seated in a private room overlooking the track and people started filing in as the races began. Suns legend and one-time Harlem Globetrotter Connie Hawkins’ arrival sparked me to include “sweetgeorgiabrown” in a box trifecta for the first race. While it might appear by the use of the phrase “box trifecta” (betting on the top three finishers, regardless of order) that I knew what I was doing, I had actually learned of the term just minutes before from JoAnn. Two of my three horses wound up in a heated battle for last place.
The only race I would up winning was the third, which I had placed a “show” bet (betting the horse will be a top three finisher) on a horse who won the race. I won a whopping 60 cents, which I paraded around the room after I cashed in.
The betting talk centered, of course, on what to bet for the Cotton Mile, the seventh race of the day. The No. 1 horse was named “Marbury” and I do not think anyone put any money on him (the large contract jokes aside). As I barely knew how to read the race book and no other names popped out at me (I, too, declined a tribute to Steph), I decided to switch my attention to the numbers. There were 12 horses in the race which meant that four numbers matched the uniforms of Ring of Honor members (5, 6, 7 and 9) and No. 8 was Eddie Johnson’s, who looked to Cotton as a father figure. I flirted with a quinella, which is betting on the top four finishers, but settled on the box trifecta again when I discovered that the No. 5 horse was scratched (sorry Van). I went with the Walter Davis/Kevin Johnson/Dan Majerle ticket and another for Eddie Johnson to show.
Shortly after the sixth race, we were led down as a group to a box at the rail where we waited for the Cotton Mile to begin. I’ve sat in the photographer’s box down the third base line at Wrigley Field, I’ve watched basketball and football games from the baseline and sideline, respectively and I’ve watched playoff hockey from ice-level. But there is something unique about being close to those magnificent horses barreling down the grass track. The sights and sounds of that experience are like no other.
Sweet D’s No. 6 won the race, but none of my other picks came close. In fact, no one in our group really seemed to be too excited about the outcome. Then a lone voice spoke up from up front. JoAnn held her winning ticket up in the air and said, “I won!” For the record, the winner was Night Chapter, ridden by Brice Blanc for trainer Bobby Frankel.
Our box was adjacent to the winners circle and we were led onto a platform there after the race where pictures were going to be taken. They then led in Night Chapter. What an incredible creature. From its shining coat and pulsating veins after his (her?) victorious run, he (she?) was spectacular to see up close.
By the time we got back upstairs, Dan Majerle’s kids were eating cake and my Suns.com colleague Josh “JAG” Greene was back at the betting booth.
On Friday night, I worked statistics for the Miami Spanish radio broadcast and the broadcaster remarked to me at one point (in English) how many former players are still with the Suns’ organization. A lot of sports clubs hire their former players and while it does appear the Suns do it more than most, I don’t know that for a fact. I do know that a lot of the visiting broadcast crews comment on the number of former players who are still around the team. Watching the way guys that I used to cover as players react to the death of Cotton, both right after the fact and in the ensuing years, it makes sense.
To see guys like Majerle, EJ and Chambers treat JoAnn with so much love and respect is a testament not only to her, but to Cotton, as well as the Suns’ organizational commitment to family over the years (there I go again). It is much too early to determine if that trend will continue in the post-Colangelo era. I suspect and hope it will.