Veteran clocker Jim Milner has been betting on horses all his life, and he has learned to accept all the cruel tricks of fate that are inevitable in his chosen profession.
Yet of all the thousands of races he has played, there is one memory that haunts him to this day. He will never be able to forget a bet he made in his youth on a 67-to-1 shot named Tremere.
While an undergraduate at Hofstra University, Milner spent a summer working at the track for a trainer named Bob Blackburn. The chief assistant to prominent horseman Charles Whittingham, Blackburn had a couple horses of his own: one cheap claimer and the unraced 2-year-old Tremere. Milner would go to the barn every morning before dawn to care for the colt, and he said, "It was a labor of absolute love. He was a pet, a friend."
Because Tremere was a big, gangly colt whose sire, Alibhai, tended to sire late bloomers, Blackburn and Milner knew he wouldn't be ready for a top effort until the fall. But they ran him once at Saratoga, just for exercise, and the colt finished up the track.
When they returned to Belmont Park, the 130-pound Blackburn worked him six furlongs early one morning on the deep, tiring training track. Milner was the only clocker in attendance; when he snapped his stopwatch and saw that the colt had worked in 1:14 flat, he knew that Tremere was going to be more than an object of sentiment for him.
The 2-year-old was entered in a maiden race at Aqueduct a few days before the fall term was scheduled to begin at Hofstra. "I had $380 -- my whole tuition for the semester," Milner said. "I was going to bet it all." But an hour before the race, a sudden downpour turned the track into a quagmire, and Tremere had shown in his training that he hated mud.
All bets were off; Tremere had another race for exercise, and he ran last all the way around the track. Milner still had his tuition money -- and now he had to spend it on tuition. As Milner was going back to college, Blackburn was taking his horses to Atlantic City, where there was an appropriate maiden race for Tremere a week hence.
"I told Bob I'd send him money to bet," Milner said, "but when I started school I was flat broke. To raise money, I cut lawns; I collected empty bottles -- some of which I stole from Hoffman's Soda. I played hearts for a dollar a game. On the day Tremere was entered, I had about $65. That morning, I went to the Western Union office next to the bowling alley in Jamaica and sent a $60 money order to Bob at the Atlantic City stable area."
That night, Milner turned to a radio race-result show and heard the news: Tremere had won and paid $136.80. Trembling with excitement, he calculated that he had won more than $4,000.
"That was more money than I'd ever seen in my life," he said. "I wasn't even sure whose picture was on a $100 bill. A friend of mine owned an old clunker, so I borrowed it and headed straight for Atlantic City."
Milner arrived at the stable gate at 2 a.m. He explained to the guard who he was, and that he wanted to see Bob Blackburn.
The guard gave him directions to the barn, but as Milner started to drive away, the guard called after him. "Hey! Did you say you were looking for Blackburn! Would you mind taking this to him?" He handed Milner a familiar-looking envelope. "This telegram for him has been sitting here all day."