Jimmy Breslin wrote this column for Newsday on July 31, 2003. Breslin, a former Newsday columnist, died on March 19, 2017. He was 88 years old.
“The woman came by my building, I’m the doorman, and says, ‘A triple is due. We haven’t had a triple in a long time.’ I told her, ‘Maybe you’re right.’ She says, ‘What should we play?’ I look up at my awning. Three-thirty-three. I said, ‘That’s what we’ll play.’ You know what happened? It hit.”
“For how much?”
“Three dollars. That’s fifteen hundred.”
This was yesterday afternoon and he was standing in the Off-Track Betting parlor at Second Avenue and 69th Street just before the second race at Saratoga.
“Are you smart here?” he was asked.
“I don’t know. I keep looking at the three. I can’t get around him. I don’t know.”
My interest was in the eight horse, Nurse Culkin. On the wall were closed circuit televisions of racing at Delaware Park, Monmouth, Monticello, Ellis Park in Henderson, Ky., and Saratoga. The horse Nurse Culkin was just being led into the saddling enclosure. The real Nurse Culkin was going to come tripping through the door here at any moment. She is a nurse around the corner at Memorial Sloan-Ketter- ing, probably the No. 1 cancer hospital in the world.
The doorman for 333 stared at the monitor. “Six furlongs. Any- body can win.”
The OTB is a stop for many East Side building employees. Next to me was a man in a khaki shirt with lettering on the front saying “315 East.”
Suddenly, Ann Culkin walked in with three young women, nurses, and two doctors and Breda, the chemotherapy nurse from the 17th floor who after a long career is going back to Cork, in Ireland.
Nurse Culkin looked at the horse Nurse Culkin on the monitor. “There she is.”
Then the guy from 315 East said hello.
“I thought you stopped smoking,” she said to him.
“You can’t smoke in here,” he said.
“No, but you’ve been smoking all day. I take one breath.”
“I guess it gets on my clothes,” the man from 315 said.
“It sure does,” she said.
She was cheerful. She usually doesn’t scold anybody for smoking, although she makes faces. She is a nurse for lung-cancer patients. And yesterday, after spending the morning supervising chemotherapy for people who are sick, desperately sick, it was a bit disconcerting to walk down for 15 minutes to watch the horse with her name run and have to start off by standing next to a man with clothes smelling of a half-pack of cigarettes.
This is why she is a fanatical rooter for Mayor Bloomberg.
On the sidewalk outside, only one of the horseplayers was smoking. “This is an odd day,” a clerk from the betting room said. “You can come in here some days and the street is packed from one corner to the other with people smoking. The no smoking inside hasn’t hurt our business. People want to bet, they’ll give up cigarettes. Come out here if they have to.”
Inside, Ann stepped away from the man with smoky clothes and went to the bet- ting window. She only put up a few. She comes from Scranton, which can be a town of extremes, but yesterday was the most gambling she does. Twenty dollars or so. Her party bet about the same. The horse is a 2-year-old filly who has not won. She was named for the real nurse by a patient. This was Nurse Culkin’s second start.
Ann wore a pink shirt and a hopeful look. For so long, she has walked in so many hospital hallways of cancer that she has taught herself to be optimistic, and to spread it around all rooms, on the worst midnights.
Now, she looked at the monitor. “I’m sorry I’m not there. She is going to win. The next time she runs, I’m going to go,” she said.
The race went off at 1:36. Nurse Culkin broke fifth. The announcer called out the horses.
“ . . . six lengths back to Nurse Culkin.”
Even her life of harsh news didn’t prepare Ann for the desolation of watching her horse seem to be running up an escalator while the others throw dirt in the air as they whisk ahead. Ann didn’t take a breath. Those with her moaned.
By racing steadily, Nurse Culkin maintained her position. She finished a fine fifth, 15 lengths behind the winner, Stand on Top.
Ann left the betting parlor right away. She turned down 68th Street and walked to the hospital, which is on York. She had a long afternoon ahead. She could use a winner.