BALTIMORE — The question was being asked so often, it was beginning to elicit a tired response.
I was in my late 20s and just starting out covering horse racing full time, and this perplexed many involved in the industry.
The question, which was almost entirely asked by middle-aged men, was “How did you get into horse racing?” But what they really meant was, “Why would you choose to get into horse racing?”
My tired response was essentially, “I’m the son of a horseplayer, who was the son of a horseplayer…” with some commentary on the state of newspapers (my previous employers) sprinkled in.
But the truth is far more than that cursory description. The roots to my involvement in racing, along with my love for the game, weave their way through the sunshine at Santa Anita, the demolished Hollywood Park and the crumbling Pimlico Race Course.
The best explanation for what horse racing means to my family requires transport to October of 2001, a day before my grandfather David Balan’s funeral. My father, Jeff Balan, and my aunt, Sharon Balan, were driving home from a Baltimore funeral home after handling the business children need to handle when a parent dies.
They were traveling east on Interstate 70, toward U.S. Route 29, which led to my aunt’s house in Columbia, Maryland. But my father blew past the exit for Route 29.
“What are you doing?” my aunt asked.
“We’re going to Charles Town,” my father responded.
Jeff Balan is not the most impulsive man, so the move was notably out of the ordinary.
“It was time to pay homage,” he says now.
The siblings sat outside for the Charles Town card under the lights, handicapped the races, and talked about their dad. And they won a few hundred bucks, maybe the greatest tribute.
“The only thing missing was having his ashes to spread out there,” my father says now. “Obviously my dad wasn’t always completely mentally stable, but he was stable at Charles Town and Shenandoah, because that’s what he loved. That was his element, being at the track.”
Growing up in East Baltimore in the 1920s and 1930s wasn’t the easiest of times for David Balan and his three sisters. Moving in and out of orphanages, because the family simply couldn’t afford to care for all the children, certainly wasn’t a nurturing environment.
His father, deep in the bottle by all accounts, had abandoned the family, but my grandfather never complained about his childhood. Rolling dice, playing cards and hanging out in pool halls as a youth, the logical extension of those gambling experiences led to the racetrack when he and his friends were old enough to ride streetcars and busses.
David Balan was born in 1927, but “The Dove” came to life a little later. My aunt describes the family friends who encircled her childhood as “Damon Runyan characters” and if David Balan wasn’t her father, she likely would have put him in that category as well.
There were guys named Shaky, Heshie and Nookie the Bookie, but there was also a guy named The Dove. The nickname originated from the Hebrew pronunciation of his first name–dove-eed–which fittingly has a root to the meaning “beloved.”
The Dove, rail thin, with a wide smile that made his eyes squint, had his faults as a family man, but was most certainly beloved by his friends.
Charismatic and engaging, he was drafted into the Army in the final days of World War II and never saw combat, but got addicted to heroin and quit after VA doctors told him that damage to his internal organs meant another needle in his arm would lead to death. A saxophone player, he and my grandmother Dottie Balan moved up to New York for a handful of years before my father was born, but The Dove couldn’t hack it on the music scene there, so they eventually moved back to Charm City.
Eventually his career–if you could call it that–ended up being a door-to-door aluminum siding salesman, but that was somewhat of a ruse as an avenue to get to the racetrack.
The “tin men” would attempt to sell siding in the neighborhoods surrounding wherever the meet was on the Maryland circuit at the time–“steel is real, but vinyl is final”–have lunch and then go to the races at Pimlico, Bowie, Timonium or Laurel.
Business was not the goal of these trips, unless your business was getting down at the track, and The Dove was never accused of being a great salesman.
“Everybody loved my father so much, the people who worked with him pretty much took care of him,” my father says now. “But I don’t think he was actually a big part of making the siding company a lot of money.”
But The Dove, as detailed by my aunt, never lacked the required money at the end of the month–be it from siding, gambling or from the local loan shark–to pay the bills.
My father became part of the crew as an adult, working with The Dove’s friend Heshie in the tin man game before he moved to California, and said in the six months of work “we didn’t close one deal, and I got a check every single week.”
But they cashed plenty of tickets. They were racetrackers, not salesmen.
One of the main reasons my grandfather was so endeared by the community, whether it was at the golf course–Forest Park Golf Course, where he worked in his later years, dedicated a bench on the tee of the fifth hole to him after his death that calls him “the best of the best”–or the track, was his ability to spin a tale.
Growing up on the opposite coast, my encounters with The Dove–or as I would call him, “zayde”–were few and far between, but there are certain stories that stand out, as they were retold frequently by my father.
The factual basis of any Dove story is debatable, but it’s more fun that way, anyway. The mixture of truth, folklore and exaggeration matters not–if the story is good.
My favorite comes from a rather scary time in the country, in the days following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., which sparked riots in downtown Baltimore.
As The Dove told it, when the riots broke out, he found himself caught in a downtown Arby’s. In a panic, thinking about how to get back to his car safely, he noticed a familiar face in the Arby’s with him–eventual basketball Hall of Famer Gus Johnson, who was playing for the Baltimore Bullets at the time.
The gangly Jewish fellow turned to the massive professional athlete, who was probably eight inches taller and a hundred pounds heavier.
“Gus, man, you gotta help me out. You gotta help me, man,” The Dove pleaded.
“It’s every man for himself,” Johnson said in his baritone, as he walked out the door.
My father still handicaps like The Dove.
It makes me roll my eyes, but the terms are straight out of The Dove’s vernacular. He’ll talk about “hidden speed,” because he learned how to handicap from “the greatest speed handicapper of all time.” But as ridiculous as they might seem in the moment, I’ve never encountered another handicapper who cashes more outlandish prices (whether it’s profitable in the long run is another story).
The Dove didn’t graduate from high school, but was a wiz with arithmetic. My aunt tells stories of rattling off ridiculous numbers to him for sport to see if he could add them up quickly in his head, and he would always have the correct total with little delay.
This served him well in the days of racing when there wasn’t much available data. Track biases, knowing the horses and knowing the numbers was an edge, and Pimlico, not far from “The Compound” in Owings Mills, was where he most often plied his true trade. “The Compound,” a property managed by my grandmother for Pimlico’s owners, brothers Ben and Herman Cohen, was the reason the Balan family got into Old Hilltop for free for so many years (and probably why more Balan money has gone through the Pimlico windows than any other track).
During my first trip to Pimlico for the Preakness in 2016, my father kept telling me to go to “the sunny spot,” the farthest left-hand corner of the Pimlico clubhouse, where the horses walk out from the paddock to the main track.
Upon arrival to “the sunny spot,” the thread of three generations was connected. The warmth of the sun on my back made me imagine The Dove, standing in the same spot, hanging on the rail and chirping at jockey Herb Hinojosa, “Herbie, may you sleep on a bed of a thousand nails” after a particularly poor ride.
The connection of three generations of horseplayers was already there, but it didn’t quite sink in until that exact moment. I was making a living reporting on horse racing, an outcome that made my father both amazed and envious, after growing up going to Hollywood Park and Santa Anita during my youth.
The trips to those beautiful California racetracks weren’t as frequent in my youth as the trips to Charles Town or Pimlico were during my father’s childhood, but the seed was certainly planted. When I was very young, I would root for the number of my age at the moment in every race, but by the time I reached my early teens, I knew how to read past performances and handicap. When I reached legal betting age, the trips to Hollywood Park with my father happened more frequently, especially on Friday nights to capitalize on the dollar hot dogs and beers (er, I mean sodas).
Santa Anita was more of a treat. Hollywood was our track and was gorgeous in its own right, but Santa Anita was on another level. Even after years of covering the track on a daily basis, the view of the majestic San Gabriel Mountains on a clear day regularly took my breath away. I’d often say aloud in the press box, “Do you believe we’re getting paid to sit here?”
But The Dove didn’t venture west often, although he did a year before he died to see my bar mitzvah. I never really got to know him well, and I certainly didn’t get to experience him as a horseplayer, yet I could still feel that connection in the sun at Pimlico.
The main physical connection I have to my father, from a racing perspective, no longer exists in Inglewood, California. The first horse racing story I ever wrote came when I was at the Orange County Register and I was on the ground to cover the last day of racing at Hollywood Park. Most remember a young horse named California Chrome winning the last stakes there that day, but the moment I’ll never forget is Woodmans Luck just getting his head down on the wire to win the final race and the tears streaming down jockey Corey Nakatani’s face as he entered the winner’s circle one last time. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to embrace a football team playing on Hollywood’s ruins.
So when people look at me sideways when I express my love for Pimlico, it’s hard to put into words. Even in its state of disrepair, crumbling Pimlico keeps me connected to The Dove when I return every May. The Preakness may eventually move to Laurel, and maybe it should, but I’ll cling to that thread at Pimlico for as long as I can.
See you in the sunny spot.