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Kentucky Derby at the Reno Turf Club
by David Farside
May 06, 2013 | 2634 views | 0 0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Whether you are a horse racing fan or not, most everyone enjoys watching the Kentucky Derby. Col.  Meriwether Lewis Clark, Jr., grandson of William Clark (explorer) of the Lewis and Clark expedition, organized the building of Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. In 1875, the first Derby was run and for 138 consecutive years it is still an American tradition. Interestingly, during the first 28 years of the Derby, African-American jockeys won the race 15 times; including the youngest jockey to win the race at fifteen years-old, Alonzo “Lonnie” Clayton.

Women were also a part of the racing scene. In 1904, the race was won by Elwood, the first winner owned by a women, Laska Durnell.

I was taught how to read a racing form at the ripe old age of 12 by a few World War II veterans. I actually became pretty good at handicapping and could predict which horses would hit the board (come in the money). By the time I was 15, I had a bookie’s phone number and made an occasional bet during the summer. At the time, I think most everyone in the state of New Jersey and New York had a bookie’s number in their back pocket.

By the time I was 20, I started following the track. I began my one year journey at Garden State, in New Jersey, went on to Hialeah Park Race Track and Tropical Park Race Track in Florida, headed north to Sportsman’s Park in Chicago and wound up at Santa Anita and Hollywood Park in California.

I started with $800 in my pocket; had a great time, learned a lot about people, made great friends, picked up an odd job selling “tout sheets” at the track and ended up with $500 when I decided it was time to get a real job and settle down.

I moved to Reno in the late ‘60s. One of  the first spots I hit was the Reno Turf Club. Talk about an eclectic clientele. It was a social melting pot comprised of doctors, lawyers and even an Indian Chief. Accountants, businessmen, politicians, school administrators, entertainers, rich and poor all seemed to gravitate to the Turf Club. Occasionally, Mustang Ranch brothel owner Joe Conforte or his bodyguard would make a wager on his prizefighter Oscar “Ringo” Bonavena.

Ringo was strong but he couldn’t stop a bullet from a high powered rifle. Bonavena had an affair with Joe’s wife, Sally. One night, he went to the ranch to see Sally. Security wouldn’t let him through the gate. Supposedly, he attempted to get by the guards and Willard Brymer, Conforte’s ex personal bodyguard, stepped in and shot Bonavena through the heart. Brymer was sentenced to only 15 months in prison for voluntary manslaughter.

Damon Runyon would have had a field day spinning his tongue-in-cheek stories of hustlers, gamblers and sometime gangsters from all walks of life frequenting the Turf Club. For years, before it closed, I always watched the Kentucky Derby from the bar there. Do I miss the good old days at the Turf Club? You bet.

David Farside is a Sparks resident and political activist.
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