May 24, 2022

Southside Johnny resonates the horseplayer’s rock ‘n’ roll link

Tacitus preps for the Travers Stakes at Saratoga
Tacitus preps for the Travers Stakes at Saratoga (Horsephotos.com)

Brisnet Betting Guide Exclusive by Peter Thomas Fornatale
This column appears in the Aug. 22 edition of the Brisnet Betting Guide.
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I like to say I grew up in a rock ‘n’ roll milieu.

One of my earliest memories involves dancing around the living room in my childhood home as my father blared Bruce Springsteen’s “Rosalita” on vinyl. A particular favorite artist of mine has always been Springsteen’s known-associate Southside Johnny. We saw his tremendous live show many times and once, as part of a special charity broadcast, I had the privilege of moving Southside Johnny’s car to a legal space while he was warming up. I felt like I was working for rock ‘n’ roll royalty.

“You didn’t look in the trunk, did ya?” he quipped when I returned.

These days I host a horse racing podcast – the In the Money Players’ Podcast – but back in the day I wanted to be a disc jockey like my father.

Pete Fornatale would have turned 74 years old on the day before this year’s Travers Stakes. He was not a dyed-in-the-wool horseplayer, but he did love his racing, especially in Saratoga. He was a once-a-year visitor who put together his bets based on two prongs of attack – one was my selections and the other were music-based hunched plays. I’m embarrassed to say that he typically had as much success using the latter as the former. But I do recall one perfect day right around my birthday one year where it all came together, and my horses smashed up the late double. He got up early to leave the next morning and left his share of the winnings – quite a pile – with a note on the kitchen table. It read simply, “Happy Birthday, Love, Dad.”

To give some context, my father was one of the pioneers of what became known as progressive FM radio – a new, thoughtful way to present the music of the 60s and 70s that allowed room for long cuts, interviews, and even intellectual discussion about the tunes in question. There was no one John Peel (internationally famous taste-making English jock) in America, but my Dad was one of the John Peels. I made this comparison at my father’s wake to radio/music exec Steve Leeds and he disagreed. “People like to say your father was the John Peel of America,” he told me, “but I think John Peel was the Pete Fornatale of England.”

Disc Jockey Dreams

My own disc jockey dreams died a long time ago, or so I thought. Even at the college level, the amount of micro-managing of what could be played on air made me crazy. When the GM of the college station told me I couldn’t play Paul Simon on his birthday because “he wasn’t alternative enough,” I’d had enough. I plotted a new course that led me into book publishing, which turned into several gigs writing books about racing, and eventually a job at a prominent racing newspaper.

I was hired to write, and write I did, but I picked up a little side gig while I was there – cohosting a horse racing podcast. Over time, the writing became less important and the broadcasting more and more so. Given my pedigree, it should have been no surprise that I took to the medium like a duck to water, establishing a fan base and eventually going out on my own. I’m proud to say that since leaving the place with the letters to go solo, the show’s downloads are up 50 percent year-over-year.

But I missed the idea of music radio. I was happy enough with a great job and terrific colleagues but on a deeper level it didn’t fully make sense to me how my life’s journey had unfolded. That changed late this Spring when I got a chance to get reacquainted with Southside Johnny.

Southside Johnny and Count Basie

We chatted about an array of topics from his current band, his skepticism about the so-called Jersey Sound, and his musical influences. Then the conversation took an unexpected turn towards the racetrack.

“I’m fascinated by horseplayers as people,” Johnny said. “There are so many great characters at the track. People have gone forever and new people are still finding out.”

He recalled an amazing story of his own father seeing one of his musical heroes at the track, the legendary Count Basie, and the two of them sitting there, doping out a race as equals. “It was a beautiful moment that should have been captured on film, down to the plaid jackets and the blue slacks,” Johnny added.

And then came the best part. “Horseplayers are a group of people who exist outside the mainstream of normal society, and as a musician who grew up in the 60s and 70s, I know what that feels like,” he continued. “We were mocked, we were oddballs, but we reveled in it because we didn’t want to be like the squares. The people at the racetrack, they are just the same as us. They don’t want to lead a normal life.”

Those above lines struck like a tuning fork in my soul, resonating a cosmic sound. All at once my life made sense. I saw the link between music and racing in a way I never had before. Horse racing podcasting wasn’t exactly music radio but it was close enough for rock ‘n’ roll.

Best of all, I had one of my heroes to thank for the epiphany.

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