Keeping Score: Volatile moment remembered

Published: 7/31/2020 5:09:08 PM

Good morning!
At Saratoga last weekend a thoroughbred named Volatile won the Vanderbilt Stakes, its fifth win in six starts for trainer Steve Asmussen. The 4-year-old gray colt isn’t the first speedy steed named Volatile to run on a racing oval. In 1975, Hinsdale Raceway was strictly a harness track. In those days there were no simulcasts or casinos. Harness racing was the only game in town and crowds came from all over to bet the trotters and pacers.

At the time I was bagging six packs and dusting bottles at the Four Seasons package store in Hadley. One night a customer came in who reminded me of Chester on Gunsmoke. He was tall and lanky and while he waited to pay he reached for the racing program near the cash register. He said he was a trainer at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, and he flipped through the pages looking for a horse he might recognize.

“I’ll give you one,” he said. “Volatile. He raced at Roosevelt. He was a fast horse.”

I was living in Sunderland, near the Valley Lounge which was owned by Donnie DiRusso and is now Goten. On a bright blue summer Sunday morning, I walked barefoot up Old Amherst Road and into the bar, bought a pack of smokes out of the machine and left for the track.

Never one to be bashful about divulging inside info, I told everyone within earshot about the invader from Roosevelt. It was no matter that he appeared to be limping, I bet him to win and watched him finish last. Afterward a stranger walked up and held his tickets a foot from my nose, then let them flutter to the ground. I pulled out my tickets and dropped them next to his.

I returned the following week and bet him again and he lost again. Indeed, every Sunday was deja-lose at Hinsdale until the day my friend Pete Dailey gave me his bet and told me to meet him in Springfield. Our boss at Four Seasons, Dick Szarlin, was having a party and attendance was mandatory.

I drove to Hinsdale, emptied my pockets at the mutuels window, walked to the last row of the grandstand and looked at the tote board. The odds were 10-to-1 but my mood was desultory, expecting another fitful day at the track.

The harness drivers maneuvered their horses behind a starting gate that was attached to the back of a Cadillac. Volatile was owned and driven by Dr. Albert Grass, a veterinarian who raised standarbreds on his farm in West Brattleboro. He put his steed in the lead as the Caddy moved past the starting line and the gate swung closed.

Volatile led the first time past the grandstand and opened up down the backstretch. I began walking down the stairs to the finish line to be amidst the din of hoofbeats, whips cracking and railbirds shouting. Volatile hung on and won by a nose, and I drove to Springfield to give Peter his share of the winnings.

We blew though the money but the memory lingered.

Now there’s this other Volatile, and he’s being pointed to the Forego Stakes at the Spa on Aug. 29. Whether he’s a favorite or long shot will depend on the rest of the field, but regardless I’ll be betting him for old time’s sake.


Say the name “Ozzie” and people in these parts think Ozzie Herkner, the good natured owner of Ozzie’s Auto Body. Ozzie passed away at his home in the Greenfield meadows on July 21 at age 82.

His photo in Wednesday’s Recorder was classic Ozzie, always smiling. He was born in Gyor, Hungary, which is located between Vienna and Budapest, and he came to the U.S. after the Soviets invaded his homeland in 1956. He settled down in Greenfield, found the work he loved fixing cars and he raised a family.

His shop was on High Street across from the Greenfield Police Station. Back when I was working for the fledgling Valley Advocate, he agreed to buy an ad. “I have enough business,” he said, “but you always stop, so I buy an ad.”

I assured him he didn’t need to buy an ad but that was Ozzie — a kind and personable human being who lived the American dream.


Greenfield’s Tom Ballard read of author Brad Balukjian’s cross-country pursuit of Carlton Fisk’s autograph and told of his own experience. Twenty years ago, he saw Fisk’s parents on TV and called them to ask for their son’s autograph. “I called information for Charlestown (N.H.) and their number was listed,” said Ballard. “His mother Leona answered and passed me off to her husband. Cecil was humble, polite and listened to my request. He told me they didn’t see Carlton all that often. I asked if I could send one of his baseball cards in a stamped self addressed envelope, and he agreed.

“About eight months passed and honestly I’d forgotten until I discovered the stamped self addressed envelope in my mail. Inside was the signed card, no note, with a Florida post mark on the envelope. All for the cost of a stamp and it came on my birthday, March 29th.”

Ballard said he has two other autographs, Rico Petrocelli and Mark “The Bird” Fidrych. “Rico I got in person at Kulick’s Market (in Winchester, N.H.) and Fidrych I got because his cousin Marianne was secretary for the Mass. Sheriff’s Association back when I worked at the jail. I met her at a meeting and asked if she was related to Mark. The next meeting I saw her she gave me the signed baseball.”


After the Red Sox released catcher Jonathan Lucroy on Wednesday, NESN’s Dave O’Brien got sentimental about the two-time All Star’s pending retirement. “Eck,” he said to sidekick Dennis Eckersley, “I thought you had the best line I ever heard about how it should end: ‘When it’s over, your father should come out of the stands and say, ‘Son, it’s time to go home.’”

Eckersley, who didn’t retire until he was 44, laughed and replied, “Someone shoulda told me to go home.”


SQUIBBERS: During last year’s Frozen Four in Buffalo, UMass fans got a glimpse of Sahlen Field where the Toronto Blue Jays are playing this season. The ballpark’s only a few blocks from KeyBank Center and passersby can see the field from the street. The Buffalo News is also close by, and at night the sign for the venerable broadsheet glows in big blue letters. … Somebody oughta tell the hapless Red Sox they can’t draft Trevor Lawrence. … Methinks Andrew Benintendi might be the second coming of Jacoby Ellsbury. … Baseball karma: the first player awarded second base via the extra innings rule (Shohei Ohtani) was caught in a rundown and tagged out. … Yankees’ radio voice Suzyn Waldman on early season pitching woes: “Roger Clemens said he wasn’t ready until he got pounded in at least one spring training game.” …. The Mets used six buses to travel from New York to Boston and back. … Prior to winning last week’s PGA Tour event in Minnesota, Michael Thompson hadn’t won in 167 tourney tries but had still earned almost $10 million in 12 years. …Last week’s NYT had an article about sled head, the term bobsledders use to describe the morning-after effects of going 80 mph and crashing into ice. At least three sledders have committed suicide from the debilitating effects caused by the mishaps. … Ken Burns documentaries are loaded with little known facts. For instance Garth Brooks went to Okie State on a track scholarship and worked as a bouncer at a bar. … Saratoga trainer Orlando Noda was so confident his horse First Line would win Wednesday’s fourth race at the Spa that he waited in the winner’s circle. The 3-year-old gelding won by a neck at 12-1 odds. … Congrats to Hadley’s Digger Bemben for her 30-year friendship with Bill W. Her favorite song? “I can see clearly now.” … Honk you if you saw the Deadly Nightshade at the Rusty Nail. … Former WBZ-AM disc jockey Larry Justice is on WMEX (1510 AM), doing a noon to 2 p.m. show and signing off with Pete Jolly’s rendition of “The Look of Love.” … Kanye West calling mother-in-law Kris Jenner “Kris Jong-un” doesn’t bode well for family harmony.


Today in Deerfield, my son Mat and his fiance Annie Adams are tying the knot at the family homestead. Annie’s twin brother, Gordon Adams, will perform the ceremony.

The event was scheduled to be at the Warfield House in Charlemont, but as the saying goes, man plans and God laughs.

Pandemic or not, it’s a beautiful day for a wedding.

Congratulations and love to both of you on the grandest day of your lives.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley. He can be reached at

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