Long before Dave McKenna became a household name and latter-day folk hero, he’s been one of DC’s most consistently witty, honest and sharp-minded journalists.
He wields a wicked pen, honed with humor, insight and a style all his own; he does sports, music, even history.
Dave has also been a pal for many years; an old racetrack romance kindled in the press boxes of Pimlico and Laurel Park: he a punk freelancer for the Post, me a lowly media relations guy.
We were tested during the Great Preakness Blackout of ’98, got our hearts broken by two back-to-back Triple Crown misses, and were then forever bonded by a dark haired, long-legged girl in the backseat of a Volvo. No, it’s not what you think.
For two or three weeks straight those Triple Crown press boxes were electrifying places; a lot was at stake: lives, mountains of money, status, and sometimes honor, all of it shrouded by the history and great names of the past. The high priests of the turf press presided -the ancient Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form (he witnessed every Derby winner since Hindoo), and a relatively younger bunch of stars like the two Steves, Crist, and Davidowitz, and Andy Beyer, a mad genuis of handicapping and lead racing writer for the Post at the time.
With all that talent in that Pimlico press box, it was a couple other guys that seemed to reign, two old-timers that time will certainly forget. Dave and I were among the lucky few that got to rub dirty shoulders, learn, laugh and gamble with two real iconclasts, Clem Florio and Jack Mann.
Florio was a prize fighter, bouncer, newspaper man, and handicapper, a leg-breaker too, for all I know. Fast forward many years after our time at the track and we lose Clem to cancer. Dave’s City Paper send-off to this last-of-a-breed racetrack raconteur is precision. Florio zeros in on the greatest racehorse of all time before anyone else, a prophet, a seer:
“I was told on Monday that Clem Florio is dead. He was 78 and had pancreatic cancer. Clem was a longtime horse racing handicapper, at the Washington Post and at Pimlico and Laurel Park. He was also a legend. There’s no way to do him justice in a blog post, or a book or a mini-series.
One small part of that legend: He was cited long ago in Sports Illustrated for making a scene in the Aqueduct press box in July 1972 because he wanted everybody to know that the two-year-old colt that just finished fourth in his maiden race was going to win the next year’s Kentucky Derby.
Two weeks later, after that same colt won in just his second start, Florio made an even bigger scene, yelling that this was the next Triple Crown winner. Again, at this point, Florio was talking about a two-year-old colt with two races, and one out-of-the-money finish.
A year later, the horse that Florio was yelling about, Secretariat, went out and made his crazy predictions come true.”
Old Jack Mann also haunted the backstretch and archaic Pimlico
firetrap pressbox. Mann, more of a hard-bitten journalist – he covered the Rosenbergs, was an encyclopedia of track life. Dave wrote more than just an insightful testimonial to him at his passing, it was the story of a complex man face-to-face with death, looking back on the journalism roads not taken:
“Jack Mann, who used to be somebody, died of cancer early Saturday. He was 74.
In the end, Mann covered horse racing for an Annapolis community newspaper called the Capital. But he covered it as if he were still writing for Newsday, the New York Herald-Tribune, Sports Illustrated, Life magazine, the Washington Star, or any of the other top-shelf publications where he’d once worked and drawn national acclaim.
They’d all either gone out of business or decided long ago to stop doing business with the famously obnoxious Mann. But as long as the Capital agreed to take his stuff, he kept working.”
For the record, Clem liked me. He called me ‘Rock,’ and like he did to all others in his good graces, would roar “Oh you baby doll!” whenever I punched a nice ticket.
But Mann hated me. I never asked him why but in his mind, maybe he had every reason to. He was usually right about everything else at the track.
Maybe it’s the very nature of racing, in which tragedy lurks around almost any turn for horse and human, that it takes an especially talented writer like McKenna to capture death with such dignity and grace, never maudlin or formulaic, the sort of scribbling that Florio and Mann would pee on.
Dave, Vinnie Perrone (another pal from the track days, a brilliant Eclipse Award winning writer, he too capturing Florio’s immense life in several publications including the Post), grabbed lunch a while back. We carried on in that thai restaurant as if we were still at the racetrack, save for a nearby teller. Dave comes to the Derby party and we have annual Old Hilltop reunions on Black Eyed Susan Day. Dave brings his son, who is hopefully representative of the next generation of of race fans that the sport definitely needs. Racing, you ain’t hockey.
But Dave’s place in our hearts comes from the day we adopted our precious Greyhound, an ex-racer named Scout. Known as Shesa Wild Child on her small oval, she raced into our hearts and lives back during the racetrack days. Dave calmed and comforted that scared race pup on the ride to her new U Street home. Fast forward many years later and Dave captured her passing, helping us say goodbye.
No matter where his career may take him (I’m looking at you, SI!), Dave has promised to take the ride for life again when we get our next Greyhound. He said so in the newspaper. And we believe every single word this guy writes.
A Hockey Note: Intercourse the Bloody Penguins!