Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Intelligent Conversation

Clem Florio and the day before Preakness

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It’s a rough day for me today.

While out at the Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico yesterday, my old pal Ted Patterson told me he saw a piece in The Examiner written by Michael Olesker about one of my favorite people not only in horse racing, but a true mentor to me, Clem Florio.

According to the story, Florio, 78, is in a hospice in Florida and not doing so well. He told Olesker, “I need a win real bad.”

Maybe some of you remember Clem’s work at The News American or with The Washington Post. Or maybe you remember his gentle laugh and his great voice on my show.

The first decade that I did my radio show, The Budweiser Sports Forum, every Friday evening before the Preakness I was joined by Clem Florio. It started 16 years ago today. Clem would usually drive over to the studio, but he sometimes just did it on the phone (it was afterall, Black Eyed Susan Day) and it was always a show I loved doing.

Anytime I got to spend time with Clem was always a joy. He was truly one of my favorite people to be around.

The first time I met Clem was in the press box at Pimlico, circa 1985. It was the year Spend A Buck was dodging Old Hilltop. Florio was a regular in the press box, and I also befriended Charley Eckman and Vinnie Perrone among others during those years. Ross Peddicord (who now publishes Maryland Life) covered the track for The Evening Sun and Charlie Lamb and Rich Petro (a Dundalk guy and another great track pal of mine) were at The News American. Dale Austin and Marty McGee (another one of my all-time favorites) did the honors for The Sun.

Of all the guys at the track, Florio was the best storyteller and he loved to watched the horses in the post parade to see how their coat was, their walk, their focus, etc. He’d always give me tips, some of which actually multiplied my $2 or $5 bets.

Clem just loved those animals. (I think he owned a horse with Chris Thomas?)

When I started my show in 1992 the Preakness was still a VERY big deal around these parts. People talked about it, the town was abuzz, horse racing and the names of the horses in the Preakness were top of mind for any Baltimore sports fan. Celebrities came to town, bands came to town, big-time parties were thrown. It was a major party, even before I got drunk on the infield.

So, on the eve of the race, Clem would spend the afternoon in my studio handicapping the whole card, bringing his unique sense of humor and soft, gentle way to my show. It was something we set up in March and I looked forward to for months.

Clem was the one who strongly encouraged me to go to the Kentucky Derby and was the first person who wanted the details when I returned in 1996.

I loved having Clem Florio do my show on the Friday before the race because I honestly felt this: It doesn’t get ANY better than Florio if you’re talking ponies. I couldn’t find anyone at that track who knew more about horses or who could be more entertaining than Clem. And I just thought he was a super great guy to be around.

How renowned was Florio in the world of horse racing and media?

One night I came home late and put Larry King on at 2 a.m. on a rerun and there was Clem Florio on the set with the man with the suspenders on CNN.

Florio, as Olesker pointed out, was one of those guys with a myriad of celebrity friends from all walks of life. People gravitated to Florio because he was a joy to be around, always animated and full of laughs and energy.

But over the last decade or so, the place I always found Clem was on the bocci courts in Little Italy. My son and I played bocci many, many times with Clem after dining at Amicci’s and it was always a supreme joy. He was SERIOUS about throwing the baleen, for sure! And he taught me the rules!

Hard to say what Clem loved more: the horses, bocci or boxing, which was his first love and he made quite a name for himself from what I’ve read as a pugilist back in the day. Anytime there was a big fight, Florio would come into the studio on those days as well and talk about the history of the sport with guys like Bert Sugar, who is now a regular on Bob Haynie’s show.

Reading Michael Olesker’s story yesterday brought back so many memories. And the fact that I turn 40 later this year has made me a little wistful in general, but losing friends to age and eventually death has been a hard transition for me.

I hope Clem Florio gets that longshot that he needs. He was like one of my favorite uncles, like family.

I think the world of Clem Florio.

And if you knew of Clem through my show or through reading his work, keep him in your thoughts today.

I know I will.

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