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.
I got to know Clem while I covered racing at Maryland tracks for a few years in the late 1990s.
Among the billion or so great stories he told me was one about agreeing to make a live race call of the 1973 Belmont Stakes for an Atlanta radio station. That race, a 31-length win for Secretariat to win the Triple Crown, is accepted as the greatest moment in horse racing history.
He shouldn’t have agreed to do the race call.
“So I’ve got one eye on Secretariat and one eye on the clock,” Clem told me, “and I’m giving my running commentary over the air: ‘And Secretariat with the lead, he goes around the turn in 1:09 and change…oh,boy!….He’s got the first mile in 1:30 and change…oh, that’s impossible!…oh, my!…oh…I gotta go!’ And I hung up the phone and just watched the race. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Nobody could. The station called me back and a guy says, ‘Clem, what the hell happened?’ I said, ‘Sorry, I got excited.’ That must have been great radio.”
I loved being around him. I’m not alone.