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The Handy Man
Earl Sande was better at what he did than anybody else in his era. Then he threw it all away.
September 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 5
Yet he had ample opportunities for employment at good wages—steward, racing publicist, greeter at tracks. He turned down all offers. He would do it with a horse or not at all, be his own man, he said. In 1953, fifty-five years old, bald, he dieted from 138 pounds to 115 and went to riding again. He was up against jocks a quarter of a century younger—and, in the case of bug boys (apprentices), nearly forty years younger. He won one race and was given, says William Robertson in The History of Thoroughbred Racing in America , “the most enthusiastic ovation ever tendered man or beast” at the ancient Jamaica Racetrack. To many it looked as if the other jocks had taken a dive, as if the whole affair had been a tank job, a boat race. “Hell, naw,” said Eddie Arcaro, who’d been up on the favorite, years later. He winked as he said it.
Sande announced his permanent retirement from riding. The whole business had been gone through in the hope someone would give him some good horses to train. No one did. He remained in his creaking-stairs walkup room over the bar, too impoverished to spend the fifty cents a day required for purchase of a racing paper, dining alone on a can of soup and a tin of salmon. He got an offer for five thousand dollars for a couple of weeks’ work to publicize an upcoming race but turned it down. “We’ve done everything humanly possible to straighten him out, but you just can’t force a man to take money,” said a New York racing official.
Yet the Earl of Sande never seemed bitter, was always pleasant, had a firm handshake, showed not the slightest touch of self-pity. “I sure appreciate it, the way the track sends me a pass every year,” he told a reporter in 1959. “Maybe I could get out there, I’d certainly like to, I really would.” But bus connections were difficult, and of course he didn’t have a car. Didn’t even have a working television; his black-and-white was broken. “There’s a place down the street where they turn on the races and I watch down there.”
Many said he was nuts, had to be, turning down good money for decades while living as he did. Others thought that he was a proud, a very proud, man. That he was too proud to take from anybody. That he would do it his way or not at all. That someone who had been where he had been did not accept what was offered because of who he was or what his name was but instead earned by his own doings or did without.
He became very ill. A couple of horsemen friends put up the money for a one-way ticket so he could go out West to be with his aged father. He spent time in a rocking chair on the porch of an Oregon nursing home and died in the summer of 1968, at age sixty-nine. In the great days Damon Runyon wrote:
Maybe there’ll be another, Heady and game and true. Maybe we’ll find his brother At drivin’ them horses through. Maybe but, say I doubt it, Never his like agin, Never a handy guy like Sande Bootin’ them babies in.