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Sentell 'Sonny' Taylor: 48 years and counting

HOWIE EVANS AmNews Sports Editor | 5/17/2012, 2:21 p.m.
Sonny Taylor has spent a lifetime with the horses

Our journey began last week at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y. The journey was like taking a walk through history, as we learned that the man who is in his 48th year as a New York Racing Association official was the first Black man--or African-American, if you will--to reach the heights to which he has climbed since leaving his birth place of Chicago.

There, he attended high school, then went to Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and the U.S. Military. Job hunting in New York, his uncle Earl Williams helped him land a job as an assistant clocker at Belmont racing track.

Fast-forward some 48 years and Sonny, as he likes to be called, has risen through the ranks, soaking up knowledge of the sport like a sponge. He was blessed with the ability to retain knowledge and has performed his assigned duties above and beyond. His reputation as a quick learner and meticulous employee saw him rise through the ranks, from an assistant clocker to head clocker to official timer and the position he now holds, placing judge.

He reminded us, "I am the oldest one here," he proudly claimed.

The placing judge is among the most important jobs on the track. "No room for error," he laughed. The placing judge, when the day comes to a close, signs and sends a report of the results of each race to the stewards and the board. Placing judges also determine the order of each finish and must be in the judges' box when the horses pass the winning post and decisions must be made. "You make a mistake," he said, "you're making a mistake with people's money.

"The technology today is all new," he continued. "We watched the races as the high-speed cameras recorded everything as the horses raced around the course. At every turn, from start to finish, the technology is amazing as they follow and record everything moving during the course of a race.

"Everything is all new," he said. "All digital. Used to be they would develop the film downstairs; strip the film in hypo solution and project it up onto a screen like here," he said, pointing to a spot.

"If we weren't satisfied with the picture, we would ask for a print and they would go dark and make a print for us and send it up the chute here." Pointing to the chute with a hole, Taylor said, "We had a string there and we would pull the picture up, put it under a magnifying glass and then we would decide."

He recalled when MC Hammer had a horse at Belmont against Carl Icahn, the noted billionaire investor who is giving thought to investing in Chesapeake Energy. They couldn't decide who had won in that now-ancient way of determining the winner. "In the end," said Taylor, "they bet horse for horse and $50,000 and decided whoever won would donate the money to their favorite charity."

Taylor recalled, "Hammer's office beat Icahn's horse by eight or nine lengths."

Taylor? He's set to go as many lengths as time permits.