My father was a savant in the field of horse racing history. Mention a year, and he could tell you not only the name of the horse that won the Derby that year but also the jockey and the color of the silks. He loved the races, and when it was racing season in New Orleans, you would probably find him at the track on any given afternoon instead of at his office. His bedtime stories were more likely to be about Man o’ War than Cinderella.
While cleaning our attic recently, I discovered that I still had boxes of papers belonging to my parents. My father died in 1976; my mother in 1994. It was way past time to go through the “throw away, give away, and save” routine. Like the kids in The Cat in the Hat, I was stuck inside on a cold, rainy day, and I decided to take advantage of it. My husband and I hauled the boxes to our bedroom, and I lit a fire in the fireplace. Sitting on the rug in front of the hearth, I began my trip down memory lane.
I was not at all surprised to find among my father’s keepsakes files labeled “Race Horses.” Although my mother’s files were neatly and chronologically arranged, his files are a jumble of mostly dateless newspaper clippings, racing forms, and magazine articles. The oldest is dated 1939. Most have no newspaper banner or magazine title connected with them. Among them, I found The Daily Racing Form, Kentucky Derby Feature Section, from Houston, Texas, 1944; an article from Collier Magazine, 1939; The Times-Picayune New Orleans States Sunday Magazine (no date); The Florida Times, 1943. Yellow and dry, the pages crumble to the touch like the burned photo-finish snapshot I found in City Park the morning after the clubhouse at the Fairgrounds Race Course burned to the ground in 1993.
What I was surprised to find, however, was a letter dated February 10, 1959. Written on a Warner Brothers Pictures, Inc. letter head, it is from a Mr. Charles F. Greenlaw, Studio Production Manager. It is addressed to Mr. J. W. Tallant, my father. Greenlaw references a letter my father wrote to him on February 3, inquiring “as to the origin of the phrase ‘Here comes Malicious,’ used in our picture ‘Torrid Zone’.”
Greenlaw’s reply includes a lengthy paragraph about the race horse, Malicious, his undistinguished racing history, his habit of coming on strong in the stretch, although not always successfully, but giving excitement to the race and thus becoming a crowd favorite. He goes on to say that the phrase “Here comes Malicious” was coined by Joe Hernandez, the track announcer at Santa Anita. Since Malicious usually made a great run in the stretch, the phrase was picked up by other announcers, and it eventually became used on occasions other than horse racing. The phrase used in the movie did originate with the horse, Malicious.
“Why,” I wondered, “would Daddy write a letter asking this question?” Surely he knew the answer. I even remembered him talking about that horse, a colt foaled nineteen years before I was born. I remember him using the phrase, “Here comes Malicious!”
My answer turned up in the next letter I found, addressed from my father to Mr. Greenlaw, dated March 11, 1939. He thanked Mr. Greenlaw for his thorough reply and said that his answer was “just what I expected.” He went on to explain that he had been an admirer of Malicious back in the ’30s, and hearing the expression in the film reminded him of the horse. He mentioned it to some of his racehorse friends, and they told him he was crazy…the horse had nothing to do with the film. “I was anxious to prove my point,” he wrote, “and you made this possible.”
I feel sure my father didn’t write to Warner Brothers merely to prove a point. I imagine there was a wager involved. Like Jim Smiley in Twain’s The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County, Jim Tallant was also a gambling man. “If there was a horse-race, you’d find him flush, or you’d find him busted at the end of it.” Horse racing was his favorite but not his only source of speculation. I doubt he ever bet on a “straddle-bug,” but I’d love to know how much he won on this wager.