After 58 years, NYRA racing official Sonny Taylor calls it a career
by Jim Reisler
Sentell “Sonny” Taylor, Jr., who went to work for the New York Racing Association, Inc. (NYRA) as an assistant clocker on April 15, 1964 at Aqueduct Racetrack and built a career of nearly six decades as a racing official and ambassador for the sport, has announced his retirement.
Taylor, now 85 and a NYRA placing judge, will step down on Sunday after 58 years, an era in which he worked as the official timer for Secretariat’s astonishing 31-length victory in the 1973 Belmont Stakes to secure the Triple Crown and witnessed and officiated thousands of races at NYRA tracks.
“Sonny Taylor is a friend, a mentor and an encyclopedia of racing – and we will miss him,” said NYRA’s Senior Vice President, Racing Operations Frank G. Gabriel, Jr. “There’s no one else like Sonny, and we look forward to honoring him in a way that highlights his many contributions to New York racing.”
Taylor’s legion of friends read like a who’s-who of racing. Trainer John Nerud was a friend. So were Horatio Luro, Penny Chenery and Cot Campbell; along with riders, Angel Cordero, Jr., John Rotz and Jacinto Vásquez. Mrs. (Jackie) Rachel Robinson is a friend as were the late bandleaders Cab Calloway and Count Basie. On vacations, Taylor visited Florida, California and even Japan, where he often stayed with racing friends and visited tracks.
On mornings at Saratoga Race Course, he typically grabbed a bench across from the jockey room for a cigar and horse talk with everyone from racetrackers and railbirds to jockeys, trainers and owners; NFL Hall of Famer and thoroughbred owner Bill Parcells often stopped by when on track. At Belmont Park, Taylor’s morning perch was a seat near the paddock, where he was as likely to launch into a story about Kelso or Ruffian as yesterday’s claiming race.
Taylor relished having visitors to the judging booth. He lined the booths at Belmont Park and Aqueduct tracks with photos of legends like “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons, Eddie Arcaro and another friend, Hall of Fame rider Gary Stevens. The booth is a stop on the orientation tour of new NYRA employees, who would meet Taylor, often pick up some advice – “get to know the people of the track and get to know what they do,” he counseled – and soak in the atmosphere.
A Chicago native, Taylor attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, where he played collegiate basketball. After working for the U.S. Postal Service, he joined the U.S. Army, serving in Germany, before a visit to New York changed the path of his life. Shortly after his discharge, Taylor accompanied his great uncle and NYRA clocker Earl Williams to the track and liked what he saw.
With Williams’ recommendation, Taylor become an assistant clocker at NYRA, working under the tutelage of Jack Kennedy, a fixture in the racing office; he became an official timer in 1971 and a patrol judge in 1972. By timing the races with a stop watch, Taylor’s clockings were deemed “official” in the event the electronic system malfunctioned.
That’s what Taylor was doing in Secretariat’s record-shattering performance of 2:24 in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes of 1973. “I kept looking at my stopwatch and not really believing the time,” recalled Taylor. “Then I looked on the board, which had the same time. I said to myself, ‘My goodness, how can a horse run this fast and win by so far?’”
Taylor timed two other Belmont Stakes that resulted in Triple Crowns – Seattle Slew in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978. In 1981, at the suggestion of the late NYRA board chairman Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Jr., he became a placing judge, where he worked another couple of Belmont Stakes that led to Triple Crowns – American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.
Taylor called the 1973 Belmont Stakes – 50 years ago this June – his most memorable day in racing. Meanwhile, the exploits of other horses he has seen like Dr. Fager, Forego and Cigar remain vivid. And so do Taylor’s remembrances of electric racing moments, often a Belmont Stakes or a Travers; or in 1964 at Aqueduct when Gun Bow outdueled Kelso to deny him a fourth straight Woodward victory.
Aftercare was a particular passion – and in 2014, Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement honored Taylor with its Frankel Award for Lifetime Achievement. According to Old Friends, among the horses he assisted in placement were Ogygian, Gulch, Kiri's Clown, Awad, Hidden Lake, Polish Navy, Glitterman, Ruhlmann, Sunshine Forever, Commentator and Affirmed Success.
But Taylor isn’t one to talk endlessly about the so-called “good old days.” Well, maybe just a little: He looks back to a time when horses’ careers tended to be longer and fans could build up a real affinity in watching their favorites for six or seven years. And he misses departed friends and loved ones, none more than his wife, Claire Taylor, who passed away in 2012 after 46 years of marriage.
And yet for all the horses and the races Taylor has witnessed, it’s the people he will miss most of all in retirement. "I've seen plenty of great races and some terrific performances, but I think what I've especially enjoyed the most is all the different kinds of amazing people I’ve met and encountered in racing,” he said.
Taylor promised to be a frequent visitor to the track, especially Belmont Park, which remains his favorite track and is all of a seven-minute drive from his apartment in Floral Park. “Belmont puts you in mind of a racetrack,” he said. “It’s simply the best racetrack in the country.”
“Besides, I’ll have friends to see,” Taylor added. “Once the racetrack gets in your blood, it’s tough to stay away.”