Most fans of our sport know 1978 was the last year a horse won American racing's Triple Crown. The rivalry between Affirmed and Alydar reached a dizzying crescendo on the afternoon of June 10, 1978, when the two horses locked horns for almost every step of the mile and one-half journey around Belmont Park. Affirmed and jockey Steve Cauthen emerged with a narrow victory and the accolades that accompany horse racing's most prestigious achievement: a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
The 1978 Belmont Stakes truly was one for the ages.
But Affirmed-Alydar wasn't the only 1978 Belmont Park performance that included a future Hall of Famer. One month after the stirring classic, the Long Island, N.Y., racetrack played host to a concert by Dave Mason, the English rocker who in 2004 was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame as a co-founder of the late 1960s/early ‘70s group Traffic.
He has played thousands of concerts in the interim, but somehow “Dave Mason Live at Belmont Park 1978” has survived the decades and is now available for the first time as a free download with the purchase of Mason's latest album, “Future's Past.” For more information on these new and old recordings, click here.
The 1978 concert at Belmont Park was not Mason's first trip to a racetrack. Far from it. Before he picked up his first guitar at age 15, before he played alongside music legends like Jimi Hendrix, the Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and others, he was a kid growing up in Worcester, England, who tagged along to racetracks with his father, Edward Mason.
“My dad was mostly a punter, but he owned some racehorses at one time,” Mason said in a recent interview with the Paulick Report. “He'd been at one time a bookmaker. He made his money in ‘the running' (betting during the race as the odds shift).
“It's unfortunate they don't do that in the United States,” he continued. “It was kind of like betting on the stock exchange before it went electronic. You've got the guy with the white gloves, the tic-tac man, calling the odds out with his hand signals. My dad would take the bets, and it was on everybody's word; they'd settle up at the end of the month. He knew a lot of the big trainers and well-known jockeys. He was very entrenched in that world.”
Mason himself has not been tempted to jump into racehorse ownership. “I don't have enough discretionary dollars for that,” he said. “You need a good deal of fun money.”
He continues to go to racetracks on occasion when he's not on tour, mostly visiting tracks near his Southern California home. “I was friends with Scott Lavin (the late son of Glen Hill Farm owner Leonard Lavin) and we went to Santa Anita a good bit,” he said. “And I'd go to Del Mar with my sister, but she passed away a couple of years ago.”
The current “Dave Mason's Traffic Jam World Tour” takes him through Ohio, only a couple of hundred miles from Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., on the first Saturday in May, but Mason is playing concerts both on Oaks and Derby day.
“That's one thing I've always wanted to do and I've never been,” Mason said of the Kentucky Derby. “I would love to go there. I never got to Royal Ascot, either. My home town, Worcester, had a racetrack, and I've been to Cheltenham, which is a beautiful place, along with Wolverhampton and quite a few others.”
￼￼Mason also put the Breeders' Cup championships on his list of horseracing events he'd like to attend, if time allows.
Now 67, Mason enjoys his music and touring as much as ever, playing songs both from his time with Traffic – tunes like “Dear Mr. Fantasy” – and a solo career that produced such hits as “Feelin Alright,” “We Just Disagree,” and “Only You Know and I Know.” When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2004, Mason said rock and roll “is not an age, it's an attitude.”
Ten year later he elaborated on the comment. “You could apply that to anything,” he said. “Attitude is everything. There's nothing that says as you get older you can't enjoy things you did earlier in life. I wouldn't want to lose that feeling of the first rock and roll record I ever heard. I still love that stuff. To me it's the real thing: Eddie Cochran, Little Richard, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps and the early, early Presley. It started with rockabilly, guys like Carl Perkins and Dorsey Burnette. Rock and roll, jazz, gospel and the blues – all of that comes from this country. Us English, we just copied it.”
I asked Mason about music's past and its future, specifically where he thinks the music industry is heading.
“After watching two robots (Daft Punk) get Album of the Year on the Grammys, I don't have a lot of hope,” he said.
And when asked what deceased musician from his past he would like to play with one more time, Mason didn't hesitate.
“Hendrix,” he said. “When I first heard him play, my first thought was, ‘I need to look for a different instrument.' There was no keeping up with him. I was lucky, got to spend some time with him, and do some recording with him, including All Along the Watchtower and Crosstown Traffic.”
When he's not touring, Mason lends his time to a charity he and a friend, John Niekrash, helped form in 2008 that helps returning war veterans start their own businesses or complete career education. Called Work Vessels for Veterans, it began when Niekrash, a lobster fisherman in Connecticut, bought a new boat and had to decide what to do with his old one.
“John thought, ‘Maybe I can find a veteran who could use this boat and do something with it,” Mason recalled. “It went from there to discovering that a vessel doesn't have to be a boat. It's a term for whatever gets you from here to there. So we help veterans start businesses so they can stand on their own two feet. That's our mission: a lending hand, not a handout. We refurbish laptop computers and give them to veterans.
“We helped one Iraqi war vet start a blueberry farm (Veterans Farm in Jacksonville, Fla., whose owner, Adam Burke, received the Presidential Citizens Medal from President Obama) and someone else started a cleaning business. The common denominator in a lot of things is ‘work.' It's helped a lot of them get through post- traumatic stress quicker, gives them some pride and dignity by being able to support themselves.”
It's been a long journey for Dave Mason, from the town of Worcester to the bright lights of a rock and roll star to the endless hotels and restaurants of the road. One of those stops, long ago, was Belmont Park in New York.
￼￼“I remember that day specifically because they were just overwhelmed with the number of people,” Mason said of the 1978 concert. “There's only a handful of shows that I still have (recordings of),” said Mason. “I was going to do something with this a long time ago but never did. There are some songs on here that I haven't performed in years, some cool moments.”
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