It was the summer of 1985, about six months after I started at the Daily News. I had spent the late winter at what was then known as Keystone Race Track. The spring was night racing at the new Garden State Park. One summer night, I went to Atlantic City Race Course to introduce myself to general manager Jim Murphy and owner Bob Levy.
Maybe five minutes after sitting down at Levy's table overlooking the track, he said, "What are you doing tomorrow?"
Had to send in some selections for the paper, but I was otherwise wide open.
"Want to go to Saratoga?" Bob asked.
Of course I wanted to go to Saratoga.
Before I could ask where we would meet to drive to upstate New York, he said to be at a nearby hangar in the morning. That afternoon, after a short flight to Albany, N.Y., on a private plane, we were in the Saratoga paddock watching one of Bob's horses get ready to race.
That was Bob Levy, the ultimate people person. He had fun through life and insisted that everybody he knew share in it, even if he had known the person for five minutes.
Well, 33 years later, I can safely say Bob was one of my all-time favorite Philly people. And I know so many people who would say exactly the same thing.
When we lost him last week, we lost a Philadelphia treasure, an unparalleled horse racing innovator, and everybody's best friend.
It was providential for me that in 1986, a 2-year-old colt named Bet Twice came into Bob's life. The following spring would be my first year covering the Triple Crown for the Daily News, and we had a serious local Kentucky Derby contender. Bet Twice finished second to the great Alysheba in the Derby and Preakness in May 1987. When the horses arrived in the paddock for the Belmont Stakes, Bob had instructions for his wonderful jockey, Craig Perret.
"He says, 'Craig, I've studied this,' " Bob's son Mike remembered.
"Yeah, Bobby," Perret, one of the smartest jockeys who ever lived, replied.
"This horse doesn't want to go a mile and a half," Bob said. "But none of the other ones do, either. When you go by them this time, don't inch by 'em — go by 'em and keep on going."
Bet Twice went by them, way by them. And he kept on going, winning by 14 lengths.
There was a problem, however. It was approaching dark at the barn after the race when they all realized they had no dinner reservations. They needed a place to celebrate. A call was made to Sonny Werblin. They were all off to Manhattan, a room at 21 Club reserved, and everybody checked back into the Waldorf-Astoria. Only with Bob Levy.
Bet Twice went on to win the greatest Haskell of all that summer and the Pimlico Special the next year. But it was never about the wins. It was about being with friends Bob collected so they could be part of it all. There were so many partners in Bet Twice that Ed Stefanski, who got to know Levy when he was a student and basketball player at Penn in the mid-1970s, created a bumper sticker that read, "Honk if you own Bet Twice."
It was a great education for me from a wonderful man. I made certain to be at Saratoga in 2013 when Bob's great sprinter, Housebuster, was inducted into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame. It was a seminal moment for him in the game he loved.
"He was generous and never asked for anything," said Steve Bilsky, part of a legendary Penn backcourt and now retired athletic director at Levy's beloved alma mater.
And Bob was beloved at Penn, whose teams were a lifelong passion. There were some legendary plane rides that sometimes started with a basketball game at Notre Dame during the day and ended with a Penn game that night.
There was also the time, said Stefanski, who went on to become the Sixers general manager and now holds a similar position with the Pistons, when Bob visited Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian so he could get tips on how to defend the wishbone for his Little Quakers youth football team. Parseghian turned over the placemats and diagrammed defenses for the coaches that would negate the wishbone. Only Bob Levy could make that happen.
Every May, in the days leading up to the Derby, I used to get a call in Louisville from one of the women in Bob's office.
"Do you have time for Mr. Levy?"
Bob wanted to know what I was hearing, how the horses looked, what I thought might happen. It was a conversation I treasured.
In a sport in which innovators are hard to find, Bob was among the country's sharpest track operators. It was in the early '80s when Atlantic City began taking bets on the races from the Meadowlands. It was the start of simulcasting in the United States, where the action never ends and anybody can bet on anything from anywhere.
Bob was a sportsman and a humanitarian. Larry Lederman, the man of a thousand voices, was the longtime announcer at Atlantic City. After Atlantic City closed, Lederman was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He is, thankfully, in remission today.
When it was discovered, Bob gave Larry the name of a doctor who typically took six months to see. Larry dropped Bob's name. The doctor called immediately.
That was Bob Levy.
And there was the $20 exacta box Bob asked Larry to bet for him one day on a race in Canada. He used the three longest shots in the race. They came in 1-2-3. He got back a few thousand.
Larry wanted to know why Bob liked the horses. Bob said they all liked the turf. Larry then explained the race was on the dirt.
"Oh, it was," Bob said.