A 102-year-old World War II veteran gets his wish at Plainridge Park
by Tim Bojarski
Plainridge Park has hosted many celebrities over the years, but recently had the honor of welcoming World War II veteran Jerome Paris to help him celebrate his 102nd birthday.
Paris was born in St. Louis, Miss., on Nov. 10, 1917, but lived near Boston his entire life. He is currently a resident of the Briarwood Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Needham, Mass., and has been since 2016.
David Cohen is the center’s administrator and explains how Paris’ journey to the track transpired.
“We asked [Paris] what he wanted to do to celebrate,” Cohen said. “His only wish was to go to the horse races. Plainridge is only about 15 minutes from the center, so we contacted them and planned his day. We are very focused on caring for the Needham neighborhood and Jerome has lived there for most of his life.”
On the Friday before Veterans Day weekend, a host of friends and caregivers transported Paris to Plainridge and joined him for a party he won’t soon forget.
“I have always liked going to the track; I was crazy about it when I was younger,” he said. “I used to like to go to Suffolk Downs and Rockingham Park. Both tracks raced trotters and the flats and I loved them all. I remember the first great horse I saw race. It was Whirlaway at Suffolk Downs. I also saw him in the big match race with Alsab at Narragansett Park.”
Paris’ exposure to Whirlaway, the only horse in Thoroughbred racing to win the Triple Crown and the Travers Stakes, was definitely prophetic. Paris was one of the many racing fans to watch Whirlaway race in 1942.
Nicknamed Mr. Longtail, for that long, flashy component of his anatomy, Whirlaway was offered by his connections to assist the nation as it prepared for war and ran in support of the War Emergency Relief Fund. He competed in 22 races across the nation and was a primary reason the racing community donated more than $3 million to the war effort, which was more than any other sport.
According to an article in The Blood Horse, “Whirl-away was recognized as a hero to both racing fans and our soldiers serving in World War II. Ask most anyone who served in the military about horse racing during their time of service, and Whirlaway will be the one name that comes up in conversation. He provided a welcome respite from the rigors of war for those soldiers and sailors who could go to the tracks around the country and see him run.”
Paris enlisted in the U.S. Army on March 29, 1943, at age 25 and served for four years. He was one of many soldiers who stormed the Normandy beaches in 1944.
“After the war, I got married and had two children,” Paris said. “I was a furniture refinisher by trade, but I had a career as an adjuster for Allied Van Lines. If people needed help or filed a claim after moving, I would be the guy to handle it for them.
“I have been to Plainridge Park before, but this day was really something.”
Paris was provided with his own VIP area in the grandstand with monitors carrying the tracks he was most interested in viewing. And like a true railbird, he made several trips to the apron to watch the races despite the cold and windy conditions.
Between races, Paris received special attention from Jay Savastano, the track’s mutuel manager. He also toured the press box, met race caller Lenny Calderone, spent some time in the casino and had lunch at Flutie’s Sports Bar. For most of the day, however, he was trackside watching the horses he’s loved most of his life.
Briarwood had one other surprise for Paris, who is a big sports fan. They arranged for former New England Patriots offensive guard Joe Andruzzi and center Russ Hochstein to meet Paris at Plainridge and spend time with him on his special day. The cameras began snapping when Paris wore all five Super Bowl rings the two players earned. They also presented him with a signed jersey, football and cap.
When the race named for Paris was shown on the tote board and announced in the grandstand, all the fans on site gave him a standing ovation.
“Everyone at Plainridge was excited to host Jerome on his birthday and we couldn’t have been happier we were contacted for this special occasion,” said Steve O’Toole, general manager of racing at Plainridge Park. “It was an honor to have a member of the Greatest Generation share his day with us and we did all we could to make it as special for him as possible.”
Tim Bojarski, chairman of the board of the U.S. Harness Writers Association, is a freelance writer living in New York. The views contained in this column are those of the author alone, and do not necessarily represent the opinions or views of the United States Trotting Association. To comment on this column, email us at email@example.com.