BY MARC WEINREICH
He works for 16 seconds and then gets a 20-minute break. His boss made 30,000 bobbleheads of him and they were all gone by the end of the day. But even though celebrities and professional athletes seek him out, others pass him by without pause.
Just across the paddock from Aqueduct Race Track in Queens, NY, the New York Racing Association has its offices, and in a room down a narrow hallway inside, there’s a man hunched over a chessboard who finds it rather amusing that he’s “dressed like Johnny Walker” four days a week.
With only a few minutes before the next race, he puts on his top hat, grabs his horn and excuses himself from the chess match. His friend, Paul Linguiti, 59, sits at the opposite end of the board trying to figure out how to put him in check. Linguiti has been working at the track in customer service for nearly three decades. He doesn’t look up from the game and doesn’t ask where his opponent is going. Everyone knows.
“Here comes the bugle,” whispers Sam Grossman into a microphone moments later. Standing in an area just outside the railing to the track, he plays his tune, calling the horses to the post and people turn their attention away from the televisions for a moment to look down from the stands and onto the track.
Grossman, 46, is a bugler. He works from 10:30 in the morning to 6 o’clock at night for 250 days a year and in many ways he’s the Cal Ripken of his craft, recalling just once in the past 10 years that he had to miss a day because his son was sick.
“I thought about calling up my twin brother, who is also a musician, to see if he could fill-in,” recalls Grossman, who received his Bachelors and Masters degrees in music education from Long Island University’s C.W. Post in Brookville, NY.
When he’s not performing at Aqueduct, at Belmont, at Saratoga or at Pimlico for the Preakness, he’s still playing. He has a Long Island-based classic rock cover band, Full House, for which he is, of course, the trumpet player. And he’s played on some big stages, too. When George Steinbrenner came to Aqueduct the day after the Yankees won the World Series in 1996, Grossman said he felt obligated to approach “The Boss” to express his gratitude.
“I said, ‘Mr. Steinbrenner, I’m an American and a Yankee fan and I want to thank you for entertaining me all of these years.”
And then Grossman asked Steinbrenner if he could return the favor and do something for him. Grossman said he would love to play his bugle at Yankee Stadium. Four years later, after a few conversations between NYRA and the Yankees, Grossman was invited by Steinbrenner to perform.
“I ran out onto the field with the Yankees and then I performed the National Anthem,” Grossman said. “Talk about an amazing feeling.”
For years, he and Steinbrenner stayed in touch. Grossman even has a birthday card from Steinbrenner that was accompanied with a Yankees leather jacket. One time, Grossman said that Joe Torre, then the Yankees manager, came up from the dugout during a game to say hello to Grossman and his two children, Aaron and Maurice.
“I told my two kids that they cannot call him Joe,” said Grossman. “If Derek Jeter calls him Mr. Torre, my kids will call him Mr. Torre.”
The public appearances didn’t stop. For Belmont week, Grossman sounded his bugle for the opening of NASDAQ. And over the loud speaker at Penn Station, he played his bugle for countless unsuspecting travelers.
Whether it was with Woody Allen or Sarah Palin, Grossman has had his share of privileged conversations. Inside the Winners Circle at Belmont in 2002, former President Bill Clinton struck up a conversation with Grossman. Clinton was there with his wife, Hillary, to present the trophy. He told Grossman about his interest in horse breeding and Grossman handed him a red and white Zigman Kanstul horn and pointed out to Clinton that it was painted by the same company that had painted the President’s tenor saxophone made famous during his presidential campaign.
“Bill looks you right in the eye when he talks to you, makes you feel like it’s just you and him,” said Grossman.
Sometimes, Grossman is the one who’s approached by the celebrity. Supermodel Gisele Bundchen was at Belmont in 2006 for a Vogue photo shoot. Grossman was making his usual rounds around the track talking to spectators when all of a sudden he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“I turned around and it was Gisele,” he said. “She said, ‘Would you take photographs with me?’ and I took her hand, kissed it and said, ‘I’m more than up to the task, baby.’”
Off the track, he’s still recognized. At an Irish “Erin-Go-Brawl” boxing match at Madison Square Garden four years ago, he was introduced to Joe Frazier after he performed the Irish National Anthem.
“Here I am, a Jew in a fox hunt outfit playing the Irish national anthem and talking to Frazier,” recalls Grossman. “Think about that. It’s pretty strange.”
Apparently Grossman’s outfit left such an impression on the boxing legend that, this past year, less than three months before his passing, Frazier approached Grossman at the Travers in Saratoga and said, “You’re that horn player.”
“I only enjoy the days that end in D-A-Y,” Grossman said of his career, holding up one of his many bugles. “I live a charmed life. When you find something that works, you stick with it.”
Among less notable people, he’s still recognized as an ambassador for the sport. “He’s the face of NYRA,” said Harry Rice, a valet who has been saddling horses before each race for even longer than Grossman has been playing the bugle. “He’ll do anything to promote racing and the track.”
Rice said that despite the high profile events at which Grossman performs, Grossman is beyond anything else, a good friend and an even better father to his two teenage sons, and will go out of his way for anyone. When a longtime fan of the track passed away, Rice remembers Grossman not even thinking twice about the family’s request for him to play the bugle at the funeral.
On an income of approximately $75,000 per year, Grossman has done more for the sport than simply blow horns. During a summer day in Saratoga in 2005, he autographed thousands of the 30,000 “Sam the Bugler” bobble-heads for the fans for $1 each and donated the proceeds to a retired horse foundation, Old Friends Equine.
Linguiti, who often plays chess with Grossman when he’s on break from working in customer service, said that Grossman has been his best friend for 27 years.
Whenever Grossman is in Saratoga, he’s treated like a celebrity. Linguiti said he kids around with Grossman, saying that for most of the year “he’s just a bugler, but when he’s in Saratoga, he’s ‘Sam the Bugler.’”
When the day of races wraps up in Saratoga, Grossman and Linguiti often stop at the bars along Saratoga’s popular Broadway strip, and Linguiti said people are quick to pick up their tab “all because of Sam.”
“He’s unlike past buglers,” said Linguiti. “Instead of hiding away after blowing the bugle, Sam will talk all day long, schmooze with everyone at the track. It’s always exciting around him.”
His first day on the job as a bugler was no exception. On April 4 1993, Grossman replaced Mark O’Keefe, who had retired as the bugler for Aqueduct almost immediately after winning nearly $150,000 on a “pick 6” bet at the track.
Grossman recalls the track’s executives instructing him to “go out there and blow the horn the second you see a horse step onto the track.”
Grossman did just that, and was yelled at for it. He said he didn’t realize that he was supposed to sound his bugle at the sight of a racehorse and not just any horse.
“Some pony walked onto the track, and I sounded my bugle,” he said. “That was my first day.”
The track and the sport wouldn’t be the same without him, Rice said, and people talk of him almost reverentially.
“But I’ll tell ya one thing,” Rice said, “He’s an awful chess player.”