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Spotlight On: Andrew Vachss

Originally published in the Trotting Times, Vol. 2 Issue 5, June 1991

"It's interesting how harness racing protects its animals better than this country protects its people. If you are a convicted felon you cannot own a racehorse, but you can open a daycare center."

Andrew Vachss is at Freehold Raceway, awaiting the sixth race and the season's debut of his 4-year-old trotting mare, Gypsy Flame. He shakes his head as his words fade in the air. He knows all too well the truth of the statement because he has dedicated his life to the protection of children.

Vachss is on a crusade a personal and passionate crusade to rid the world of as many scummy "maggots" (as he likes to call them) who prey on children as he can.

By day Vachss (pronounced "vax") is a hellraising and intimidating 48-year-old New York attorney specializing in juvenile justice and child abuse. He once broke his hand by smashing a wall repeatedly with his forearm to prove to a testifying physician that similar blows to a wall made with the back of a child could (and did) cause the breaking of that child's pelvis.

By night Vachss is the creator of the fictional Burke, a violent ex-con and private investigator who roams the sleazy world of child pornagraphers, pedophiles, psychopaths and pimps on the streets of New York.

Vachss has managed to author six critically-acclaimed novels that have introduced hundreds of thousands of readers to the slimy world that both Burke and he live.

Vachss believes strongly that today's victims are tomorrow's predators, and that the prevention of crime begins with "shutting down the production line that creates the monsters of the world."

Says Vachss: "This is a country where if you grow your own victim, you get a certain kind of immunity. To have sexual feelings toward a child is sick. To act on them is evil."

It is anger against a system which calls a man "criminal" if he rapes a neighbor, but calls him "sick" if he rapes his daughter, that fuels his work and his books.

"Writing books isn't my profession," explains Vachss, "the books are merely an organic extension of my real work a way of preaching my own particular gospel to a wider audience."

Although Vachss will not admit that Burke is his alter-ego, the two have much in common besides fighting for the cause of children. Both love blues music. Both chainsmoke and disdain alcohol. Both spent time in Biafra. And both love harness racing.

In each of his books Vachss has Burke frequently frequenting the track, mostly Yonkers Raceway.

"The most mythical thing in all my books is I have Gypsy winning a race in 2:01 4/5," says Vachss, who bought Gypsy Flame in 1988. "If you don't write about what you know it comes across after a while. It becomes obvious to the reader. I'm no expert in harness racing, but I'm an expert fan. I've put a lot of money in the turnstiles over the years."

Vachss claims his love affair with harness racing began "around kindergarten, when everyone in the neighborhood would go to the track." His desire to own a horse also came at a young age, but that desire was dismissed as fantasy until a few years ago when he discovered the benefits of organizing a syndicate partnership.

"You can actually invest and be a participant in the sport very, very cheaply," says Vachss. "A dozen people can get together and buy a horse. A viable racehorse. Where else can you do that? You couldn't own a baseball team? I don't think the public understands that they can get in on an ownership level."

What Vachss did in 1988 was form a group from his work circle—prosecuting attorneys, social workers, investigators—and sold shares totalling $15,030 for Vaxx Enterprises. Gypsy Flame (an Arsenal filly out of the Noble Gesture mare, Gypsy Nellie) was bought for $3,200 at auction. Racing exclusively on the Illinois fair circuit Gypsy won $15,655 in 1989-90.

Vachss success and notoriety have had a negative impact on his time, and his ability to make it out to the track to watch the races from the rail ("it's the only place to watch a race from").

"I've been too busy to take a breath, and I regret it bitterly," he admits.

Yet the novels have allowed Vachss to experience the monetary rewards that his profession does not offer ("abused children don't have a lot of money"). And although he will not reveal how much, Vachss does earmark some of the money he earns toward child abuse programs and centers. That is not the case, however, with Gypsy ("how much money would we be donating?"). He doesn't have a large stable of stakes horses, although he'd like to.

Would he be interested in joining or consulting a group which donated or tithed some part of the earnings from the stable to a child abuse center? Sort of a "Save The Children Stable?"


"The possibility of a harness racing coalition mobilized to combat child abuse is among the most enticing ideas I've ever heard," says Vachss.



NOVELS: Flood (1985), Strega (1987), Blue BelIe (1988), Hard Candy (1989), Blossom (1990), Sacrifice (1991).

FAVORITE HORSE OF ALL TIME: It would be a tie between Nevele Pride and Une De Mai. I remember their duel in the 1969 Roosevelt International like it was yesterday. We weren't used to seeing horses race 1 1/4 miles, and when Nevele Pride parked Une De Mai everyone in the place was thinking she would have to give up, but she wouldn't. It was just shocking. I didn't think any living horse could beat Nevele Pride."

GREATEST RACE HE'S EVER SEEN: "Actually it was a Free-for-All at Yonkers when Governor Skipper, Big Towner and Dreammaker hooked up. It's the kind of race I haven't seen in a long time—genuine Free-for-Allers. I've always loved the Free-for-Allers. I saw Armbro Nesbit set the track record at Yonkers of 1:56 4/5. That was like a mythical mile. Nobody could imagine going 1:56 and a piece on a half-mile track then."

HIS HARNESS RACING FANTASY: "I'd like to breed Gypsy to Nevele Pride and have her baby be a stakes horse. The truth is, though, if I could have any horse I'd want a Free-for-Aller. I'd want a horse that showed up every week and took on everybody in the place. I'd rather have that than anything."


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