Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Let ‘Luck’ Live

"Luck" is about the only thing interesting in the racing biz these days, and sadly, I can't watch it. I don't have HBO … and it airs past my bedtime. The Derby trail is about as interesting as talking about who will win next year's Super Bowl. Too soon to tell.

I love the reaction of the industry insiders to the show. Some spout how great it is, just read Daily Racing Form's Andrew Beyer's review from a few weeks ago. In it he glows that it's "authentic." From what I hear, I agree. His perspective is that of a horse player and that's how he opens his piece, diving headlong into a live Pick 6 ticket. Whatever that's like, I'll never know, but there's a magnet we're all attracted to and the horse player has his Pick 6.

Then there's the other side, the folks who don't like it. The folks would be insulted by the way horse racing is depicted on the screen. Enter the legendary syndicate maven, Dogwood's Cot Campbell. His fear, and looking at the view from his chair, is understandable, but I feel a bit unreasonable. His fear is that the subtext, jargon, and depiction of "Luck's" horse racing culture is far too abrasive to bring in new fans.

"Thoroughbred racing is certainly in need of exposure - other than Derby time - but I cannot drum up any enthusiasm for the material that is being provided by this new Sunday night cable series," he writes. "Heavily reviewed and promoted, it is being seen by a great many people. And, if I were a novice, and got a glimpse of Luck, I would not want to go anywhere near a racetrack. And, also, if I were a novice, I would also not know what the hell the characters were talking about."

The show's creator, David Milch, has loved the racetrack his whole life and sees it for what it is: a cross section of character. It's even a little racy, a little dodgy, a bit unwholesome. Heck, Mount Doom was no picnic for Frodo, but every hamlet needs a shadow.

Mr. Campbell proceeds, “Dogwood Stable through the years has brought about 1,200 new people into racing. But, if these people had been exposed to the HBO series Luck, that number would not have totaled 200.”

Since Dogwood’s founding in 1969—a span of 43 years—it has brought a total of 27.9 new owners to the sport every year. Impressive. But I doubt “Luck” will have any influence over new skin buying into a share of the next big stud. There’s something to be said of the person who has enough scratch to buy a horse: they’ll buy one no matter what. It’s ego, even if it is a transparent cry for attention.

Everybody is always trying to fix the sport. But it needs to embrace its menial place in the landscape of American popularity. The people who already like it will pass it on. They are your ambassadors. Embrace them and the sport will float on inches above the ground.

In life there are winners and there are losers. Losing is okay; it's the only way to measure winning. Horse racing puts food on the tables of a few very wealthy folks, but for everyone else it’s as seedy as “Luck” presumably makes it out to be.

Still, doesn’t the bad boy always get the girl?

Just sayin’.

Brendan O'Meara tweets.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Horses and the Screen

I’m heading to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania today to write a story for Mountain Home Magazine about a horse, a horse bought by a Civil War general, Wellsboro’s own war horse. Naturally, I had to go see “War Horse,” before Regal Cinemas sent it out to pasture.

One showing, 9:20, Friday night. That’s 20 minutes past my bed time. Oh, boy.

Alex Brown wrote a great review through the eyes of a horseman. Also, he did some classic reporting, finding out the real name of Joey, the leading horse of the movie, and what his racing career was like.

All I can do is write a review through the eyes of a story teller. A couple things struck me: why doesn’t the popularity of a racehorse or war horse on the big screen translate to the racetrack or literature? With the exception of “Seabiscuit” (because of Laura Hillenbrand’s talent) and “Secretariat” (because it was Secretariat), no book on racing has had any type of success. My feeling is that the horse is a visual creature.

Words, no matter the ability of Hillenbrand or William Nack, never measure up to seeing these animals in motion.

Another was the movie’s superb illustration of how horses are the universal tongue of man. For the purposes of viewer-accessibility the Germans and the French all speak English, but even if they were forced to speak their native languages, any time Joey bound them, they spoke the same language. This horse changed hands more times than a nickel claimer.

Add to that director Steven Spielberg sure knows how to make you shake your head at the travesty of war. When the British, using the antiquated bayonet charge across no-man’s land, while the Germans sat tight in forts with Gatling guns, mowed the British down like grass. It was, as history books say, a war of attrition.

Just about any scene when Joey breaks free and hits his stride, the movie picks up pace. His tack hung off him like shackles as he ran riderless, avoiding the bullets that claimed his jockey. His maniacal run across no-man’s land and into a web of tangled barbed wire symbolized how torn Joey was, that he could only be freed by a truce, that his bleeding caused a cease fire.

At about the time of this movie’s nomination for Best Picture at the Oscars, HBO launches “Luck,” a racetrack drama created by famed television producer and writer David Milch. Listen to what he had to tell NPR’s Dave Davies about the show here.

Milch told Davies about his trip to Saratoga Race Course with his father, “The first thing he informed me was that he knew that I was a degenerate gambler ... but it would be impossible for me to gamble because you had to be 18 to make a bet. On the other hand, he had arranged with the waiter, Max, to run my bets for me, and, therefore, I would be able to bet. And with that set of mixed messages, I was off."

What this tells us is that racetrack is an immensely valuable story telling platform with different shades of people with different motives and motivations, as I tried to illustrate in “Six Weeks in Saratoga.” (Shameless plug? Yes, but I feel awesome right now.)

Normally I don’t care that I don’t have cable, but I’ll actually miss the idea of not watching “Luck,” because it will have all the elements that drive narrative: gray characters played by world-class actors, conflict, and perhaps the greatest engine in all of story telling—thoroughbred race horses.

Brendan O'Meara uses his 140 characters to his advantage on Twitter.

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Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Un-Like Mother, Like Daughter

At first I had an idea about writing about the exclusionary tone Mike Watchmaker took in this column about the presumption that turf writers with an Eclipse ballot didn’t take it seriously, by Watchmaker’s standards. So what if some folks wanted Rapid Redux to be Horse of the Year? That’s their choice and just because he’s not a stakes-caliber horse shouldn’t demerit the few who chose to vote for him. I’m sure they’d make an educated case. It’s that type of voice from the older guard of turf writers and handicappers I’ve found disheartening. I guess this means I'm not "reasonable." I like to think I am, but to each his own.

What should happen on January 22, 2012 at 2:40 p.m.? Rachel Alexandra delivered a 125 pound (!) colt at Stonestreet Farm in Lexington, KY. According to a press release he climbed to his feet about 90 minutes after birth and Rachel Alexandra kindly took to him.

Unlike her own mother.

Rachel Alexandra, as famously documented in this story, was orphaned by her mother Lotta Kim. When Lotta Kim dropped Rachel Alexandra she wanted nothing to do with her. The folks at Heaven Trees Farm promptly escorted a nurse mare (a nasty mare, to the humans at least) to Rachel Alexandra and the two hit it off.

“I am thrilled with the good news of Rachel's safe delivery and health of the handsome colt that resembles her. For me and my children, this colt represents Jess’ dream – to raise and race the best,” said Banke in the release. “Co-owner Hal McCormick and I look forward to watching him develop and are excited to see him carry the Stonestreet silks as his Mom and Dad did before him.”

Horse racing has a way of beating you down. Horse deaths, horse slaughter, late odds changes on the tote, uncouth training practices. Maddening though it is, January and February provide new blood. Horse racing forever renews itself, at times ad nauseum, but, at times like these, that renewal couldn’t be more welcome.

The three-year-old stakes are upon us and mares are delivering foals from our favorite champions. If Jess Jackson were alive today he’d be one happy fedora-wearing-mountain-naming-vintner. Everything he stood for in racing came down to Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.

Curlin represented a majestically campaigned three and four year old, a tribute to longevity and endurance while racing. He symbolized a global triumph, and guts (Man o’War, a game second to a Breeders’ Cup Turf champion in Red Rocks).

Rachel Alexandra was a tribute to a capitalistic coup. When told that Rachel Alexandra had the speed to wheel back two weeks later against the boys in the 2009 Preakness, Jackson wrestled her away from Dolphus Morrison to blast this filly into the stratosphere. She sparked an unprecedented debate as to who was better, her or Zenyatta (I think we can all agree who turned out to be the better race mare).

And that’s the kind of debate Jackson was all about. Whether he opined about synthetic “plastic” surfaces or held out to the last second on the projected race of a horse, this new colt shoulders the impossible burden of all his dreams and we are the lucky ones who get to watch it unfold.

Brendan O'Meara tweets.

Written by Brendan O'Meara

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