Wednesday, September 10, 2008
They Don’t Get Much Better than Hettinger, Kaufman
They were giants.
Maybe not in the Allen Jerkens, or the Angel Cordero Jr., or the Sheikh Mohammed sense of the word, but in the best-thing-about-this-game meaning of it all. Racing lost a lot when John Hettinger and Art Kaufman, a.k.a. Lee Tomlinson, died over the weekend.
I never really knew Hettinger, never had a long conversation with him. But there was a brief visit, only one, shortly after his acceptance speech for an award he received from the New York Turf Writers’ Association for his accomplishments and for being a pioneer in the horse advocacy movement.
Hobbled by infirmities, he sat in his seat at the Gideon Putnam hotel that night and spoke eloquently, even if a bit longer than usual for an acceptance speech, on the subject of horse slaughter. I just wanted to say hello afterwards and thank him for his efforts.
I’m ashamed to admit this now but I had no awareness of what a huge issue horse slaughter was and remains today. But he was so passionate that I felt compelled to introduce myself, shake his hand, and say thanks not only for educating me and others but for caring about the animals that give my life beyond my family meaning.
Like most men who fought the good fight, the big fight, Hettinger led an interesting, impassioned life. A Yale-y by education, he taught at Harvard before going on a mission of personal discovery while he worked for an American corporation in Mexico City.
But after a short visit to Spain some years alter, he decided to move there with his family, invested in some property, made a small fortune, and 17 years later returned to the United States the year a colt named Secretariat put racing on the cover of Time and Newsweek; heady times, indeed.
With the money he made abroad, Hettinger expanded his father‘s 18th Century farm house to 800 acres and became an integral part of the New York-bred program when that branch of America’s breeding industry was in its infancy.
In preparation for a life later devoted to serving horses--”all of my best friends have four legs”--he was instrumental in putting New York’s state-bred program on the national map.
Back in that day, Akindale Farm studs such as Personal Flag, D’Accord, and Sir Wimborne were the local industry’s foundation sires. Hettinger’s best horse, Warfie-- trained by Nick Zito, who would become a lifelong friend--thrilled her owner by winning the open class Long Island Handicap, in 1989.
There are plenty of generous and devoted people in this industry who have dedicated themselves to giving something back. But how does the saw go? When you’re the first, you’re the best? That was John Hettinger’s life. The race horse lost a huge advocate last weekend.
So did horseplayers.
I was first introduced to Art Kaufman as a fan. I dutifully coughed up $50 for a booklet he published called “Mudders and Turfers,” the forerunner of what today are the Tomlinson Ratings. As co-host with Paul Cornman of Daily Racing Form’s Saratoga seminars at Siro’s, I invited Lee Tomlinson to be a guest handicapper.
That night we broke bread and remained friends since, which makes me far from unique. Anyone who ever met Artie called him a friend. In language that all racetrackers understand, Artie Kaufman was a sweetheart.
As all who labor in the role of horse advocacy owe a debt of gratitude in Hettinger, horseplayers and handicapping practitioners owe “Lee Tomlinson.” His sire ratings assigned a numerical value to the success that offspring of a certain sire would have on wet tracks and grass.
Tomlinson’s inspiration was born of a love for handicapping and wagering. Wet tracks were always anathema to his bankroll and, like the saying goes, if it was a dark day, he wouldn’t play. But if he had some formulary that would measure wet-track and turf tendencies of the most popular American sires, he’d be equipped for the parimutuel wars.
Time was when every wise guy in New York had a streamlined yellow booklet sticking out of his back pocket. And the ratings worked, seemingly better back then than they do today, perhaps of their relative exclusivity 22 years ago. That and the fact that pedigrees have become so homogenous.
A decade later, “Sprinters and Stayers” was introduced as a companion piece, doing for distances what M & T did for surfaces. In 2001, he sold his methodology to the DRF.
Artie was an original thinker and was at the forefront of the statistical revolution. Back then serious players had to write down trainer and jockey tendencies into notepads or their track programs for transcription and reference at a later date.
Now all past performance companies have extensive data banks of technical material most horseplayers never believed possible two decades ago. In that context, sports handicappers, especially football bettors, were ahead of the curve. Just like Artie was.
The last time I saw him was at a surprise birthday party Sara Dunham threw for her father, trainer Bob Dunham, at the Westside Stadium café in Saratoga. Sitting across from Artie and his wife Jackie, and Tom and Renee Amello, we talked and argued about what all racetrackers talk about at such gatherings:
“Seen any good movies lately?”
That was Artie. A renaissance kind of guy, film buff and European racing geek, organizing group trips across the pond for major events like the Arc or the storied Ascot meet, etc.
I’ll miss his banter, smile, wit and intelligence, his always interesting e-mails, his spirit and a voice I never heard raised above a tone of civility. It hurts.
Artie Kaufman was a class act, a real gentleman. These days that’s about as fashionable as high-button shoes.