Sunday, April 24, 2011
Jess Jackson Was Racing’s Quick Fix
In the movie "The Graduate," someone says to Benjamin, the character played by Dustin Hoffman: "Ben, I want to say one word to you. Just one word."
"Yes, sir," Benjamin says.
"Are you listening?"
"Yes, I am."
"How do you mean that, sir?"
"There's a great future in plastics, Ben. Think about it. Will you think about it?"
I thought about it--that scene, that line--every time I came across Jess Jackson, who was 81 when he died the other day. Jackson abhorred the explosion of synthetic race tracks, from the time his Curlin was defeated on one at Santa Anita in 2008, and his slur for the artificial surfaces was "plastics." Jackson said he kept Rachel Alexandra out of the 2009 Breeders' Cup because of what had happened to Curlin the year before, and that intransigence cost racing the monumental showdown between Zenyatta and Jackson's filly, a classic confrontation that might have produced a race for a time capsule. Jackson wasn't always right, his bluster sometimes got in the way, but he came pretty damn close during the back-to-back Breeders' Cups at Santa Anita: Not one race over the main track was won by a horse who had prepped on dirt.
A squelch at Breeders' Cup time, overall Jackson's comparatively short run was still more prop than poison. He spent millions buying untried horses at auctions, but it was the purchases of already-tested horses that brought the headlines. And when Jackson saw a good horse, cost was never a consideration. After Curlin had run only one race, Jackson formed a partnership that acquired four-fifths of the future two-time Horse of the Year for $3.5 million. Rachel Alexandra had barely cooled out after her Kentucky Oaks victory when Jackson bought her for a reported $10 million. Two weeks later, she won the Preakness, the first filly in 85 years to bag that Triple Crown race, and she would beat males twice more en route to a Horse of the Year title.
Both times, Jackson installed those horses with his own trainer, Steve Asmussen. Good trainers who had nurtured them early were discarded, but this is the game and nobody plays it, as LeRoy Jolley once said, in short pants. Since Jackson had testified before Congress about the over-medication of American horses, Asmussen seemed like a strange choice; his record is punctuated with violations, one that drew a six-month suspension. "Steve has never lied to me," Jackson said in 2009. "There's a strict liability for the trainer for incidents that might be caused by others--deliberately or inadvertently." Jackson went on to say: "Why are (the veterinarians) allowed to continue to be licensed if they are in fact providing drugs?. . . I don't think Steve is the problem. I think the vet's the problem, and the industry attitude and enforcements are the problem."
Some of this added up to disconnect for me, but when Jackson wanted to, he backed up his words with punitive action. He sued one of his trainers and two bloodstock advisors, accusing them of double-dealing in the purchase of horses and a farm in Kentucky. In 2004, Jackson had no small part in the drafting of a code of ethics that governed horses bought at auction in Kentucky. Through it all, Jackson remained loyal to the game. "I love the horse," he said in an interview with Dede Biles in The Blood-Horse last year. "I love this industry, and I like the people in it. Even the crooks have character, just not good character. What I mean is that there are interesting characters in this industry, and many of them are hard-working people. There's a lot of color here. But I'm not as enamored of the color as much as the media are. I think the media promote the wrong ethics sometimes by idolizing people who are less than totally ethical."
When he died, victim of a rare form of skin cancer, he was also still at the top of the wine-making world, an endeavor that once accounted for wealth of $1.9 billion, according to Forbes magazine. He and his first of two wives turned an 80-acre walnut and pear orchard in Northern California into Kendall-Jackson, a winery that gave middle-priced chardonnay a good name.
Cancer treatments had turned him bald, but he covered that with a snappy tweed hat, and less than a year ago he didn't sound like his exit was near. "(It's not) melanoma, and it's not going to kill me," he told The Blood-Horse. "I know there are some people who might prefer I disappear, but I'm going to be around for a long time."
What I liked most about Jackson was his eagerness to tackle the questions, any of the questions. Whether I could have worked for him longer than five minutes, that was another matter. I interviewed him on the phone once, during a session when we were joined on a third line by one of his PR people. When the subject matter turned sensitive, she felt obligated to jump in.
"Will you please shut up?" Jess Jackson said. "I want to answer this, and I'm going to."
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, April 17, 2011
For this Kentucky Derby, we'll need tea leaves. Do they still sell Ouija boards? I looked up swamis in the Yellow Pages, and there were no listings. Ms. Kratchnut, go out and get me a crystal ball. A good one. Anything that petty cash can pay for.
They should have run this Derby on April 1--April Fool's Day--instead of May 7. Mike Battaglia, who makes the morning line at Churchill Downs, would make all 20 horses 50-1 if he could get away with it. Only four favorites--Fusaichi Pegasus, Smarty Jones, Street Sense and Big Brown--have won the race in the last 31 years, and it will be four out of 32 after this year. Because there will be no favorite.
This is a sampling of horses who have won prep races for this year's Derby:
Bob Lewis Stakes. . . Anthony's Cross (Tapizar favored)
San Felipe Stakes. . .Premier Pegasus (Jaycito)
Tampa Bay Derby. . .Watch Me Go (Brethren)
Louisiana Derby. . . . Pants On Fire (Mucho Macho Man)
Spiral Stakes. . . . . . Animal Kingdom (Positive Response)
Florida Derby. . . . . . Dialed In (Soldat)
Illinois Derby. . . . . . .Joe Vann (Watch Me Go)
Santa Anita Derby. .Midnight Interlude (Silver Medallion)
Wood Memorial. . . .Toby's Corner (Uncle Mo)
Blue Grass Stakes. Brilliant Speed (Santiva)
Arkansas Derby. . . Archarcharch (The Factor)
The Chinese could tell you, this is the Year of the Rabbit, not the Year of the Favorite. Several of those beaten favorites won't even make it to the Derby. Another colt on the sidelines might be The Factor, who had run holes in the wind before he was tested at a mile and an eighth for the first time. Bet down to 4-5, he not only lost in Arkansas, he finished seventh. There was a post-race announcement about a condition known as a displaced palate, but The Factor's real issue is that the Kentucky Derby is even longer than the one in Arkansas. All horses can run a mile and a quarter, of course; it just takes some of them a little longer than others.
The winnerwinnerwinner of the Arkansas Derby, the 25-1 Archarcharch, was life and death to hold off Nehro, another longshot, at the wire. The margin was a short neck. Because of the ground Nehro made up--he was 4 1/2 lengths from the front with an eighth of a mile to run--there will be bettors at Churchill Downs who will reason that the added distance in the Derby will give him a chance to win. Yes, from such theories fortunes are made, but I'm not buying. Nehro is perfectly happy being far back early, but in Louisville he'll be surrounded by 19 horses, seven more than in Arkansas, and whether he'll get another unfettered inside-outside trip is problematical. Let's face it, Nehro's profile is one win over maidens in five races, and even in a soft year for 3-year-olds, I question whether he's the real goods.
Prior to the start of the Arkansas Derby, Dance City looked at the starting gate and acted as though it was a trash compactor. He refused to go in for several minutes, and even dumped his jockey, Javier Castellano. In the stands, Jinks Fires, the trainertrainertrainer of Archarcharch, must have been saying to himself, "Not again." In his previous race, Archarcharch, at peace with himself in his stall, was kicked badly by Alternation, another balky loader. Alternation was scratched. The track veterinarian told Fires afterwards that his colt was "trembling" before he could be re-loaded for the break. Archarcharch still finished third, but missed a few days of training because of the cuts on his legs.
At least Dance City, who ran a creditable third, left Archarcharch alone. The 70-year-old Fires, the oldest of 11 children, most of whom went into racing, including Hall of Fame jockey Earlie Fires, has never taken a horse to the Derby. He'll go there with his son-in-law, Jon Court, who has ridden Archarcharch in all six of his races. Court, 50, has ridden in about 30,000 races, and won more than 3,500 of them, but like his father-in-law he's never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby. Court came as close as a rider can come to a Derby last year. He won the Arkansas Derby with Line of David, but three weeks later the mount went to Rafael Bejarano, who had ridden the colt in all his other races. In the game's pecking order, Bejarano is a star, Court a big fish in a smaller pond. Line of David and the star finished 18th, beating two horses.
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Quick, Run the Race
Flies are dropping like horses at Santa Anita. It's a good thing they ran the Santa Anita Derby on the day they did. If they had run it any later, the way horses were defecting they might have wound up with a two-horse match race. Those covering the race couldn't write their advance stories fast enough, to account for all the contingencies. They had one finger on "send" and another finger on "delete."
Jon White, the morning-linemaker at Santa Anita, used up the eraser on his pencil. With Premier Pegasus scratched one day, and the new favorite, Jaycito, declared out the next, White settled on Silver Medallion as the surviving favorite, and the public agreed with him. Silver Medallion shook off the favorites' jinx and completed the course, but a fourth-place finish cooked his chances to run in the Kentucky Derby. I would think that Anthony's Cross, who finished just behind Silver Medallion, will also have May 7 open on his dance card. Instead, the Santa Anita Derby will be sending Midnight Interlude to Kentucky, a colt who will give the fastidious among us another chance to revisit the many historical reasons why a horse can't win at Churchill Downs.
Midnight Interlude is trained by Bob Baffert. You might remember Bob. He's won the Santa Anita Derby six times now, and here's the funny thing: None of those half-dozen winners translated into a a Kentucky Derby winner. Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby three times anyway.
It was Jaycito who was supposed to give Baffert his latest Santa Anita Derby winner, but he was kept in the barn with a bruised foot. Baffert still has back-door hopes for Jaycito in Kentucky; he will run him in a Keeneland race a couple of weeks out from the Derby. After Uncle Mo's third-place dethronement in New York, the sky's the limit for trainers and their Kentucky Derby hopefuls. Baffert's lead Derby prospect is The Factor, who has some unfinished business in the Arkansas Derby.
At entry time, three days before the race, Midnight Interlude drew the No. 6 post and Baffert said: "Six, huh? No. 6, my sixth Santa Anita Derby winner?"
So this win had a touch of the poet to it. Twenty-two days ago, Midnight Interlude was a maiden. Then on March 20, against four other maidens, he blew their doors off going a mile. But Joel Rosario, who rode him that day, didn't see enough, and stayed with Anthony's Cross, an established stakes winner, for the the Santa Anita Derby. The mount on Midnight Interlude fell to Victor Espinoza, who won a Kentucky Derby for Baffert, with War Emblem, but who a year ago was the protagonist in some post-race bickering that involved Baffert and his wife Jill. Espinoza drew the wrath of the Bafferts after riding another horse in a roughly run Santa Anita Derby in which Baffert's Lookin At Lucky and his rider, Garrett Gomez, got none the best of it. Not long afterward, Baffert saw Espinoza in the paddock and said: "Are you trying to kill my jockey?" After this Santa Anita Derby, the snideness had turned to smiles. Feuds in racing are as long as a monkey's nose.
But more about Kentucky. Midnight Interlude is not going to win in Louisville because:
He didn't run as a 2-year-old. No horse has won the Derby without running at two since Apollo in 1882.
Horses with only four career starts seldom win the Derby. Big Brown, who had run only three times, shattered this maxim in 2008, but before him you would have to go back to Exterminator, in 1918.
Of course, there are reasons why every
horse in the field can't win the Derby. I can't think of a better reason to run the damn thing.
Written by Bill Christine