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Bill Christine

Bill Christine, whose first Kentucky Derby was in 1968 (like everybody else, he waited several years to find out if the courts would uphold the DQ of Dancer's Image), spent 24 years covering horse racing for the Los Angeles Times. He covered every Triple Crown race for the Times from 1982 through 2005, and also reported on the first 22 runnings of the Breeders' Cup. Recent stories by Bill have appeared in The Blood-Horse, Post Time USA, the California Thoroughbred and Paddock magazine.

Bill has won two Eclipse Awards for turf writing, five Red Smith Awards for best Kentucky Derby stories, two David Woods Awards for best Preakness stories and the National Turf Writers' Association's Walter Haight Award and Pimlico's Old Hilltop Award for career contributions to racing. He was part of the Los Angeles Times team that won a Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for its coverage of the Northridge earthquake the year before.

Bill came to the Times from the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, where he was assistant to the executive vice president. Before that, he covered a variety of sports for newspapers in East St. Louis, Baltimore, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Chicago, including a stint as sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He wrote Roberto!, a biography of the Hall of Fame baseball player Roberto Clemente, in 1972. His first job in racing was in the front office of the old Commodore Downs track in Erie, Pa.

Bill, who lives in Redondo Beach, California, is working on a history of Bay Meadows. Contact: bill.christine@yahoo.com.

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Friday, January 02, 2009


4,000 Drawings Later


For an update on this story (Jan. 6th), Code Name: Pebgate.

I caught up with Pierre Bellocq (Peb) two days before New Year's. "I've only got two days to go," he said on the phone.

Peb's long, lustrous career with the Daily Racing Form and its sister publication, the now-defunct Morning Telegraph, officially ended on December 31, but finis actually came months before, over an uncomfortable lunch in Princeton, New Jersey, and should have become obvious to many of his fans on October 25, the concluding day of the Breeders' Cup. On the front of the Form, where Peb's imaginative take on the big day had been a mainstay since the Breeders' Cup began in 1984, there was a full-page color photo of Curlin.

The hatchet men at the Form let Peb pick the good-bye restaurant, a place near his home. "It was ludicrous," Peb said.

The call had come from Mandy Minger, vice president of marketing.

"She said nothing to indicate what was coming," Peb said. "We had been so close. She was like a daughter."

Peb knew few of those he sat down to break bread with.

"They were the new owners," he said. "They had no idea who I was, and what I had done. It was all about how much I cost. They told me they were going to go with photographs instead of my work. I was shocked."

Two years ago, having turned 80, Peb considered retiring. But he had a far different scenario in mind. He thought that the Form might consider one of his sons as his successor. Remi Bellocq, an apple who didn't fall far from the tree, loves racing and can draw, too.

"I'm not bitter," Pierre Bellocq said, "but I just wish it had been handled better. It was very awkward."

The most identifiable people with the Racing Form from the 1950s through the end of the last century were Peb and Joe Hirsch, the newspaper's star columnist. Between them, they totaled more than 100 years with the Form. Hirsch, because of health considerations, left willingly in 2003. The two of them traveled the country and the world for the Form, Hirsch never running out of column ideas or horse people to interview, and Peb, seen with his drawing pad under trees from Saratoga to Longchamp, caricaturing his way across the racing landscape. Besides their editorial output, they were good-will ambassadors for the newspaper and the game. To be quoted by Hirsch or lampooned by Peb was a feather in the cap for most horsemen.

By his own estimate, Peb has drawn about 4,000 sketches and caricatures for the Form and the Telegraph, beginning with the first one, for the opening day of the old Jamaica track, in April of 1955. He had been a cartoonist and amateur steeplechase jockey in France when John Schapiro, who ran Laurel Race Course, brought him to Maryland to do some art work for the debut of the Washington D.C. International race in 1954. Walter Annenberg, who owned the Form, the Morning Telegraph and the Philadelphia Inquirer, also liked Peb's work, and he never went home. For a time, Peb simultaneously worked for the Form and did political cartoons for the Inquirer, but when new ownership took over the Inquirer in the 1970s, they forced him to concentrate on their paper or the Form, and he opted for racing. He was given an Eclipse Award in 1980 for his contributions to the sport.

When he spoke to me the other day, Peb said he was looking at old photos of Joe Hernandez, the track announcer who worked at Del Mar for more than 20 years. Peb, who's been commissioned by Del Mar to do a mural that will include dozens of the jockeys, trainers, owners and celebrities who worked and played at the seaside track, hopes to have the work finished in time for opening day in July. Peb reeled off the names of those he's drawing: Bing Crosby, Pat O'Brien, Jimmy Durante, Oliver Hardy, W.C. Fields, Ava Gardner, Betty Grable, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, Mickey Rooney and Telly Savalas. He's already captured Durante's schnoz perfectly, in the sports-celebrity mural he drew for Gallagher's, the Manhattan steak house, a few years ago.

"I've already done four or five of them (some of the others can be seen at Churchill Downs, Belmont Park and Aqueduct)," Peb said, "and I hope to do many more. Dinny Phipps (chairman of the Jockey Club) is a good friend, and he's interested in seeing that I get more work. He's like my godfather."

The mural at Churchill, completed in 2005, includes all 96 jockeys who had won the first 130 runnings of the Kentucky Derby. A Peb Foundation is being formed at Keeneland, where many of his sketches will be on display at the track's renowned racing library.

Pierre (no middle initial--he made up the middle letter in "Peb") Bellocq might have lost a gig, but he's not lost a job. His pad and pen will keep him working as long as he likes. As the blogger Dan Kenny quipped, "Peb won't need to stand in any baguette line."

Written by Bill Christine

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Friday, September 12, 2008


The King of Pomona


Maybe it serves Martin Pedroza right, riding seven winners one day at the Los Angeles County Fair, adding three winners the next day, then stroking another seven-bagger on the third day. By winning seven races twice within 72 hours, Pedroza had done what no other thoroughbred jockey has ever done, yet it's the best-kept secret in Lotus Land. Three days after Pedroza rolled his second seven, I talked to Bill Dwyre, my old boss and the only guy left on the Los Angeles Times who still pays attention to horse racing, and from my lips Dwyre heard about Pedroza's feat for the first time. All right, this was the county fair and Fairplex Park and Pomona, but news, even racing news, shouldn't travel that slow. If it's good enough for a couple of lines in next year's American Racing Manual, it ought to count for something.

The 43-year-old Pedroza has won 3,000 races--No. 3,000 was the first of those seven winners on opening day at Pomona--but the truth is, it's a stretch even to include him in the middle echelon of riders in Southern California. Another truth is that he's carved out a very decent living, winning at least 120 races a year 13 times. He could have gone to a smaller pond, say Northern California or Chicago, where he was once the second-leading rider at Sportsman's Park, and hooked a few headlines, but then he wouldn't have had Pomona. It's the minor leagues, not even Triple A, in the middle of the Santa Anitas, Hollywood Parks and Del Mars a couple of weeks out of the year, but the purses are good, and for Pedroza it's ambrosia. He's won 10 titles on the bullring, picked up 18 per cent of his career wins there and one blazing summer racked up 51 wins during a 17-day meet.

Pomona is only five furlongs, all the way around, and Pedroza knows more about those harrowing turns than the birds that hang out atop the inner fence between races. This is Pomona: Through the first three days of the meet, 50 horses ran six furlongs or more from the 8, 9 and 10 post positions. Only one of them won. Even Martin Pedroza would have trouble booting them home from out there.

Speaking of the Racing Manual, it says that Pedroza is the 59th North American jockey to win seven or more races in the same day. Seven of them have done it more than once, led by David Gall, of Fairmount Park fame, with four seven-win days and one-eight bagger. Actually, the eight-bagger came at Cahokia Downs, a now-defunct East St. Louis track that had a stretch about as long as your driveway.

No one has matched Eddie Castro's feat of winning with nine of 11 mounts at Calder in 2005. Chris Antley also had a nine-win day, in 1987, but it was four wins by day at Aqueduct and five more by night at the Meadowlands. Purists say that this entry doesn't belong in the record book, but I say, leave it in.

The eight-baggers, besides Gall's, belong to Travis Dunkelberger, Ken Shino, Juan Umana, Pat Day, Chris Loseth, R.D. Williams, Jorge Tejeira and Hubert Jones. Dunkelberger (Pimlico and Charles Town), Umana (Philadelphia Park and Garden State Park) and Tejeira (Atlantic City and Keystone Park) also had to do some commuting to put their eight-win days together.

Jones, who got on Seabiscuit's back before the horse ever ran a race, later became a steward and officiated at the first Breeders' Cup, at Hollywood Park in 1984. His eight wins came at Agua Caliente, five days after D-Day in 1944. He rode 13 races that day, and I got an unexpected answer when I asked him what he remembered most. "I remember smoking a helluva lot of cigarettes," he said. "I was a nervous wreck, and after a while the crowd was expecting me to win every race. Every time I won one, I was worried to death about trying to win the next one."

Pedroza is only the second jockey to win seven or more races twice in the same year. After Dunkelberger won eight at two tracks in March of 2000, he won seven times in August at--trumpets please--Timonium, which is to Maryland what Pomona is to Southern California. It took Dunkelberger five months, to the day, to do what Pedroza did in three days.

The Racing Manual's section on multi-win days says it dates to 1891, which means that only two riders chalked up seven-win days before Jones. Joe Sylvester won seven at Ravenna Park in Ohio in 1930, and Willie Turnbull was a seven-timer at Rockingham Park in 1942. This is neither here nor there, but I can't finish this without special mention of a six-win day by the Scotchman, Alfred "Robby" Robertson, at Jamaica in 1941. There's page after page of jockeys with six-win days, but the win prices on Robertson's cluster were $15.80, $29.30, $23.40, $20.80, $12.70 and $46.30. He lost one race in there someplace, otherwise it'd be fun to see what the parlay would have been.

Only two riders--Laffit Pincay at Santa Anita in 1987 and Victor Espinoza at Del Mar in 2006--had won seven races in a day in Southern California before Pedroza's recent outburst. Apples and oranges, I know, but this is the nature of this particular riding achievement. I especially remember Pincay's seven wins. It was a Friday afternoon, and I was on a busman's holiday, having lunch with a couple of old friends from Pittsburgh in the Santa Anita Turf Club. We also had a dinner reservation, and I told them that I didn't have anything to write and it would take something awfully unusual to hold me up. When Pincay got to four wins, I said, "Not enough to delay me, he does this all the time." When he got to five, I reassured them by saying, "Still not enough." But after six, I headed for the press box, and then after seven I had to re-write what I had written after six. I believe I joined the Pittsburghers in time for dessert.

I once asked Antley about his nine-win, bi-state day. Things were always happening to poor Chris, and like with Hubert Jones, I wasn't prepared for what he told me. "Know what happened to me on the way home from the Meadowlands that night?" Antley said. "My car got hit by a truck. It was a newspaper-delivery truck."

It was a New York Daily News truck, as I recall. Probably on the way to a newsstand or three with a headline about Chris Antley's big day.

Written by Bill Christine

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Thursday, September 04, 2008


Breeders’ Cup:  Required or Not?


Jess Jackson's scheduling of Curlin's races seems to be predicated on originality. Jackson has suggested that he wants Curlin to accomplish things this year that he hadn't done as a 3-year-old. Presumably, though, Jackson will draw the line at Horse of the Year. I don't believe Jackson is in the business of passing up a Horse of the Year award just because Curlin already has one.

That said, it would behoove Jackson to reconsider his standoffish position regarding the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. One of Jackson's early throw-away lines about the Classic was, "Been there, done that." True, but here's a quick history lesson: Running in the Breeders' Cup isn't a prerequisite for winning Horse of the Year honors, but most of the time it helps.

Out of 24 Breeders' Cups, 17 national champions have emerged. Those 17 have included 11 Classic winners, two Distaff winners (Lady's Secret and Azeri), one Turf winner (Kotashaan), one Juvenile winner (Favorite Trick) and two horses (Cigar and Skip Away) who were beaten in the Classic.

The other seven years, horses weren't penalized by Eclipse Awards voters for missing the Breeders' Cup and won Horse of the Year anyway. John Henry, Criminal Type, Charismatic, Point Given and Mineshaft were injured and unable to run. Despite legitimate injuries, however, not running at Breeders' Cup time almost cost John Henry and Criminal Type their crowns. In 1984, John Henry edged out Slew o' Gold, who was rewarded by some voters for his gutty finish, sandwiched between Wild Again and Gate Dancer, in, for my money, the most thrilling Classic ever run. In 1990, Criminal Type, with only 44 per cent of the vote, barely beat out Unbridled, who won both the Kentucky Derby and the Classic (hard to believe, all these years later, but Criminal Type didn't back in; from May to August, he won four straight Grade I's at Pimlico, Belmont Park, Hollywood Park and Saratoga).

This leaves Spend a Buck and Holy Bull. In 1985, Spend a Buck, preparing for the Pennsylvania Derby, missed the race because of a sore ankle and was retired. A lot of us had trouble buying into that story. Spend a Buck was a notorious bleeder (he bled badly in running second to Skip Trial in the Haskell), and had he stayed in training the Breeders' Cup Classic was going to be run at Aqueduct, in a state that banned Lasix. What is more, it would have cost $360,000 to supplement Spend a Buck into the Classic. "A lot of the fun went out of it after the breeding deal was in place," Cam Gambolati, Spend a Buck's trainer, said after the colt's racing career was over. "Everything got kind of technical and calculated. There were vets all over the place." What do you think?

Holy Bull's early defection from the 1994 Classic was because it would have cost his owner and trainer, Jimmy Croll, the $360,000 penalty to run. Had the gray colt been owned by, say, someone of Jess Jackson's means, the voters might not have given Holy Bull a pass. But Croll's mom-and-pop operation truly made $360,000 seem like a lot of money. Also, Holy Bull really had done enough (eight wins in 10 starts, including five Grade I's and two wins over older horses) not to need a win in the Classic on his record. Clinching the Horse of the Year deal was Concern, the wrong horse, winning the Classic.

Jackson might think he's doing the right thing, skipping the Classic, but by doing that he would be allowing Big Brown a Horse of the Year window without needing to beat Curlin. If Big Brown ran the table, at Monmouth Park and Santa Anita, and Curlin won the Woodward and a race in Japan, voters would be hard-pressed not to vote for Big Brown. Noblesse oblige for the defending Horse of the Year would be thrown out that same window.

Of course, one of the many possible scenarios is Curlin and Big Brown both running in the Classic, and neither of them winning. Ladbrokes in London currently quotes Henrythenavigator as 3-1 to win the Classic, with Curlin at 4-1 and Big Brown 8-1. Looks like a wacky line to me, but then I suspect we're fixing for a wacky finish to a wacky season.

Written by Bill Christine

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