Thursday, February 28, 2008
Death of a Wordsmith
There were no Eclipse Awards for turf writing in 1949, but if there had been, W.C. Heinz would have won one by acclimation. "Death of a Racehorse," written by Heinz under deadline for the old New York Sun, was not only the best racing story that year, it would be the best racing story any year.
W.C. Heinz--his friends called him Bill--died this week, age 93. He was not a turf writer, and from what I can gather, his favorite sport was boxing by a wide margin, but he was a man who could write about anything. He covered the Normandy invasion during World War II. He co-wrote the book on which the TV show "MASH" was based. He wrote fiction that elicited a bouquet from Hemingway. His sportswriting peers--Red Smith, Jimmy Breslin, Dave Anderson--called him the best in the business.
I'm sorry I never met Bill Heinz. After his newspaper went under, he turned to freelancing, and made a nice living doing books and magazine articles in an era, I think, when good writing was more appreciated. Today, Heinz might turn in a story on the Kentucky Derby, and an editor would ask: "Where are the parimutuel payoffs? How come you didn't include the winning horse's fractional splits?"
The racetrack wasn't one of Heinz' biggest loves, but he was at the old Jamaica track in 1949, hanging out with Jim Roach, of the New York Times. A well-bred 2-year-old was making his first start.
"Air Lift, full brother of Assault," Roach said before the race, and Heinz put that in his story.
"They were going to the post for the sixth race at Jamaica," Heinz also wrote. "Two year olds, some making their first starts, to go five and a half furlongs for four thousand dollars. They were moving slowly down the backstretch toward the gate, some of them cantering, others walking, and in the press box they had stopped working on the kidding to watch, most of them interested in one horse."
Air Lift broke down.
"Down below," Heinz continued to write, "they were roaring for the rest, coming down the stretch now, but in the infield men were running toward the turn, running toward the colt and the boy (jockey) standing beside him, alone. There was a station wagon moving around the track toward them, and then, in a moment, the big green van that they call the horse ambulance."
Heinz went downstairs, perhaps to interview Dave Gorman, who was riding Air Lift. He was met by another jockey, who told him:
"Gorman was crying like a baby. He said he must have stepped in a hole, but you should have seen him crying."
Heinz pursued the story to the barn, where the veterinarians J.G. Catlett and Manny Gilman were on duty.
"We might as well get him out of the van," Heinz heard Catlett say. "Before we give him the novocaine. It'll be a little better out in the air."
Heinz finished his piece with:
"They moved the curious back, the rain falling faster now, and they moved the colt over close to a pile of loose bricks. Gilman had the halter and Catlett had the gun, shaped like a bell with the handle at the top. This bell he placed, the crowd silent, on the colt's forehead, just between the eyes. The colt stood still and then Catlett, with the hammer in his other hand, struck the handle of the bell. There was a short, sharp sound and the colt toppled onto his left side, his eyes staring, his legs straight out, the free legs quivering.
"'Aw--------,' someone said.
"That was all they said. They worked quickly, the two vets removing the broken bones as evidence for the insurance company, the crowd silently watching. Then the heavens opened, the rain pouring down, the lightning flashing, and they rushed for the cover of the stables, leaving alone on his side near the pile of bricks, the rain running off his hide, dead an hour and a quarter after his first start, Air Lift, son of Bold Venture, full brother of Assault."
This is just a condensation, but you get the idea. Dave Anderson, who became a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the New York Times, was working as a go-fer at the New York Sun during his senior year in high school, in 1946. One of his jobs was to fill in at the supply office, which doubled as a mail room. One day a box arrived from overseas, addressed, simply, "Bill Heinz, c/o New York Sun." Anderson opened it and found the old beat-up Remington portable typewriter that Heinz had used to write his war stories.
Anderson went home, and his mother asked him how his day had been.
"I was in charge of Bill Heinz' typewriter today," Dave Anderson said proudly.
Written by Bill Christine
Friday, February 22, 2008
They Know Not What They Do
A friend pointed out that the body count for an eight-race card at Santa Anita on Wednesday afternoon, Feb. 20, was 1,990. "You know why it was so small, don't you?" I said. "There was more than that attending that high-level meeting at Santa Anita the same day. There were so many people in the room that they had to send out for more chairs. We constituted a crowd. What they had outside the room wasn't a crowd, it was a scattering of horseplayers. If the meeting's organizers, the California Horse Racing Board, had thought to put a mutuel machine inside that room, we could have doubled the handle."
Officially, the day-long conclave was called a "Special Purpose Meeting." Better than a "summit," I suppose. There were so many panels, so many speakers, that it seemed as though the valets in the jockeys' room were the only group left out. A scholar in the room sidled up to me early on and said, "Do you remember the book, 'A Confederacy of Dunces'?" I said I did, and that John Kennedy Toole, who wrote the satire, had been honored with a Pulitzer Prize 11 years after his suicide. The scholar asked if that would be a nice name for the Santa Anita gathering. "Too harsh," I said, and we let it go at that.
The purpose of the meeting was to have an across-the-board discussion of the problematic synthetic racing surfaces in California. Lenny Shulman, an editor at The Blood-Horse who recently spoke on Roger Stein's radio show, referred to the main-track conversions at Hollywood Park, Del Mar, Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields as a "$40-million boondoggle," but many in the room, including some of the game's most prominent trainers and jockeys, concluded otherwise. There were enough endorsements of Polytrack, Cushion Track and Tapeta to fill a dozen full-page newspaper ads.
Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, that is. Cushion Track at Santa Anita, which has resulted in 11 cancellations this season, has now been whipped into a hybrid of the original stuff and corrections brought in by the Pro-Ride people from Australia. Paul Harper, of beleaguered Cushion Track, sent Richard Shapiro, chairman of the racing board, an e-mail that he would be unable to attend the meeting. Sharpiro, in the tradition of the turf, announced Harper's absence by saying that he was a "late scratch." Late scratch, my eye. I've never met Harper, but he resonates as a smart man. Had he shown up, we would have had the first public hanging in the history of Santa Anita.
Ron Charles, president of Santa Anita, has his fingers crossed that the hybrid will endure until the meet ends in April. Then, Charles said, Santa Anita must go back to the drawing board. "No one is aware more than I am that we have the Breeders' Cup here two years in a row," Charles told The Blood-Horse. "We have got to get it right. This surface that's out there right now will only last us through the end of the meet."
If I were the Breeders' Cup, I would be getting nervous about its scheduled dates at Santa Anita on Oct. 24-25. When the current meet ends, on April 20, Santa Anita is expected to remain open as a training facility for about 2,000 horses while Hollywood Park runs its meet. That could prevent re-doing the main track at Santa Anita until mid-July. The Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita is scheduled to open on Sept. 24. There won't be much of a window for a dry run, and there isn't much margin for error, before the Breeders' Cup is upon Santa Anita. Churchill Downs, I'm told, is standing by.
Frank Stronach, who signs the checks, has reportedly told Charles that he wants dirt redux at Santa Anita. Still on the books is the racing board's mandate that all major thoroughbred tracks in California must use synthetic surfaces as part of their licensing requirements, but the racing board might owe Stronach one. He's already spent more than $10 million--the outlay is probably well north of that by now--trying to do what they forced him to do. Can the racing board now ask struggling Magna--with losses of $350 million in the last three-plus years, and in jeopardy of being deep-sixed from the NASDAQ stock exchange--to spend $10 million more on Pro-Ride, or Tapeta, or Jiffy Lube? I say that they'll have to put a gun to Stronach's head before that happens. And then Stronach would take a chance that it's a gun that isn't loaded.
Written by Bill Christine
Friday, February 15, 2008
Cheery News for Dreary Erie
Presque Isle Downs Named Best Racino
--News item, Thoroughbred Times
In the mid-1970s, when I was flacking for Presque Isle Downs' forerunner in Erie, I would have taken the short money that the lakeside Western Pennsylvania city would ever click with a horse track. Commodore Downs, where I did time for a couple of years, was an outright failure. It died, and then a reincarnation, called Erie Downs, also died, in 1987. Nobody attended either funeral.
Horse-wise, Erie was surrounded by Thistledown in Cleveland, a harness track in Buffalo, another thoroughbred track, Waterford Park, in West Virginia, and The Meadows, Del Miller's well-run harness facility in suburban Pittsburgh. The thoroughbreds, in the form of an underfunded outfit called Pitt Park, lost about $600,000 in two years in Pittsburgh and turned turtle. Inexplicably, the commonwealth refused to give a racing license to Art Rooney, the avuncular owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers and an intrepid handicapper who had bought the franchise with money that came from a killing at Saratoga. Rooney, who bred and raced horses, made his fortune in pro football, but his heart was really shaped like a stopwatch. "The thing I like about you, kid," he once said to me, flicking ashes from his big cigar, "is that we can talk horses. There aren't many guys in this town that I can say that about."
Patti Barton, the first female jockey to win 1,000 races, passed through Commodore Downs, having married a professor at a nearby university, and a 13-year-old gelding named Stonehenge won a race and got us in Sports Illustrated, but star power and quality horses were non-existent. Which isn't to say that Commodore was devoid of charm. Rodney Creed, a member of the jockey colony, was picked up by his girlfriend Wanda at the jocks' room door at the end of the card every night. She drove a motorcycle, and they formed a sidesplitting tableau, putt-putting away under a summer Pennsylvania moon. "Honda Wanda," she came to be known.
By 1977, Commodore Downs was thisclose to the poorhouse. We had borrowed from every bank in Erie but one. Tom Schuchert, a Pittsburgh attorney who was one of Commodore's owners, invited the president of that lone bank to the races on a Friday night. "Afterwards, I'll take him and his wife out for a drink or two," said Schuchert, and I gave him the name and the password of one of the after-hours clubs that were renown in Erie.
The races were run in a terrible storm, and before the card was over a thunderbolt struck the roof of the clubhouse. Water began pouring down on the table where the banker, his wife and Schuchert were sitting. They were moved to a dry spot, or at least a table where several buckets could be strategically placed.
Near midnight, the four of us rolled into the all-night club, and Schuchert had gauged the banker correctly: He was at home with a glass. At 3 a.m., I excused myself and went home. I had things to do at the office in only a few hours.
At noon, a bleary-eyed Schuchert toddled into the track offices. We all waited eagerly to hear whether he'd secured the last-ditch loan. Being open another week was at stake.
"The banker's wife was wearing a wig," Schuchert said. "About 4:30, I leaned over, put my hand on her knee and whispered something in her ear. She found my suggestion repugnant and pushed me away. I reached over, yanked off her wig, and threw it to the floor."
I had visions of cleaning out my desk.
"But whaddyaknow," Schuchert said. "We got the loan. Maybe her old man didn't like that wig, either."
Presque Isle Downs, which has 2,000 slot machines in its casino, appears to have a license to print its own money. Tom Amoss, Steve Asmussen and Scott Lake, heavyweight trainers all, raced their horses there during the inaugural 25-day meet, and this year they'll race 100 days, May into September. A belated downbeat, maestro: Hip, hip, hooray for Erie, PA.
Written by Bill Christine