Sunday, December 26, 2010
The Ticking Christmas Package
My friend Kelly, who lives in Florida, called several days before Christmas.
"What are you getting for Christmas?" he said. We never exchange gifts, except the year I sent him a monogrammed doily and he gave me a crested snuff box.
"One of the gifts already came," I said. "A large envelope from Lexington."
"Something from one of the farms?" Kelly said.
"It sits on my desk, unopened. It stares at me, like a bogey man in the night. I know what's in it, but I don't have the gumption to open it."
"Is your dog bomb-sniffing or drug-sniffing?" Kelly is a former race-track cop, and still can't help thinking this way.
"His sniffer deserted him a few years ago," I said. I couldn't believe that here we were, a few days before Christmas, talking about dog sniffers. "His sniffer was there one day and gone the next," I went on. "But you've given me an idea. I'll put some gravy on it, and maybe he'll think it's his dinner."
"You're going to sucker your dog into eating this package?" Kelly said. "Can you cut to chase on this? What the hell's so foreboding about this package?"
"It's my Eclipse Awards ballot,"
"If that hound gets past the gravy, I can see a trip to the vet coming."
"I've been voting since 1982, and this is the first time I didn't want to tear open that envelope, check off all the horses I like, and be done with it."
"It's the Horse of the Year vote. It's got me bamboozled, and I'm not alone. A lot of the voters are procrastinating. They're torn betwen Zenyatta and Blame, just like me."
"But isn't Zenyatta a shoo-in? I don't follow this like you do, but isn't she one of the few things racing's had to crow about the last two years?"
"You got that right, pilgrim, but she lost her last race. Blame just barely beat her in the Breeders' Cup."
"So? That's all she lost, right?"
"Yes, and except for Rachel Alexandra in 2009, she's been the only real draw racing has had in a long time. They even turned out by the thousands for Zenyatta at Hollywood Park. And nobody goes to Hollywood Park these days, at least nobody who will admit it."
"So open that bloody envelope and vote for Zenyatta."
"If I don't open the envelope, I can't get it wrong. Riddle me this, Kelly baby. Blame beat Zenyatta the only time they met. Blame lost only one race this year, just like Zenyatta. So It's not cut and dried."
"Maybe there's no such thing as a wrong vote."
"I get a little tired of hearing that, but I know where you're coming from. Everybody kept saying the same thing last year, when it was a tough call
between Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra.Then Rachel won by a reasonably comfortable vote, and all hell broke loose. Zenyatta fanatics are like the proverbial woman scorned. Now they feel that not only is she the best horse, the voters owe them one."
"But isn't that the wrong way to vote?"
"Precisely. Last year was last year, and should not be a factor this year. But look at it another way: Zenyatta's an automatic election to the Hall of Fame, when she's eligible in five years. So is Rachel Alexandra. Blame will never get in. But even that should have nothing to do with it. One voter, a friend of mine, told me that the best race of Zenyatta's career came the day Blame beat her. He said that racing will always remember Zenyatta, and Blame will only be a historical footnote. He's not too far off in all that."
"Sounds like this might be the closest Eclipse vote ever."
"Well, you'd have to go pretty far to top 1984, when Slew o' Gold and John Henry were up for Horse of the Year. Slew o' Gold, with a bad foot, and, like Zenyatta, got beat by a very small margin in the Breeders' Cup. Wild Again won the race. Slew o' Gold's in the Hall of Fame, as is John Henry. Wild Again will never get in. John Henry got hurt and missed the Breeders' Cup, although I think he would have run in the grass race, not the Classic. In effect, Slew o' Gold was penalized for running in the Breeders' Cup and losing. John Henry, by not running, didn't lose any points with the voters. He was nine years old, and had a legit injury."
"So John Henry won the vote?"
"Yes and no."
"Yes and no?"
"One vote either way, the way I remember it, would have sent the election Slew o' Gold's way."
"So what are you talking about? You're talking with a forked tongue."
"At the Los Angeles Times, I had to write advance stories on both horses, to cover whichever one won. The announcement was going to be at the end of the dinner, very late for our deadlines. They announced John Henry and I ran to a phone and called it in. The guy who took the call pulled out the wrong story. The next day in the Los Angeles Times, we had Slew o' Gold the champion."
"Dewey Beats Truman, all over again."
"And of course some readers thought I blew it, since my name was on the story. I got a letter from one guy who asked me how many beers I had consumed at the dinner."
"He was completely off base. I was drinking manhattans. Straight up. Twist of lemon, no cherry."
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, December 19, 2010
Occupation? He’s in Shoes
Wes Champagne, whose real name is reportedly Wes Champagne, put on a shoe for the 2-year-old gelding Comma to the Top just minutes before he won the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park, thereby clinching the Eclipse Award for the year's best farrier. What's that, you say? There's no Eclipse Award for best farrier, and never has been? Well, start one.
Champagne, whose father was a jockey and a trainer and whose grandfather was a veterinarian, has been a smithy at Southern California tracks since the early 1980s. Trainers who are in the Hall of Fame swear by him. The late Bobby Frankel would fly in Champagne on a moment's notice, whenever his horses were in distress, for big out-of-town stakes races. Neil Drysdale has used Champagne for years, and more about Drysdale later. Bob Baffert has used Champagne. Vladimir Cerin, who's not in the Hall of Fame but who won his 1,000th race the day after Thanksgiving, once said this about Champagne: "He's considered the best in the country."
Like most racetrack farriers, Champagne starts work about 5 bleeping o'clock in the morning, so it might have seemed strange that he was still around at Hollywood Park about 12 hours later. Comma to the Top, whose name will be changed to Apostrophe any day now, was standing in the paddock, just minutes before post time, when his trainer, Peter Miller, saw that he was one shoe short. Comma to the Top had a full complement when he left the receiving barn, only minutes before and not very far away, but horses are notorious for being careless with their shoes. One fairly good 3-year-old, Triple Buck, once got all the way to the starting gate at the Kentucky Derby before it was discovered that he had, as they say along the backstretch, thrown a shoe. Even though it was the Kentucky Derby, Triple Buck was allowed to return to the paddock for emergency hoof service. He ran ninth, on a day when the wait did Sunday Silence absolutely no harm.
Champagne has on occasion given certain horses sedatives when he reshods them at the barn, and before the Futurity, Comma at the Top showed that that is sometimes a good thing. Miller brought in a shoer to tend to his horse's missing right rear, and he was last seen in a stretcher, headed for an ambulance. The stewards were looking at their watches, and so was Miller, who had taken this one-time $40,000 claimer to success in a graded stakes race just three weeks ago.
Miller grabbed a shoe and decided that he would fix up Comma at the Top himself. "And then I realized, I'm not a shoer," Miller said later. There was a message on Miller's mobile phone to call Neil Drysdale, who didn't have a horse in the race. When they spoke, Drysdale said: "Wes Champagne is on the way."
It was like the cavalry arriving just before the Indians when Champagne entered the paddock. All the while, trainers of some of the other horses were stewing, one of whom was David Hofmans, whose J P's Gusto had beaten Comma to the Top twice and has been considered one of the best Kentucky Derby futures in California. Hofmans, according to the Daily Racing Form, suggested that Comma to the Top run with no shoes in back, only front plates. That was not an outlandish idea, but Champagne's 11th-hour arrival made the issue academic. The odds on Comma to the Top, who had won four in a row, were at 8-5 when the crisis began. As word circulated through the grandstand, and the delay lengthened, they drifted up to 5-2. Comma to the Top won by almost two lengths, and even though J P's Gusto was running hard at the end, from the second bend home he was never going to capture more than second money.
The CashCall Futurity was a $750,000 race. Comma to the Top was bought out of a Florida auction earlier this year for $22,000, and now he's earned more than a half-million. His sire and dam won four races combined. He is owned by a Hollywood crowd, Gary Barber and his partner Roger Birnbaum, and Kevin Tsujihara. Barber's brother Cecil is also involved. Gary Barber's first movie hit was "The Sixth Sense." More recently he produced "Seabiscut," and in between there were "Memoirs of a Geisha" and "The Insider." Now he's ready for a documentary. Working title: "The Shoeman Cometh."
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, December 12, 2010
Biting the Hand. . .
You have to be prepared at all times for what might happen in the desert. Field Marshal Rommel and Lawrence of Arabia knew this, in spades. But anything can still happen--in "Road to Morocco," Dorothy Lamour even fell in love with Bob Hope while Bing Crosby was around. No amount of preparation could have girded us, however, for what David Israel recently said in the desert, at the University of Arizona's annual industry brain-pick. Several cacti, not to mention some superannuated horseplayers, were aghast. "The average age of our on-track customer is deceased," said Israel, vice chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, and then he went on to say, "And the average age of our satellite customer is decomposed."
Israel is a scriptwriter and onetime journalist, so I assume that he writes his own stuff. Even though what he said in Tucson might play well at the Comedy Club, he might have been better served had he cut his hyperbole with a dash of seltzer. "If David Israel continues to insult the broad base of California's remaining customer support, I do not think he should be accepting speaking assignments," Roger Way, a horseplayer, said in an e-mail. "Without the support of senior citizens, California horse racing would be forced to close the doors tomorrow."
In fairness to Israel, he was about to make a valid point. It's just that he didn't have to step over carcasses to get there. The rest of his remark was, "The demographic is way too old. We need to attract younger customers to the racetrack experience."
If racing's core audience has been dying off for the last half-century, then why is there anybody queuing up to the parimutuel windows at all? I mean, some
younger people must be going to the races. The rub is that there are not enough of them. Later on at Tucson, Israel said something about "selling racing as entertainment," and it's there that he's caught his shoe in the do-do. If 15 minutes of action stretched over a four-hour afternoon is entertainment, then I'm a monkey's uncle. If poring over page after page of agate type in the Daily Racing Form is entertainment, then the Marquis de Sade must have invented the game. There's nothing wrong with waiting a half-hour to see several horses sprint six furlongs, or trying to turn a coin by dividing workout times by Beyer numbers and squaring the quotient, but these exercises are not for everyone, especially the guy who gets his kicks by receiving two cards from the dealer every 30 seconds.
Racing needs to be sold as a gambling game, and little else. The average racegoer, and especially the newcomer, doesn't look upon a 10-horse field as a beauty contest. All they want to do is cash enough tickets to go home with at least as much if not more than what they started with. Referring to Secretariat as "No. 4" might be blasphemy to the romantics, but in the real world a horse, like Gertrude Stein's rose, is simply a horse. If you have a good day at the wickets, the mountains behind Santa Anita are picturesque; if you've caught a steady run of slow horses, they're just a facade.
Getting back to Israel and the old fogies at the track, Andy Asaro, another concerned California horseplayer, said: "Is this appropriate language for the vice chairman of the racing board to be using when referring to his best customers? I know he was talking about attracting younger customers, but. . .wow!"
Allen Gutterman, the veteran marketing maven at Santa Anita, has, unlike Israel, been around long enough to know new customers can be courted without disdain for the old. "Social networking allows us to communicate directly with fans and horseplayers and let them know what's happening at Santa Anita," Gutterman said in a recent Q & A with the Paulick Report. "Direct mail seems old school, but is still phenomenally productive and permits us to talk to great customers for very little money, particularly to those who don't have Blackberrys or I-Phones or who are not Web savvy."
A long time ago, in a galaxy known as New York, Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps talked about creating new customers and said that racing's biggest obstacle was "the intimidation factor." The Intimidation Factor is alive and well and still frequents all the racetracks. Almost every new customer is greeted by I.F. at the door. I've experienced the same sensation, when I get the itchy, twitchy feeling to play baccarat in Las Vegas.
Written by Bill Christine