Thursday, August 28, 2008
The columns Bill Donovan wrote for The Blood-Horse magazine were sub-titled, "Recollections of a racetrack lifer." A good trainer, one who won four derbys with the inimitable Lost Code in 1987, Donovan was also a keen observer of the other lifers he worked around. "I judge horseplayers by the size of the holes in their shoe soles," he once said. "Small holes, top handicapper; large holes, bad handicapper."
If you called Donovan a gypsy trainer, he took no offense. That was what he was, and he not only accepted the label, he wore it on his sleeve. Even with Lost Code, who won 12 stakes and earned $2 million, Donovan's bags were always packed. While Alysheba and Bet Twice duked it out in the Triple Crown, Lost Code was shipped to other venues and won the Alabama, Illinois, Ohio and St. Paul Derbys. Donovan, who was 75 when he died on Aug. 27 in Maryland, a victim of emphysema, was smart enough to take on Alysheba and Bet Twice only on special occasions.
One of those was the 1988 Pimlico Special, a $500,000 race. Lost Code outfinished Alysheba, but Bet Twice beat Donovan's colt by three-quarters of a length. The first two bumped repeatedly in the stretch, and Pat Day, riding Lost Code, claimed foul against Bet Twice and Craig Perret. While the stewards took seven minutes to assay the outcome, Donna Donovan, the trainer's wife, jumped up and down and, surrounded by dozens of people, hollered that Bet Twice better be disqualified. "Will you shut up and act like a lady?" her husband finally said to her.
"I'll act like a lady, but I won't shut up," Donna Donovan said.
The stewards allowed Bet Twice's win to stand. Lost Code was owned by Don Levinson, who a couple of years before had met a near-destitute Bill Donovan at a car wash and given him a budget that enabled him to buy the colt, for $30,000. Levinson, a former member of the Maryland Racing Commission (he and his colleagues had upheld the stewards in the Genuine Risk appeal following the Codex Preakness), asked his old panel to review the Bet Twice-Lost Code decision. Donovan, who felt that the stewards had ultimate authority, said that he would be uncomfortable winning a big race that way. The stewards denied Levinson's appeal. Donna Donovan cooled off and didn't put out a contract on any of them.
Bill Donovan was gunning for the 1988 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs when Lost Code's career ended prematurely because of a twisted intestine. "Horses are like a bar of soap," Donovan said. "Every time you wash your hands, there's not as much left."
He and Donna, who were married for almost 50 years, were inseparable around the barns, and in Baltimore she once hosted a radio show called "Showcase of Racing." A few years after Lost Code was sent to stud, Donna underwent surgery to remove an egg-sized aneurysm on her brain. The hospital bills were more than $40,000, and again they had to scramble to get by.
They met in an elevator at Shenandoah Downs, a West Virginia track that shared a mailbox with Charles Town, and were more at home on the backstretches of the smaller tracks, where Donovan befriended stablehands with names like Gatemouth, Broom Sweeping Charlie and Centerpole. He was known to write poetry about them. Donovan told the story about the funeral of John Boston, an excellent groom but a man with few friends. When no one volunteered to stand and speak on behalf of the deceased, the presiding priest nudged Centerpole into saying a few words. "I will tell you one thing, father," he said. "His brother was a helluva lot worse."
For many Maryland winters, Donovan was stabled at Bowie, where sub-freezing temperatures and snowstorms went with the job. "One season at Bowie," Donovan said, "it was too cold for trees to be outside."
Written by Bill Christine
Friday, August 22, 2008
Keep the Kyne
The last vestige of Bay Meadows is a three-day auction that will offer all that remains of the 75-year-old track before the wrecking ball arrives. The auction's 2,600 lots run the gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime and back again. Want a popcorn machine? They've got it. Want some Fred Stone prints and murals? Raise your hand. A photo of Ralph Neves, the Hall of Fame jockey, standing with Oliver Hardy caught my eye. Where was Stan Laurel? I didn't think those two ever went out in public unless they were together.
The winner's circle scale; seats from the grandstand; photos of virtually every winner of the El Camino Real Derby; barstools; chandeliers from the Turf Club; the grand piano from the Turf Club; a large color print of Barry Bonds, slugging one of his home runs: This surely is an auction for the man or woman who has everything. But there is one thing missing, something the auction house never thought of. It's not even tangible, it's not something you could wrap your arms around.
It's the Bill Kyne Handicap.
If the Bill Kyne Handicap was included in the auction, I'd be in the front row, bidding like crazy. Then I'd take the race, what's left of it, and offer it to Golden Gate Fields and Santa Anita and Del Mar. And if none of them took it, and wouldn't agree to run it next year and all the rest of the years, I'd never speak to them again.
The subject of the future of the Bill Kyne Handicap came up accidentally during an interview I had with Marylin Kyne Gunderson at her home in the Marina District of San Francisco the day after Bay Meadows ran its last race.
"Will the Kyne ever be run again?" I asked of Bill Kyne's daughter.
"I wouldn't think so," she said. On her dining-room table was a stack of winner's circle pictures from previous runnings of the Kyne.
"Maybe Golden Gate will start running it," I said.
"I doubt that," she said.
The Kyne Handicap was first run in 1954, two years before the death, at age 69, of Bill Kyne, who sold California voters on parimutuel betting in 1933 and then built Bay Meadows in 209 days, in time for its opening in November of 1934.
The Kyne Handicap had a tough act to follow after its first running. Imbros' win in 1954 came a couple of hours after Determine had won the Kentucky Derby. Determine and Imbros were both owned by Andy Crevolin and trained by Willie Molter. Ray York rode Determine, Johnny Longden was Imbros' jockey. Crevolin became the first owner to win a pair of $100,000 races on the same day.
While the Kyne was a $100,000 race from the start, it was quickly downsized by 1958, a posthumous slap in the face for the man who put Northern California racing on the map and, through his successful battle for parimutuels, helped open the door for Santa Anita to the South. Some years, the Kyne wasn't run at all, and when it got a one-shot renewal in 2006, after a six-year hiatus, Marylin Gunderson was resigned to never seeing her father's name in lights again.
Maybe she'll be right. The ball's in Golden Gate's court. In the event Golden Gate thinks small and says Bill Who? to the Kyne, it is imperative that Santa Anita or Del Mar jumps in. It makes some sense that Santa Anita be first alternate. Kyne and Charles Strub, the founder of Santa Anita, were both San Francisco guys, and the early histories of their tracks were deeply intertwined. Strub wanted to build a track in his hometown, and went to Los Angeles only after Kyne looked at the lay of the land there, found it too expensive for his budget and returned to San Francisco. Hell, run the Strub Stakes and the Kyne Handicap at Santa Anita on the same day. It won't bother me if it doesn't bother you.
Written by Bill Christine
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Playing the Charity Card
If he's not careful, Jess Jackson is going to make the Big Brown guys look like the good guys.
That's pretty hard to do. As the big colt got deeper and deeper into the Triple Crown series, his handlers seemed to alienate the public, fellow horsemen and the media on a daily basis. Michael Iavarone, co-president of the combine that races Big Brown, had a resume with several holes in it; Rick Dutrow, the horse's oft-disciplined trainer, had an incurable case of logorrhea.
". . . I do not like the package that Big Brown comes in," said Dogwood Stable's Cot Campbell, as close as anyone in racing to being the rebirth of Will Rogers.
When Iavarone announced, after Big Brown blew the Belmont, that all of the stable's horses would run drug-free but for Lasix, Team Valor International's Barry Irwin said: "If (Iavarone) really wants to make a statement, he should consider moving his horses (away from Dutrow). Then he may get somebody's attention. Until then, the (drug-free) proposal looks like an attempt at damage control or a PR stunt."
Dutrow's inane comments after Big Brown's recovery in the Haskell ("I don't know why people think Curlin is a good horse") got Jackson's attention. "I think it's bad for racing to have trash talk," Curlin's owner said. ". . . To run down another guy's horse. . . isn't the right thing to do."
That was a perfect rejoinder to Dutrow's diatribes. But then this week Jackson, anxious to move the Curlin-Big Brown rivalry in the direction of the track, took the illogical next step: He waved an offer of $50,000 for a backstretch cause at Belmont Park if Big Brown would show up in the Woodward at Saratoga. That's been penciled in as Curlin's next race.
There are better ways to wax philanthropic. Iavarone, saying thanks but no thanks, waved back with the good works his partners have done. It was my charity against your charity, at 10 paces. Among the things racing doesn't need is duelling charities. It's not cheap but it's tacky.
Jackson, one of the few white knights racing has these days, was ill-advised to infuse altruism into the fray. He has his agenda, Big Brown's handlers have theirs, and the twain. . . well, we all know what happens to the twain. The only way we can change what happens to the twain is for one side to blink, and these guys don't have a blink in their body. Jackson's second challenge, the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, looks like a proposition for deaf ears as well.
Iavarone is right when he says the Horse of the Year title ought to be settled in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Otherwise, the Breeders' Cup has been wasting its time. But life isn't fair, and recruiters for Mensa International haven't been following Breeders' Cup officials around. The awarding of the next two Breeders' Cups to Santa Anita, with its iffy synthetic surface, has come home to roost. My advice to Jess Jackson, at the usual rates, is to quit the carrot-dangling and just show up with Curlin at Santa Anita. He's a classy enough guy that he won't complain about Pro-Ride if his horse gets beat. I can't say that about Rick Dutrow. In fact, I might make the biggest bet of my life against it.
Written by Bill Christine