Saturday, December 04, 2010
Boola Boola for Bowie
BOW E CLUBHOUSE
--Sign at an old racetrack in Bowie, Maryland
Saving Pimlico and Laurel Park is noble and is an imperative, but the track I'm rooting for the most on the deeply distressed Maryland racing map is Bowie. Actually, Bowie is only a training center, and hasn't been a race track for more than 20 years, but there are ghosts rattling around that ancient plant, 35 miles from Baltimore, that don't deserve an indecent burial in the name of land development. In its time, Bowie was a winter respite for hardened horseplayers as far north as New York. It survived a train wreck, at least two fires that killed almost 100 horses, one of the greatest race-fixing capers that never reached fruition, and many a post-race drinking session thanks to the bonhomie of one Muggins Feldman, the track publicist. Feldman was so accommodating that if you didn't fancy the hard stuff, he had a fridge bulging with Pabst Blue Ribbon. Pabst Blue Ribbon in the heart of National Bohemian country? Well, the fact that the owner of Bowie also was the owner of Pabst, that might have had something to do with it.
The congenial, cigar-smoking Feldman, now with the dust, was there the first time I made a pilgrimage to Bowie, in the 1960s, and the trainer Gary Capuano was there the last time, in the spring of 1997. Capuano was preparing his top 3-year-old, Captain Bodgit, for the Wood Memorial and a little later the Kentucky Derby. I was in New York, with the rest of the horses scheduled to run in the Wood, and in a weak moment I decided to drive the more than 200 miles to Maryland for an interview. I didn't even have a cell phone then. "Here's my hotel number," I said to Capuano. "I'm going to leave at 3 in the morning. If for any reason you're not going to be able to be there, head me off at the pass."
"I was just a kid when I first started coming to Bowie," Capuano told me. He had rubbed horses for several trainers, well before he took out a trainer's license. "I remember losing a few paychecks at this track," he said.
On February 14, 1975, Valentine's Day, six jockeys lost their reputations at Bowie. The names of the ringleaders were Eric Walsh, Ben Feliciano, Jesse Davidson and Luigi Gino. They conspired to rig the last race that day, by holding their short-priced horses back and allowing longshots to fill out the three-horse trifecta. One of their brothers just happened to bet $684 in trifecta boxes, and the payoff would have netted the nefarious ring a grand total of $35,237. Davidson had been national riding champion; Walsh was said to be earning about $200,000 a year. By the time the payoff would have been divvied up, the shares were going to be minuscule, but track officials, smelling more than fish from the time the horses crossed the line, impounded the mutuel department and no money ever changed hands. A clever headline writer dubbed the scheme "The St. Valentine's Day Massacre."
Walsh, in his mid 30s, was no better at suicide than he was at cold-watering horses. It took him three tries before he finally died by his own hand. Davidson was sent to a federal prison where a cellmate was G. Gordon Liddy, one of the masterminds of the Watergate scandal. After losing his riding license, Gino worked any job he could find. He was once found as a flagman on a construction crew. By the 1990s, despite objections by those who said he should never work at a racetrack again, he was licensed as a trainer.
While there were jockeys who dressed Bowie in infamy, there were many more who enhanced its proud name. If you could ride at Bowie, in the snowstorms and arctic temperatures, you could ride anywhere, it was said around the country. By November of 1950, there was a fierce battle between Bill Shoemaker and Joe Culmone for the national riding title. This was during an era when such a title actually meant something. Now the jockeys keep score by purses money, and total wins mean little. To jack up attendance, Bowie brought in Shoemaker from California, and he and the Maryland-based Culmone rode on the same card. Shoemaker won the first race of the day, but none afterwards, and Culmone booted home six winners. He needed every one of them to share the crown--he and Shoemaker finished with 388 wins apiece.
Despite the brutal Maryland winters, Bowie enjoyed a reputation as a safe track for horses and jockeys, but during Bill Hartack's apprenticeship, in the early 1950s, a half-dozen jockeys went down in the first race alone. The riders voted not to ride the rest of the day, but Larry MacPhail, better known as a baseball executive, was president of Bowie then, and he came into the jockeys' room and promised the riders a double mount fee if they continued.
One of the jockeys asked a good question. "Mr. MacPhail, what happens if we ride and get killed?"
"Didn't you hear the man?" another jockey, by the name of Jimmy DelVecchio, said. "If we get killed, we get a double funeral."
Written by Bill Christine
Saturday, November 27, 2010
Strength in Numbers
The National Turf Writers Association is about to accept broadcasters into its lodge. After 51 years, it will be, goodbye National Turf Writers Association, hello National Turf Writers and Broadcasters, which would be the new name of the organization. Jerry Bailey, come on down. Jill Byrne, come on down. Joe Tessitore, come on down. Tom Durkin, come on down? We'll see.
At least the new name gives the turf writers top billing. I'm told that the new lapel badge, instead of just having a pair of binoculars, will be adding a microphone. In a poll of the card-carrying turf writers about the admission of racing broadcasters, I voted in favor without hesitation, the main reason being that I needed a new lapel badge. In desperation, I tried to use mine in a Coke machine the other night and it was rejected.
This is not a change that would have Joe Hirsch, founder and first president of the turf writers, spinning in his grave. Hirsch was a progressive, someone who never lost sight of the big picture, and I'm sure he would have seen the wisdom of including broadcasters. The organization had to do something, because turf writers are in danger of becoming extinct. Turf writer
may become an anachronism before long, like bowling alley pin boys and elevator operators. I can virtually count on one hand the number of cities with newspapers that employ full-time turf writers. The Los Angeles Times, where I worked for 24 years, now covers the sport by committee. At almost all papers, gone are the days when a sports editor has the luxury of hiring a reporter who would do only turf writing.
There's been no estimate on how much the rolls of the turf writers will swell, but I would say off-hand that this change to include broadcasters will result in there being at least as many of them as there are of us. Which is not a bad thing, because there probably are
as many of them as there are of us, and I'm talking about qualified broadcasters who cover a lot of races, enough that they know the difference between a withers and a weanling. They also know enough that included with their membership privileges will be an annual Eclipse Awards ballot.
Let's face it, some turf writers cling to their membership (and pay the $50 annual dues) only because they want to retain their Eclipse ballots. (I am one of these). When the broadcasters join, one of the four voting groups will have more of a majority than it already had. Last year, the turf writers controlled 53 per cent of the vote. The other groups with votes are Daily Racing Form representatives, racing secretaries from most of the tracks and the smallest faction--chart people from Equibase. Whether the three minority groups will cotton to the turf writers-broadcasters holding more of an upper hand remains to be seen. It's possible that the votes from the four groups will be equally weighted, at 25 per cent apiece, which was the way Eclipse voting worked before there was a change to the current total-vote system.
The broadcasters are lucky that the turf writers, in considering a reorganization, aren't as narrow-minded as the national baseball writers have been. In another incarnation, I was a baseball writer, and I still hold an honorary membership, and I can say with conviction that broadcasters will never invade that group. Years ago, there were influential baseball writers, such as Dick Young of the New York Daily News and Milt Gross of the New York Post, who typified the resistance to electronic types crashing the club, and that mindset still prevails.
At news conferences, Young would stand in front of cameras so it would be difficult for them to capture the principals; there was almost a fistfight in Atlanta one day when Young objected to the presence of several TV cameramen in the New York Mets' clubhouse. Several hours before the seventh and final game of the 1968 World Series between the Detroit Tigers and the St. Louis Cardinals, Gross was conducting a one-on-one clubhouse interview with Mickey Lolich, one of the star pitchers for the Tigers. Without warning, a local radio broadcaster, somebody from St. Louis, invaded Lolich's locker and stuck a microphone in front of him. He was doing a live broadcast and was going to piggyback on the Gross interview.
There had been a rumor that Lolich would be pitching despite some discomfort in the groin area. Something about an infection that had flared up. With disgust, Gross looked at the broadcaster. He practically grabbed the mike out of the guy's hand and said: "Now, Mickey, about that infection. With that (sore) on your (private), how effective will you be against the Cardinals today?"
The radio guy wrested his mike from Gross and headed for the door. Lolich went out and beat St. Louis, giving Detroit the title. Even before he wrote his column, Milt Gross told me that he had had a good day.
Written by Bill Christine
Saturday, November 20, 2010
Blood, Sweat & Ballots
There are two things I remember about the turf writers' dinner at the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan several years ago. On the walls, where portraits of all the Heisman Trophy winners were hung, were likenesses of Gary Beban, the 1967 winner, and Steve Owens, the 1969 winner, and in between was the blank space that once was occupied by a rendering of O.J. Simpson. I need to ask one of these days about what became of that portrait of the defrocked Simpson.
The other thing about the dinner was the longest pre-dinner cocktail party in the history of pre-dinner cocktail parties. It went on for literally hours. The bus transporting the turf writers who were staying at the media hotel, on Long Island, had gotten lost getting into the city, and the staff at the athletic club was told to hold up the dinner until the stragglers arrived. Meantime, the bartenders, who were only outnumbered by about 5 to 1, kept pouring. I would have liked to have seen the bar bill that night. It might have been more than the handle at the Breeders' Cup a few days later. I was staying at a hotel in Manhattan, and traveling by cab, so no harm, no foul. But after an hour or two of pre-dinner drinks, I wrote the name of my hotel on a piece of paper and put it in my pocket, just as a precaution. What happened to me in New York many years before, a few days before the first Belmont I ever covered, wasn't going to happen again. At an ungodly hour, I poured myself out of Jimmy Ryan's, a jazz joint on 52nd Street, and flagged a cab. I might have been staying at the Roosevelt, but for the moment I couldn't remember. "Take me to the Belmont," I said. "Guess again, mac," the cabbie said. "The Belmont burned down five years ago."
All of this was brought to mind by an article in the New York Times about how some Heisman Trophy voters are wringing their hands this year because of Cam Newton. I hardly follow college football, but apparently Newton, a quarterback from Auburn, is odds-on to win the Heisman, as long as the electorate doesn't penalize him for allegations that he cheated in the classroom at another school, or that someone, perhaps his father, promised him to another school for an amount that was quite a bit more than chump change.
From what I can tell, Heisman voting is much like the Eclipse Awards--the only governing rule is that there are no rules. For my fellow voters who are seeking guidance in the upcoming Horse of the Year election between Blame and Zenyatta, I say, leave well enough alone. There are Eclipse Awards rules for another competition, best stories, broadcasts and photos about horse racing, and they run five pages, or about four pages too long. If a task force were commissioned today to write rules for the Horse of the Year voting, they wouldn't finish by Christmas, and their final draft would be Magna Carta in length. They would need to be told at the outset that they aren't being paid by the word.
In recent years, when both Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen were heavily favored to win Eclipse Awards for best trainer, I sometimes adopted rules of my own and left both of them off my ballot. This was at a time when rulings for drug violations dotted both of their records. Both horsemen denied wrongdoing, but their innocence was seldom substantiated. Most voters were not concerned--Pletcher won four straight awards, starting in 2004, and Asmussen has won the last two years. This year, a handful of voters, incensed over Pletcher's role in the Life At Ten cause celebre at the Breeders' Cup, might skip over his name at ballot time, but it is the wrong year to be running away from the heavy favorite. In 2010, there has been Pletcher and nobody else. He is more than $7 million ahead of the next trainer on the money list, he's won the Kentucky Derby and three Breeders' Cup races, and his barn has won at least 44 graded stakes, double that of Bob Baffert, who's second in those standings. Last year might have been the time to ignore the raw numbers and jump ship, and the Zenyatta camp, after she had won the Breeders' Cup Classic, thought that their trainer, John Shirreffs, stood a good chance to bag an Eclipse. But the voting totals were as raw as they come: Asmussen 130, Shirreffs 57. This time around, Shirreffs will not even be that close when Pletcher's votes are tallied.
The Racing Hall of Fame is an entirely different kettle of fish. Unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame, no rules. Pete Rose, who gambled on baseball, has a record that would normally guarantee enshrinement by acclimation, but he has never been allowed on the ballot. I love Pete, for what he did on the field and for the glib way he talked about it afterwards, but I could never vote for him. Pat Valenzuela, an admitted drug abuser and in trouble with racing authorities much of his sometimes spectacularly successful career, has Hall of Fame credentials, and as sure as Shinola, he'll wind up on the ballot some day. That election will make Blame-Zenyatta seem like child's play.
Back to matters Cam Newton at Auburn. There might even be a lesson in this for Eclipse voters. Although the Newton investigation has yet to run its course, one of the Heisman voters, a sports editor in Mississippi, said: "Sooner or later, we have to send a message about what's right and what's wrong. People tell me that the kinds of things we're hearing about with Cam Newton are just part of college football now. But I say it's not part of college football, and if it is, we need to stop it." One of the schools that was allegedly bidding for Newton's services was Mississippi State. Sometimes, I guess, you have to check your objectivity at the door.
Written by Bill Christine