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:

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Thursday, August 07, 2008

Toast to a Mule

This is about a mule, but there will be no Francis the Talking Mule jokes, no clever references to "Two Mules for Sister Sara." It is too austere an occasion for comedy. Black Ruby, the mule of the piece, is about to run her last race and then be retired. Sixteen, going on 17, it is time.

I would like to tell you that Black Ruby is about to run her 116th race, or maybe her 121st, but no one, including the Daily Racing Form, has been able to accurately keep up with her non-stop career. She has run at least one race a year since she was a 4-year-old, in 1996. "They lost count during her early days, when she was running in Nevada," said Mary McPherson, who with her husband Sonny owns Black Ruby. "In those days, she'd win a race on Saturday, and then come back and win two more on Sunday."

Mary McPherson says with certainty that Black Ruby has won 70 races, a record for mules. She has earned about $260,000, another record for the breed but one that is in jeopardy because owners of these fast critters have been known to put their money where there mule is. Last year at the Big Fresno Fair, two men put up $20,000 apiece, and the track added $10,000, to see who had the speediest mule. Sarah Nelson, who lost the match race to Bar JF Hot Ticket, would be the earnings leader now had she won. With 48 wins, Sarah Nelson has earned $230,000, and she would appear to have plenty of time to pass Black Ruby. She's only a 9-year-old.

Sarah Nelson is racing these days at Ferndale, Calif., the same county fair where Black Ruby will make her last start. For those who didn't major in Northern California Geography, Ferndale is a 116-year-old Victorian village of 1,390, about 265 miles north of San Francisco and five miles from the Pacific Ocean. It has been deemed a state historical landmark. If you don't see a picture of main-street Ferndale next to "charming" in the dictionary, turn to the page where "idyllic" is listed. Surely Norman Rockwell visited there more than once. In 1996, on the recommendation of Tom Ward, a state racing steward who loves Ferndale more than Del Mar, I attended the 100th-anniversary Humboldt County Fair in Ferndale. The track had races for Arabians, Appaloosas, quarter horses, thoroughbreds and, of course, mules. There was a mule running with the eye-catching name of Alydar's Moonface. "Out of a mare by Alydar," one sage said with confidence, but officially the mule's breeding was listed as "by unknown out of unknown."

Mules are sterile (something to do with their chromosomes, but in good conscience I can't go there). Black Ruby's sire was a donkey, called a jack, and her dam was a thoroughbred-quarter horse mix. Black Ruby is not a mare, she's a molly--as female mules are called.

Mules are not allowed to run until they turn three, and Black Ruby's debut came when she was four, because of a badly damaged right rear ankle that she suffered when her leg went through the floorboard of a moving van as it traveled through Montana. At the races, Black Ruby began beating all comers, including Fancy, a standout mule that Sonny McPherson had bought for $750 out of an Alabama stockyards. Unable to beat Black Ruby, McPherson bought her in 1996, for a price that neither he nor his wife will disclose. "That's a mystical part of her story that we've vowed never to tell," Mary McPherson said.

Sonny McPherson once told me that he turned down a $30,000 offer for the mule. Mary McPherson said that subsequent offers had been for more. "This mule has given me more pleasure than I've ever known," Sonny McPherson told one salivating potential buyer. "Why would I want to give her up?"

He can identify with Black Ruby's recovery. In 1981, driving his pickup, McPherson swerved to miss another car and crashed into a tree. He was thrown through the windshield and suffered multiple injuries, followed by the amputation of his right leg at the knee.

While running for the McPhersons, Black Ruby has had three trainers--Jerry Jackson, who was 75 when he died in 2002, a day or two after one of her wins; Ron White, who was Jackson's assistant; and currently Harley Kowalsky. She put together two 15-race win streaks in a career that netted world-champion honors (muledom's version of Horse of the Year) for seven straight years, starting in 1997. Jimmy Burns, who was riding her then, was aboard for 68 races--48 wins, 13 seconds and 7 thirds. If she lost at all during that period, it was usually to the hard-knocking Taz, two years her junior. Taz also was beaten so often by Black Ruby that he came to be known "the Alydar of the mules."

The most money Black Ruby ever ran for was $10,000. Three Southern California tracks--Del Mar and Fairplex Park in 2002 and Los Alamitos in 2003--put up that much for her to face Taz in match races, and Black Ruby won all three. Jack Kaenel (that Jack Kaenel, the one who won the Preakness as a teenager with Aloma's Ruler in 1982) rode Taz at Del Mar and Fairplex. In one of the races that Taz won, at 440 yards, Black Ruby carried 131 pounds and spotted her opponent five pounds.

There was no betting on the race at Del Mar, and many times tracks precluded place and show betting. Bettors were said to bet tens--even hundreds--of thousands of dollars on Black Ruby, resulting in substantial minus pools that tracks had to make good on.

"I'm proud of the fact that I was along for one of her 15-race win streaks," Ron White said. "She's done an awful lot to bring mule racing to the general public. There were stories in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times. Sports Illustrated did something. Every time she went out there, she wanted to win. She didn't like the idea of another mule running ahead of her."

But Black Ruby, while remaining competitive, hasn't won a race since 2003.

"The only reason we're running her one more time is because that will mean she's run at least once for 13 straight years," Mary McPherson said. The McPhersons, who have been married for 34 years, have 12 acres of pasture waiting for Black Ruby at their farm in Healdsburg, 80 miles north of San Francisco.

Black Ruby hasn't changed that much from the days when she went head to head with Taz in all those battles. She stands 14 hands and still weighs about 600 pounds. Somebody once measured her ears at 13 inches. I wonder if she ever beat Taz by an ear?

Written by Bill Christine

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Thursday, July 31, 2008

In His Jockeys’ Footsteps

Ancient Title, his trainer Wayne Stucki once said, could have been ridden by anybody. Well, almost anybody. I doubt that Stucki would have ever given Tom Thumb the mount. But this is just a partial list of jockeys who rode him: Laffit Pincay, Milo Valenzuela, Sandy Hawley, Angel Cordero and Bill Shoemaker. All of them are in the Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Or will be after Monday, when Valenzuela goes in, the same day they'll enshrine Ancient Title.

The 89-year-old Stucki, long retired, told the California Thoroughbred that Ancient Title's enshrinement was long overdue. "But I'm glad to see he finally made it," Stucki said. The Hall of Fame's historical review committee, a highfalutin title for the bureau of oversights and corrections, set aside any prejudices that the electorate at large may have harbored during Ancient Title's years on the ballot. Namely, that Ancient Title was a California-bred and, falsely, that his best game was at a mile or less. The truth was, Ancient Title notched 10 of his 24 wins in routes, including victories, only six weeks apart, in the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Gold Cup and the Whitney Handicap, at nine furlongs.

The Whitney was only a Grade II when he won it, in 1975, but that might have been the race that opened the doors for Ancient Title on Monday. The win at Saratoga erased the stigma that Ancient Title couldn't win outside California. Stucki had undertaken a whirlwind New York campaign that was designed to land an Eclipse Award for his horse, but the rest of the plan failed. Running against the best, Ancient Title ran third twice at Belmont Park, behind Wajima and Foolish Pleasure in the Governor Stakes and Wajima and Forego in the Marlboro Cup. Jeez, did we have horses in those days or what? Forego was voted Horse of the Year and Wajima won the Eclipse for best 3-year-old. Ancient Title was ranked second, behind Forego, in the year-end rankings of best handicap horses.

Another third-place finish, on grass in the 1977 Oak Tree Invitational at Santa Anita, got the late Jimmy Kilroe's vote as the best race Ancient Title ever ran. A neck and a nose separated Crystal Water, Vigors and Stucki's horse at the wire. Ancient Title was only two months away from becoming an 8-year-old. A gelding, they brought him back for 1978, but Shoemaker was forced to pull him up leaving the backstretch of a race at Del Mar, and he never ran again. The bottom line was 57 starts, 24 wins at distances between five and 10 furlongs, and earnings of $1.2 million, a record at the time for a Cal-bred. The only other Cal-breds in the Hall of Fame are Emperor of Norfolk (foaled in 1885, enshrined more than a hundred years later), Swaps and Native Diver. Cafe Prince, a Cal-bred steeplechaser, has also been enshrined.

"Ancient Title did not possess the flamboyant style of Swaps, nor could he claim the romantic aura that encircled Native Diver. . . (but) no horse came along who could quite take his place in the affections of California's racing fans," Mary Fleming wrote in her history of California racing in 1983.

Bred by Bill Kirkland, a paving contractor, and his wife Ethel, Ancient Title had run only seven times when Bill Kirkland died. His widow died four years later, but at least she was around for the wins in the Hollywood Gold Cup and the Whitney. Ancient Title, an 11-year-old, didn't survive surgery following a colic attack in 1981. Pincay won eight races with him, including Ancient Title's maiden win at Hollywood Park on July 7, 1972.

"We had to geld him," Stucki once said. "He was pretty cantankerous, and he was on his hind legs a lot of the time. One day he strained a back leg doing that. By gelding him, we had a 50-50 chance of getting him to the races. But there would have been only a 10 per cent chance if we hadn't gelded him."

Foaled the same year as Secretariat, Ancient Title was never a serious prospect for the Kentucky Derby, and he emphatically eliminated himself with a fourth-place finish, beaten by eight lengths, in Sham's Santa Anita Derby.

Even after he was castrated, Ancient Title was no one to mess with.

"He was always rough--you had to watch him," Stucki said.

One day, during a schooling session in the Santa Anita paddock, Stucki was paying more attention to onlookers than his horse, and Ancient Title kicked him. Right in the head, he did.

Written by Bill Christine

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Friday, July 25, 2008

Let’s Hear It for Petaluma Tony

The first boxcar pick six of the Del Mar meet came on the first Saturday, when a couple of tickets paid $356,909.60 apiece. One of the tickets, held by a person or persons unknown in Nevada, cost $8. The other ticket, bought on the phone by a TVG account holder, cost $12. Bets that small in a million-dollar pick six pool usually don't even earn anybody a swing, let alone a tape-measure home run.

The $12 ticket belonged to a bettor in Petaluma, Calif., about 50 miles north of San Francisco. He identified himself as "Tony" when he called TVG and agreed to be interviewed on the air. He bet three horses in the first leg, two horses in the fourth leg and singled the winning horses in the other four races. Incredibly, one of those singles was Zardana, who won the fifth leg, the Osunitas Handicap, at 43-1. Zardana, a 4-year-old filly trained by Ron McAnally, who had won 72 stakes at Del Mar but was 2 for 52 there last year, was undefeated in Brazil, but had floundered in the U.S., finishing ahead of only three horses in her four starts. Zardana, the longest shot in the nine-horse field, came by her odds legitimately.

Petaluma Tony threw out Kris' Sis, winner of the Osunitas last year; Fleet Caroline, who was second in a Grade II on the grass last year at Del Mar; and Comedy Girl, Spenditallbaby and I Can See, all turf winners at Del Mar in 2007. Zardana had only run twice on grass, had no published workouts at Del Mar, was last in her only start at the Osunitas distance of 1 1/16 miles, and was ridden by Aaron Gryder, who got only five stakes mounts at Del Mar all of last year. I didn't see all of Tony's interview on TVG, and was unsuccessful in trying to reach him, but Tony Allevato, executive producer of TVG (who assured me he doesn't live in Petaluma), said that his namesake thought that McAnally, unable to win with the speedy Zardana running on the lead, would probably order Gryder to take back with the filly. Maybe McAnally should check his barn for bugs, because that's exactly what Gryder did, and from a stalking position Zardana came on to win by a half-length.

Respecting customer anonymity, Allevato allowed that Petaluma Tony is in his 60s, and can hardly see. He can't read the small type in the Daily Racing Form, and without the phone facet of TVG, would not be able to use the account wagering service to place his bets.

On TVG, Petaluma Tony said that Sam Spear's San Francisco radio show on KNBR had helped him narrow his winning ticket. Spear, who's been doing the show for 18 years, said that one of his guests the morning of the races was Ellis Starr, a syndicated handicapper from Lexington, Ky., who gave out Beyla, winner of the third leg of the pick six and another of Petaluma Tony's singles. Beyla, a 6-year-old mare who had won only two of eight starts since leaving Argentina, won the $40,000 claimer by making up six lengths in the stretch, passing seven horses and getting up by a neck at the wire.

Beyla paid $9.60, as the third choice, but she was "something like 15-1 on the morning line," Spear said. The win prices of the other horses in the pick six were $11.80, $5.40, $13.60 and in the last leg--more about that in a minute. The $5.40 horse was Well Armed, the favorite in the San Diego Handicap. Gryder rode him, too, as well as Outrageous Limit, the $13.60 winner.

Petaluma Tony might have taken the whole pool, and doubled his pick-six payoff, but for a scratch in the final leg. That meant that the other winning ticket, the $8 bet out of Nevada, inherited the favorite, who was Improvising Gal. In another bizarre twist, Improvising Gal, running for a $22,500 tag, finished in a dead heat with Dumaani's Gold in a battle of maiden claimers. The road to $356,909.60 might come cheap, but it's never easy.

Written by Bill Christine

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