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: bill.christine@yahoo.com.

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Thursday, July 17, 2008


Blackout


They had 44,181 fans, almost a record, at Del Mar for opening day.

The next day, Bo Derek, a newly appointed commissioner, attended her first California Horse Racing Board meeting on the track grounds. The crowd there was 44,182.

Just kidding.

What I can't kid about is that the Los Angeles Times, one of my alma maters, carried no coverage of Del Mar's opening day. "Because of ongoing reductions to The Times Sports staff and space for news in the Sports section, the handicap, charts and results from Del Mar will not be included in the daily sports report," read a notice at the bottom of one of the back pages. "There will be coverage of major events during the seven-week meeting."

A crowd of 44,181, bigger than anything Del Mar has seen since Dare and Go ended Cigar's 16-win streak in 1996, would seem to denote a "major event," but The Times had deep-sixed its two turf writers two days before Del Mar opened. Larry Stewart and Bob Mieszerski, former colleagues who had combined to work at the paper for more than 50 years, were part of a newsroom purge that cost about 150 people their jobs. "For my 20-year anniversary, the paper gave me a party," Stewart said later on Public Radio. "For my 25th, they took a bunch of us to The Palm restaurant. But for my 30th, it was, 'See you later. Thanks a lot--sorry.'"

Oddly enough, the axing of Stewart and Mieszerski wasn't the most ill-timed firing in the history of racing-related journalism. That award goes to the Dallas Morning News, which dispatched its crack turf writer, Gary West, three or four days before they ran the Breeders' Cup at Lone Star Park. West had spent months and months of traveling, reporting and writing run-up stories for the Breeders' Cup. Some of them were in the can and had yet to be published. Subscribing to the any-port-in-a-storm strategy, West worked as a stringer for the Fort Worth paper on Breeders' Cup day.

If there's space next to the dodo in the Smithsonian, a stuffed likeness of a turf writer (overweight, slumped at the shoulders, scuffed shoes, no hair and mustard on the lapel) would make a nice fit. There aren't many of us left. To think, the Los Angeles Times once had a publisher, David Laventhol, who carried the nickname of "Clocker Dave." I outlasted several publishers there, and the only one I ever went to lunch with was Laventhol, who wanted to talk about horses. Now the only friend racing has in the Los Angeles Times building is Bill Dwyre, who lost his vote when he left the front office to write columns. Racing is an outcast in most newspaper buildings. The sport, concentrating on retrieving the TV coverage it once turned its back on, quit stroking the print guys, and the newer print guys, unlike their predecessors, don't know a horse from a hen. The next sports editor who goes to a horse race gets the Pulitzer Prize.

"Nobody knows where the newspaper business will be in the next three to five years," said a departing Times editor on the radio. "All we know now is that the financial model isn't working." He's bailing out to work for a dot-com, but that's another story.

At the racing board meeting at Del Mar, Bo Derek, wading into her new assignment, didn't say much. No one was expecting one of Lady Macbeth's soliloquies, anyway. Ms. Derek sat there attentively for the full four hours. The lighting could have been better.

Written by Bill Christine

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Thursday, July 10, 2008


Scientific Games Recircles the Wagons


While Scientific Games, the troubled tote company, has made peace with California racing authorities, it faces what could be heavy-duty litigation in the state. A San Francisco firm, representing a bettor in Pomona, has filed a $5-million class-action suit against the Georgia-based outfit over the quick-pick fiasco that surfaced on Kentucky Derby day at Bay Meadows. Lawyers, start your engines.

Listed as the plaintiff in the suit is Carl Woodmansee, who likes to bet the quick pick at Santa Anita, but according to the complaint the litigants could total "tens of thousands." If De Mille were still alive, he could store up on extras. Eligible for their day in court are any wild-and-crazy bettors who have made quick-pick bets going back to November.


While waiting for the judge, Scientific Games, warding off any potential legal action from the California Horse Racing Board, has struck a deal that may also interest bettors. The tote concern will pay the state $50,000 for its investigative trouble, donate $150,000 to a few racing-related charities and refund quick-pick bets dating back to July of last year. As though anyone would have squirreled away those mutuel tickets. The agreement says that bettors can be reimbursed "as long as a person can establish placement of a bet through legitimate proof, including but not limited to a ticket stub." I asked a Scientific Games spokesman what kind of proof there could be other than an old ticket, and he couldn't think of anything. You might try submitting a photo that your Aunt Minnie took while you were making your bet.

Scientific Games did all right for itself in negotiations with the racing board. The $200,000 it's spending bought the company another year of business with all the tracks in California. The racing board extended the contract, but between the lines I'd say Scientific Games is on a short leash.

Scientific Games, $27.31 on Thursday's NASDAQ, down from a 52-week high of $40.70, must by now have a Putting Out Fires division. Not long ago, there was some alleged past-posting at Philadelphia Park, where bets were made on a race after it was over. Scientific Games handles the tote there, too. "Somebody had made some big bets after the race," said Joe Wilson, Philly Park's chief operating officer, in an interview with the Philadelphia Daily News. There is scuttlebutt that a $500 win bet on the winning Philadelphia horse, and a $500 exacta wager on the correct 1-2 finishers, were made at Tampa Bay Downs. By lowering the odds, those bets would have effectively taken money out of the pockets of bettors who wagered the old-fashioned way, before the horses left the gate.

Where do you start, where do you stop, with all the mess-ups? The nadir will always be the 2002 Breeders' Cup, in which the pick six was rigged so that a Scientific Games (Autotote) employee and two cohorts held all six tickets on a 3.1-million payoff. The tickets were never cashed, and the three scoundrels did time, but bettor confidence was torpedoed. Other Scientific Games dustings seem minuscule: An employee fired in 1999 for a security breach; another worker canned in 2001 because of $100,000 in counterfeit tickets; a bettor at the Fair Grounds in December able to buy tickets almost a minute after the race was under way.

The quick-pick hiccup (drink three beers and try to say that three times quickly) in California stemmed from a Bay Meadows bettor making 1,300 one-dollar superfecta bets on the Derby. Horses are given out at random in the quick pick, but after the race the bettor looked at his tickets to find that Big Brown, No. 20 and the winner of the race, was not on any of them. The CHRB learned that "the last numbered horse was being dropped" on quick-pick bets all the way back to October, "but (Scientific Games) did not disclose it to the CHRB."

The Bay Meadows bettor supposedly has been compensated, although it is not clear whether the payment came from the track or the tote company. Dena Sharp, one of the attorneys representing Carl Woodmansee in the class-action suit, said that Woodmansee is not the Bay Meadows bettor. By taking a payoff from Scientific Games for some smudged quick-pick tickets, would bettors preclude themselves from joining Woodmansee as a plaintiff? Sharp wasn't sure. Part of it would depend on whether a reimbursed bettor signed some sort of a hold-harmless waiver with Scientific Games.

"Beginning at a time unknown to plaintiffs," the suit reads, "Scientific Games' Quick Pick software has excluded the highest numbered horses in every race from the random selection. Although Scientific Games knew about this problem by at least Oct. 30, 2007, Scientific Games concealed it from the public while purportedly attempting a series of unsuccessful 'fixes' to the software. . . As a result of the purported glitch in Scientific Games' software, consumers have paid for but have not received the wagering opportunity offered by Scientific Games, and Scientific Games has been unjustly enriched."

Out of habit, I called Tom Hodgkins, a Scientific Games spokesman, for comment about the lawsuit, and he had none. It's gotten to be a running joke between me and Hodgkins that every time I call him, he has nothing to say. Apart from that, Hodgkins seems like an amiable sort, and I told him that I now openly refer to him as "No Comment" Hodgkins. He chuckled. Getting a Scientific Games man to chuckle these days is a bear of a task.

Written by Bill Christine

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Thursday, July 03, 2008


Bring Back 1 & 1A


Between excoriating several trainers (dead and alive) and running a horse that was put down after breaking his pelvis at Monmouth Park, Rick Dutrow made a bet on Rising Moon, a horse he ran in the Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park. Rising Moon, at 4-1, finished third. Dutrow won the Suburban with Frost Giant, at 40-1 and uncoupled because he and Rising Moon have different owners. Dutrow had nary a sou on Frost Giant.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

I put the question to Pete Pedersen, who has retired from the stewards' stand but is still active as a racing sage.

"From a public relations standpoint, I think I'd need to examine it," Pedersen said. "Sure, I think if I were still a steward, I'd ask Dutrow about it."

Cynicism is rife in the land, particularly cynicism about matters Dutrow, who has a rap sheet that stretches from Belmont to Bushwick. Someone else I talked to was Mace Siegel, who, it so happens, owned the Dutrow horse who suffered fatal injuries at Monmouth.

"I bet both of Rick's horses in the Suburban," Siegel said. "I bet just as much on one as I did on the other, so I made a nice score. The reason I did that is because of something I've learned after 10 years of running horses with Rick: Anything he sends out is dangerous. Rising Moon had an excuse. He was sick after the race."

Siegel said he asked Dutrow how he bet the race.

"He told me the same thing that he said publicly, that he bet Rising Moon but not Frost Giant," Siegel said. "But that was between me and him, and he didn't have to say it to everybody. That was needless information that he was giving out. But this is Rick. He had no business saying what he said about all those trainers, either. I thought Gasper Moschera's answer was perfect." ("I take Dutrow's charges as an insult," the retired trainer told the New York Post. ". . . I have no problem with Dutrow, I wish him all the luck, but he should thank God and shut his mouth. He talks like a jerk, but he can talk intelligent, too.")

The coupled-entry rule has been watered down so much in many jurisdictions that it's quasi-irrelevant. Racetrack managements like uncoupling because it boosts the number of betting interests in an era when short fields are rampant. Uncoupling also saves tracks from facing irate bettors who have bet a two-horse entry and been unable to backtrack at the windows after the stronger half has been scratched. "But uncoupling," Pedersen said, "can lead to a lot of things that might not be proper."

Dutrow is known to bet by the wheelbarrow (see Saint Liam, Breeders' Cup Classic, 2005). After the hoi polloi at Belmont learned of his betting pattern in the Suburban, they had a right to ask: "What instructions did he give the riders? Did the jock on Frost Giant hear what he said?"

In Mace Siegel's opinion, such conjecture is moot.

"Rick is as straight as can be, and he's an incredible horse trainer," he said.

Unrequited, the 5-year-old gelding who suffered a broken pelvis at Monmouth, was running only two days after a fourth-place finish at Belmont. He ran for a $35,000 claiming price at Belmont and a $30,000 tag at Monmouth. A winner of three of 16 starts for his career, Unrequited had dropped down from the $62,500 ranks he once ran in for trainer Ron Ellis in California. Unrequited's Monmouth jockey, Eddie Castro, pulled him up going down the backstretch of a six-furlong race.

"It was my decision to run the horse, and my decision to eventually put him down," said the California-based Samantha Siegel, who manages the family stable for her father. "Rick has a history of running back horses quickly and winning with them, so I could see nothing wrong with that. The horse was sound going into the Monmouth race. There were no physical issues. We wouldn't run an unsound horse. If the horse broke his pelvis in the race, the rider would have felt that. The day after the race, Rick called and said the horse had no problems. The next day, he called back to say that the horse couldn't get up in his stall. At that point, there was nothing we could do to save him. We care about our horses, but this is a business, and the reality of the business is that they have to pay for themselves. So you have to run them when you think it's best."

"The Rainman" is Samantha Siegel's nickname for Dutrow.

"He's a large child," she said. "There are days when he can't tie his shoes. But he has an innate ability to work with horses, and he thinks out of the box. We trust him completely."

Written by Bill Christine

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