Saturday, November 13, 2010
Racing Memorabilia Is Not in the Cards
During Breeders' Cup week in Las Vegas, one day I left the room for the hotel racebook and stopped at a couch near the elevator to reorganize my rucksack of belongings. Racing Form, Kelco Class Calculator, extra bottles of water, pens, day's newspapers, Zenyatta baseball cap, binoculars. . . Binoculars, in a racebook? Not to use, of course, but to give me the feel of a racetrack.
While sitting there, a very tall man came out of a nearby swinging door marked "Staff." He looked Irish. For lack of a better name, I'm going to call him Kelly.
"Wanna hear a story?" Kelly said. Boy, had he come to the right place, and found the right guy.
Kelly went on to tell about how he had come by a rare Honus Wagner baseball card, like the one that Bruce McNall, after he had won the Arc de Triomphe with Saumarez and before he went to stir, and Wayne Gretzky had once bought for $450,000. Kelly said he had called an auction house and was told that he had something worth putting on the block.
"I've got it in a safe-deposit box," he said. "I'll leave it for my son. I don't need the money."
Kelly might have been a room-service waiter. He was dressed like one. I wondered how a room-service waiter could say that he didn't need the money, but I guess that's another story.
The history of the Honus Wagner card is that it was put out by a tobacco company a century ago, without the permission of the great Pittsburgh Pirates' shortstop, who didn't smoke. Wagner made a fuss, and all but 60 of the 2-by-2 1/2-inch, multi-colored cards were recalled.
Kelly didn't know that story, nor did he know that an order of Catholic nuns in Baltimore was auctioning another Wagner card, which had been left to them after one of the sisters had inherited it from her brother. The day after my conversation with Kelly, that card was sold for $262,000.
I felt obligated to finally tell Kelly that I was a journalist. It works every time. He didn't say another word. In an instant, he disappeared through the swinging door marked "Staff." He was in the wrong place, and had found the wrong guy. I'm not using his real name, nor naming the hotel where he works, but otherwise all bets are off. You tell your stories to strangers and you take your chances.
Every time baseball cards come up, I think of racing cards and how little they're worth by comparison. You might say the same for the entire racing memorabilia market. Want an Eddie Arcaro card, autographed? Contact John Ostlund, a collector in Massachusetts, and he'll sell you one for $20 or $30. Want Arcaro and Bill Shoemaker together? $135. Steve Cauthen? A steal at $8. You can get two Bob Bafferts for what it would cost you for one Cauthen. Ron Turcotte, $4 to $10.
Thoroughbred racing's list in the Ostlund collection doesn't even take up one page. His baseball collection runs 30 pages. One of the cheapest baseball autographs, Lou Boudreau's, is $20, which is more than most of the racing offerings. Some representative prices from the baseball side: Satchel Paige, $595; Mickey Mantle, $450; Joe DiMaggio, $395; Ted Williams, $415. I saw once in a collectors' magazine that an Eddie Gaedel autograph was going for $20,000, and they'd throw in the signature of Ray Anthony, the old bandleader, which was on the other side. Gaedel only batted once in the big leagues (he walked), but he was a 3-foot-7 midget, one of Bill Veeck's promotional stunts with the ragamuffin St. Louis Browns, and he was quickly banned from baseball. The scorecard from the game has been listed at $1,200 on eBay. I attended that game, in 1951, and didn't save my scorecard. You're about to see a grown man cry.
For $1,200, you could buy Ostlund's entire horse racing collection and have some money left over. The most expensive racing lot that Ostlund has is a signed glossy photo of Arcaro, which can be had for $150.
Racing tried to get into the trading card business full bore in 1991, in conjunction with the 50th anniversary of the Jockeys' Guild. John Ball and the late Jim Bolus worked tirelessly in producing several outstanding collections of jockeys, horses, Kentucky Derby memories and Breeders' Cup cards, but eventually the project was abandoned. This year, the Jockeys' Guild is back in the trading card business, on a very limited basis, with the Daily Racing Form. The full 2010 set, 61 cards, is being marketed in 11-card packages--10 active riders and one Hall of Fame jockey per package. In anticipation of the aborted Zenyatta-Rachel Alexandra showdown this year at Oaklawn Park, the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce put out cards of both horses. I got a couple, and got the jockeys, Mike Smith and Calvin Borel, to sign them. Some day, somebody may come up to me and offer me a Mickey Mantle and a Satchel Paige for the pair of horses, but I will say no. But if Kelly from Las Vegas calls with his Honus Wagner card, I'll say, Let's talk.
Written by Bill Christine
Saturday, November 06, 2010
The Best Story Finished Second
Usually, when I cover a race, I don't bet it and I root not for horses, but the best stories. It's a selfish dodge. The best stories are the easiest to write, most of the time. But the best story didn't have a long enough nose in the Breeders' Cup. Zenyatta finished second, and her undefeated career is no more, after 19 wins and a flawless streak that began around Thanksgiving in 2007. After Blame beat out Zenyatta by a dirty nostril at Churchill Downs, Ann Moss, one of Zenyatta's owners, wondered whether her mare might still want to head to the winner's circle, out of pure habit. Who could blame her? Or should it be written, Who could Blame her?
Blame (the horse, not the verb) is a good story in his own right--his trainer, Al Stall Jr., is not exactly a household name in Breeders' Cup annals--but most of us will save his saga for another day. This is one time when the bridesmaid will definitely be catching the bouquet.
"She ran her heart out, but she just came up a little short," said John Shirreffs, who trains Zenyatta. There will be second-guessing that Mike Smith, who's ridden Zenyatta in all but three of her races, had her too far back early, leaving her with too much to do, and there could be something to that. Zenyatta's late runs always produced wins before, many by uncomfortably small margins, but often she was beating second-rate opposition and this time, in the richest race North America has, she was up against the best male horses that had survived the long year.
There is also the notion that had Zenyatta been granted one more stride en route to the wire, she would have prevailed. What's the old wheeze, "They don't write mile-and-a-quarter races for a mile and a quarter and one jump"? I can't buy into this one. Blame and his jockey, Garrett Gomez, who survived a scary spill at Churchill Downs two days before the Breeders' Cup, were determined to hold off Zenyatta this time. There was no quit in the horse and no give in the rider. "Zenyatta's the best I ever seen," Gomez said after the race. "At the eighth pole, I thought I was going to win easy, but then I saw (Zenyatta) out of the corner of my eye."
So Zenyatta will go down as the best horse never to win the Horse of the Year award. A year ago, the voters opted for Rachel Alexandra, who had beaten males two more times than Zenyatta, and this year Blame looks like a lead pipe for the title. He was lightly raced, but three of his four wins were in Grade 1 races, and Haynesfield, the only horse to beat him, was crushed in the Breeders' Cup. Zenyatta will still get some votes, including misplaced support from those who thought she was jobbed out of the title last time, but Blame's win at Churchill, over a surface he loves, was the tell-tale coda to a near-perfect year.
All week, I had bad vibes about the best story falling apart before my very eyes. I kept telling people that I had this hunch that Zenyatta's loop the loop from the quarter pole wouldn't be good enough. But in my dream of the race, I envisioned her coming perhaps a length short, not inches. She ran a winning race, only it won't show in the record book.
The Zenyatta camp was gracious in defeat, as is their fashion. Jerry Moss, Ann Moss' husband, was, like all of us, too accustomed to seeing Zenyatta get up in time all the time. "I thought she would get there," Jerry Moss said. "But she just missed. I'm proud of her. She lost to a great horse."
On ESPN, both Randy Moss (who's not related to Zenyatta's owners) and Jerry Bailey, the Hall of Fame jockey, had picked Blame to win. As he was going off the air, Moss said: "I almost feel guilty that we picked Zenyatta to get beat and we were right." But I'll never believe that Zenyatta got beat. She finished second, that's all. My old semantics teacher from college would be proud.
Written by Bill Christine
Saturday, October 30, 2010
The Electric Kool-Aid Zenyatta Baseball Cap Test
The idea for the Great Zenyatta Baseball Cap Experiment came from someone who reacted to a column (not mine) on this site. Wish I could remember the name. He said, and I'm paraphrasing now: "Zenyatta's a great horse, but you mention her name around my office, and nobody knows who you're talking about."
The day the undefeated Zenyatta won the Lady's Secret Stakes, for her 19th in a row, Oak Tree at Hollywood Park gave away snappy caps in honor of the 6-year-old mare. I took mine home and began wearing it daily, to this day. That's 30 straight days. I've worn it everywhere, on my daily three-mile walks, to at least three movies, to supermarkets, to fast-food restaurants, to slow-food restaurants, to doctors' and one dentist's offices, in front of the nurse, dressed like a lady bug for Halloween, who gave me my flu shot, to the post office, to gas stations, to the 99 Cent Store, to the cleaners, to the bank (inside, not just the ATM), to a gastropub (search me), to the men's room at Fuddrucker's (they serve wild boar on a wheat bun, but they don't deliver), to drug stores, to Macy's, to both Home and Office Depots, and to Best Buy. I always take my cap off at restaurants (many guys over 40 do), but to give the Zenyatta cap maximum exposure, I left it on (a woman standing behind me at Carl's Jr. complained that she couldn't read the menu; three times, my wife Pat removed herself and ate at another table).
About the only place I didn't wear the Zenyatta cap was in bed (and I did forget once and it got wet in the shower). It looks like the oldest 30-day-old cap out there, and it did not come with a manufacturer's guarantee. Only Zenyatta herself comes with a guarantee.
I was expecting dozens of people to see Zenyatta's name and colors splashed across the front of the black cap and say gushing things like, "What a mare!," "She'll jerk their heads off one more time in the (Breeders' Cup) Classic," "They'll have to give her Horse of the Year this time," "I was at Del Mar when she won," "She's the best I ever seen," etc.
I even expected fans of The Police to say, "I've still got that album." Or, "The Police were never the same after Sting left." Or, "De Do Do Do De Da Da Da." Zenyatta, owned by record executive Jerry Moss and his wife Ann, was named after The Police's third album, "Zenyatta Mondatta," released in 1980.
But in all the time I wore the cap, most of it spent traversing the area in the shadows of Hollywood Park, I got no comments about The Police, and only one about Zenyatta. Walking past a park in Redondo Beach one afternoon, there was an oncoming man, his two daughters and two dogs. As the father passed, he said out of the corner of his mouth, "We were there (Hollywood Park) that day, too."
Some people can wear ball caps and some can't. Denny McLain, for all the games he pitched and won, always looked like a man who was sleeping with his hat on. Maybe it's the shape of my head, I thought, that was discouraging comments about Zenyatta. People may have thought I was advertising the Matterhorn, not publicizing a racehorse. They couldn't get past the fact that I reminded them of "The Coneheads."
Mine was not a scientific survey, far from it, but I get the feeling that the guy whose office didn't know Zenyatta is more than an exception. What's limited her appeal, I suppose, is that all of her races but two have been in California, usually run late in the day on the East Coast, and she's never run east of Arkansas. She's seldom been on national TV, and the racing channels that have carried her races are only catering to the choir.
"They had a great filly on the East Coast (Rachel Alexandra) and a great filly on the West Coast," said John Shirreffs, the trainer of Zenyatta, who recently spoke with The Blood-Horse magazine about the 2009 season. "They didn't celebrate both of them. Instead they pitted one against the other, and I thought they made a huge mistake." Shirreffs, a crackerjack trainer and a perceptive man, didn't identify who "they" was, but in the case of Zenyatta there is enough blame to go around.
"They say they are looking for stars to promote," Shirreffs went on. "'Where are our stars?' they ask. Here she is and then they seem to be looking for something better. The opportunity here is that Zenyatta is so unique."
Zenyatta is likely to be given more media exposure than all her races combined when "60 Minutes" presents a piece on her during its October 31 show. I'll be watching. With my cap on.
Written by Bill Christine