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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Saturday, October 23, 2010

Death Killed a Sports Illustrated Cover

Industry leaders quail when it's suggested that horse racing is no longer relevant. But for a lesson in how far the sport has regressed in the media's consciousness, go no further than "Sports Illustrated: The Covers," a current coffee-table book that includes all of the front pages from the magazine since its inception in 1954. In Sports Illustrated's early years, it was not uncommon for racing to appear on its covers. Criminy, the magazine even had one cover that featured the opening of the season at Hialeah. Nothing else. The opening of Hialeah, period. Nowadays, even a good race-fixing scandal probably wouldn't tempt Sports Illustrated's cover editors.

Sports Illustrated's first Sportsman of the Year Award, in 1954, went to Roger Bannister, the sub-four-minute miler from England. The next year, according to "The Covers," the magazine was prepared to honor William Woodward Jr., who bred and raced Nashua. But shortly before that issue was to come out, Woodward, only 35, was killed by his wife with a shotgun in the middle of the night at their Long Island estate. His death, ruled an accident, was the first in a series of tragedies to befall the wealthy Woodwards. Their family curse made Arthur Conan Doyle's Baskervilles seem like pikers.

What the magazine had in mind for 1955 was a living Sportsman of the Year. The photographs of Woodward, his wife Ann, Nashua, jockey Eddie Arcaro and trainer Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons had already been taken. But now SI needed an alternate plan, and it turned to Johnny Podres, the 23-year-old pitcher who had helped the Brooklyn Dodgers win the World Series by shutting out the New York Yankees in the seventh game.

Podres seemed like a weak choice then, and he still does. Usually SI's top honor has gone to someone for a year-long body of work, and Podres, while winning one other game in that series, was a sub-.500 pitcher who at best was the No. 4 pitcher on the Brooklyn staff. The magazine would have been better served not to have strayed from Nashua, and given the accolade to Eddie Arcaro, who rode the colt in nine of his 10 wins during a Horse of the Year campaign. Arcaro also led the country in purses, with a total of almost $2 million, and won with 19% of his mounts, which for the uninitiated is a good batting average in riderdom.

Until now, the magazine had made no mention of the Podres-for-Woodward last-minute switch. In the 1955 Sportsman of the Year issue, it was said that a photographer was dispatched to Podres' hometown in the New York Adirondacks, where the pitcher donned a Dodger cap, uniform top and sweatshirt to pose. That's the chest-high shot of Podres that ran on the cover, not very flattering work for a publication that prided itself on its cutting-edge photography, but I suppose all of this was done without too much time to spare.

Back on page 27, in a section that highlighted the year, they ran a photo of the Woodwards--Billy, as he was called, and Ann, a onetime model from rural Kansas, with Arcaro and the trophy they won for their colt beating Swaps, the Kentucky Derby winner, in the celebrated match race at Washington Park.

There had been evidence of a prowler on the Woodward property, and the handsome couple, after attending a soiree for the Duchess of Windsor, had arrived home late on the last night of William Woodward's life. They slept in separate bedrooms, on opposite sides of a hall, and by mutual agreement both went to bed with firearms at the ready. They were experts with guns--on one hunting expedition, in the jungles of India, Ann Woodward had bagged a pair of Bengal tigers, one of which, 10 feet in length, was said to be the largest of its breed ever brought in by a woman.

When the police arrived just after 2 in the morning, they found the nude body of William Woodward, his face a bloody mess. Ann Woodward, in her bedroom, was hysterical and incoherent. The Woodwards' sons, ages 11 and 7, slept through the shooting. The Woodwards' barking dog awakened the couple, and Ann Woodward, the shotgun in hand, stepped into the hallway and fired at what she later said was a "shadow" across the hall.

William Woodward's grieving mother, who may have been no fan of her bluecollar-bred daughter-in-law to begin with, never bought into the official version of her son's death. There were bags of money, of course, awaiting the widow Woodward. Twenty years later, Ann Woodward, by now in her early 50s, killed herself. It was said that a magazine excerpt of an unpublished Truman Capote novel, which trashed a woman whom no one could miss for the real Woodward widow, had sent Ann Woodward over the brink. When she died by her own hand, her 90-something mother-in-law said: "Well, that's that. She shot my son, and Truman just murdered her, so now I suppose we don't have to worry about that anymore."

William and Ann Woodward's sons also became suicides. Jimmy, the youngest, who had given in to the demons of drugs, jumped to his death from a hotel window in 1976. Twenty-three years later, William Woodward III took a dry dive from the 14th floor of an apartment building.

As for Nashua, he sort of got his comeuppance in 1956, as a 4-year-old. Now owned by Leslie Combs II, he won some important races, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but he was beaten four times and Swaps was voted Horse of the Year. I don't know why, but it took until 1965 before Nashua was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame. He still belongs on that short list of "best horses never to have won the Kentucky Derby."

And Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year? After the Woodward near-miss, the magazine didn't honor a racing figure until they gave the award to the apprentice Steve Cauthen in 1977. SI hasn't found a deserving horse or horseman since then. If Zenyatta wins the Breeders' Cup Classic again, she should send them a postcard.

Written by Bill Christine

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Sunday, October 17, 2010

A Lot Wrong With This Picture

I woke up to rain. It's not supposed to be raining in Southern California, not until after Christmas, but then racing in Southern California is not supposed to be in the doldrums, either. It was called the Land of Milk and Honey by Harry Silbert, Bill Shoemaker's agent. The milk has curdled and the honey has turned to something that is the same color as honey. There used to be an argument, a silly debate really, about which was better, California racing or New York racing. Now California and New York are tied for second place, and there is no No. 1. There may not be a No. 1 ever again.

Somebody told me an incredible stat the other day. In 2010-11, the track with the most racing days in Southern California will be Hollywood Park. Not only will Hollywood Park race the most days in these two years, it will be open more days than Santa Anita and Del Mar combined. Santa Anita and Del Mar are supposed to be the going concerns, and Hollywood Park, for several years now, has been telling the world that it wants out of the racing game. If a developer came along, claiming to know something that nobody else knows and growing greenbacks out of both ears, Hollywood Park would dump racing in a heartbeat. The two remaining tracks would dice up all those dates, and then the sport would really show us how more-is-less works.

How California racing came to this morass is a study in myopia, complacency, arrogance, me-first politics and leadership dysfunction. Any of the above, all of the above. When fingering a fall guy, it is easy to pin a bull's-eye on Frank Stronach's back, but I think California racing would have been back on its heels even without Stronach's help. He only accelerated the slide. Drunk with visions of grandeur, he surrounded himself with a bevy of executives, many of them highly competent, all of them eventually aware that the boss had deaf ears. Stronach arrived like a zephyr and is going out to a whimper.

Santa Anita was already in trouble by the time Stronach took over late in 1998. The Strub family, stung by some outside business investments, had had enough, and the new owners were an investment group that was all over the map. They didn't have a clue about race tracks, and must have kissed the hem of Frank Stronach's frock when he walked through the door. These were strange times for race tracks vis-a-vis casinos. R.D. Hubbard, who ran Hollywood Park, knew that you couldn't thrive if you had one without the other, and so did Tom Meeker, of Churchill Downs, but they were in the minority, and even considered heretics. Meeker came to California, made a speech about the symbiosis of slot machines and horse betting, and the gasps could be hard all the way to Louisville. In the Q & A that followed, pinning Meeker to the stake was the mood that prevailed.

Churchill Downs, of course, ended up owning Hollywood Park, but I never got the feeling that their hearts were in it. California governors came and went, all of them enamored with the Indians and their gambling endeavors, none of them taking the time to give racing a tumble. Off-track betting, just as it had years before in New York, arrived with a bad business plan, if there was a plan at all, and now the on-track revenue in California has been cannibalized, all the way down to the bone. Californians will elect another governor in a few weeks. We will either get a woman who's richer than Croesus, or a retread from the long ago. Racing doesn't appear to have a path to either candidate's door.

A year ago, attending the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita was nirvana. They were preparing to host their second straight Breeders' Cup, hopes were high and the place was festooned with banners. This year, Oak Tree, forced to relocate to Hollywood Park, doesn't have a Breeders' Cup and doesn't have a prayer. Interest is at low ebb. Crowds are abysmal, except the day Zenyatta ran. The Oak Tree meet will run right into Hollywood Park's regular fall meet, and if you think you've seen small crowds, stick around.

The racing board isn't even meeting this month, an odd thing for an industry in peril. For the horseplayers around Christmas, a lump of coal in their stocking--a significant increase in the takeout. By then the glow from the movie about Secretariat will be long gone. There's more high-profile exposure for racing to come--"Luck," an HBO series about denizens of the track. Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte head the cast. Those who have seen a rough cut of the first episode give it high marks. "It's enormously accessible to non-horseracing people," said Michael Lombardo, programming president of HBO. But "Luck," filmed mostly at Santa Anita, will not debut until September of 2011. Just in time to give the next Oak Tree-at-Hollywood Park season a boost.

Written by Bill Christine

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Saturday, September 11, 2010

Chocolate or Strawberry?

This is about a conversation some five years ago, around the time racing officials in California had just begun testing for milkshakes. One recipe I found for milkshakes was three parts sodium citrate, two parts sodium bicarbonate, two parts calcium carbonate and one part potassium citrate. They'd put whip cream and a cherry on top, only that might jam up the tubing by which the performance-enhancing concoction is sent into a horse's body. To my knowledge, Julia Child never whipped up one of these confections on her TV show.

Trainers in the standardbred game were milkshaking their horses when Richard Nixon was president, in the belief that the stuff would deter muscle fatigue and increase endurance. The practice came to the thoroughbreds late, as though a trainer in the boondocks had come across an old veterinarians' handbook and the word had spread like a rumor about the vicar at a church picnic. By the mid-2000s, the integrity police in California heard about milkshakes without going to McDonalds. They began testing.

As usual, the trainers were several steps, if not years, ahead of the chemists. "We think Doug O'Neill is doing this," a member of the California Horse Racing Board told me in 2005. I never felt that the conversation was off the record, but I never printed it or even asked O'Neill about it, because it was only a theory. At the time, the O'Neill stable was cresting. His horses earned more than $9 million that year, with Lava Man, a remarkable gelding, the bell cow of the barn. Lava Man has been retired, but O'Neill has marched on. Since 2002, his horses have earned more than $60 million, and when I recently looked, he ranked 12th nationally in purses.

I'm not much when it comes to test tubes or mathematics, but I believe the threshold for legal/illegal milkshakes in California is something around the 4.0 mark. If I'm wrong, sue me. But for purposes of conversation, the racing board commissioner, five years ago, went on to say this about O'Neill: "It's incredible. Many of his horses test just under the cutoff point. And I'm not talking about just decimals. I'm talking about milliliters. He's so close, but he never goes over. It's amazing."

In May of 2006, one of O'Neill's horses did go over. And there have been a series of overages for milkshakes since then, for O'Neill horses that have run both inside and outside California, the latest being a violation this summer at Del Mar, where O'Neill was the leading trainer in races won. O'Neill's milkshake transgression was the only violation of its kind the entire Del Mar season.

O'Neill has denied culpability at every turn, and he is expected to contest the Del Mar violation. The racing board, which has a history of cowering and foot-dragging when big-name trainers wave big-name lawyers in their faces, has never thrown the well-known book at O'Neill, or ever suggested that it might lock up his horses and throw away the key. This is a racing board that speaks loudly and carries a little stick.

In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, O'Neill made some comments that are bagatelle in the scheme of things, but startling just the same. He said that if he was really going to fiddle with a horse, why would he pick a race that was worth only $9,000 to the winner? We're all adults here, and a few of us even lay a bet from time to time. Left unsaid are the betting patterns on the horse in question, and whether the barn, or anyone connected with the horse, stood to make a killing at the wickets.

"I want to be a positive mover in this game, which I think is on the upswing," O'Neill also told the newspaper. "I don't understand why something like this, an eighth-place finish in a small race and high test, couldn't have been in-house while not bringing negativity to the sport."

Put the two statements together and you have O'Neill saying that a cheap race isn't worth tampering with, and then isn't worth public dialogue once the tampering is discovered. I once successfully sued a publishing company after it reprinted one of my stories without permission. Before the trial, the editor who had overstepped his bounds, and was asking me to drop the case, said that the payment might come out of his own pocket and he had a bunch of kids. I think the number was six. I said to him, "How many kids do you have to have before you can start stealing somebody else's work?" At the trial, the number of children never came up. Nor should the the purse of the race when Doug O'Neill's day of accountability comes due.

Written by Bill Christine

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