Friday, April 08, 2011
Beware of the DMB Horse
My first DMB horse, as best as I can recall, was Prince Thou Art in 1975. DMB is shorthand for Derby Must Bet--a horse you feel compelled to play in the Kentucky Derby--not because he's the best horse, or even the favorite, but a horse who has a good chance, may have been overlooked, and is someone you've been following for so long that you'd flagellate yourself if he happened to win. DMB is only half of the acronym. In toto, it's DMBNMW--Derby Must Bet No Matter What. You don't get a DMB every year. Just enough to keep you in sackcloth and ashes.
Prince Thou Art had won the Florida Derby, but on paper, where the race is never run, there were too many reasons not
to play him. In the Blue Grass, nine days before, he was a well-beaten third. He had lost eight of 11 starts, and ran from out of the weeds, a late-moving style that's problematical in a large Derby field. But he was owned by Darby Dan Farm's John Galbreath, who had already won the Derby twice. I knew the Galbreath family well, which is the wrong reason to like a horse, but que sera sera
. Prince Thou Art's jockey, Braulio Baeza, was a big-money rider who had already won a Derby.
I thought I would get more than almost 3-1. But the 1975 Derby was considered Foolish Pleasure's to lose. There was scant respect for his rivals--Avatar, the Santa Anita Derby winner, looked overmatched in the Blue Grass; all Master Derby did was win, but for many he was an afterthought.
As the field turned for home, Chic Anderson, the announcer, shouted: "Here comes Prince Thou Art!" In the press box, I had my glasses on the Galbreath colt, and he was shortening stride and starting to hang. I wondered who Anderson was talking about. Oh, that would be Foolish Pleasure, who also emerged from back in the pack to win as he pleased. A week later, the New York Times interviewed Anderson about his classic gaffe. He manned up and took his beating. "Prince Thou Ain't," a clever headline writer wrote.
I should have sworn off DMBs on the spot. But the more you study any Derby, the more a DMB is likely to grab you by the lapels. Five years later, it was Jaklin Klugman. All he had to beat was a false favorite (Rockhill Native) and a filly (Genuine Risk) whose trainer didn't want to be there. The Hollywood ownership angle, no matter that it was misspelled, would surely have the complete blessing of those Derby gods. But Jack Klugman's colt finished third. It turned out that the filly was the real DMB in the race.
I don't have the stomach for much more of this. There was Cat Thief in 1999. Winless as a 3-year-old but seemingly a colt with no quit in him, his Derby-savvy trainer, Wayne Lukas, would find a way to get him home, and he would pay a lip-smacking 7-1. Mr. Derby Savvy won, all right, but with the 31-1 Charismatic. By the time Cat Thief won the Breeders' Cup Classic in the fall (his odds were up to 19-1 by then), I had long abandoned him. Love affairs with DMBs are short-lived.
About the only DMB I like to talk about is Spend a Buck in 1985. This was a Derby we'll probably never see again. A small field. No jockey willing to cook his horse early. A cocksure Angel Cordero in the saddle. It all came together, at 4-1. But there was a price to be paid. Except for Real Quiet, in 1998, I haven't gone to the bank with a DMB since then.
Now, this year. I keep looking for a fortune cookie that tells me to give up DMBs forever. But wouldn't you know? There are two
DMBs, and they're in the same prep race, the Santa Anita Derby. One is Silver Medallion. Surely he's a synthetic-track horse, a grass horse, but if he wins on dirt in the Santa Anita Derby, he may cost me a lot of money in Louisville.
The other DMB is Anthony's Cross. Trained by a former Bob Baffert aide (Eoin Harty). Owned by Lynne de Kwiatkowski, who was there the day her father bought the future Horse of the Year, Conquistador Cielo, out of a sales ring. Already fully tested over the Churchill Downs racing strip. Anthony's Cross' job is easier now that Premier Pegasus isn't running, but I get the feeling that he will punch his ticket to Churchill Downs even if he doesn't win the Santa Anita Derby. So on May 7, the DMB will once more rear its ugly head. I can see it coming, a month off and a mile and a quarter away.
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, March 27, 2011
A Country :) Again
Bring back Horatio Alger to write the story. Hire Frank Capra to do the movie. Use Winston Churchill as the narrator. He could start off by saying, "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man."
In the desert hard by the Persian Gulf, the first horse across the line was Japanese, the second horse to the line was also Japanese. For the first time, Japan owned the richest horse race in the world, and 5,000 miles away millions of Japanese, if only for a day, were smiling again. A horse race won't turn on the lights, put food on the table if there still is
a table, and chase away the threat of nuclear damage. But it was still nice to see the Japanese smiling again.
Mirco Demuro, the rider of Victoire Pisa, the winning horse in the $10-million Dubai World Cup, is no more Japanese than St. Mark's Square, but you couldn't tell. "It's unbelievable," he said, after he beat the aptly named Transcend, the other Japanese horse, by a half-length. "It's unbelievable to win this race for Japan." Back in December, when he rode Victoire Pisa for the first time and won a race worth a mere $4 million in Japan, Hakuho, a 330-pound champion sumo wrestler, carried the 115-pound Demuro out of the winner's circle. In Dubai, he left the easy way, his feet never touching the ground. Who knew that ecstasy is a source of helium?
When the earthquake and then the tsunami ravaged Japan, racing was one of the casualties. The tracks shut down, a miracle that they were hardly damaged, and in one place, not far from a nuclear power plant, 200 horses had to be moved to a better place, where there was electricity and running, potable water. Victoire Pisa and Transcend were not among them. Missing the earthquake, they had been flown to Dubai early, to get comfortable over an American-made synthetic track that they would be trying for the first time.
Still, Victoire Pisa's owner, Yoshimi Ichikawa, and his trainer, Sumii Katsuhiko, were not enthusiastic about running. Their minds were 5,000 miles away. But finally Ichikawa said: "With the result of this race, we would like to bring back some hope and courage to the people of Japan."
is the operative word. The Japanese around the Meydan track wore black three-button shirts all week long. That four-letter word was printed on one of the sleeves. On the back, March 11
--the date the ground had moved with such ungodly violence back home.
When Victoire Pisa, far back, made his wide, winning move almost five furlongs from home, Ichikawa started screaming: "It's a miracle! It's a miracle! It's a miracle!"
After the race, he said: "It has been a really dark time for Japan and hopefully this will help to lift the country."
Manami Ichikawa, the owner's daughter, said: "This day is for Japan. It's a dream."
Going into the race, it was a third Japanese horse, Buena Vista, who was thought to have the best chance. The mare had earned $12 million, more than the other two horses combined, and had beaten Victoire Pisa last year, when she was declared Japan's Horse of the Year. She would have been a hunch bet for me as well (same name as the San Francisco bar where Irish coffee supposedly got its start). But Buena Vista finished eighth. Victoire Pisa, based on betting in the U.S., paid $36.60 for $2. Transcend went off at 40-1. In the hearts of those in their homeland, they were a mortal cinch.
Written by Bill Christine
Sunday, March 20, 2011
A Fine Racing Bio, Bar None
I don't know how well Chris Koby knows his way around a 3-to-1 manhattan, or whether I could drink at the Amber Bistro, come back six months later and have him say, "Same way?" but I do know his fingerprints are all over "John Henry: The Steel Driving Racehorse," and what's a fine filmmaker like this doing in a job like that? First time out of the box, well under 30, Koby has artfully reminded us who John Henry was and where he came from. In case time has passed anybody by, he was one tough racehorse, and so far on the wrong side of the tracks that you couldn't have found him with a flashlight during his salad days.
"The first time I saw him," trainer Ron McAnally tells Koby about half-way through the 82-minute film, "he had long hair and his head was down. I hate to say this, but he looked like a miniature donkey."
McAnally was the last, and most successful, of John Henry's trainers, but Koby, who co-directed, co-wrote and narrated the film, actually spends more time with the tragic Phil Marino, who trained the ageless gelding for the first 16 races of his career, and won only three of them. Marino tells the sad tale of how he was cruelly reminded of that record every time John Henry won a big race, and how he turned into a drunkard and a hophead, consuming a fifth of vodka a day, buying Quaaludes 10,000 pills in a swoop, and sniffing cocaine just so he could make it back to his barn. Anytime an owner would come with a horse in need of a trainer, Marino says, someone would say, "Don't send him to Marino. He couldn't even win with John Henry." Marino says that the day in 1985 when a 10-year-old John Henry was retired, after two Horse of the Year titles and $6.5 million in purses, he "pushed away" from both booze and drugs.
In "John Henry," there's room for both the bigshots and the supporting players. Looie Cenicola, his exercise rider, is shown patiently taking the cantankerous horse to the track for a morning gallop. John Henry stops every few steps, part nature lover, part waiting for his closeup. Finally, an exasperated Cenicola tries to giddyup the horse and says, "They're goin' to shut the track on us, daddy, if we don't get in there. They're not paying us by the hour."
Sam Rubin, the international bicycle dealer who bought John Henry for $25,000 after his career had reached a dead-end with other owners, always saved his best lines for the cameras, and he doesn't fail Koby. In giving McAnally and his predecessor, Lefty Nickerson, a free hand, Rubin says: "I'd say hello to my trainers, then I'd say goodbye, then I'd bring the valise and take home the money."
But there were times when even Rubin wanted his own way. He took Laffit Pincay off the horse, after Pincay had ridden him to several important wins, because he thought the Hall of Fame jockey had snubbed him in the paddock. And as John Henry was turning eight, Rubin insisted on a trip to Tokyo, as sort of a sop to some of his bicycle clients, for the Japan Cup in 1982. He came down with colic and almost died, McAnally said.
I covered John Henry for his final three years, and thought I knew everything there was to know about his story, but the documentary mines new ground. For one thing, his heart was second-biggest only to Secretariat, whose ticker tipped the scales at a thumping 22 pounds; for another, McAnally credits Japanese acupuncturists for reviving the horse when the going turned grim in Tokyo; and the theory of Verna Lehmann, his breeder, is as good as any that John Henry's sour disposition stemmed from his witnessing another horse being put down when he was young and still unraced.
The filmmakers alertly pick up on how Charlie Whittingham turned down John Henry when Rubin wanted to move him from New York to California, and then ironically spent several years trying to beat the salty old gelding with his own stable of stars. "You'll hear from me," Whittingham is quoted as saying after Rubin offered him the horse. But Rubin knew, and he goes on to say: "That's about as nice a turndown as you can get."
The film lingers over footage of some of John Henry's biggest wins, including the Arlington Million, the first million-dollar race in the U.S. "It could go either way," said the Arlington Park race caller, Phil Georgeff, as John Henry and The Bart hit the finish line. Rubin thought it was a dead heat. "The owners (of The Bart) went down (to the winner's circle)," Rubin said. "I wanted to cry for them when they didn't win."
Chris Koby, majoring in film at a California college, was no racegoer, but his grandfather, Robert Walker, infected him with the John Henry bug by sending a copy of Steve Haskin's book about the horse. "The book was my template," said Koby, before returning to the bar in Danville, California, for another night of pouring drinks. Surely out there somewhere is this budding filmmaker's second act.
Written by Bill Christine