Tuesday, April 05, 2011
The Asmussen Omission
LOS ANGELES, April 5, 2011--In time for April Fool's, the announcement arrived about the 2011 Racing Hall of Fame ballot, and I kept re-reading the pages, trying to find Steve Asmussen's name. Jerry Hollendorfer was a nominee for trainer for the first time. His supporters say that it's about time. Gary Jones and the late Bob Wheeler, who have been up for enshrinement before, will go before the voters again. But no Asmussen, who was eligible for the first time, having completed 25 years of training. Maybe I should be happy, since all three candidates are Californians, but there's something wrong with a ballot without Asmussen. A career of 5,780 winners (as of five minutes ago) and $173 million in purses ought to count for something.
I know what the first guy to comment at the bottom of this will be saying: "Christine, have you been smoking your socks? Asmussen is the most successful cheating
trainer of all-time, and for that he deserves the Hall of Fame? Who else do you have in mind, Tony Ciulla and Ernie Paragallo?"
I know where observers like that are coming from. In the end-of-the-year Eclipse Awards voting one year, I didn't list either Asmussen or Todd Pletcher in the three trainers' spots on my ballot, because both had served lengthy suspensions after their horses tested positive for illegal drugs. If the consensus is any yardstick, it doesn't make any difference the trouble a trainer encounters; the last time someone other than Pletcher or Asmussen won the trophy was when Bobby Frankel got the award in 2003.
While I voted against Asmussen for one Eclipse Award, I can't penalize him for a lifetime. Only four trainers--Dale Baird, Jack Van Berg, King Leatherbury and Hollendorfer--are ahead of him in wins, and only four--Wayne Lukas, Frankel, Pletcher and Bill Mott--have more purses. I have a friend named Kelly in Florida who says, "Never say never," but I'm still going to say that Baird and Leatherbury will never be enshrined because they were career claiming trainers. Pletcher isn't eligible until 2020, the year all eye doctors will savor. All the rest are in the Hall of Fame save Hollendorfer, who's now on the threshold.
The process works this way: All of the voters, about 180 strong, can offer suggestions on horses and horsemen to the 16-member nominating committee. The committee fills out a preliminary ballot, then meets for a lengthy conference call to determine who makes the final cut. Complicating the process is that the rules keep changing. For the second straight year, 10 are on the ballot--the three trainers; the jockeys John Velazquez, Garrett Gomez, Calvin Borel and Alex Solis; and the horses (all fillies as it turns out) Open Mind, Safely Kept and Sky Beauty--and voters can vote for as many as they want, mixing and matching any of the eligibles. But only the leading four vote-getters, regardless of category, can be enshrined. My 75-cent guess is that the three horses will get in, followed by a tossup for the final spot, with Hollendorfer and Velazquez the morning-line co-favorites.
Wheeler and Jones would seem to be in on a pass this time, having landed on the ballot at Asmussen's expense. Jones ranks 37th on the money list. His list of important horses is short--Best Pal, Turkoman and a few others. Combined, Wheeler and Jones won 2,800 races, about 1,800 fewer than Asmussen. Wheeler trained Silver Spoon, the filly who won the Santa Anita Derby, along with Track Robbery, Tompion and Bug Brush.
I e-mailed all 16 committee members, asking them about the absence of Asmussen. Of the three who responded, two requested anonymity. "Committee members are not asked to explain (their) vote," said Ed Bowen, former editor of The Blood-Horse and committee chairman, "so I cannot comment on why some (candidates) were nominated and some were not. . . There is no stated policy to give or deny preference to individuals who have come eligible for the first time."
Another committee member said that because of the 10-candidate restriction, others besides Asmussen were excluded. Other eligible horses that belong on the ballot include Ghostzapper, Ashado and Estrapade. It has been suggested to the Hall of Fame that the ballot be greatly expanded and that voters be allowed to vote, up or down, on all candidates, but a committee member said that the hall "wouldn't even listen to us on that one."
A committee member said that during the committee's long discussion about candidates, "No one brought up the number of suspensions Asmussen has had over the years. It was the feeling of some that Jones and Wheeler should be given one more chance, that Asmussen would have many chances down the road to get in."
I don't get the waiting business for someone who figures to be a first-ballot winner. Did I mention that besides his top-heavy numbers, Asmussen trained Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, who combined for three straight Horse of the Year titles? Since 2002, the far-flung Asmussen outfit has won 400 or more races every year, and twice topped 600, including the record 650 in 2009. Asmussen wins with horses at every level. On my ballot, I'd write his name in if I could.
Written by Bill Christine
Tuesday, March 29, 2011
Goofonroof Segues to Stewinthestand
LOS ANGELES, March 29, 2011--For 16 straight years, starting in 1992, Vic Stauffer called the races at the Sonoma County Fair, which no racetracker with any time at all in California calls anything but "Santa Rosa." Stauffer might have become the most recognizable visitor in Santa Rosa since Alfred Hitchcock, who shot the priceless "Shadow of a Doubt" there in the 1940s.
This summer, Stauffer will be back at Santa Rosa, not as the track announcer but as one of the three stewards, whose job among other things is to remind jockeys that a straight line is still the shortest distance between two points. The California Horse Racing Board, enabling Stauffer to make a unique career shift, has also assigned him to work at three other tracks on the fair circuit--Ferndale, Fresno and Pomona. These appointments, for a racetrack veteran but someone who has never worked as a steward, have touched off a firestorm among dozens of other accredited racing officials in the state, many of whom feel they were passed over for the posts. Stauffer is dodging brickbats before he's taken down his first horse.
"There are a rash of complaints," said one veteran California racing official, who didn't want his name used because of potential reprisal from the racing board. "I don't know why they didn't stick with those of us who have much more experience. There's no substitute for experience."
Many of these officials, hoping to move up, have worked as associate stewards, placing judges, patrol judges and at other board-appointed jobs. "We've passed the stewards' exam (which is both written and oral)," the anonymous official said. "Then we write letters every year, asking to be moved up to stewards, and hope somebody notices us. A lot of us were really surprised when we saw (Stauffer's) name on the (stewards') list."
You might have thought that the time for the Stauffer protest should have come in 2008, when the racing board assigned him 39 days, at Northern California fairs and Los Alamitos. But any outcry, even if it existed, would have been academic, because Stauffer didn't accept those dates; he was embarking on another tangential career, as a jockey agent. The board allowed him to continue what he considers his "bread and butter" job, calling the races at Hollywood Park, when he took over the book of Joel Rosario. At first blush, this announcer-agent gig smacked to me of conflict of interest--publicly calling races in which he had a financial interest--but in all honesty I had trouble nailing the conflict, and I was a voice in the wilderness, anyway. Rosario eventually fired Stauffer, who was left with another jockey, Martin Garcia, but that partnership was also short-lived. Stauffer landed on his feet with Tyler Baze, who was seriously injured last year in a gate accident at Del Mar. Stauffer told the sidelined Baze early this year that he was leaving the agent business, permanently, and he told me the same thing the other day when we discussed his steward's job. Juggling the track announcer's job with booking mounts for jockeys was another novel situation, but Stauffer appears to have a million of them. He once drove a parking-lot shuttle while he was also calling the races at Yakima Meadows, the now-defunct track in central Washington, and I remember the days when he was a chart-caller for the Daily Racing Form. His race footnotes were longer than "War and Peace."
"I've had just about every job around the track, from entry clerk on up," said the 51-year-old Stauffer, whose calling card on the Del Mar fans' blog is goofonroof. "I've owned horses, and I've certainly bet on them, which I think is an asset going into this job. I've heard some of the grumbling. But I've been waiting 25 years for a chance like this. This has always been my dream, to work as a steward. I've been picking the brains of other stewards a long time to get ready for this. Look, there are a lot of terrific, very talented people in the stewards' pool, and I've got the utmost respect for every one of them. But I have a lot of confidence that I'll be able to do this."
Stauffer said that the only track announcer he could recall going from that job to a steward's post was Marshall Cassidy in New York. It wasn't by choice, old friend Cassidy told me. "It was 1990," he said. "New York Racing Association chairman Alan Dragone had an obvious dislike for my announcing, and a simutaneous preference for Tom Durkin's. Jerry McKeon (NYRA president) delivered the message in May and asked if I would be interested in attending the (racing officials') school at the University of Louisville to become accredited as a steward, or if I would be interested in pursuing a new enterprise of The Jockey Club's called Equibase. . . I responded positively to both options. The wisdom of that judgment continues to plague my consciousness."
Cassidy went on to work as an alternate steward, but mainly worked for Equibase until he retired in 1996. "The NYRA stewards' stand was fully manned by more-than-competent officials," he said. "There was no reason for me to assume official elevation to a full-fledged stewards' job anytime soon."
Somewhere or other, Stauffer seems to have been calling races all his life. He's worked the boonies and the big-time, and at one time was on a circuit that included Gulfstream Park and Hollywood.
"Vic has had extensive experience in many facets of racing," said John Harris, a member of the racing board. "He is well-qualified to be a steward. He has probably watched and been attentive to more races than most stewards anywhere. He is accredited (by Racing Commissioners International) and I think he's a fine appointment."
Cassidy doesn't know Stauffer, but wishes him well. Cassidy called the races for more than 10 years in New York when he was canned. "I'm glad to hear that Stauffer is covering his bases," Cassidy said. "He's a good announcer, but the unthinkable can always occur."
Written by Bill Christine
Tuesday, March 22, 2011
A Woolf Winner Who’d Like To Copy Borel
LOS ANGELES, March 22, 2011--A broken, black-and-blue John Shear was in a Pasadena hospital bed, missing his first George Woolf day at Santa Anita in an eon. There was a Daily Racing Form on his bed, but the pages Shear flipped were from his memory book as he went back to the days of old Lansdowne Park near Vancouver, sometime in the 1950s. They tell me that Lansdowne is a large shopping mall now. Shear had come from his native England, hat in hand, and was galloping horses there for a modest six-horse stable that also employed another exercise rider, a groom and a hotwalker. They could have met for lunch in a phone booth.
The trainer of this vast outfit was taking his stock to Southern California, but the trouble was, he could only afford three of his four hired hands. They cut cards, in one of the first episodes of "Survivor," and Shear drew a high card.
But the other exercise rider drew a higher card. The trainer told Shear that if he went, it would be as a groom. Shear played their crazy game, took the demotion and packed for California. "You may have heard of that other exercise rider," he said on George Woolf day. "David Cross." Shear is the 90-year-old paddock guard who shielded a 5-year-old girl a couple of weeks ago when a horse took off in the paddock and ran into the crowd.
Over at Santa Anita, as Garrett Gomez was honored as this year's Woolf Award winner, some of the former winners showed up. I couldn't wait to tell one of them about Cross.
"That's funny," Eddie Delahoussaye said. "David must have just been a kid." In 1983, when Cross trained Sunny's Halo, Delahoussaye rode the colt to victory in the Kentucky Derby. The year before, Delahoussaye had won the Derby with Gato Del Sol. In the 136 years of the Derby, only five riders (Isaac Murphy, Jimmy Winkfield, Ron Turcotte, Delahoussaye and Calvin Borel) have won the race in successive years.
Borel was last year's Woolf winner, and less than two months later he won the Derby with Super Saver, giving him a stupefying three Derby wins in the last four years. Gomez can only hope that the George Woolf luster might also carry him to the winner's circle at Churchill Downs. He is 0 for 7 in the Derby. Hall of Fame jockeys have done worse. Laffit Pincay was 0 for 10 when he finally won a Derby; he rode in 10 more and never won it again. Pat Day was 0 for 9 at the time of his first Derby win. Make that his only
Derby win; he went 0 for 12 to round out his career. John Velazquez, who could be enshrined this year, is 0 for 12 in the Derby, and with Uncle Mo probably can't wait for this year's running to get here.
On one hand, Gomez' best chance in the Derby came last year with Lookin At Lucky. On the other hand, he had no chance at all when the colt drew the inside post position, which is hemlock in a 20-horse field. Lookin At Lucky won the Preakness, and was still voted the best of his generation at Eclipse Awards time.
The day before Woolf day, Gomez had gone to Oaklawn Park to ride Sway Away, who for five minutes was the wise-guy horse to win this year's Derby. Sway Away was atop the 3-year-old ratings of HRTV's Jon White; he was seventh according to the Racing Form; and he went off at 19-10 in the Rebel, even though he had only beaten maidens in three starts. His reputation rested on a pair of late-running seconds against some good horses in Grade 2 stakes.
The Factor had beaten Sway Away by only three parts of a length in a sprint at Santa Anita, and now Sway Away had gone all the way to Arkansas to face The Factor again. In the first two-turn race for both horses, The Factor led all the way to win by more than six lengths; Sway Away finished sixth, about nine lengths back of the winner. Sway Away now has an earnings problem if he hopes to qualify for the Derby field.
After Woolf day ended, Gomez and many of the other jockeys went over to The Derby restaurant for a reception. Outside The Derby is a lawn statue of a jockey which is entitled, "George Woolf, Founder." Woolf's widow sold the place in 1952; her husband died from injuries suffered in a spill at the track six years before.
Ron Anderson, Gomez' agent, was there. I asked him about Sway Away's race in Arkansas. "He gave Garrett absolutely nothing," Anderson said. "A very strange effort. Oaklawn is ridiculously speed-favoring. Horses on the lead have won 58 per cent of all the races there this season. So the track was against our horse, and made to order for (The Factor)."
Another of Gomez' Derby possibilities is To Honor and Serve, whom he'll ride for the first time in the Florida Derby on April 3. To Honor and Serve will have to make up almost seven lengths on Soldat if he's to win that race. Fortunately for all the horses who make it to Louisville, winning a final prep race isn't a pre-requisite for winning the Kentucky Derby. Since 2003, only three of the eight Derby winners--Smarty Jones, Barbaro and Big Brown--won their final prep.
At The Derby, stories persist that George Woolf's ghost haunts the restaurant. As I looked over at the beaming Woolf Award winner, surrounded by his wife Pam, their children and other relatives, I thought of cornering the ghost and introducing him to Gomez. A lot of good that would do Gomez in Louisville. George Woolf never won the Derby, either.
Written by Bill Christine