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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Sunday, March 06, 2011

When a Steward Needs a Friend

Since Solomon, the Magi and Benjamin Disraeli had other plans, it fell to Kim Sawyer, Scott Chaney and Tom Ward to decide whether Game On Dude or Setsuko would win the 74th running of the Santa Anita Handicap. Mere mortals, they. A fly on the wall in the stewards' stand would have been privy to an interesting 12-minute discussion, as they determined who did what to whom down on the bridle path. It's a good thing stewards come in odd numbers, because the vote was 2-1, in favor of Game On Dude, who was the first-place finisher to begin with. Had there been a perfect squelch, somebody who would have voted "present," then the old Santa Anita grandstand might not have been able to withstand the turmoil.

There was enough rancor to go around. There were lusty boos before and after the stewards' inquiry. Richard Mandella, the trainer of Setsuko, who missed by a nose after twice almost being knocked down in the stretch, said next to nothing. This is not Mandella, never has been, but there he was, in the wake of the outcome, offering "I've got nothing to say, no comment, it wouldn't be worth writing," and walking away. His jockey, Victor Espinoza, was more to the point. "It's the wrong decision," he said. "I don't know why it took so long to make the wrong decision. I think the stewards are blind. They need to have some education so people know what's going on at the races. Obviously, those three stewards, they don't know what they're looking at. How many times do they have to drop me to disqualify the horse? That's insane."

In the HRTV broadcasting booth, the Big 'Cap observers also came in threes. Laffit Pincay, the jockey's son, was smart enough to step aside and ask the others what they thought. Gary Stevens, who rode four Big 'Cap winners, said that Chantal Sutherland, who rode Game On Dude, had done enough damage to be disqualified. What is more, Stevens thought that Sutherland's "body language" before the stewards' decision showed that she thought she was guilty. But Sutherland went to the phone twice to talk to the stewards while they deliberated, and must have made a strong case. Jeff Siegel, Stevens' colleague and one of the owners of Martial Law, the 50-1 winner of the 1989 Big 'Cap, also gave Game On Dude a thumbs down.

Before the bumping, Sutherland had already hit Game On Dude twice lefthanded as they left the quarter pole. When the horses straightened out, there was Game On Dude on the inside, with Setsuko on the outside and Twirling Candy, a 1-2 shot in need of a respirator, between them. Twirling Candy and his rider, Joel Rosario, drifted to the outside, slamming into Setsuko. Twirling Candy bounced off and was headed in Game On Dude's direction, but before he could get there, Sutherland whacked her mount two more times lefthanded. I watched this in slo-mo dozens of times, and every time I came away convinced that Game On Dude bumped Twirling Candy before Twirling Candy made contact with him. There was daylight between the two horses while Sutherland was flailing away. When the horses finally bumped, that sent Twirling Candy to his right again, as Setsuko took the worst of it for the second time. Setsuko still made the lead, by a tiny margin, before Game On Dude came on again, just in time for the wire. Twirling Candy finished fifth.

Of the stewards, Chaney and Ward voted for no change in the result. Sawyer, who felt that Game On Dude and Twirling Candy were equally responsible for the bumping, came down on the side of disqualification. Chaney saw something I didn't. "It's a fair debate whether (Game On Dude) came out a little bit," he told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "The lefthanded whipping actually makes the horse look like he's coming out. But we looked at the horse itself and not the lefthanded whipping. (Game On Dude) was still going straight. On a quick glance, it looks like (Sutherland) is hitting lefthanded, the horse comes out and just starts the big disaster. But if you watch it closely, the inside horse goes very straight, maybe comes out an inch if you want to be really critical, but most of the drifting is coming from the middle horse and (he) makes contact and causes the whole chain reaction after that. There are several more bumping incidents, but it was initiated by the middle horse (Twirling Candy)."

No matter how many times I watch the head-on, I see daylight between Twirling Candy and Game On Dude, until Sutherland begins her whipping. "The inside (Game On Dude) came out, and the outside (Setsuko) kind of stayed with me," said Rosario, Twirling Candy's rider. "He (Game On Dude) bumped me pretty hard, and I lost control. After that, I didn't have anything. I lost all the momentum."

Baffert's win came on top of his win in the race last year with Misremembered, a horse he bred. He started four horses this time.

"The five (Twirling Candy) came in, and his hind end hit the 11 (Game On Dude), and that started a chain reaction," Baffert said. "(Rosario, on Twirling Candy) was out of horse, and that's what started that ping-pong effect. It was a tough call. The first time I saw it, live, I thought we might be in trouble. But when I saw the replay, I knew there was a chance of us staying up."

Sutherland, one of Canada's leading riders, doesn't ride for Baffert, but she got the call when John Velazquez, Baffert's jockey at entry time, stayed back in Florida to ride at Gulfstream Park. A female jockey had never won the Big 'Cap, and in fact, few of them had ever ridden in the race. Robyn Smith and Julie Krone rode in the race once each, and last year Sutherland finished 10th with Pool Play, a 70-1 shot. Game On Dude, who had run only once since running fourth in last year's Belmont, was 14-1. Before Game On Dude, Sutherland had won only three races the entire meet. "If you're sitting there at the right time," she said, "something great can happen." Her body language was one wall-to-wall smile.

Written by Bill Christine

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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Biting the Hand. . .

You have to be prepared at all times for what might happen in the desert. Field Marshal Rommel and Lawrence of Arabia knew this, in spades. But anything can still happen--in "Road to Morocco," Dorothy Lamour even fell in love with Bob Hope while Bing Crosby was around. No amount of preparation could have girded us, however, for what David Israel recently said in the desert, at the University of Arizona's annual industry brain-pick. Several cacti, not to mention some superannuated horseplayers, were aghast. "The average age of our on-track customer is deceased," said Israel, vice chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, and then he went on to say, "And the average age of our satellite customer is decomposed."

Israel is a scriptwriter and onetime journalist, so I assume that he writes his own stuff. Even though what he said in Tucson might play well at the Comedy Club, he might have been better served had he cut his hyperbole with a dash of seltzer. "If David Israel continues to insult the broad base of California's remaining customer support, I do not think he should be accepting speaking assignments," Roger Way, a horseplayer, said in an e-mail. "Without the support of senior citizens, California horse racing would be forced to close the doors tomorrow."

In fairness to Israel, he was about to make a valid point. It's just that he didn't have to step over carcasses to get there. The rest of his remark was, "The demographic is way too old. We need to attract younger customers to the racetrack experience."

If racing's core audience has been dying off for the last half-century, then why is there anybody queuing up to the parimutuel windows at all? I mean, some younger people must be going to the races. The rub is that there are not enough of them. Later on at Tucson, Israel said something about "selling racing as entertainment," and it's there that he's caught his shoe in the do-do. If 15 minutes of action stretched over a four-hour afternoon is entertainment, then I'm a monkey's uncle. If poring over page after page of agate type in the Daily Racing Form is entertainment, then the Marquis de Sade must have invented the game. There's nothing wrong with waiting a half-hour to see several horses sprint six furlongs, or trying to turn a coin by dividing workout times by Beyer numbers and squaring the quotient, but these exercises are not for everyone, especially the guy who gets his kicks by receiving two cards from the dealer every 30 seconds.

Racing needs to be sold as a gambling game, and little else. The average racegoer, and especially the newcomer, doesn't look upon a 10-horse field as a beauty contest. All they want to do is cash enough tickets to go home with at least as much if not more than what they started with. Referring to Secretariat as "No. 4" might be blasphemy to the romantics, but in the real world a horse, like Gertrude Stein's rose, is simply a horse. If you have a good day at the wickets, the mountains behind Santa Anita are picturesque; if you've caught a steady run of slow horses, they're just a facade.

Getting back to Israel and the old fogies at the track, Andy Asaro, another concerned California horseplayer, said: "Is this appropriate language for the vice chairman of the racing board to be using when referring to his best customers? I know he was talking about attracting younger customers, but. . .wow!"

Allen Gutterman, the veteran marketing maven at Santa Anita, has, unlike Israel, been around long enough to know new customers can be courted without disdain for the old. "Social networking allows us to communicate directly with fans and horseplayers and let them know what's happening at Santa Anita," Gutterman said in a recent Q & A with the Paulick Report. "Direct mail seems old school, but is still phenomenally productive and permits us to talk to great customers for very little money, particularly to those who don't have Blackberrys or I-Phones or who are not Web savvy."

A long time ago, in a galaxy known as New York, Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps talked about creating new customers and said that racing's biggest obstacle was "the intimidation factor." The Intimidation Factor is alive and well and still frequents all the racetracks. Almost every new customer is greeted by I.F. at the door. I've experienced the same sensation, when I get the itchy, twitchy feeling to play baccarat in Las Vegas.

Written by Bill Christine

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Saturday, November 20, 2010

Blood, Sweat & Ballots

There are two things I remember about the turf writers' dinner at the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan several years ago. On the walls, where portraits of all the Heisman Trophy winners were hung, were likenesses of Gary Beban, the 1967 winner, and Steve Owens, the 1969 winner, and in between was the blank space that once was occupied by a rendering of O.J. Simpson. I need to ask one of these days about what became of that portrait of the defrocked Simpson.

The other thing about the dinner was the longest pre-dinner cocktail party in the history of pre-dinner cocktail parties. It went on for literally hours. The bus transporting the turf writers who were staying at the media hotel, on Long Island, had gotten lost getting into the city, and the staff at the athletic club was told to hold up the dinner until the stragglers arrived. Meantime, the bartenders, who were only outnumbered by about 5 to 1, kept pouring. I would have liked to have seen the bar bill that night. It might have been more than the handle at the Breeders' Cup a few days later. I was staying at a hotel in Manhattan, and traveling by cab, so no harm, no foul. But after an hour or two of pre-dinner drinks, I wrote the name of my hotel on a piece of paper and put it in my pocket, just as a precaution. What happened to me in New York many years before, a few days before the first Belmont I ever covered, wasn't going to happen again. At an ungodly hour, I poured myself out of Jimmy Ryan's, a jazz joint on 52nd Street, and flagged a cab. I might have been staying at the Roosevelt, but for the moment I couldn't remember. "Take me to the Belmont," I said. "Guess again, mac," the cabbie said. "The Belmont burned down five years ago."

All of this was brought to mind by an article in the New York Times about how some Heisman Trophy voters are wringing their hands this year because of Cam Newton. I hardly follow college football, but apparently Newton, a quarterback from Auburn, is odds-on to win the Heisman, as long as the electorate doesn't penalize him for allegations that he cheated in the classroom at another school, or that someone, perhaps his father, promised him to another school for an amount that was quite a bit more than chump change.

From what I can tell, Heisman voting is much like the Eclipse Awards--the only governing rule is that there are no rules. For my fellow voters who are seeking guidance in the upcoming Horse of the Year election between Blame and Zenyatta, I say, leave well enough alone. There are Eclipse Awards rules for another competition, best stories, broadcasts and photos about horse racing, and they run five pages, or about four pages too long. If a task force were commissioned today to write rules for the Horse of the Year voting, they wouldn't finish by Christmas, and their final draft would be Magna Carta in length. They would need to be told at the outset that they aren't being paid by the word.

In recent years, when both Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen were heavily favored to win Eclipse Awards for best trainer, I sometimes adopted rules of my own and left both of them off my ballot. This was at a time when rulings for drug violations dotted both of their records. Both horsemen denied wrongdoing, but their innocence was seldom substantiated. Most voters were not concerned--Pletcher won four straight awards, starting in 2004, and Asmussen has won the last two years. This year, a handful of voters, incensed over Pletcher's role in the Life At Ten cause celebre at the Breeders' Cup, might skip over his name at ballot time, but it is the wrong year to be running away from the heavy favorite. In 2010, there has been Pletcher and nobody else. He is more than $7 million ahead of the next trainer on the money list, he's won the Kentucky Derby and three Breeders' Cup races, and his barn has won at least 44 graded stakes, double that of Bob Baffert, who's second in those standings. Last year might have been the time to ignore the raw numbers and jump ship, and the Zenyatta camp, after she had won the Breeders' Cup Classic, thought that their trainer, John Shirreffs, stood a good chance to bag an Eclipse. But the voting totals were as raw as they come: Asmussen 130, Shirreffs 57. This time around, Shirreffs will not even be that close when Pletcher's votes are tallied.

The Racing Hall of Fame is an entirely different kettle of fish. Unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame, no rules. Pete Rose, who gambled on baseball, has a record that would normally guarantee enshrinement by acclimation, but he has never been allowed on the ballot. I love Pete, for what he did on the field and for the glib way he talked about it afterwards, but I could never vote for him. Pat Valenzuela, an admitted drug abuser and in trouble with racing authorities much of his sometimes spectacularly successful career, has Hall of Fame credentials, and as sure as Shinola, he'll wind up on the ballot some day. That election will make Blame-Zenyatta seem like child's play.

Back to matters Cam Newton at Auburn. There might even be a lesson in this for Eclipse voters. Although the Newton investigation has yet to run its course, one of the Heisman voters, a sports editor in Mississippi, said: "Sooner or later, we have to send a message about what's right and what's wrong. People tell me that the kinds of things we're hearing about with Cam Newton are just part of college football now. But I say it's not part of college football, and if it is, we need to stop it." One of the schools that was allegedly bidding for Newton's services was Mississippi State. Sometimes, I guess, you have to check your objectivity at the door.

Written by Bill Christine

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