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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Thursday, July 23, 2009

About $40 Million Later. . .

The day that Del Mar opened, the San Diego Union-Tribune ran an interview with Richard Shapiro, former chairman of the California Horse Racing Board. Shapiro told Hank Wesch that he rushed to ultimatum a few years ago when he and most of the other board members forced all of Southern California's thoroughbred tracks to convert from dirt strips to synthetic surfaces. "In 20-20 hindsight," Shapiro said, "I would not have pushed for a mandate. You ask me if I'm disappointed (in the new tracks) and, in a word, the answer is yes."

The racing board's directive was expensive, about $40 million expensive. These are not tracks that are exactly swimming in profits. Bay Meadows, because it was soon to go out of business, wrangled a waiver, but Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields followed the Shapiro-led board's marching orders and all installed the surfaces. Any one of those tracks could have pushed the envelope and said it wouldn't run under the burden of all that added expense, and it's likely the racing board would have blinked. Instead, typical of racing, this foursome lost any chance of getting a group discount by buying from different manufacturers. Well, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita had the same surface, Cushion Track, for a while, but Santa Anita's oval didn't work out, it sued the maker and now horses there run over something called Pro-Ride. Del Mar's is a Polytrack surface, and Golden Gate has Tapeta.

The board's decision to go synthetic was a knee-jerk, one-size-fits-all answer to severe breakdown problems at Del Mar and the Northern California tracks. In 2006, there were 18 fatalities at Del Mar alone, 14 of them on the dirt track. The first year for Polytrack at Del Mar was 2007. Strangely, the racing board didn't require Los Alamitos, the only quarter horse track in the state, to switch to synthetic. Los Alamitos has sometimes had a high breakdown rate, and runs more dates than any track in California.

"(Synthetic tracks) have lessened the fatalities, but have not proved to be what we thought they would," Shapiro said in the newspaper interview. "They require more maintenance and have not been as consistent as we anticipated. And while they have lowered fatalities, there are indications of problems with injuries that aren't fatal. Clearly there's a divided constituency about them. I still believe they have promise and hope. To have done nothing and to have the tracks continue to be harder and less safe would have been unconscionable."

In California and elsewhere, Shapiro will be known as the poster boy for the synthetic-track era out West, no matter what he says. During the interview, he tried to make a case that all segments of the industry were behind the change, but I remember it otherwise. There were suggestions from some trainers that half the money could have been spent at Del Mar in a major renovation of the dirt track. There was only a five-minute discussion period, tops, before the vote was taken at the racing board meeting to mandate the artificial surfaces. I walked out of the room shaking my head. They've just approved something that's going to drastically change the way races are run in an entire state, and that's all the public comment they needed? I wondered if the issue had been diced and shredded in some smoke-filled room before the board ever met.

He probably doesn't need to be reminded, but Shapiro shouldn't forget that one member of his own board at the time, Jerry Moss, didn't follow the other commission sheep to approval. Moss, whose horses have included Giacomo, Tiago and Zenyatta, was the most prescient man in the room. "I'll just vote 'present,'" he said. "I think these new tracks need much more study before we do all this."

I haven't heard much about this lately, but the study, or at least the announcement that there would be a study, came after the new tracks were already laid down. The board, which is crying poverty like most state agencies in California these days, reportedly allocated $300,000 to find out if they did the right thing. It's bass ackwards, as my stepfather used to say.

On opening day at Del Mar, a horse broke down, had to be euthanized and his jockey, the talented Rafael Bejarano, suffered severe facial injuries and has undergone surgery. Three days before that, there was an equine training fatality at Del Mar. The racing fatality was an 8-year-old gelding who had seen his ups and downs, including a 14-month period in 2007-08 in which he didn't run at all. Obviously a horse with problems, but Mi Rey was a hard knocker when able--he ran 37 times, won 10 races and earned almost $200,000.

Del Mar could go the rest of the meet without catastrophic incidents, or with more fatalities it could end up far, far out on the synthetic-track limb. "If most of the industry wants to go back to dirt, they should go back to dirt," Shapiro said before opening day. In other words, follow your neighborhood racing board, but only at your own risk.

Written by Bill Christine

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Friday, March 27, 2009

Paradise Lost

Not that long ago, in the 1980s, there was a silly, contrived rivalry between California racing and New York racing. Whose horses were better, whose tracks were superior, that kind of thing. It was a counterfeit competition that deservedly went nowhere. These days, California's only goal is survival. Where racing flourished, it now languishes. The late Harry Silbert, long-time agent for Bill Shoemaker, once called California racing "the land of milk and honey." If Silbert could only see it now. The commissioners on the California Horse Racing Board, the state agency that oversees the disarray, could become pallbearers before it's all over.

The seven-member board is not particularly strong. Some of them sit and listen, meeting after meeting, rarely contributing to the dialogue. But the board, like President Obama, is not the scapegoat. Some of the commissioners didn't get to the table until the sport's business model was beyond fixing.

Once proud Santa Anita has been a shell of its heyday, caught in the vortex of a company bankruptcy that threatens to devour all of Frank Stronach's properties. Golden Gate Fields, Santa Anita's sister track to the North, is no better off. There were no races at Golden Gate on March 26, a Thursday, because not enough horses were entered to support a card. The two previous Thursdays, Golden Gate could only round up enough horses for seven-race cards.

Without Golden Gate, there is no suitable venue in Northern California worthy of year-round racing status. Bay Meadows, closed for good last year, is a rubble, its commercial redevelopment in limbo. Bay Meadows' sister track, Hollywood Park, is staggering from one meet to the next, still committed to closing the doors once the economy rights itself and banks start loaning developers money again. It is an irony that the worse the country goes, the better Hollywood's chances of staying open for another meet, another year.

Even Del Mar's boutique meet, run at a state-managed fairgrounds, is not bullet-proof. For the first time in decades, Del Mar will be dark on Mondays, a reflection of the dwindling horse population. More dates at Del Mar are not the answer. It is located in a market that would not be receptive to an extended meet.

Fairplex Park, the bullring in Pomona, which runs an abbreviated fair meet at the end of summer, has circulated grandiose architectural plans over the years, portraying itself as an alternate in Southern California, but its financing has always been laced with more questions than answers. Starting in May, Fairplex will close its stable area for several months, forcing dozens of trainers to look for other training facilities. Fairplex does not have the look of a venue that will ride to the rescue.

If I were the racing board, I would be looking in the direction of Los Alamitos. Privately owned, the little quarter horse track in Orange County operates effectively on a shoestring by night, and has a thriving satellite betting business in the afternoons. Open year-round, it will run 201 days of live racing this year, slightly less than Santa Anita and Hollywood Park combined. Unlike Santa Anita, Hollywood, Del Mar and Golden Gate, Los Alamitos was spared the multi-million-dollar expense of installing a synthetic track. It has no grass course, and the main track is only five-eighths of a mile, but a few years ago the owner of the track, Ed Allred, and the prominent thoroughbred owner, Mike Pegram, were ready to address these shortcomings.

In the early 1980s, when Hollywood Park owned Los Alamitos, I suggested to Howard W. Koch, the movie mogul who was on chairman Marje Everett's board, that Hollywood plow some thoroughbred money into the quarter horse track. I've always been good at spending somebody else's money. "Great idea, kid," Koch said. "But you're a little late. Marje wants that (new) pavilion real bad. That's where all the money's going to go."

One of these days soon, California might be on its hands and knees, knocking at Los Alamitos' door. By rights, Allred and Pegram shouldn't even answer the phone. "We were paying for (the expansion) ourselves," Pegram, writing to one of the trades, said of their 2005 proposal. ". . . Just money out of our pockets. . . Yet our proposal to solve (the problem) by bringing thoroughbred racing to Los Alamitos was met with an indifference that still has me shaking my head."

Written by Bill Christine

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Shapiro a Madoff Victim

Richard Shapiro, former chairman of the Califorinia Horse Racing Board, has been "devastated" financially by the $50-billion Ponzi scheme that was engineered by Bernard Madoff, according to a letter that Shapiro wrote to a U.S. Congressman.

"Nearly all of my life's work, savings and pension evaporated on December 11, leaving me in desperate financial straits," Shapiro said in the letter to Brad Sherman, a Democrat who represents the San Fernando Valley, an area where Shapiro lives. The letter was dated January 12.

In the letter, Shapiro asked Sherman to pursue Congressional relief that might help him and other victims of Madoff, who has confessed to defrauding dozens of clients from his company's New York offices. One of Shapiro's proposals is to allow Madoff victims to claim credit for back taxes that they paid on paper profits that didn't really exist.

In an e-mail, Shapiro declined to discuss the letter. "It has nothing to do with horse racing, it is a personal matter," he said.

Shapiro did not say in the letter how much money he had lost. Sherman's office didn't respond to requests for comment.

Four days after Shapiro learned that he had been victimized by Madoff, he resigned as chairman of the racing board, a post he had held since January of 2006. The other commissioners were not aware that he was planning to quit. At the time, Shapiro said his resignation was a "personal decision." Later, in an interview with The Blood-Horse, Shapiro said that he was "becoming increasingly frustrated by the governmental and bureaucratic limitations imposed by being on the board."

Only two months before, Shapiro was re-appointed to the board by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. Shapiro's original appointment began in October of 2004.

In the letter to Sherman, Shapiro said that he opened an investment account with Madoff Investment Securities in 2004.

"I continued to add money to my account, believing that I was building a nest egg for my family, and the security of our lives," Shapiro wrote. "I had come to believe that the income I thought I would earn would support our lifestyle, and so I devoted the last four years of my life to community service and charity causes. . . I believed that my investment was safe as the Securities and Exchange Commission was regulating, auditing and overseeing Madoff Securities."

During his term as racing board chairman, Shapiro was embroiled in controversy, mainly because he was at the forefront of the board mandate that required all major thoroughbred tracks to replace their dirt racing strips with synthetic surfaces. Bay Meadows, which went out of business last year, was granted a waiver by the board, but Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, Del Mar and Golden Gate Fields put in artificial surfaces, at a cost estimated at $40 million. The board had reacted to an inordinate number of breakdowns and fatalities at the tracks.

The new surfaces have been met with mixed reviews. Last winter, 11 days of racing were postponed at Santa Anita because its track didn't drain properly, and a second synthetic surface was eventually installed. Santa Anita has sued the original manufacturer, which has counter-sued. This season, there have been five fatalities at Santa Anita, and recently a sizable group of horsemen met to complain that many of their horses have been injured because of an inconsistent surface. Many bettors have backed off from betting races at synthetic tracks, and Santa Anita's handle has shown a double-digit decline when compared to last year at this time.

"Those opposed to change are the most vocal," said Drew Cuoto, president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California, in an interview with The Blood-Horse. "(Shapiro) paid the price with personal attacks and criticism leveled at him."

There have been rumors that Shapiro is being considered for a post, possibly as a state lobbyist, that would be created by a new consortium of California tracks. A racing source with knowledge of the new organization said that the job might pay $200,000 a year.

Shapiro, 55, has owned horses from time to time. He is president of Winco Real Estate Services, which he founded in 1996. His father, Marvin Shapiro, ran Western Harness Racing, which conducted standardbred meets at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita before it was sold in 1983. Richard Shapiro's grandfather, Louis Shapiro, campaigned many horses, including Native Diver, one of the most successful thoroughbreds to ever run in California.

Shapiro is not the first horse-racing figure to be ensnared in the Madoff schemes. It has been reported that the Fairfield Greenwich hedge-fund investment group, which was co-founded by Jeffrey Tucker, a New York breeder, lost $7.5 billion, about half of its assets. Tucker's Stonebridge Farm, which he bought in 2004, is located not far from Saratoga Race Course.

Written by Bill Christine

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