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, February 07, 2008

Happy Birthday, John

John Nerud turns 95 Saturday.

If they find a cake big enough to hold all the candles, I'm betting that Nerud will blow 'em all out. In one gust.

On the phone, I asked John if he was still driving around Long Island.

"Yeah, I am," he said. "I still know my name, and I can find my way home. The golf, not any more, though it's only been a couple of years that I haven't played. I still get on the bicycle every day."

"You ride a bicycle?" I said.

"The stationary one," Nerud said.

Nerud, who was voted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 1972, quit training in 1979, so for the whippersnappers an introduction might be in order. He trained Dr. Fager, a Horse of the Year. He trained Gallant Man, who should have won the Kentucky Derby but won the Belmont. He bred Unbridled, who did win the Derby. He trained the crack sprinters Delegate, Ta Wee and Dr. Patches. He bred and owned Cozzene, who won the Breeders' Cup Mile. Cozzene was trained by John Nerud's son, Jan.

"I bred the horse and I bred the trainer," John Nerud said. "So it was a real family affair, wasn't it?"

And by the way, the Breeders' Cup, first run in 1984, wouldn't have been welcomed with trumpets if Nerud hadn't been riding shotgun for John Gaines, founder of the annual affair. Nerud was the first marketing director of the Breeders' Cup and largely responsible for the races opening with wall-to-wall national TV coverage.

When we spoke recently, I didn't bore Nerud by asking him to recall once more how Gallant Man's jockey, Bill Shoemaker, blew the 1957 Derby by briefly standing up in the irons after he misjudged the finish line. Iron Liege won by a nose.

Over the years, Nerud has told that story enough. After the disheartening finish, he went to one of the bars at Churchill Downs and ordered the biggest glass of vodka they had. Routinely, the bartender started to throw in a lemon twist. Nerud waved him off. "If I wanted lemonade," he said, "I'd have ordered one."

As though losing the Derby wasn't enough, Shoemaker was also hit with a 15-day suspension by the stewards. Gallant Man skipped the Preakness, and Ralph Lowe, the owner of the colt, tried to cheer up Shoemaker by buying him a new Chrysler.

"It wasn't bitterness that kept us out of the Preakness," Nerud said. "With Shoe suspended, we would have needed a rider change, and I didn't want to put the colt through the Triple Crown grind. The race we wanted was the Belmont. We might have won the Preakness, but could have worn out the horse for the Belmont, so we just decided to wait."

In an unprecedented tour de force in 1968, Dr. Fager copped four titles--Horse of the Year, best handicap horse on dirt, best grass horse and best sprinter.

"There's never been a horse like him," Nerud said. "He could carry weight, he won sprinting, at a distance and on grass, and he was the fastest horse that ever lived."

Nerud was knocked off his stable pony one morning and almost died after suffering a fractured skull. Dr. Charles Fager, a Boston brain specialist, did the surgery.

"Doc, I appreciate what you done," Nerud said when he was out of the woods. "One of these days, I'm gonna name a horse after you. It won't just be another horse, either. It'll be a good one."

Nerud has a theory about naming horses.

"There was never a good horse named Alfredo," he said.

Charlotte Nerud, Nerud's wife of 67 years, is not doing well.

"She needs help 24-7," Nerud said. "We try to make it as comfortable for her as we can."

Nerud remembered the parties Charlotte use to throw, going all the way back to the 1950s in Florida.

"We didn't have any money, but we managed to get everybody together, anyway," Nerud said. "We got Joe Hirsch started. Some of the guys had trouble warming up to him early on, but we had him over to one of our parties. He met a lot of the horse people, and took it on his own from there."

We talk a few times a year. Nerud is as current as the Daily Racing Form on the horse game.

"The horses are still important," he said. "They keep the phone ringing, and that's a sound I like to hear."

Written by Bill Christine

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Thursday, January 31, 2008

Ticket Talk

After the Breeders' Cup charged $50 for general admission on the second day of its two-day mudbath at Monmouth Park, I wondered what could be done for an encore, price-wise, when the event lands at Santa Anita for the fourth time this fall.

A $75 ticket would register nicely on the gouge-o-meter. But why stop there? Just round off the cheapest ticket in the joint to a not-so-cheap $100. That way, fans wouldn't have the nuisance of making change.

Sherwood Chillingworth, executive vice president of the Oak Tree Racing Assn., which as Santa Anita's tenant is the host for the event, talked about his discussions with the Breeders' Cup regarding ticket pricing.

"Since this is the 25th Breeders' Cup, it was suggested that we charge $25--on both Friday and Saturday," Chillingworth said with a frown.

I suppose the Breeders' Cup could then bray about having cut the price in half for the $2 bettor. Remember the line spoken by the newspaper reporter played by Sally Field in the movie "Absence of Malice"? "It's not the truth, but it's accurate," she said.

Pointing out that a $25 general admission for the 25th Breeders' Cup might be a hard sell despite its symmetry, Chillingworth said that this is what he said to the Breeders' Cup: "If this were the 100th running, would you be charging them $100?"

I asked Chillingworth what the public paid for general admission the last time the Breeders' Cup was held at Santa Anita.

"Five dollars," he said.

That was only five years ago.

"What I proposed," Chillingworth said, "was that we charge $10 on the Friday, and $15 on Saturday. That would give them the magic number 25 that they seem to be looking for. It would cost a guy $25 for both days."

The three Breeders' Cups at Santa Anita--1986, 1993 and 2003--have averaged 58,644 in attendance. The 69,155 who turned out in 1986 is still the biggest crowd, but for the six runnings at Churchill Downs, in Breeders' Cup history. Other than Churchill, Santa Anita has the highest average among tracks who have hosted more than one cup.

"The whole idea, as far as I'm concerned, is still to get as many people into the place as possible," Chillingworth said.

A novel concept. Somewhere along the line, distracted by slot machines, off-track betting, off-shore betting, telephone betting, Internet betting, inter-track betting, intra-track betting and early-bird betting, racing forgot that filling the pews used to be everybody's goal.

Written by Bill Christine

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

The Hot Corner

For the uninitiated, third base in the fickle game of blackjack is the seat for the player who draws just before the dealer. This week in Las Vegas, I encountered several third basemen who might be called, to mangle the metaphor, good field, no hit.

My favorite Vegas hangout for blackjack is the Barbary Coast. Small, smoke-filled, rundown and brassy, it really reminds you of a tenderloin dive in San Francisco, a throwback to the Las Vegas of Bugsy, Meyer and men of that ilk. My wife Pat hates the joint, but humors me when I want to go there. I mean, how can you dislike a casino that, in honor of my late colleague at the Los Angeles Times, has an Allen Malamud Memorial Urinal in the men's room?

I used to carry boxes of cocktail napkins home, because the Barbary had the same initials that I do. But now that fringe benefit is no more, since the Barbary was sold to Harrah's and renamed Bill's Gamblin' Hall & Saloon. I refuse to recognize the new name. When my wife asks what we should do, I still inevitably say, "Why don't we go to the Barbary for a little cheap blackjack?"

In a weak moment, I once was at third base at the Barbary and waved the dealer off with a total of 10. The dealer busted and the entire table won. "Do you stay on 10 very often, sir?" the young man with the cards asked. "Sometimes," I said. "I'm always afraid I'm going to draw a 12."

Worse than that was the player who sat down on my left, at third base, the other night at the Barbary. He stuck a pudgy hand into a pants pocket and produced nine wadded-up $100 bills. After he tossed them on the table and asked for nine black chips, the dealer all but needed an iron to straighten them out.

One of the bills had a corner slightly torn off.

"Sorry," the dealer said, holding the c-note up to the light. "I'm not allowed to accept a bill like that. But it's probably good at a restaurant, or the bank."

The third baseman re-wadded the bill and tossed it backward, over his right shoulder. The other players were too stunned to look to see where it landed. And we all had too much class to battle over it. There was a rumor later that a Barbary porter had caught the missive on the fly, and continued on with it.

The $800 man started out by betting $200. He turned to me, where I was playing the minimum of $15, and said: "Mind if I make a few bets with your hand?"

Foolishly, I gave him the green light, and he stuck two $100 chips under my three red ones. So now the hand was worth $215, only $15 of it my money.

I hadn't had a blackjack in a day and a half, but just like that my cards came up ace and jack, and we both won.

In a perfect world, we would have continued winning, become lifelong friends and started vacationing together. But several hands later, the $800 man was tapped out. I was holding my own while betting his money, but with his own cards he couldn't pair up anything for squat. He said something about needing to cash a check, and headed off in the same direction as the porter. I never saw him again. The rest of us looked longingly over our shoulders, as though the unwanted $100 with the torn corner was still on the carpet.

Next at third base was an avuncular type, probably in his 60s. I wouldn't have guessed him for a roue. The scantily clad cocktail waitress came by and he said: "Could I rub one of my cards on your dress for good luck?"

"You know," she said, "I've been working in this place for 26 years, and that's the first time I've ever heard that line.

"And that's a no," she added.

After she left, another player said: "Just great. Now she'll be spitting in our drinks the rest of the night."

After a while, the next third baseman took the seat and asked the same waitress for a Guinness. The beverage, not the actor.

"We don't serve Guinness here," she said.

He ordered something else, and after she left I said: "If you like Guinness, you ought to go over to O'Shea's."

"You mean this isn't O'Shea's?" he said sincerely.

Blackjack third basemen are the left-handed pitchers of cards. I could identify with the Guinness guy. He wasn't the only one in the game who didn't know where he was.

Written by Bill Christine

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