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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: bill.christine@yahoo.com.

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Saturday, February 27, 2010


Wonderland


I don't always listen to Roger Stein's weekend radio shows, but February 27 was a good morning to be dial-side. Stein, a veteran trainer, prides himself on getting racing's top newsmakers, and before Frank Stronach had unpacked his suitcase for a rare visit to California, Stein latched on to him for an interview.

The day before Stronach came on the Stein show, Stronach was quoted by Art Wilson, a columnist for a chain of papers that includes the Los Angeles Daily News. Stronach told Wilson that one of the racing surfaces under consideration, when Santa Anita tears up its Pro-Ride track after the current meeting, might consist of dirt, sand and a small amount of fiber. "Just picture a beach," Stronach said. "It's similar to sand on a beach. It's a very safe surface."


Stronach said that he installed this relatively new surface at his track in Austria, but otherwise the only places it's been tried are at show-horse rings and a training center in Europe. "You water the track from underneath," Stronach said. "You can absolutely control the moisture content."

That Santa Anita, after failed experiences with Cushion Track and Pro-Ride the last few years, would consider another experimental surface, at a great cost, is (a) surprising, (b) preposterous, and (c) unbelievable. But if what Stronach told Wilson was fantastic, that was only prelude for a bizarre half-hour interview on the Stein show.

Stein, who doesn't settle for vague answers, did everything but shake Stronach by his lapels in an attempt to get him to answer questions directly. A few excerpts:

Stein: Would you dare make the same mistake with this racing surface that's already been made?

Stronach: We need to control the ingredients. It's like cooking soup. If you can control the ingredients, such as putting in the right seasoning, you'll be all right.

Stein: Frank, let me get one clear answer from you. Have we seen the last of the synthetics at Santa Anita?

Stronach: I don't want to shoot out (sic) of my hip. We need to find the overall solution by working with horse ownership.

Stein: I ask you, on behalf of the thousands of fans, the bettors, the whales, the horsemen, have we seen the last of the kind of track that's out there now?

Stronach: We need to get this thing in a public forum.

Stein: It sounds like you're not ready to say yes or no to this question right now.

Stronach: I don't want to sound threatening, but we have to sit down and fix what's wrong.

Stein: Frank, you say you have an engineering background. I don't know about your engineering background, but you must have a minor in dancing.

Finally, Stein said goodbye to Stronach. Before breaking for commercials, he said to "Bettor Bob" and Jonathan Hardoon, who also appear on the show:

"Maybe you guys can tell me what happened. I'm going to spend the break picking myself up off the floor. Who do you think we should have on tomorrow? Should we have Frank back on?"

"Bettor Bob" laughed. "Not unless you can find new ways to ask the same questions," he said.

"That was a scary interview," Hardoon said.

About an hour after Stronach's appearance on the show, Santa Anita announced that it had lost another day of racing because its Pro-Ride track wouldn't drain properly following a steady rain. This was the track's 16th cancellation since 2007. The Sham Stakes, an important race for a few Kentucky Derby hopefuls, was rescheduled for March 6. Anybody out there want to buy a used Daily Racing Form for the latest rained-out day? I paid $6.05, retail. Will accept any offer.

Written by Bill Christine

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Sunday, November 29, 2009


An Early Helping of Humbug


In a manner of speaking, they ran the Generous Stakes for the 27th year at Hollywood Park over the Thanksgiving weekend. But to pick a nit, the first time the Generous was run was in 1993, so the math doesn't make any sense. Nor did it make any sense when Hollywood Park changed the name of the race, after 11 years, from the Hoist the Flag to the Generous. Consigned to the dust bin was Hoist the Flag, who only finished first in every race he ever ran, and was the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby when his career was cut short by injury in March of 1971.

I was reminded of the insult to Hoist the Flag when the insult to Lady's Secret came along the other day at Santa Anita. For once, however, they can't blame this one on Frank Stronach. The miscreants are Sherwood Chillingworth and the board of directors of the Oak Tree Racing Association, who rent the joint from Santa Anita for an annual fall meet and, of late, a more-than-occasional running of the Breeders' Cup. Not-for-profit Oak Tree's middle name is charity, but there was nothing charitable about the announcement that it was dropping Lady's Secret's name from one of its Grade 1 races and renaming it in honor of Zenyatta, the flavor of the month.

Thanksgiving was no time for assorted columnists, pundits and racing bloggers to be in any way thankful for what Oak Tree had wrought. The undefeated Zenyatta deserves a race, most of them were saying, but not at the expense of the Lady's Secret Stakes, named after the 1986 Horse of the Year and run 17 times during Oak Tree. Steve Haskin's blog produced more than 200 responses alone, more than 90 per cent of them anti-Oak Tree. "This is the first time I've had a negative reaction with Zenyatta's name attached," one of them said. ". . . I consider it an insult to both of these remarkable ladies, because as I see it, they're (also) not doing Zenyatta any favors with racing fans."

As though anything could justify what Oak Tree did, Lady's Secret is not the first icon to have his or her name callously expunged from a race. Try Seabiscuit and Sir Barton, the first Triple Crown champion. How about Whirlaway, another Triple Crown winner, and classic winners Gallant Man, Riva Ridge and Creme Fraiche? Just across the street from where Gallant Man's plaque hangs in the Hall of Fame, Saratoga took his name off one of its races. Then, in a flight of genius, they renamed the Gallant Man the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes. At least Gallant Man's building is accounted for.

The list is not a short one. Davona Dale, who won the Fair Grounds Debutante and also went into the Hall of Fame, bit the dust at the New Orleans track, after 18 years, when Silverbulletday came along and was evidently deemed more topical. Firenze, another Hall of Famer, was scratched from the stakes lineup at Saratoga after her name had been attached to a race for almost 50 years. The pint-sized filly did her running in the 19th century and now is assured of being forgotten.

When horses die, their names on races become vulnerable. When a dead horse's owner also dies--as was the case with Lady's Secret's Gene Klein--it's Katy bar the door.

"Race tracks are far too quick to toss tradition and history aside," one blogger wrote.

Another used the Lady's Secret-Zenyatta controversy as a foundation to decry all that suffocates the game: "I'll be amazed if and when anyone in (the racing business) gets anything done right the first time."

Sometimes names of important races are changed without major horses being the victims. The Breeders' Cup changed one of its races from the Distaff to the Ladies Classic after one of its executives said: "The general public was confused by the Distaff name." After 24 years of Distaffs, that must have added up to mountains of confusion.

If Oak Tree could rethink what it did with the Lady's Secret Stakes, I would imagine they'd renege on their decision. Be my guest. Somehow, some way, there should be room for both a Lady's Secret and a Zenyatta race in California. Getting everything right the second time around is perfectly acceptable.

Written by Bill Christine

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Sunday, September 27, 2009


A Return Whose Time Hasn’t Come


I don't want to be there if Lava Man runs again. I wouldn't be able to look, my heart would be in my shoes. It would be a can't-win proposition. Lava Man could get hurt, or even worse. If he wins, or runs respectably, he'll be geared up to run again, and then he could get hurt, or even worse. For any part of it, include me out.

Maybe the owners of Lava Man, who banked more than $5 million after they claimed him for $50,000, know what they're doing, but I get the feeling that Lava Man, once a horse, is now a guinea pig. Stem-cell treatment for horses is still in its infancy. Lava Man is almost nine years old. Let them try out this stuff on younger, less high-profile horses.


I get the part about Lava Man not adjusting to leaving the track. The same thing happened to John Henry. When he was 11, Keeneland paraded him at the track, and the old gelding, some said, was tricked into thinking it was another race. A few weeks later, Sam Rubin announced that his horse would go back in training. The goal was the 1986 Arlington Million, a race that John Henry had already won twice.

Trainer Ron McAnally started cranking him up. A letter came one day from the Humane Society or the SPCA, I forget which. "I thought, 'Here we go,'" McAnally said. "But it was only a letter asking for a contribution."

A relieved McAnally continued to send John Henry through his morning paces. This had been a Sam Rubin project from the outset. "He never had a bowed tendon," Rubin said. "We stopped on him too soon."

After a workout one day at Del Mar, John Henry came back with a filling. Jack Robbins, the noted veterinarian and McAnally's long-time friend, was called back from a horse sale at Saratoga. Robbins examined the leg and told Rubin that now was the time to stop on John Henry for good.

"Can you imagine," somebody at the McAnally barn said, "the outcry if something had happened to the horse on the track?"

If something happens to Lava Man, PETA's bags are packed. The racing industry has been giving the overly zealous People for Ethical Treatment of Animals enough ammunition on a regular basis. Racing can only cross its fingers should Lava Man actually race again.

His owners are saying that if their horse is incapable of competing at the highest levels, all bets are off. Perhaps they forget that he hasn't been up to snuff at those levels since the middle of 2007. After winning the Hollywood Gold Cup for the third time in June of that year, he tailed off badly. He finished far back in the Pacific Classic, then was switched to grass and ran last in the Oak Tree Mile. The last time he ran on the main track, which was over Santa Anita's Cushion Track, five state-breds outran him in the California Cup. In the last three races before his so-called retirement, all on grass, he was never better than third and finished last in the Eddie Read Handicap.

Racing in the U.S is hungry for stars. With Rachel Alexandra on hiatus, and Zenyatta running sparingly this year, there are too many empty gaps in the calendar. Recently asked to name the five best horses in the world, it was a stretch for me to include two from the U.S. on the list. But even on this score, Lava Man was never a national factor and would be of no help should there be a second career. His five starts outside California were abysmal. "A very bad shipper," says his trainer, Doug O'Neill, but the results are still there, staring you in the face.

The last time I didn't want to be at a race was Serena's Song's Black-Eyed Susan in 1995. Less than two weeks prior, she had finished 16th in the Kentucky Derby. Her trainer, Wayne Lukas, had seen his Union City break down and be put down in the Preakness two years before. I stood on the catwalk in front of the Pimlico press box and hoped that I wouldn't be writing another Union City story. But I guess Lukas knew his filly or knew the opposition, or both. Serena's Song won by what seemed like half the length of the stretch. I hope O'Neill and his owners get just as lucky with Lava Man. In racing, there's a paucity of good stories that don't shoot the game in the foot. But I'm too gutless to show up to find out.

Written by Bill Christine

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