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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Saturday, August 07, 2010

Another Day, Another Holler

A couple of horses in the field were winless in both 2009 and 2010. Twenty-eight losses in all.

Another horse had never finished better than fifth in a stakes race. Yet another horse had been beaten in 19 of 22 starts.

Not a very salty lot, the five mares who lined up against Zenyatta in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar. By rights, Zenyatta should have been giving them 10 pounds or more, but the Hirsch and its forerunner, the Chula Vista, haven't been a handicap race since 1999. Weight-for-age conditions applied, which made the weights fair for everyone but the horses not named Zenyatta.

When Zenyatta wins, no matter what the weights, no matter how cheesy the opposition, no matter how scant the margin, hyperbole flies, so why should her win by a neck at Del Mar be an exception? When she crossed the finish line for her 18th win without a loss, the estimable Trevor Denman, who has been on the horns for many of of those wins, said: "She doesn't win by far, but it's the way she wins! She gives you goosebumps!"

Mike Smith, who rides Zenyatta, was smitten long ago, and this time he said: "If she can pull two more (wins), to me she might go down as the greatest horse of all-time."

Well, they all have to say something, don't they? A win over chopped liver at Del Mar will not get Zenyatta past Man o' War and Secretariat, but a second win against males in the Breeders' Cup Classic in November will at least rocket her into their league.

Some of the others at Del Mar had passed the entry box because of the rumors that Zenyatta wouldn't run. Her co-owner, Jerry Moss, was the only racing commissioner who didn't approve of synthetic surfaces for California when that 2006 vote came, and John Shirreffs, Moss' trainer, once said that running on ersatz dirt is like traveling over Velcro. Del Mar's Polytrack layout is not unlike the other synthetics in California, fraught with problems, but by race day Moss and Shirreffs had painted themselves into a corner. Del Mar was giving away a set of pint-sized glasses in honor of Zenyatta, and a crowd of 30,000 was expected (actually, 32,000 came). No Zenyatta and racing would have left just one more sour taste in a lot of mouths.

All week long, the main purveyor of the Zenyatta-won't-run rumors was Jerry Jamgotchian, arch-critic of California racing, Del Mar especially included. In what looked like heresy, Jamgotchian laid out about $15,000 to fly his Irish-bred, Rinterval, from Chicago to California to run in the Hirsch. Jamgotchian came about as close as he'll ever come to sheepishness when he said it wasn't the devil, but Rinterval's decent synthetic-track record back East, that made him do it.

By week's end, Jamgotchian backed off his theory that Zenyatta wouldn't run, and kept Rinterval in the race, anyway. That was a good thing. She was the second-place finisher, earning Jamgotchian $60,000. Zenyatta collected $180,000, hiking her career total to $6.2 million. "She was playing," Mike Smith said. "When she gets to the front, she salutes the fans." The two races Smith referred to are the Beldame at Belmont Park (probably) and the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs (definitely). Zenyatta's chopped-liver days are over.

Written by Bill Christine

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Saturday, May 22, 2010

Mixup at the Polls

The polls have closed in the voting for the Racing Hall of Fame. I voted for Point Given, on the assumption that he was faster than the trainer Gary Jones, although I never actually saw them race. In trying to decide between Azeri and Randy Romero, I voted for Azeri. Romero won more races, by a margin of 4,270, but he was one behind in Horse of the Year titles.

Because of new voting rules, there were 10 candidates on the ballot, but they weren't sorted out according to categories. Voters were allowed to select any four, a mix and match of horses, trainers and jockeys. I voted a straight Down With People party ticket. All of my votes went to horses--Point Given, Azeri, Open Mind and Sky Beauty. I would have liked to have included a fifth horse, Safely Kept, who is also Hall of Fame worthy, but there wasn't room on the ballot. So I had to leave out Safely Kept, along with Best Pal; Jones; another trainer, Robert Wheeler; and jockeys Romero and Alex Solis.

The 10 eligibles were listed in alphabetical order, sort of. The horses were alphabetized according to their first names, the trainers and jockeys by their last names. If Robert Wheeler were a horse, for example, he would not have been listed last. If Alex Solis was a horse, he would have been listed first, ahead of Azeri and all the rest of them. You really need to pay attention on this. I would imagine that the lights were left on late many nights at the Hall of Fame before an executive decision on alphabetization was made.

It is not likely that this wacky voting format will be repeated next year. That's because it wasn't even supposed to be in use this year. A member of the Hall of Fame committee told me that the ballot was supposed to include 10 names, all right, but that voters would then have the option of voting "yes" or "no" for every name. The four candidates with the most yesses would be enshrined. This format resembles the way the Baseball Hall of Fame runs its elections. Baseball lists many players on the ballot (this year there were 23), and voters are allowed to vote for a maximum of 10 (they can even leave the ballot blank, if they feel none of the candidates is deserving). In effect, the baseball voters are saying "yes" or "no" to each player. To get into the Hall of Fame, a player must be named on 75% of the ballots.

What happened after the Racing Hall of Fame approved the yes-or-no balloting system, based on a committee recommendation, is a source of bewilderment for committee members. Early this year, the Hall of Fame sent out a release that made no mention of the yes-or-no format, outlining instead the pick-4-out-of-10 system. Strangely, none of the committee members contacted Ed Bowen, their chairman, to ask at that point, "Hey, Ed, what happened to yes or no?" A month or so later, the ballots went out to the electorate, and by then it was too late to revert to the system that the committee had actually preferred--a system that would have given voters more leeway in making their choices, and not forced them to compare apples with oranges every step of the way.

I messaged Bowen about the yes-or-no format falling between the cracks, and he confirmed that it had, without elaborating. Over the years, the Hall of Fame voting process has had more changes than Gypsy Rose Lee in her prime, but this was a new twist on an old hodgepodge. Surely an apology is owed a committee that thought it had a consensus, but didn't. Caulking the cracks at the Hall of Fame is a huge job.

Written by Bill Christine

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Saturday, May 08, 2010

Churchill Frowns

Churchill Downs and arrogance have been in lockstep for a long, long time. At a Kentucky Derby in the 1970s, I ran into Jesse Outlar, the respected sports editor of the Atlanta Constitution, at a Louisville hotel bar several days before the race. "Jesse, is it me or are you down in the dumps for some reason?" I said. "I left my press credentials in Atlanta," said Jesse, who was as hangdog as a basset hound. "Now I've got to go up to Raymond Johnson tomorrow morning and tell him. You know Raymond. He's not going to let me off without a tongue-lashing. I'll get the replacement credentials, but not until Raymond accuses me of double-dipping him."

Johnson was the former sports editor of a Nashville newspaper, but as a PR man for Churchill that didn't mean he had to like newspapermen anymore. Churchill had hired him for what became known as its resident (one word, one syllable, rhymes with trick), and Raymond overplayed the assignment. There's been a lengthy list of successors since Raymond left the track, some of them resident (one word, one syllable, rhymes with tricks) who continued on in the Johnson tradition. Edgar Allen, a beautiful man, was an exception to this prerequisite contempt for the media, and so was Tony Terry, but Tony's 24/7 niceness seemed to rub the front office the wrong way, and he was gone, not willingly, after a long career with the company.

In 1988, as they were loading Winning Colors and the others into the Derby starting gate, I was standing in the second row of the two-row terrace in front of the press box at Churchill. I had had the same location for years, and while it was not the best viewing area for the Derby, if you stood and used binoculars, you could still see the horses leaving the chute at the start of the race.

Seconds before the break, a security guard about the size of Winning Colors got in my face and told me I'd have to sit down because the people behind me could not see. I glanced over my shoulder and saw most of the members of Interlopers Inc., a varied collection of yokels who didn't belong. They were standing in a non-existent third row.

"These people don't even have credentials," I said to the bozo who was asking me to sit down and miss the start of the race. "I came all the way from California to watch a mile and a quarter. You'll have to carry me out of here if you don't like it."

"Well, that's just what we might have to do," he said.

"Before you leave, could you give me the name of someone who can have you fired?"

"That would be God," he said, finally backing off.

Writing about that Derby was the easy part. The next day, I broached the incident with Karl Schmitt, who could have been joined at the hip with Raymond Johnson. Most of us are familiar with complaining to someone in charge and knowing that the someone isn't listening to one word we've said. This was Karl Schmitt, in spades. Karl made the corporate rounds at Churchill Downs, was eventually made a vice president (whenever Churchill's vice president roster dips under a dozen, the guys at the top feel understaffed), and at least once a day would answer a question with, "That's not in my department." After a while, I began asking, "Just exactly what is his department?" I never got an answer.

The same year the Gestapo-like rent-a-cop didn't want me to see whether Winning Colors broke right, Mike Battaglia was the track announcer at Churchill. Early on Derby day, between races, Mike went to the roof to do a TV interview. He left his coat, with the credential attached, in the booth, and you probably know what's coming. The interview over, Battaglia returned to the booth to call the next race, but was told that he couldn't get in because he didn't have a credential. Keeneland went silent for years, but this was Derby day, for cripes' sake.

I swear, I haven't been writing these down. In 1982, I watched in horror as the great Joe Hirsch and a rent-a-cop outside trainer Dewey Smith's barn engaged in an ugly chest-bumping episode. Smith, sitting in his office, heard the commotion and came outside. "What the hell's wrong with you, man?" he said. "This is Joe Hirsch. Do you think he'd try to get in to see me if I didn't want him?"

Mixing arrogance and ignorance makes for a rancid combination. By my count, there are currently 13 vice presidents at Churchill, most of whom probably don't know Jorge Velasquez from John Velazquez, or Ron Franklin from Ron McAnally. Security guards weren't a problem at this Derby for Jorge Velasquez and Franklin, but tickets were. The two retired riders were invited to Louisville, to add their handprints in cement to the prints of 31 other Derby-winning jockeys. The impressive display is outside the Galt House, which not incidentally is Churchill's official Derby hotel. Organizers notified Churchill three weeks before the Derby that Velasquez and Franklin were coming, and that they hoped to buy four good seats for them and their companions, as they had in each of the three previous years for other jockeys.

On Derby day, despite numerous attempts by Jane Dempsey to buy the tickets, Velasquez and Franklin were relegated to watching the race from the bar of their hotel. The fifth race on the Derby undercard was named the Pleasant Colony Purse, in honor of the horse Velasquez rode to victory in the 1981 Derby. Dempsey is not exactly a jane-come-lately to the Derby milieu. From California, she and her family have run an annual Kentucky Derby junket for 64 years. Forget that it's the Derby, wouldn't you think that 64 years of doing business with anybody earns you a return phone call?

"I'm not angry," Dempsey said. "I'm very angry."

In the closest thing to an apology to the embarrassed Velasquez and Franklin, one of the Churchill vice presidents said, "We should have known (about Velasquez and Franklin), and we didn't." It's not as though this hasn't happened before. In 2006, Johnny Sellers, of Carry Back fame, was an invitee, along with Babe Hanford, who rode Bold Venture to victory in 1936. Sellers took ill, and spent the Derby in a Louisville hospital, but it wouldn't have made any difference, they couldn't buy him a ticket. Hanford and his wife, both elderly, said it was just as well that they weren't issued tickets, because they no longer handled big crowds well. Inadvertently, the Hanfords got Churchill off the hook. Three years later, Babe Hanford, age 91, died. Churchill Downs put out a release that said he had attended his last Derby in 2006. Not quite. He was in Louisville, but was a ticket short of going to the track.

This year, Diane Crump would have liked to have gone to the Derby. Crump was trampled by a horse last year, suffered head injuries and incurred substantial debt. She hasn't been to Churchill Downs in 15 years, and this was the 40th anniversary of her becoming the first female jockey to ride in the race. According to Jason Neff, who's doing a documentary on female jockeys, Churchill knew more than a month before the Derby that Crump had this anniversary and was interested in attending. NBC might have interviewed her. Newspapers covering the Derby might have shown interest. But a complimentary ticket couldn't be found, and at the end of the day Crump, according to Neff, was invited to buy her own ticket on the Internet.

"I'm not bitter, just disappointed," Crump said on the phone from Northern Virginia. "It would have been fun to go, but this is racing isn't it? I was more disappointed for Velasquez and Franklin. Money is the only thing driving the game. Nobody in management knows anymore about the people and the great horses who made the game. Tradition doesn't count for anything. Yes, I know, betting drives the game, and it wouldn't be much of a game without the betting. But it's the people in the game who drive the betting, and the tracks have forgotten about them."

Which is not to say that the tracks don't have time to forget the fans. Churchill Downs has this rule about no umbrellas on Derby day. They probably roll out extra Dumpsters when it rains, to collect all the contraband. Mix arrogance and ignorance, season with a lack of common sense, and the smell is like being downwind at a landfill. A few years ago, a friend of mine witnessed this at the entrance to Churchill on Derby day: A woman was asked to surrender her umbrella. She pleaded that this was a special umbrella. Her son had used it for years, they always talked about it, and when he died, the umbrella wound up in the mother's hands. The mother with the dead son cried as she told the story. The umbrella police were unmoved. Into the Dumpster, the bumbershoot went.

Written by Bill Christine

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