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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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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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