Saturday, November 20, 2010
Blood, Sweat & Ballots
There are two things I remember about the turf writers' dinner at the Downtown Athletic Club in Manhattan several years ago. On the walls, where portraits of all the Heisman Trophy winners were hung, were likenesses of Gary Beban, the 1967 winner, and Steve Owens, the 1969 winner, and in between was the blank space that once was occupied by a rendering of O.J. Simpson. I need to ask one of these days about what became of that portrait of the defrocked Simpson.
The other thing about the dinner was the longest pre-dinner cocktail party in the history of pre-dinner cocktail parties. It went on for literally hours. The bus transporting the turf writers who were staying at the media hotel, on Long Island, had gotten lost getting into the city, and the staff at the athletic club was told to hold up the dinner until the stragglers arrived. Meantime, the bartenders, who were only outnumbered by about 5 to 1, kept pouring. I would have liked to have seen the bar bill that night. It might have been more than the handle at the Breeders' Cup a few days later. I was staying at a hotel in Manhattan, and traveling by cab, so no harm, no foul. But after an hour or two of pre-dinner drinks, I wrote the name of my hotel on a piece of paper and put it in my pocket, just as a precaution. What happened to me in New York many years before, a few days before the first Belmont I ever covered, wasn't going to happen again. At an ungodly hour, I poured myself out of Jimmy Ryan's, a jazz joint on 52nd Street, and flagged a cab. I might have been staying at the Roosevelt, but for the moment I couldn't remember. "Take me to the Belmont," I said. "Guess again, mac," the cabbie said. "The Belmont burned down five years ago."
From what I can tell, Heisman voting is much like the Eclipse Awards--the only governing rule is that there are no rules. For my fellow voters who are seeking guidance in the upcoming Horse of the Year election between Blame and Zenyatta, I say, leave well enough alone. There are Eclipse Awards rules for another competition, best stories, broadcasts and photos about horse racing, and they run five pages, or about four pages too long. If a task force were commissioned today to write rules for the Horse of the Year voting, they wouldn't finish by Christmas, and their final draft would be Magna Carta in length. They would need to be told at the outset that they aren't being paid by the word.
In recent years, when both Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen were heavily favored to win Eclipse Awards for best trainer, I sometimes adopted rules of my own and left both of them off my ballot. This was at a time when rulings for drug violations dotted both of their records. Both horsemen denied wrongdoing, but their innocence was seldom substantiated. Most voters were not concerned--Pletcher won four straight awards, starting in 2004, and Asmussen has won the last two years. This year, a handful of voters, incensed over Pletcher's role in the Life At Ten cause celebre at the Breeders' Cup, might skip over his name at ballot time, but it is the wrong year to be running away from the heavy favorite. In 2010, there has been Pletcher and nobody else. He is more than $7 million ahead of the next trainer on the money list, he's won the Kentucky Derby and three Breeders' Cup races, and his barn has won at least 44 graded stakes, double that of Bob Baffert, who's second in those standings. Last year might have been the time to ignore the raw numbers and jump ship, and the Zenyatta camp, after she had won the Breeders' Cup Classic, thought that their trainer, John Shirreffs, stood a good chance to bag an Eclipse. But the voting totals were as raw as they come: Asmussen 130, Shirreffs 57. This time around, Shirreffs will not even be that close when Pletcher's votes are tallied.
The Racing Hall of Fame is an entirely different kettle of fish. Unlike the Baseball Hall of Fame, no rules. Pete Rose, who gambled on baseball, has a record that would normally guarantee enshrinement by acclimation, but he has never been allowed on the ballot. I love Pete, for what he did on the field and for the glib way he talked about it afterwards, but I could never vote for him. Pat Valenzuela, an admitted drug abuser and in trouble with racing authorities much of his sometimes spectacularly successful career, has Hall of Fame credentials, and as sure as Shinola, he'll wind up on the ballot some day. That election will make Blame-Zenyatta seem like child's play.
Back to matters Cam Newton at Auburn. There might even be a lesson in this for Eclipse voters. Although the Newton investigation has yet to run its course, one of the Heisman voters, a sports editor in Mississippi, said: "Sooner or later, we have to send a message about what's right and what's wrong. People tell me that the kinds of things we're hearing about with Cam Newton are just part of college football now. But I say it's not part of college football, and if it is, we need to stop it." One of the schools that was allegedly bidding for Newton's services was Mississippi State. Sometimes, I guess, you have to check your objectivity at the door.