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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, 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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