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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Sunday, December 12, 2010

Biting the Hand. . .

You have to be prepared at all times for what might happen in the desert. Field Marshal Rommel and Lawrence of Arabia knew this, in spades. But anything can still happen--in "Road to Morocco," Dorothy Lamour even fell in love with Bob Hope while Bing Crosby was around. No amount of preparation could have girded us, however, for what David Israel recently said in the desert, at the University of Arizona's annual industry brain-pick. Several cacti, not to mention some superannuated horseplayers, were aghast. "The average age of our on-track customer is deceased," said Israel, vice chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, and then he went on to say, "And the average age of our satellite customer is decomposed."

Israel is a scriptwriter and onetime journalist, so I assume that he writes his own stuff. Even though what he said in Tucson might play well at the Comedy Club, he might have been better served had he cut his hyperbole with a dash of seltzer. "If David Israel continues to insult the broad base of California's remaining customer support, I do not think he should be accepting speaking assignments," Roger Way, a horseplayer, said in an e-mail. "Without the support of senior citizens, California horse racing would be forced to close the doors tomorrow."

In fairness to Israel, he was about to make a valid point. It's just that he didn't have to step over carcasses to get there. The rest of his remark was, "The demographic is way too old. We need to attract younger customers to the racetrack experience."

If racing's core audience has been dying off for the last half-century, then why is there anybody queuing up to the parimutuel windows at all? I mean, some younger people must be going to the races. The rub is that there are not enough of them. Later on at Tucson, Israel said something about "selling racing as entertainment," and it's there that he's caught his shoe in the do-do. If 15 minutes of action stretched over a four-hour afternoon is entertainment, then I'm a monkey's uncle. If poring over page after page of agate type in the Daily Racing Form is entertainment, then the Marquis de Sade must have invented the game. There's nothing wrong with waiting a half-hour to see several horses sprint six furlongs, or trying to turn a coin by dividing workout times by Beyer numbers and squaring the quotient, but these exercises are not for everyone, especially the guy who gets his kicks by receiving two cards from the dealer every 30 seconds.

Racing needs to be sold as a gambling game, and little else. The average racegoer, and especially the newcomer, doesn't look upon a 10-horse field as a beauty contest. All they want to do is cash enough tickets to go home with at least as much if not more than what they started with. Referring to Secretariat as "No. 4" might be blasphemy to the romantics, but in the real world a horse, like Gertrude Stein's rose, is simply a horse. If you have a good day at the wickets, the mountains behind Santa Anita are picturesque; if you've caught a steady run of slow horses, they're just a facade.

Getting back to Israel and the old fogies at the track, Andy Asaro, another concerned California horseplayer, said: "Is this appropriate language for the vice chairman of the racing board to be using when referring to his best customers? I know he was talking about attracting younger customers, but. . .wow!"

Allen Gutterman, the veteran marketing maven at Santa Anita, has, unlike Israel, been around long enough to know new customers can be courted without disdain for the old. "Social networking allows us to communicate directly with fans and horseplayers and let them know what's happening at Santa Anita," Gutterman said in a recent Q & A with the Paulick Report. "Direct mail seems old school, but is still phenomenally productive and permits us to talk to great customers for very little money, particularly to those who don't have Blackberrys or I-Phones or who are not Web savvy."

A long time ago, in a galaxy known as New York, Ogden Mills "Dinny" Phipps talked about creating new customers and said that racing's biggest obstacle was "the intimidation factor." The Intimidation Factor is alive and well and still frequents all the racetracks. Almost every new customer is greeted by I.F. at the door. I've experienced the same sensation, when I get the itchy, twitchy feeling to play baccarat in Las Vegas.

Written by Bill Christine

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BallHype: hype it up!

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