Bill Christine

Bill Christine, whose first Kentucky Derby was in 1968, covered horse racing for 24 years for the Los Angeles Times. He covered every Triple Crown race from 1982 through 2005, and also reported on the first 22 runnings of the Breeders' Cup. 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 is a former president of the National Turf Writers' Association. He has worked for the Thoroughbred Racing Associations, where he was assistant to the executive vice president, and is a former sports editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He wrote Roberto!, a biography of the Hall of Fame baseball player Roberto Clemente, in 1972. Bill, who lives in Redondo Beach, California, is working on a history of Bay Meadows. Contact:

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Monday, August 09, 2010

A Question for Zenyatta:  Quo Vadis?

SAN DIEGO, August 10, 2010--The new player at the Harrah's Rincon Casino bought into the blackljack game with two $50 bills. Some people think $50 bills are bad luck. I remember the day at nearby Del Mar, several years ago, when somebody hit a $300 exacta payoff and the mutuel clerk tried to pay him in $50 bills. He practically threw those bills in her face, accompanied by a spate of billingsgate. She gave him three $100 bills and he left.

Zenyatta seems to be immune to all the racetrack superstitions, hoary or otherwise. In the vernacular of railbirds, she answers all the questions, but always leaves more questions in her wake. With 18 wins in hand, and two more in the bush, the obvious question at Del Mar, where she won the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes for the third time, was where she would run next. Zenyatta's camp can be excused for being circumspect about answering that question, since one of the options is a race during Oak Tree at Santa Anita, providing there is an Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita. You all remember Santa Anita, don't you, the track with the protean running surface? There are safety concerns at Santa Anita again, and wouldn't it be a kick in the head if Zenyatta's Breeders' Cup prep race took her to problematic Del Mar again?

Reading between the lines, it would appear that the Beldame, scheduled for Belmont Park on October 2, is no longer an option. The Zenyatta Stakes, which will be run somewhere in the Western world or at Santa Anita on the same day, could possibly keep its namesake in California. Zenyatta winning the Zenyatta will be bottled-in-bond inspiration for headline writers everywhere, and largely ignored will be the memory of Lady's Secret, who was cast aside by Oak Tree when it renamed her race. Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Already lining up to run against Zenyatta in the Zenyatta is Jerry Jamgotchian, whose Rinterval ran second in the Hirsch, beaten by only a neck. Jamgotchian said that if Zenyatta runs, his stable will be there with two horses, Rinterval and something called Satans Quick Chick, who has also had her moments over synthetic tracks.

Jamgotchian, a Manhattan Beach developer who is California racing's harshest critic, took exception to jockey Mike Smith's comment that Zenyatta's win in the Hirsch was easier than it looked. Smith said that Zenyatta, typically, lollygagged in the stretch after he sent her to the lead too soon.

"I don't know," Jamgotchian said, "but what I saw was (Smith) hitting her pretty good three or four times with his whip. That didn't look to me like she was winning as she pleased."

You must know by now that Jamgotchian is the contrarian's contrarian. He also questioned Smith's post-race remark about Zenyatta becoming the greatest horse of all-time if she wins two more and finishes her career at perfect vision, 20-20.

"I can't see that," Jamgotchian said. "The best I can give her is the best California-raced horse of all time. That should piss everybody off."

By skipping the Beldame and not running in New York, Zenyatta will once more invite the disdain of Eclipse Awards voters back there. But no matter where she preps, a second win over males in the Breeders' Cup Classic, this time while running over old-fashioned dirt at Churchill Downs, will win back the voters, who will have no Rachel Alexandra as an alternate as they did in 2009. Never write off a horse until they've been dead for 10 years, the trainer Charlie Whittingham used to say, but it's difficult to muster any enthusiasm for Rachel Alexandra at this juncture. The 2010 Horse of the Year title is Zenyatta's to lose. She could even lose the race and win the title, if some goofball horse like Volponi or Arcangues would win the Classic. Voters' remorse from 2009, Zenyatta's horde of supporters might bray. I would say, Probably just the right thing to do.

Written by Bill Christine

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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Looming of Del Mar

LOS ANGELES, July 19, 2010--Del Mar looms. More than ever, it's the last breath of fresh air for California horse racing. Members of the California Horse Racing Board should genuflect at Del Mar's gates, because without Del Mar the game is a busted wheel in the state that used to go toe to toe with New York for national bragging rights. In a game long on survivors, but most of them hangers-on more than anything else, Del Mar is a hardy survivor. It is a seven-week example of the Good Old Days, an annual summertime testimonial to the way the game used to be played. In the movie "Breakfast at Tiffany's," Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard showed up at the famed jeweler and asked John McGiver, the man behind the counter, if a ring they found in a box of Cracker Jack could be engraved. McGiver tried to be snooty, but he couldn't. "Do they still really have prizes in Cracker Jack boxes?" he said. "That's nice to know. It gives one a feeling of solidarity, almost of continuity with the past, that sort of thing." Del Mar is what you find in the bottom of the Cracker Jack box.

It wasn't always so that Del Mar inspired horseplayers and horsemen to pine: "When will Del Mar ever get here?" It wasn't until the 1970s that Del Mar emerged as a track that was something besides a place that filled the gap between the end of a Hollywood Park meet and racing at Santa Anita. Even into the 1980s, Del Mar was incapable of taking on the monikker, Saratoga West. "Del Mar's a pretty place," a turf writer from New York sniffed, "but by the end of the year, you can't remember one race that was run there."

In 1991, Del Mar finally beat that rap. The late John Mabee, chairman of the board, told the track president, Joe Harper, to put up a purse of $1 million and run a race for older horses in the middle of the season. The inaugural Pacific Classic wasn't a setup; Mabee's Best Pal won the thing fair and square and Mabee, not chagrinned in the least, never gave one thought to throwing the trophy back.

It was the late trainer, Bobby Frankel, who owned the Pacific Classic after that, at least for the next four years, and Del Mar gave the stake the pizazz originally intended when it lured Cigar into the field in 1996. Cigar had won 16 straight races, as many as Citation, while racing all over the country in a campaign that will never be attempted again.

But at Del Mar Cigar was beaten (Dare and Go won the race). I thought Del Mar was courting public-relations disaster, shoehorning a record 44,000 into the track and trying to please them, but the customer-service complaints were negligible. The day gave Del Mar reason to think it could host a Breeders' Cup some day, and some day it will.

Meantime, Del Mar is the last jewel in California's tarnished crown. The most depressing Hollywood Park season ever just ended, as the track's inexorable death march into oblivion took several seven-league steps. The big days at Santa Anita are fewer and fewer, the impact of those days less and less, as its embattled owner, Frank Stronach, fiddles while his racing empire burns. Another Stronach property, Golden Gate Fields, is all that's left of the game in Northern California. The monthly racing board meetings more resemble a wake. The commissioners, presiding over a train wreck, must practice hand-wringing between meetings.

Once upon a time, Del Mar could unlock the turnstiles and find the spin of people deafening, but now the track must work hard to stay on top. The daily betting handle was a million dollars a day more three years ago. Attendance is sturdy but flat. Last year's gains at the gate were reflected by Del Mar pulling Mondays from the schedule, as they will do this year. Horsemen no longer save their horses for Del Mar, they run them when they can. Owners can't cherry-pick a Del Mar race or two, while starving the rest of the year. If there is one race symtomatic of the horse-population problem, it is Del Mar's traditional opening-day Oceanside Stakes. Split into divisions for decades, the Oceanside as been a one-division stake the last two years.

Also, Del Mar, like the other California tracks, has been swept into the synthetic-track vortex that the narrow-minded racing board created. New at Del Mar is Richard Tedesco, a track superintendent who's worked at both Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. Twelve horses died on the Polytrack at Del Mar last summer. "Del Mar asked me to make this a safer race track," Tedesco told the North County Times.

There are always a few givens at the opening of a Del Mar meet. Dozens of women will show up wearing hats bigger than The Ritz, and some of them will go home with prizes. At the Turf Club bar, where track founder Bing Crosby used to hang out, tanned young men will look up to blondes in six-inch heels. None of the first-day casualties will be around for the second day of racing. On opening day, Hank Wesch of the San Diego Union-Tribune will be hither and yon, interviewing horsemen and cranking out stories about them. The Union-Tribune never could afford to pay Wesch by the word, but that's not the reason this will be his last Del Mar season. A victim of the shrinking newspaper business, Wesch was recently forced to take a buyout, effective when Del Mar closes in early September. Del Mar might still be the exception, but Wesch was wedded to a moribund enterprise while covering a moribund business. Even though that's just two strikes, he's still out.

Written by Bill Christine

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Monday, July 05, 2010

Taxing Issues

LOS ANGELES, July 6, 2010--Now that Forbes magazine, or its Website, has outed me as a tax creep, it's time to come clean about this and other tawdry affairs. Like love, fighting the tax snoops is a many-splendored thing, layer after layer of court showdowns over the years. Some say that somebody has to do it. The IRS and I are the irresistible force and the immovable object, although I'm not sure which is which.

In an enchanted place in a far-off land, many years ago, Tommy Eazor and I, like ships in the night, found ourselves in the same courtroom. This was Pittsburgh, in the 1970s. Eazor and I had originally met through the horse business. As the owner of a large trucking company, he could afford to go to the sales. I was writing as much about thoroughbred racing as I could, which really wasn't much, because Fort Pitt's only track was Del Miller's harness oval on the outskirts of town, and Art Rooney, owner of the Steelers, may have been the only serious horseplayer in town. Another columnist in Pittsburgh used to occasionally close his columns with "horses to watch but don't bet," which typified the town's interest in racing.

Eazor's stable produced a champion filly, Lady Pitt, in 1966. Four years before that, he ran a 123-1 shot, Mister Pitt, who finished 13th in Decidedly's Kentucky Derby. Sometime around the time Eazor and I stumbled upon one another in U.S. Tax Court, he had run a horse who was an early Derby prospect for about five minutes.

The feds were chasing Eazor for about $500,000 in allegedly unpaid taxes, and they were after me for $275. Tommy, tanned and well-scrubbed, sat in a pew with his three lawyers, the four of them looking like an ad for Brooks Brothers. I was there in shiny polyester, and had a fool for a lawyer.

I was just ahead of Eazor on the docket. The IRS flew in its attorney from Washington, D.C., and we met in a hallway before court convened. "You made me get up at 4 o'clock in the morning," he said, and I said, "You didn't have to be a lawyer."

My case was about unreimbursed business expense, and despite the judge's objection, I was allowed to read into the record about 40 newspaper expense accounts. The court reporter's recorder ran out of tape, causing a delay, and we didn't finish until well past the noon lunch break. The transcript ran 125 pages.

By mid-afternoon, my trial was over and in leaving the courtroom I walked by an impatient Eazor and his legal team. Eazor's lawyers had individual meters, and they had been running for hours and he hadn't even come before the judge yet. "Next time you want to call me for a horse story," he said, "save your dime." He seemed to be smiling. I never needed to call him again, to test whether he was smiling.

I don't even remember how my case turned out, and I can't tell you whether Eazor won or lost, either. Many years later, the IRS had picked up my scent again, this time in California, for another small amount, and this time they seemed interested in avoiding a trial. In the middle of negotiations, an IRS agent from Long Beach, whom I had never met or spoken to, made an unannounced visit to my home. I let her in, and invited her to take a chair in my home office. "This is my office at home," I said, making sure she knew where she was.

She sat there, saying nothing.

"Well," I said, "what can I do for you?"

"You could write me a check," she said.

"For what?"

"For the amount that you owe."

"Right now, I don't owe anything. This is being negotiated."

"I don't know anything about a negotiation."

"It's all in the file."

"I don't have a file."

I reached into a desk drawer and took out a manila folder, thick with correspondence and other documents.

"This is the file," I said.

"Let me take a look at it," she said.

"Sorry," I said. "You'll have to get your own file."

Then I asked for the phone number of her supervisor, preferably someone who could have her fired.

While I was on the phone to her Long Beach office, she started screaming at me. I held up the phone so the supervisor could hear.

After she left, with no file and no check, I called Long Beach back, demanding a letter of apology. None came. I wrote my Congresswoman, Jane Harman, with details of the encounter. In a few days, the letter of apology arrived.

I can't remember how that one turned out, either. There have been so many, and I don't feel like looking them up. I'm still standing, and that's what counts. Recently, Forbes decided that another of my rows with the IRS, from 2005, was worth a few hundred words. They wrote quite eloquently that I lost, although an appeal is one of my options. I wish Tommy Eazor were still alive. I'd send him a ticket for a front-row seat.

Written by Bill Christine

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