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 18, 2008

Check List for Petaluma Tony

San Mateo, Calif., Aug. 19, 2008--Things you ought to know about Tony from Petaluma, who parlayed a $12 ticket (3x1x1x2x1x1) to cash a $356,909.60 pick six at Del Mar last month (there was only one other winning ticket):

* He and two younger brothers all suffer from retinitis pigmentosa, a hereditary eye disease. Tony, 62, is legally blind. Two years ago, given the choice of using a cane or a guide dog, he opted for a dog. Now he has "Warner," a black Labrador retriever.

* Warner, Tony said, "must have thought I lost my mind" when he sat at home and listened to the TVG telecast of the final leg. Dumaani's Gold, Tony's 5-1 single in the race, and Improvising, the 5-2 favorite, finished in a dead heat. "My horse was a length and a half behind in the stretch," Tony said, "but I could tell from Trevor Denman's call that she was just coming and coming. While I waited for the photo, I thought, 'Even if my horse doesn't win, I'm in line for a pretty decent consolation with five out of six.' But when when they announced the 5 (Dumaani's Gold) had dead-heated, I went crazy, and Warner couldn't figure out what was wrong with me."

* Singling Zardana, the Ron McAnally trainee who won the fifth leg, the Osunitas Handicap, at 43-1, wasn't that difficult, Tony said. "This was a Brazilian-bred, and McAnally has a reputation of doing wonderful things with horses from down there," Tony said. "There were no Secretariats in the race, and McAnally had to have a reason for taking a shot. I knew that not many horses were winning wire to wire on the grass at Del Mar, and if I knew that, McAnally had to know it, too. I kind of thought that he'd tell his jockey (Aaron Gryder) to take back instead of going for the lead. And that's the way the race set up."

* Because Tony can't read the Daily Racing Form, he relies on listening to several handicappers he respects. He sets his alarm clock for 7 a.m every Saturday to listen to Sam Spear's hour-long racing show on San Francisco station KNBR. Ellis Starr, a regular handicapper on the Spear show, gave out Beyla, the 7-2 winner of the third leg.

* "Trainer-owner-jockey combinations are important when you're trying to pick winners," Tony said. "So are bloodlines. I've been following racing long enough to recognize a lot of the key bloodlines."

* Tony hardly ever plays the pick six, and can't explain why that Saturday he did. "It's harder to hit than the lottery," he said.

* Before he hit the pick six, Tony was living off a disability pension of $1,500 a month and a part-time job that paid $600 a month. Three days a week, he spent three hours on buses getting to a 4 1/2-hour job. He has quit the job.

* Before his eyesight began to fail, Tony was a 206-average bowler.

* Tony's 1970 marriage ended in divorce. Bowling apparently played a part. Shortly after they were married, his wife landed a job that required her to relocate from California to the New York City area. Tony, who was bowling in six leagues a week, followed her six months later. "After a couple of years, she told me that she had found someone else," he said.

* Tony eventually returned to his native California, but not before he was at Belmont Park the day Secretariat swept the 1973 Triple Crown.

* Tony celebrated his 62nd birthday by spending last weekend in Reno at the Eldorado Hotel and Casino. "I go there a couple of times a year," he said. "It's a great place, it reminds you of the good old days in Reno, and they make me feel very comfortable."

* Tony is a small bettor, and plans to stay that way. His money from Del Mar is in two banks, and he's hired an accountant to manage his future. "I know betting on the horses can be addictive," he said. "I don't think I'm an addict. But when I get interested in something, as I am in racing, I get very passionate. I think there's a big difference between being addictive and being passionate."

Written by Bill Christine

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Monday, August 11, 2008

Future Shock

Los Angeles, March 28, 2014--I am sitting here with my 2014 Racing Hall of Fame ballot. It is the Braille version, a courtesy the Hall of Fame people extended to several squinting senior voters a few years ago. My fingers tell me that the finalists in the contemporary male division are Big Brown, Curlin and Lava Man. All are on the ballot for the first time. The three of them were retired after racing in 2008, after which there was the obligatory five-year waiting period before they became eligible.

It is not an easy vote. Many of you might immediately suggest that I throw out Lava Man, who never won a Triple Crown race, a Breeders' Cup race or an Eclipse Award. Makes perfect sense, but I still can't get it out of my head that I'm summarily tossing a horse who won seven Grade I races, won on dirt, grass and synthetic tracks and at the time he retired was one of only 28 horses who had banked $5 million or more.

Some of you might say that I should vote for Curlin because he won Horse of the Year titles back-to-back. How the mind plays tricks. Curlin, you should be reminded, won the title in 2007 but not 2008. In 2008, he won the Dubai World Cup, the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs and the Woodward at Saratoga, but then he closed out his career with a seventh-place finish in the Japan Cup Dirt. A month before the race in Tokyo was run, the track there installed a Tapeta surface without telling anybody. Jess Jackson, Curlin's owner, didn't like it, but the sportsman that he is, he ran his horse anyway. "I knew I made a mistake when I didn't go to the Arc," Jackson told friends.

Under close scrutiny, voters noticed that Curlin had lost two of his last three starts. Some of them didn't like the idea that half of his six starts were outside the U.S. There was also a backlash when Jackson sent Curlin to Santa Anita, had Steve Asmussen work him twice over the Pro-Ride surface, and then declined to run him in the Breeders' Cup Classic. "I knew I made a mistake when I didn't go to the Arc," Jackson told me, off the record.

There were also Horse of the Year voters who had problems voting for Big Brown. He won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Haskell, but in the Breeders' Cup, running after an 82-day layoff, he finished sixth. He was also one of 27 Breeders' Cup horses who tested positive for steroids. The owners of Big Brown took the horse away from their trainer, Rick Dutrow, and retired the colt the next day. "The truth?" Dutrow said later. "Babe, if you can handle the truth, Curlin would have jerked our heads off."

The 5,901 Eclipse voters were in a quandary about Horse of the Year. The electorate had increased exponentially when the National Thoroughbred Racing Association decided to make racing bloggers eligible. More than 400 of the voters came from the Fans' Forum at Del Mar. The accounting firm hired to tally the vote, accustomed to a turnout of less than 300 in previous years, didn't finish the count until the morning of the Eclipse Awards dinner. The winner was Zenyatta, who stayed undefeated by winning the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic. On the stage, they gave the filly's co-owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, a trophy and said they'd engrave it for them later. In 2009, the Breeders' Cup changed the format by running all of its races for females on Saturday, and moved the rest of the races to Friday.

"Just think of what your filly could have done if you'd have run her in the Arc," said Jess Jackson as he handed the trophy to Jerry Moss. Moss looked at Jackson quizically.

This year, Zenyatta, who was retired after the 2008 campaign (to be bred to Curlin), is on the Hall of Fame ballot the first time she was eligible. Her rivals among contemporary females are Sky Beauty and Silverbulletday. Sky Beauty is on the ballot for the 14th time, Silverbulletday for the 13th. They are victims of a process that allows only one candidate per category per year to be elected. In the 2008 election, Inside Information, Open Mind, Silverbulletday and Sky Beauty were all deserving, but because of the outmoded rules only one (Inside Information) got in. This time, either Big Brown or Curlin will have to wait another year. It would have helped voters if they had faced one another on the track.

As for Lava Man, he could fall into the same mire as Sky Beauty and Silverbulletday. He won the Hollywood Gold Cup three times, the Santa Anita Handicap twice and the Pacific Classic. Only Native Diver won three Hollywood Gold Cups, and he's in the Hall of Fame. John Henry and Milwaukee Brew are the only other horses to win the Santa Anita Handicap twice, and John Henry's in the Hall of Fame. But Lava Man is a California-bred, he bombed in all of his races outside of California and he lost eight of the last nine races he ran. The only time he ran in the Breeders' Cup, he finished seventh. The old gelding is 13 now, still working as a stable pony for his former trainer, Doug O'Neill, at Hollywood Park. They ought to parade him when they run the Breeders' Cup there this fall.

Written by Bill Christine

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Monday, August 04, 2008

A Diva for the Distaff

Los Angeles, Aug. 5, 2008--First of all, can I have a show of hands if anyone objects to my refusing to call the Breeders' Cup Distaff by its new name, the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic?

Good. What is it with racing, anyway? Santa Anita has the Frank E. Kilroe Mile. Nobody ever called Kilroe, the venerable racing secretary, Frank in his life. For me, that race will always be the Jimmy Kilroe Mile and nothing else. Thank goodness Del Mar had the good sense to call one of its stakes the Eddie Read Handicap, and Belmont Park left alone the Red Smith Handicap. The Walter Smith Handicap wouldn't play in Poughkeepsie.

The Breeders' Cup not only has a race that might be confused with a women's bowling tournament, but it's also running the Distaff at Santa Anita on Oct. 24, the Friday of the two-day weekend. Horses like Lady's Secret, Personal Ensign, Bayakoa (twice), Dance Smartly, Paseana, Inside Information and Azeri have won the Distaff, and for that the stake gets downgraded to the undercard. It's not the right year to be dissing the Distaff. There's many a slip twixt the dog days of August and the week before Halloween, but the field could include Ginger Punch and Hystericalady, separated by only a neck with the long green on the line at Monmouth Park last year, and some upstart named Zenyatta.

By winning the Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar, Zenyatta stayed unbeaten through seven races. She may run one more time before the Breeders 'Cup, early in the Oak Tree meet at Santa Anita, and thus could wrap up the year with nine in a row. Personal Ensign's Distaff win, in 1988, enabled her to retire undefeated in 13 tries.

After Saturday's race--Clement works in front of Hirsch just fine, because no one ever called the man Clem--it was de rigueur to once more ask Zenyatta's buttoned-down trainer, John Shirreffs, if he might entertain the notion of running the treetop-tall filly in the Breeders' Cup Classic, against males, instead of the Distaff. Shirreffs tolerates such inquisitions, but usually responds with a polite smile rather than rhetoric. It is not a yes-it's-always-a-possibility smile.

Zenyatta's owners, Jerry and Ann Moss, are not likely to put a gun to Shirreffs' head. The Mosses have been in the game for 35 years, and know their way around the block. They would not think of a Breeders' Cup win on a Friday as half a loaf.

It was David Ingordo who bought Zenyatta for the Mosses at a Keeneland yearling sale. The price, $60,000, is now enough to make any self-respecting bloodstock agent gag. Ingordo is the son of Dottie and Jerry Ingordo, one of the many jockeys' agents who have put up with Pat Valenzuela during his troubled career. Dottie, who has worked for the Mosses as their racing manager since 1985, married Shirreffs several years after her husband's death. She had never met Shirreffs when she interviewed him, then recommended him to train for the Mosses, in 2000. They were married three years later.

Eric Kronfeld, a New York investment banker who bred Zenyatta, via a mating between Street Cry and his broodmare, Vertigineux, knows what it's like to catch lightning at an auction. In 1978, Kronfeld was on the receiving end when he bought a filly at Saratoga for $40,000. Three years later, running in the name of Mrs. Penny, she won the French Oaks and was an English and Irish champion.

Don Robinson, who raised Zenyatta for Kronfeld at Robinson's Kentucky farm, explained to The Blood-Horse why the Mosses were able to buy the filly for a relative pittance.

"She was very gangly and awkward," Robinson said. "She was not a sale type of horse. I had her pegged at going for $100,000, but she got an awful skin disease beforehand. . . We just couldn't get her right for the sale. . . It didn't bother (David Ingordo) at all. He was excited, knew what he was doing, knew he was getting a deal."

The Mosses named the filly after "Zenyatta Mondatta," an album by The Police that was released in 1980. One of the hits on that album, written by Sting, is called "De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da." Look for John Pricci's belated review on this site soon.

Sting, of course, has a son named Giacomo, who was the inspiration for the name of the Mosses' 2005 Kentucky Derby winner. Tiago, Giacomo's half-brother and the 2007 Santa Anita Derby winner, was named after a son of Sergio Mendez. With Herb Albert, Jerry Moss founded A&M Records in 1962, and the company was sold, for a reported $500 million, to PolyGram in 1989.

Zenyatta must have come in well under budget. She has now earned more than $900,000. In six previous Breeders' Cups at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita, home-team horses have usually won the Distaff. But that was on God's dirt, well before California's artificial era. As you read this, Santa Anita is in the midst of a do-over on its lamented Cushion Track surface from last winter. It may not make any difference to Zenyatta what the going is like. Her seven wins have come on dirt, Cushion Track and Polytrack. After the Breeders' Cup, the Tarmac at LAX might be next.

Written by Bill Christine

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