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, November 15, 2010

The Life At Ten Story Has a Life of Its Own

LOS ANGELES, November 16, 2010--Anybody out there weary of talking about Life At Ten, the 5-year-old mare who ran last in the Breeders' Cup Race Formerly Known as the Distaff? In case you've spent the last week or so in Zanzibar, Life At Ten was the second choice in the betting and ran not a step after showing up in the paddock doing her best zombie imitation. I watched the race from the racebook at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The next day, I read to a seatmate the account in the New York Times, which said that the mare's jockey, John Velazquez, had told ESPN during the post parade that she was listless, and that the trainer, Todd Pletcher, said that she shouldn't have run. "That's (effing) wonderful," this horseplayer from Cleveland said. "All I did was bet five-hundred (effing) dollars on that horse."

Gary Young is not tired of talking about Life At Ten, who was not scratched even though Churchill Downs stewards and Breeders' Cup veterinarians were aware of Velazquez' concerns. In a round-about way, Young was responsible for Candy DeBartolo buying Life At Ten, and had a front-row view of the contretemps that were committed shortly before she ran so poorly in Louisville.

Young has worn so many hats in California racing (clocker, handicapper, assistant trainer, TV analyst, pick-six savant, bloodstock consultant, and probably some that I've overlooked) that I had to ask him which ID he was traveling with these days. "Don't call me a bloodstock agent because I'm not," he said. "Thoroughbred investment advisor. That's about right."

Young's involvement with Life At Ten goes back to her first career start, in November of 2007 at Hollywood Park. "I bet my lungs out on her that day," Young said. At 14-1, Life At Ten finished second. Since Young is not a place and show bettor, either he took a bath or had her in some exotics, I didn't bother to ask. The point is, Life At Ten was still on his mind when Young had dinner with Todd Pletcher at a Mexican restaurant a few days later.

"I need a horse that is ripe to win right away," Pletcher said. Those are the timeless words of a trainer who has a new client and wants to make a good first impression.

"I got just the one," Young said. "A filly called Life At Ten."

So that's the way Candy DeBartolo became a thoroughbred owner for the first time. Her late father-in-law, Ed DeBartolo Sr., collected racetracks, but her husband, Ed DeBartolo Jr., was always too busy running the San Francisco 49ers to logically follow his father into the horse business. Young couldn't remember for sure, but he said that Candy DeBartolo paid well into the six figures to buy Life At Ten.

In her first start with her new owner and trainer, Life At Ten throttled six other maidens at Hollywood; then she tossed in a second-place finish at Keeneland, before returning to Hollywood for a disappointing third as the odds-on choice.

"You can look it up," Young said, "that was a night race. I was in the paddock. She was totally off. Her engine was racing at about 250 miles an hour even before they threw the saddle on her. The result was predictable."

But by the time Life At Ten was ready to run in the Breeders' Cup, she had blossomed into a horse who had won seven of her eight previous starts, including a couple of Grade 1 wins, and her earnings had topped $1 million. Typically, Pletcher had an army of horses to run in the two-day carnival at Churchill, but he told friends midway through the week that his best victory chances were Life At Ten and Uncle Mo, who would indeed win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The day Pletcher shipped Life At Ten the 70 miles from Keeneland to Churchill, he sent this dripping-with-confidence text message to Young: "Even her jogging is impressive. I ought to stop at the Red Mile (a harness track in Lexington) and win a race."

Then came race day.

"She was just too damn quiet when they brought her over (to the paddock)," Young said. "If she was racing 250 miles an hour that night at Hollywood, she was going zero miles an hour this day. Completely the opposite. Todd thought that when he put the saddle on her, she'd come to life, but she didn't. (Velazquez) came out and started smooching to her, to wake her up, but nothing helped. There have been suggestions that she tied up (cramped), but I don't buy that. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred--make that 999 times out of a thousand--when a horse ties up, it's exercise-induced. She hadn't done anything to cause tying up."

Young thought the stewards and the vets should have ordered a scratch of Life At Ten, which would have riddled the parimutuel pools. I asked Young whether he thought Velazquez should have gotten off the horse, refused to ride, and that would have forced the stewards' hand. Then they would have either sent into the jockeys' room for another rider, which would have been a Breeders' Cup first, or scratched the horse.

"(Velazquez) was in a tough spot," Young said. "A gate scratch in a $2-million race? He was in an awfully tough spot."

Young recalled Chris McCarron, a Hall of Fame jockey, scratching Fitzwilliam Place, a filly trained by Charlie Whittingham, in a stake in California more than 20 years ago.

"Boy, was Charlie hot," Young said. "Chris had trouble getting back into that barn for three or four years."

Young has thought a lot about what happened to Life At Ten that night at Churchill Downs.

"She didn't run well when they tried her on grass once," he said. "But otherwise her two worst races were that night at Hollywood Park and this night at Churchill Downs. I just think she's a horse that might never adjust to night racing. I think it's night races that she can't handle."

Life At Ten was scheduled to be sold at an auction in Kentucky two days after her Breeders' Cup race, but she was withdrawn and it was announced that she would continue in training with Pletcher.

"That must mean that they're going to race her at six, and she'll be pointed to next year's Breeders' Cup," Gary Young said. "And where will that be? Churchill Downs. And another night race."

Written by Bill Christine

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Tuesday, November 09, 2010

Gold Standard

LAS VEGAS, November 9, 2010--After five days, I took off my Zenyatta ball cap and put it in my suitcase. But the Zenyatta fanatics, all 200 million of you, needn't fret. The cap will go back on soon. I just thought it might be disrespectful, or even bad luck, to be writing about Goldikova in a Zenyatta cap.

On this side of the Atlantic, Zenyatta earned more wordage in defeat than Goldikova did in victory, and I think it's time to right the scale. Goldikova did what Zenyatta or no other horse has been able to do, win three Breeders' Cup races, when she flashed by Sidney's Candy in the Mile at Churchill Downs. At the top of the stretch, much like the feeling you got in many of Zenyatta's races, you sensed that this wasn't going to be Goldikova's day, but what mere mortals we all are, to doubt the incomparable Goldikova. Sidney's Candy didn't appear catchable, and Gio Ponti, the best grass horse in the U.S., was also putting in a late run. Goldikova disposed of them like so many flies on her backside, with a swish or two of her tail.

Christophe Clement, the trainer of Gio Ponti, who finished second, went into the last two Breeders' Cups with a Morton's Fork. He could either run on dirt, against Zenyatta in the Classic, or downsize to the Mile, where Goldikova loomed. In other words, choose your poison. Gio Ponti's resume now reads, second to Zenyatta in 2009 and second to Goldikova in 2010. If horses, like people, are known by the company they keep, Gio Ponti belongs on page one of the Social Register. "I just wish Goldikova wasn't in the race," Clement said after the Churchill Mile. "That (mare) is a freak. She's the best miler we've seen for a long, long time."

For Freddie Head, the former French riding star who trains Goldikova, a long, long time equates to forever. Head rode that other great filly from France, Miesque, to two Breeders' Cup wins, but now he says it's Goldikova first, the rest nowhere. "My English is not good enough to describe (Goldikova)," Head said, but I disagree. It was Maurice Chevalier's English I aways had trouble with. "She can do anything," Head went on to say about Goldikova. "She's kept that freshness that horses start to lose with age, when they get more lazy. I must be a very lucky person."

Soon to turn six, and soon to be bred to some lucky stallion, Goldikova has been around four seasons. There were murmurs in France that her 5-year-old campaign wasn't as starchy as some of the others, but I look at her record and say to myself, what do those Frenchmen expect? For her to put on a smock and show up with an easel? She went to the gate six times and won five, and the only loss, a second-place finish in August, came over a Deauville course that was really a bog.

More than Blame, Goldikova has Horse of the Year credentials, and I'm talking North American Horse of the Year, but that will never happen, of course, because too many of our Eclipse Awards voters are persnickety about giving the title to a horse who's only run once on our shores in any given year. Goldikova will get a few scattered votes, but the ballot box will largely be filled by Zenyatta and Blame supporters.

With apologies to "The Scarlet Pimpernel," you might say this about this French pheenom:

They test her here,
They test her there.
The Frenchies let you test her everywhere.
Is she in heaven?
Is she in hell?
She's Goldikova, you know damn well.

Written by Bill Christine

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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A 20-Year-Old Blur

LOS ANGELES, October 19, 2010--Picking a favorite Breeders' Cup automatically leads you to deep water, but I'm going to put on my hipboots and stick with the inaugural year, 1984, when Wild Again, the most improbable of winners, outfooted Slew o' Gold and the ill-mannered Gate Dancer to the wire. Less than a length separated the three, a recipe for high drama that was straight from Indiana Jones: A 31-1 blue-collar horse, whose owners paid $360,000 just to get to the dance; Horse of the Year implications; and a lengthy stewards' inquiry into a $3-million dollar race, at the time the richest ever run in North America.

Sadly, the other bookend for this exercise, the worst Breeders' Cup ever run, is too easy of a choice. It was 20 years ago, at a bone-chilling Belmont Park, where three horses died, including Go for Wand, one of the greatest fillies anybody ever saw. Because of Go for Wand's grisly demise, headlines for another day became Unbridled, who beat older horses in the Classic; Royal Academy, ridden by Lester Piggott, nine days shy of his 55th birthday and not long removed from an English prison; and Bayakoa, winner of a second straight Distaff after her stretch duel with Go for Wand turned ugly.

The owners of the crooked-legged Bayakoa, good people from Middle America named Frank and Janis Whitham, and their Hall of Fame trainer, Ron McAnally, went to the winner's circle wishing some higher power could call the whole thing off. Not very far away, Go for Wand, her irreparable right foreleg shattered, lying on her side with her stomach heaving, had been given a lethal injection of Sodium Pentathol, unceremoniously dragged into a horse ambulance and driven away. "Here we race these animals for our pleasure, and they give us everything," McAnally would say later. "And then something like this happens."

The whole day was a blur for me. The first Breeders' Cup race, the Sprint, was marred when one horse went down and another stumbled over him, even before the field had reached the far turn. Mr. Nickerson, the lead horse, died of a heart attack, and Shaker Knit, who broke his back, was later destroyed. Chris Antley, who rode Mr. Nickerson, was sent to the hospital with a broken collarbone. Dayjur, a French horse, twice jumped shadows near the wire, just when it appeared he had the race won, and Safely Kept beat him by a neck. We all should have known then that this might not be a ho-hum day at the races. Joe Btfsplk, the rainy-cloud character from the Li'l Abner comic strip, would have been at home there.

We didn't have much time to chase down the story about the Sprint when they ran the Distaff. It was billed as perhaps the best race on the card--the Classic, despite the presence of Unbridled, the Kentucky Derby winner, and Go and Go, the Belmont winner, was not an eye-catcher--and featured Bayakoa, the previous year's winner; Go for Wand, who had won 10 of 12 starts; and Gorgeous, who had once beaten Bayakoa. Gorgeous never made it to the starting gate, however, having chipped a knee the day before.

Billy Badgett, who trained Go for Wand, had considered running his filly against males in the Classic. A win there and she would be voted Horse of the Year. But the Classic would have a full field of 14 horses, an imposing task for a young filly, and they started the race at an odd angle, halfway around the first turn. The Distaff was going to be a seven- or eight-horse race and Go for Wand, half the age of Bayakoa, would carry four fewer pounds.

Looking back, there was a lot of Twilight Zone stuff going on before the race. Jane duPont Lunger, the 76-year-old philanthropist who owned Go for Wand, was superstitious. Badgett, as was their custom, would not watch the race with Lunger in her box, but stand in front of a TV monitor in the grandstand. Lunger would wear the same shoes, still mud-stained, that she had worn for a race at Saratoga and every race since then. There were a lot of comparisons between Go for Wand and Ruffian, who was buried in the Belmont infield after her fatal breakdown in a match race against Foolish Pleasure in 1975.

The day of the race, for some reason, Lunger did not wear her lucky shoes. Go for Wand, who had run most of her races in New York, was sent off the 7-10 favorite, the eighth time in 13 races that the punters had made her less than even money. Bayakoa, after 16 straight races as the favorite, was the 11-10 second choice. The odds shot up to 14-1 for the next horse.

The other five horses were only there to fill out the field. The two favorites battled fiercely all the way around, Bayakoa and Laffit Pincay shadowing Go for Wand and Randy Romero, never letting them get more than a half-length ahead. In the stretch, at the eighth pole, Go for Wand was a half-length to the good, and it was assumed, had the tragic misstep not occurred, that she would have pulled away and won. But Pincay said later that Bayakoa still had some gas left in the tank, and his mare was accustomed to looking other horses in the eye without blinking. I'm not sure which of them would have won.

With a sixteenth of a mile left, Go for Wand's right front ankle gave way. She went down near the inner rail, Romero sent flying. He cracked eight ribs and broke his right shoulder, but told everybody he was all right and rode in the Classic, more than two hours later.

Go for Wand tried to get up. Instinctively, she tried to re-launch herself in the direction of the finish line. But all she could do, on three good legs, was stagger diagonally across the track. Steve Erck, an outrider, held her up for a time, but finally he eased her to the ground, near the outside rail. The crowd was reduced to a whisper. There were cries and groans. Badgett and his new wife, Rosemary, who was also the filly's exercise rider, arrived at Go for Wand's side, but they could see that she was too badly injured to be saved. "Humanely destroyed" is the clinical term, one of the biggest misnomers in the language. Nobody's ever asked the horse.

Some fans left the track, having seen enough. Like on a Bataan death march, a small band of us headed for Badgett's barn. It's what you have to do. A guard there told us that the trainer wouldn't be coming out. A second wave of press arrived an hour later, to be told that Badgett had left the track. During these vigils, I hoofed it back to the race track, and along the way someone, trying to be helpful, said: "Lester Piggott won the race." Uh-huh. And so did Unbridled, and his owner was Frances Genter, and she was 92, and wouldn't that have made some story? But not on this day, thank you.

Written by Bill Christine

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