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: bill.christine@yahoo.com

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Tuesday, April 05, 2011


The Asmussen Omission


LOS ANGELES, April 5, 2011--In time for April Fool's, the announcement arrived about the 2011 Racing Hall of Fame ballot, and I kept re-reading the pages, trying to find Steve Asmussen's name. Jerry Hollendorfer was a nominee for trainer for the first time. His supporters say that it's about time. Gary Jones and the late Bob Wheeler, who have been up for enshrinement before, will go before the voters again. But no Asmussen, who was eligible for the first time, having completed 25 years of training. Maybe I should be happy, since all three candidates are Californians, but there's something wrong with a ballot without Asmussen. A career of 5,780 winners (as of five minutes ago) and $173 million in purses ought to count for something.

I know what the first guy to comment at the bottom of this will be saying: "Christine, have you been smoking your socks? Asmussen is the most successful cheating trainer of all-time, and for that he deserves the Hall of Fame? Who else do you have in mind, Tony Ciulla and Ernie Paragallo?"


I know where observers like that are coming from. In the end-of-the-year Eclipse Awards voting one year, I didn't list either Asmussen or Todd Pletcher in the three trainers' spots on my ballot, because both had served lengthy suspensions after their horses tested positive for illegal drugs. If the consensus is any yardstick, it doesn't make any difference the trouble a trainer encounters; the last time someone other than Pletcher or Asmussen won the trophy was when Bobby Frankel got the award in 2003.

While I voted against Asmussen for one Eclipse Award, I can't penalize him for a lifetime. Only four trainers--Dale Baird, Jack Van Berg, King Leatherbury and Hollendorfer--are ahead of him in wins, and only four--Wayne Lukas, Frankel, Pletcher and Bill Mott--have more purses. I have a friend named Kelly in Florida who says, "Never say never," but I'm still going to say that Baird and Leatherbury will never be enshrined because they were career claiming trainers. Pletcher isn't eligible until 2020, the year all eye doctors will savor. All the rest are in the Hall of Fame save Hollendorfer, who's now on the threshold.

The process works this way: All of the voters, about 180 strong, can offer suggestions on horses and horsemen to the 16-member nominating committee. The committee fills out a preliminary ballot, then meets for a lengthy conference call to determine who makes the final cut. Complicating the process is that the rules keep changing. For the second straight year, 10 are on the ballot--the three trainers; the jockeys John Velazquez, Garrett Gomez, Calvin Borel and Alex Solis; and the horses (all fillies as it turns out) Open Mind, Safely Kept and Sky Beauty--and voters can vote for as many as they want, mixing and matching any of the eligibles. But only the leading four vote-getters, regardless of category, can be enshrined. My 75-cent guess is that the three horses will get in, followed by a tossup for the final spot, with Hollendorfer and Velazquez the morning-line co-favorites.

Wheeler and Jones would seem to be in on a pass this time, having landed on the ballot at Asmussen's expense. Jones ranks 37th on the money list. His list of important horses is short--Best Pal, Turkoman and a few others. Combined, Wheeler and Jones won 2,800 races, about 1,800 fewer than Asmussen. Wheeler trained Silver Spoon, the filly who won the Santa Anita Derby, along with Track Robbery, Tompion and Bug Brush.

I e-mailed all 16 committee members, asking them about the absence of Asmussen. Of the three who responded, two requested anonymity. "Committee members are not asked to explain (their) vote," said Ed Bowen, former editor of The Blood-Horse and committee chairman, "so I cannot comment on why some (candidates) were nominated and some were not. . . There is no stated policy to give or deny preference to individuals who have come eligible for the first time."

Another committee member said that because of the 10-candidate restriction, others besides Asmussen were excluded. Other eligible horses that belong on the ballot include Ghostzapper, Ashado and Estrapade. It has been suggested to the Hall of Fame that the ballot be greatly expanded and that voters be allowed to vote, up or down, on all candidates, but a committee member said that the hall "wouldn't even listen to us on that one."

A committee member said that during the committee's long discussion about candidates, "No one brought up the number of suspensions Asmussen has had over the years. It was the feeling of some that Jones and Wheeler should be given one more chance, that Asmussen would have many chances down the road to get in."

I don't get the waiting business for someone who figures to be a first-ballot winner. Did I mention that besides his top-heavy numbers, Asmussen trained Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, who combined for three straight Horse of the Year titles? Since 2002, the far-flung Asmussen outfit has won 400 or more races every year, and twice topped 600, including the record 650 in 2009. Asmussen wins with horses at every level. On my ballot, I'd write his name in if I could.

Written by Bill Christine

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