Monday, February 11, 2008
Los Angeles, Feb. 12, 2008--The love affair between the Breeders' Cup and California has had more ups and downs than a pogo stick. Over the years, the two of them have gone from steam heat to Jack Frost and back again. Shades of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, or George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin.
The last time the Breeders' Cup and California broke up, in 2004, I didn't think they'd ever get back together again. The Breeders' Cup seemed to have room in its heart for every suitor but Santa Anita. The races went to uncharted territory, Texas, one year, and if that wasn't enough of a slap in the face, the Breeders' Cup moved into New Jersey a few years later. It was as though the prom queen had jilted the captain of the football team to go to the big dance with a dork from the chemistry class.
But now the Breeders' Cup has awarded its prestigious races to Santa Anita not once, but twice. They'll run them there this October, and again in November of 2009. The Oak Tree Racing Assn., which leases Santa Anita for its meets, once went nine years without the Breeders' Cup, and now it will have been blessed with the races three times in seven years. The poet says that love is better the second time around. This rekindled romance is on its third round, or maybe the fourth. The high school kid went back for the class reunion, and was smitten by his old sweetheart.
Not that long ago, the Breeders' Cup did everything to Santa Anita but tie its shoelaces together. After Oak Tree hosted the races in 1993, the Breeders' Cup looked high and low for alternatives. They went to Canada, where they were lucky that they didn't have to compete with fishing through the ice. They went back to Gulfstream Park, which doesn't have enough seats. They took a flyer on Arlington Park, and prayed there wouldn't be snow. They even went cross-town to Hollywood Park, Santa Anita's rival, which hadn't been tapped in almost a decade.
Oak Tree sent chocolates. It hired a string quartet. It would have sent roses, but it feared that the Breeders' Cup would think that they came from Churchill Downs.
Santa Anita's strategy, it turns out, was all wrong. Instead of expensive wooing, all it had to do was stand on the corner and keep dropping handkerchiefs, until the Breeders' Cup finally came by. This isn't the Breeders' Cup of its youth, mind you. In the halcyon days, the Breeders' Cup was ramrod straight, handsome as George Clooney and as deeply tanned as George Hamilton. That Breeders' Cup was courted by dozens of tracks. They opened their vaults, signed away their air and land rights and promised the Breeders' Cup a high mention in the will. Marje Everett, you might recall, landed the inaugural Breeders' Cup for Hollywood Park by ponying up $200,000 of her own money.
This Breeders' Cup has a partial plate, crow's-feet around both eyes and walks with a limp. Like most dowagers, it's richer than ever but won't be seen in public in a swimsuit. The European horsemen still come with their horses, but only if they've got nothing better to do. If the Breeders' Cup asked the major networks to bid for the TV rights, the silence would be deafening. Churchill Downs, which used to join the party any time it wanted to snap its fingers, no longer puts the Breeders' Cup on a pedestal. There was a classic game of push-the-envelope recently, when the Breeders' Cup apparently thought it could use Santa Anita as a pawn. Churchill Downs, looking around and seeing no one but Santa Anita and itself as viable hosts for 2009, pitched the Breeders' Cup some sort of a seven-year plan, which would have taken everybody into 2015. Racing doesn't know what it'll be doing next Tuesday, never mind 2015.
For the Breeders' Cup, bowing to Churchill's long-term proposition would have been like signing a prenup. New York (Belmont Park) was not an option, because the terms of its divorce aren't final. Churchill Downs nudged the envelope one more time. The Breeders' Cup didn't blink, and did what it's never done, it gave the races to the same track for back-to-back years.
Back East, the reaction has been seismic. Steve Crist, in the Daily Racing Form, wrote that Oak Tree's coup "was not a proud moment for American racing." In Kentucky, Damon Thayer, sometime racing executive, currently a state senator, said about the same thing.
Santa Anita must feel like the movie star who got a bad nose job, but got the part anyway. At the time the Breeders' Cup made the announcement for 2009, 33% of the racing days at Santa Anita's winter meet had been scrapped because the synthetic main track was unfit for either training or racing. Many of the Breeders' Cup swells were in California for the Eclipse Awards dinner last month. The afternoon of the dinner, Santa Anita ran some races. Maybe the Breeders' Cup people think that happens every Monday.
Speaking of the dinner, it's a reminder that the Eclipse Awards jumped in bed with California long before the Breeders' Cup did. The last four Eclipse dinners have been anchored in Beverly Hills. That's a gala that used to be held in New York and Florida on a regular basis, and would come to California only two out of every four years. The morale boost in these precincts was sorely needed. Bay Meadows has just started what is purportedly its final meet, Hollywood Park continues to talk about going out of the racing business, the Indian casinos keep adding more slot machines, and synthetic tracks rue--the correct word--the land. But all of racing will never vanish from the California landscape. The Breeders' Cup wouldn't permit it.
Written by Bill Christine
Monday, February 04, 2008
Los Angeles, Feb. 5, 2008--The most telling moment on the day Russell Baze rode his 10,000th winner didn't come when his mount, a 5-year-old gelding called Two Step Cat, reached the wire a micro-nostril ahead of another bottom-of-the-bucket claiming horse.
Four races later, long after most jockeys would have thrown their accomplishment into a duffel, taken off the rest of their mounts and headed for the biggest bottle of bubbly, Baze was still digging in at a late hour at Golden Gate Fields. Chad Schvaneveldt had called in sick, so Baze took his place to ride a filly in the next-to-last race. That catch ride won, too, a small step as Baze began his inexorable pursuit of No. 11,000.
Baze's 9,530th win, the one in 2006 that tied him with the retired Laffit Pincay as North America's winningest jockey, also came astride a horse that another jockey had been assigned to ride. "For Russell, it's all about the winning," said the retired jockey Tom Chapman in a Daily Racing Form interview at the time. "I don't even think he cares about the money."
Two Step Cat hadn't reached the test barn last Friday when Baze, in effect, put Jorge Ricardo on notice that the winningest jockey on the planet might not necessarily reside down South America way. In the winner's circle at Golden Gate, Baze, when asked about any retirement plans, said: "This isn't the final milestone. In another three years, I might be standing here again (with 11,000 wins)."
Ricardo is 46, three years younger than Baze. Riding since he was 15, he reached the 10,000-win mark on Jan. 9 in in Argentina, and through Jan. 31 had totaled 10,041 wins. From afar, Ricardo and Baze will be eyeballing each other until one or the other calls it a day. I'm setting the over/under at six years for both jockeys.
"I don't know yet when I'm going to retire," Ricardo said recently. "I'll ride as long as my health permits. But, above all else, my idea is to retire after Russell Baze does and with the world record (for wins) in my hands."
In another life, I covered baseball, and I once asked Walter Alston, who was then managing the Los Angeles Dodgers, if he ever contemplated retirement. Alston looked at me like I was sporting two heads. "Retire?" he said, acting as though this was the first time he'd ever heard the word. "What would I do then?"
Besides trying to overtake Ricardo, Baze still has some work to do. He's never won a Kentucky Derby or a Breeders' Cup race, and has had only a scintilla of opportunities in both venues. His best chance in the Breeders' Cup fell apart when Lost in the Fog, at 7-10, finished seventh in the Sprint at Belmont Park in 2005. No one knew it then, but Lost in the Fog, who had never been beaten, was probably in the early stages of an incurable cancer at the time.
Baze's only two appearances in the Derby have been with no-hopers who finished up the track. Bouncing from one low-level claimer to another in Northern California, it is unlikely that he'll ever land on a hot Derby contender. When trainers outside Golden Gate and Bay Meadows go shopping for a name jockey for one of their 3-year-olds, they turn to the money list, not the total-wins department. Even mainstream jockeys, engulfed in quality stock, have struggled to win the Derby. Laffit Pincay was 0 for 10 before Swale; Pat Day was 0 for 9 before Lil E. Tee; and Mike Smith went 0 for 11 prior to Giacomo.
If being blanked, and hardly ever present, on racing's biggest days has ever gnawed at Baze, he's never let on. Stats like that didn't bother Hall of Fame voters when they elected him in 1999. The other jockeys on the ballot that year were Earlie Fires and the late Jack Westrope, who have both been subsequently enshrined.
It doesn't take two full hands to count the number of Grade I races that Baze has won. One of them, with Hawkster in the Oak Tree Invitational, came after Pat Valenzuela, the notorious no-show, went AWOL at Santa Anita in 1989.
When matters like these are brought up, Baze smiles his toothy smile and is ready with an answer. "That stuff doesn't bother me," he says convincingly. "Everybody's entitled to their opinion. I always say that if it's so easy to win all these races on a minor circuit, why hasn't somebody else done it?"
Baze left what Ernie Banks would call the "friendly confines" to ride in Southern California in 1989. That's why he was at liberty in the jocks' room the day Valenzuela stiffed Hawkster's trainer. He finished second at two Southland meets, Del Mar and Oak Tree, but was still an interloper in a riding colony that included Pincay, Chris McCarron, Gary Stevens and Eddie Delahoussaye. His stakes mounts were limited, and in the other races he'd frequently end up on sore horses. His win total in 1990 was 125, his lowest output in 11 years. A broken collarbone also slowed him down, and by the middle of 1991, he was back in Northern California.
Since 1992, Baze has averaged 402 wins a year. At one point, he surpassed the 400 mark in 11 of 12 years. No other jockey has ever eclipsed the 400 mark more than three times.
"He'll ride a $4,000 claimer as hard as a stakes horse because he just wants to win races," said Armando Lage, the trainer of Two Step Cat, Baze's 10,000th winner.
Greg Gilchrist, trainer of Lost in the Fog, remembers a raw winter afternoon when one of the Northern California tracks looked like something out of doomsday.
"It was getting dark, and the rain was coming down sideways," Gilchrist said. "The mud was a foot deep. But Russell stuck around for the last race, just to ride an $8,000 claimer. I looked up at the TV, and there he was, smiling as he went into the gate."
Last week, after he dismounted from Two Step Cat, somebody handed Russell Baze a black baseball cap, with the numbers 10,000 across the front. The prop man must have been asleep. Perennial good-guy Baze should be wearing a white hat in those parts.
Written by Bill Christine
Monday, January 28, 2008
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 29, 2008--When I look at Frank Stronach, I'm reminded of Joe Btfsplk, the sad-sack character in the old Li'l Abner comic strip. Btfsplk, labeled by his creator, Al Capp, as "the world's worst jinx," had a raincloud over his head no matter where he went. So it is with Stronach, the grand pooh-bah of Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park and other horseparks hither and yon. Known for beating expressions to death, Stronach likes to say, "I'm a great believer in luck--the harder I work, the more luck I have." Retiring those words is not out of the question.
Magna Entertainment is borderline dysfunctional and many of Stronach's woes are self-inflicted, but with a power surge briefly derailing Gulfstream and the Southern California monsoons threatening to take Santa Anita 20,000 leagues under the sea, the mercurial mogul should consider starting the day from the other side of the bed. Murphy's Law is passe. Stronach's Law--meaning whatever can go wrong, will go wrong--is the more contemporary synonym.
The box score at Santa Anita through the first five weeks of the meeting was 19 days run and seven days cancelled. "Santa Anita's like a carwash," the trainer Bob Baffert said sardonically in an interview with Steve Byk on Sirius satellite radio. "Every time it rains, they close."
Meantime, Richard Shapiro, chairman of the California Horse Racing Board and the father of the synthetic-track movement in the state, cracks wise in public. "Welcome to the all-weather state," Shapiro said from the podium at the Eclipse Awards dinner. "As someone familiar with mandates, I mandate that you all have fun this evening." It was Shapiro and three other commissioners who mandated that all the major thoroughbred tracks in California install synthetic tracks by January of 2008.
Waiting until an 11th hour, Santa Anita signed on with Cushion Track Footing, the British-based company that had already put in a track at Hollywood Park. That rustling of papers in the background comes from Magna's lawyers, who are no doubt throwing together early briefs that will launch a multi-million-dollar lawsuit against Cushion Track.
By the time Magna and Santa Anita get to the courtroom, the cupboards may be bare. Cushion Track, which agreed to install its surface at three tracks in Australia at a cost of $18 million, recently said that Corbould Park, which was supposed to be up and running late last year, now won't have its new track ready until mid-February. The rock base didn't work, and had to be torn up and replaced.
The clouds over Stronach parted recently when he picked up two Eclipse Awards, for top breeder and for Ginger Punch, his filly who was voted best older female on dirt. Ginger Punch also won the Sunshine Millions Distaff at Gulfstream. But a couple of days of whoopee does not a fiscal year make. The winter months are critical for debt-ridden Magna, whose two bellwether tracks are Santa Anita and Gulfstream. But at Gulfstream, where the slot-machine part of the operation is hardly booming, only modest returns can be expected, and Santa Anita's balance sheet will be stretched to the last decimal point if it is to recover from the Cushion Track fiasco.
All the while, the whirlwind changes in the executive suite go on unabated. Just this week, Stronach hired Scott Borgemenke, a former chairman of the Ohio Horse Racing Commission, as executive vice president of racing for Magna. I am one of these guys who never throws away a business card, which means that I have an impressive collection of cards with the names of former Magna employees on them. There are enough cards for a full deck. There might even be enough to paper the walls of my office. For Borgemenke and other new hires at Magna, it ought to be a rule of thumb not to have business cards printed until after six months on board.
The man at the top is undaunted. Stronach said something at the Eclipse Awards about "returning racing to its glory days."
Working for him might be lucrative, but it's a thankless gig. The best description I've heard of Stronach is that 10 fresh ideas pop into his head every day: One is worth pursuing, one is marginal and the other eight don't have a chance. But the people around him must chase down all 10, and report back.
In the late fall of 1999, several of us were leaving Santa Anita one day after an afternoon of racing at the Oak Tree meet. Someone made a reference to the approaching millennium. Stronach, who was part of the group, stopped in his tracks.
"Yes," he said. "The millennium. December 31st, sure. We'll be running, right? We could run the races right up to midnight. Maybe a day-night double card. Not a lot of races in the evening, just a few to get us to midnight and 2000. Yes, we should look into that, right?"
Eyes rolled. Nobody said anything. After Stronach moved on, Stuart Zanville, who was Santa Anita's PR guy at the time, said: "Who's going to be the first one to tell him that we don't have lights?"
"That won't stop him," one of the others said. "He'll tell somebody to put 'em in."
Since I arrived in California in 1982, there's never been a governor who's been sympathetic to racing. Not even Gray Davis, who worked for the state racing board before he moved up the ladder. There was hope, after Davis was recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger succeeded him, that the game might finally benefit. Stronach and Schwarzenegger sounded alike, their accents reflecting their Austrian roots. In fact, they were born in neighboring villages, and Schwarzenegger's parents were buried in Stronach's hometown.
However, there is a 15-year gap in their ages, and the first meeting between Schwarzenegger and Stronach, a few years ago, did not go well, according to people who were there. Schwarzenegger, like his predecessors, is not enamored with racing. On Feb. 5, the California primary election will include several issues that, if passed, will substantially increase the number of slot machines at four Indian casinos in the state. Schwarzenegger is backing the propositions. In California, slot machines are not as linked to the survival of racing as they are in other states, but it would be fatuous to say that slot machines don't matter. Of course they matter. So does a week without rain at Santa Anita.
Written by Bill Christine