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:

Most recent entries

Monthly Archives


Monday, January 14, 2008

Rule 5, Anybody?

Voting shall be based upon the player's record, playing ability, integrity, sportsmanship, character, and contributions to the team(s) on which the player played.

--Rule No. 5, Voting Rules, Baseball Hall of Fame Election

For the last 25 years or so, between Christmas and New Year's, I have cleared off my desk (a blunderbuss has worked best) and begun the task of filling out two ballots, one for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the other for the Eclipse Awards.

To compare the two is probably fallacious. The baseball election is for lifetime achievement, the Eclipses for year-round accomplishments. The Baseball Hall of Fame is humans (with an exception or two, but I won't name names), and the Eclipses are mostly about quadrupeds.

But since the voting comes at the same time, I'm unable to separate the two, particularly with the arrival on the ballot of ballplayers who competed in the so-called Steroid Era. It was horseracing, I think, that actually invented the Steroid Era. Mr. Webster, please research that.

For the previous year's baseball election, Mark McGwire's first year of eligibility, I wasn't much aware of Rule 5, but left McGwire off my ballot anyway. I was very much in the majority: McGwire, who hit 583 home runs, polled 128 votes and finished in ninth place. To be enshrined, a player must be named on 75 percent of the ballots; McGwire's total amounted to 23 1/2 percent.

This time, Rule 5 hit me between the eyes--the integrity, sportsmanship and character part--and that gave me the ballast to more convincingly omit McGwire. Pete Rose, if Commissioner Bud Selig ever relents and allows him on the ballot, can be excluded for the same reason.

When asked during a Congressional hearing about his drug use, McGwire waffled bigtime and kept repeating some singsong about "I'm not here to talk about the past." That's an evasion that will follow him around forever. He should have said, "I used, it was the wrong thing to do, I'm sorry and I urge all the young players out there to avoid steroids and other drugs." If he had said that, his chances of getting in the Hall of Fame would have increased exponentially. This year he got 128 votes again, and although he's going to be on the ballot for 13 more years, the voters' memories won't be that short.

I've also decided not to vote for Barry Bonds or any other players named in George Mitchell's recent expose. Regarding Bonds, some voters will make the argument that he homered enough when he was skinny, before he turned to enhancers, but I say that he's still in violation of Rule 5. I know, I know, Ty Cobb and others from yesteryear may not have survived Rule 5, either, but I'm not old enough to have been there to consider Cobb.

You're allowed to vote for a maximum of 10 players, but I never have, and this time Jim Rice was the only name on my ballot (Goose Gossage, the only player elected, may have been deserving, but I still have trouble evaluating relief pitchers).

The baseball ballot completed, I turned to the Eclipse ballot and was hit by an epiphany. Catholics celebrate their feast of the Epiphany in early January; mine came on Dec. 27. My epiphany was that Rule 5 should apply to the Eclipse Awards as well.

Traditionally, the Eclipses have had no rules at all, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I'm suggesting that they add a version of Rule 5 from baseball and call it, for lack of a better name, Rule 1. Jumping the procedural gun, I am invoking Rule 1 this year, and accordingly this was my vote for trainer:

1. Kiaran McLaughlin
2. Bob Baffert
3. Bobby Frankel

When the results are announced at the Eclipse dinner in Beverly Hills on Jan. 21, Todd Pletcher should win, for the fourth straight year. I don't know how you can argue against him, based on the numbers and stakes wins he piled up, but there are colleagues out there, apparently bored with voting for Pletcher, who have opted for Steve Asmussen, who also had a bangup year. Asmussen will win one of those bronzes one of these years, but this is not the year he's supposed to supplant Pletcher.

My problem is that both of them started the year finishing up lengthy suspensions, because of drugged horses. How, I asked myself, can I bypass Mark McGwire and then vote for either Pletcher or Asmussen?

Jennie Rees, in a column in the Louisville Courier-Journal, said that she voted for Asmussen first, Pletcher second. It was a decision, she wrote, "that could have gone either way."

But Rees, like me, is troubled by voting for horsemen with serious violations on their records. She knows a voter who doesn't even vote for horses of trainers who have been suspended, which is a whole other intellectual issue. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, one of the sponsors of the Eclipse Awards, may publish information about suspensions of candidates in future years.

Ed Martin is president of the Association of Racing Commissioners International, which has a database that stores the licensing information of horsemen. "We're encouraged," Rees quoted Martin as saying. "This is the first year there's been an interest on the part of the industry to look at a person's record for adherence to the rules."

Baseball's Rule 5 becoming racing's Rule 1? It could happen.

Written by Bill Christine

Comments (4)


Sunday, January 06, 2008

Cushion Track Blues

WANTED: One bunker. Southern California area.
Immediate occupancy. All-weather, heavily
camouflaged. Waterproof. Six feet deep. Short-
term lease, through April 24 (end of Santa Anita's
racing season). Will make best offer. Contact
Richard B. Shapiro, chairman, California Horse
Racing Board. Collect calls welcome.

"We've got goo on our fingers," Richard Shapiro said on Roger Stein's radio show, "and we have to figure out what to do."

The truth of it is, Shapiro has never wrapped himself in a bunker mentality, but lately, in the face of doomsday at Santa Anita, he's been forced to circle the wagons. All Santa Anita could do on Saturday and Sunday was take a lyric from the Gershwins: Let's call the whole thing off. The flip side belonged to Gene Kelly, mounting a lamp post with an umbrella in his hand. Down the drain, for now, were three stakes races, including the San Pasqual Handicap, an early prep for the Santa Anita Handicap. The I-told-you-so crowd, and they definitely know who they are, was saying mean things about Cushion Track, the synthetic surface at Santa Anita, and even meaner things about Shapiro, who envisioned himself as the proud father of all things wax and rubber in the Far West.

The high-foreheaded Shapiro is already short of scalp, and for sure, as his detractors take a number, there's not enough of him to go around. The man needs someone to taste his food, someone to start his car. How did it come to this? Well, kiddies, in the the spring of Aught Six, the good commissioner and three henchmen (names later) passed an ultimatum that required the state's five thoroughbred tracks to lay down all-weather tracks by January of this year. No trackee, no runee, was what this august body told Frank Stronach (Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields), Jack Liebau (Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows) and Joe Harper (Del Mar). The California fairs, which run abbreviated dates and could hardly justify a per-track expense of about $10 million, were exempt, as were a harness track in Sacramento and Los Alamitos, known mostly for its quarter horses.

Bay Meadows, in a race with Hollywood Park to see who goes out of business first, wriggled out of the mandate, but the others fell in line. Safety of the Horse became the operative mantra. "It quickly got to the point where if you argued for dirt, you didn't care about the horse, and if you argued for synthetic, you did," said John Sikura, a Kentucky breeder who races in California and elsewhere. After one of his best fillies, More Happy, was moved by trainer Bob Baffert from Del Mar to Saratoga to win a Grade II stake, an angry letter by Sikura was published in Blood-Horse magazine. I talked to Sikura last week, and his spleen was still in a runaway position. I had to hold the phone a safe distance, lest I be punctured by his exclamation points.

"Can you imagine the National Football League deciding to play its game with coconuts instead of a ball, just before the playoffs?" Sikura said. "I've got my total life invested in this game, and out in California people who don't even own horses are telling me that they're changing the basis of that game. It's inconceivable. What they've done was way too presumptive. It was a knee-jerk reaction. There was no empirical data before they went into this. What they've done is a blight on the entire industry."

Counting the abortive start at Santa Anita, California is six meets into its synthetic era. At the Del Mar meet, which was the California debut for Polytrack, last summer was a joke. Knock, knock. Who's there? Betty. Betty who? Bet he runs a mile in 1:42. Good horses didn't run any faster than camels. Joe Harper, president of the seaside track, had a salty backstretch showdown with Ahmed Zayat early in the meet, and Zayat and his trainer, Baffert, moved their stock to Saratoga. At Golden Gate, where trainer Michael Dickinson's brainchild, Tapeta, is the underpinning, the track, unlike Santa Anita's, has been waterproof, but trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, for one, has told friends that his horses are suffering. Hollywood Park, which has run three meets with Cushion Track, has largely flown beneath the radar, but Lenny Shulman, an editor at the Blood-Horse, said that three horses were euthanized there during one morning of workouts. The Blood-Horse has had difficulty obtaining complete statistics of training and racing breakdowns in California.

"You want to have tracks as safe as possible, for the horse and the rider," Sikura said, "but injuries are always going to be part of the game. If you want a game without injuries, make it horse walking instead of horse racing."

On the Roger Stein show with Richard Shapiro, Shulman excoriated the commissioner for his unyielding position on synthetic tracks. "These tracks have been complete disasters," Shulman said. "I'm getting tired of you giving us this George Bush thing, where if you repeat a lie often enough, people will begin to believe it. California made a rush to judgment in forcing these tracks to install these surfaces. You've made a mistake, and you need to stand up and take the responsibility."

Shapiro chooses to shift the blame to the manufacturer, Cushion Track, for Santa Anita's drainage problems. "I'm very disappointed in some of the answers to questions that have been put to the Cushion Track people," he said. "But abandoning ship (on synthetics) because of one vendor mistake doesn't make a lot of sense."

Leland Yee, a state assemblyman from San Francisco, called for Shapiro's resignation from the racing board last year, as did Jerry Jamgotchian, a horse owner and gadfly whose high-octane appearances are de rigueur at monthly board meetings. There are rumors that Arnold Schwarzenegger, the governor, might play terminator again and rid the board of Shapiro before his term expires later this year. A few days ago, Jim Ford, managing partner of the Newmarket Thoroughbred Racing syndicate, wrote Shapiro, asking him to resign.

"Where was your backup plan?" Ford asked of the Santa Anita postponements. "You have known for months that this could happen."

Newmarket had entered Hucking Hot, 5-1 on the morning line, in Sunday's scuttled $150,000 San Gorgonio Handicap.

"Horsemen get their horses prime and ready for a specific race," Ford said in his letter to Shapiro. "They don't just lead them over one day and hope the right race comes up. (This filly) could get sick, get injured or otherwise not be ready for (her) best performance the next time a race for which (she is) best suited appears. . . This didn't happen at some small, obscure racetrack. It happened at Santa Anita--"The Great Race Place.". . . (Resigning) is your only way out."

In May of 2006, California racing began painting itself into this corner at a racing board meet at Los Alamitos Race Track. The motion to mandate all-weather tracks was made, and after about five minutes of discussion, commissioners Shapiro, John Andreini, John Harris and William Bianco voted in favor. Commissioner Jerry Moss, who had won the Kentucky Derby with Giacomo the year before, abstained. He was the smartest guy in the room. It's only January, but in California the term "all-weather" is already the misnomer of the year.

Written by Bill Christine

Comments (3)


Monday, December 31, 2007

Is This the End of PVal?

One morning late last week, I was tipped off that Pat Valenzuela, the jockey with 99 lives, had been pinched for drunken driving several hours after riding the opening-day card at Santa Anita. I called Tom Knust, Valenzuela's agent, for confirmation, but Knust said that he didn't know anything about the report. A classy ex-Marine who has a bullet hole and a Purple Heart among his Vietnam souvenirs, Knust learned the racing game from the ground up, and once labored at the knee of Jimmy Kilroe in Santa Anita's racing office. Not long after my call, he went over to Valenzuela's house, where the troubled rider confessed that there was indeed a DUI. Knust called me back to say that I had the story half-right: His jockey had actually been cited by the police the week before.

Knust quit as Valenzuela's agent, a decision that was academic, because the California Horse Racing Board had already voided the jockey's conditional license. A stipulation in the license was that Valenzuela wasn't supposed to touch even a thimble of beer, let alone paint the town.

Nothing changes. The 45-year-old Valenzuela, who has a 20-year history of alcohol and drug abuse, has the same old MO of keeping his agents in the dark. Knust is just one more who's become the last to know.

In the fall of 1989, Valenzuela was booked to ride Hawkster, the favorite in a $500,000 race at Santa Anita. A few hours before the race, Ron McAnally, the trainer of the horse, was approached by several agents who were lobbying for the mount.

"What are you talking about?" McAnally said. "I've got PVal."

"No, you don't," the trainer was told.

Deputizing, Russell Baze rode Hawkster to victory in 2:22 4/5, a world record for 1 1/2 miles on turf.

Posing for pictures in the winner's circle, McAnally was still livid about being stiffed by Valenzuela.

"Neither of them (Valenzuela and one of his longer-lasting agents, Jerry Ingordo) even contacted me," McAnally said. "I had to find out from the other agents."

That night, I reached Ingordo at his home. He was hotter that McAnally.

"I didn't know Pat was off his mounts till I called the racing office to find out who won the first race," Ingordo said.

Valenzuela told the stewards that he was ill with flu. It was the third time at the meet that he had taken off.

"He missed mounts on Lively One and Ruhlmann, very important horses," Ingordo said, "and I fell for his excuses. Now he misses a race on one of the best grass horses in the country. I can't work for this guy anymore. He's got no conscience."

Not long after the Hawkster race, Valenzuela tested positive for cocaine. Consequently, Chris McCarron was astride Sunday Silence, Valenzuela's Kentucky Derby winner, as the colt won the $3-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park.

In 1993, Valenzuela made another sick call to the stewards and McCarron rode Fraise to victory in the $500,000 Hollywood Turf Cup. Valenzuela didn't call his agent, Nick Cosato, until the next day. Cosato dumped him. "That was the third time he's done that to me," the agent said. "I'm a professional, and I can't be honest with my clients when my rider treats me like this."

Valenzuela's contretemps on the road are legendary. He flew to Baltimore to ride Sunny Blossom, a fine sprinter, in a race at Pimlico. Trainer Eddie Gregson, sitting in the stands with the horse's owner, was paged to report to the jockeys' room. Valenzuela was in his hotel room, he said, but unable to ride. Another time, expected to ride in a big race in Chicago, Valenzuela took a plane from Los Angeles to Dallas by mistake and missed the assignment. In Florida, asked to fill a vial for a urine test, he turned in a specimen which, according to the chemists, didn't come from a human.

A few years ago, Valenzuela shaved his head and his pubic area, preventing a lab from running a drug test on a strand of his hair. During a hearing at Del Mar, one of the stewards, a woman, listened to testimony while glossies of Valenzuela's pelvis sat on her desk. She was Ingrid Fermin, who is just winding up a three-year run as executive director of the racing board. When I called Fermin about Valenzuela the other day, she said something about being halfway out the door and referred me to PR. Fermin, I'm told, was delighted to sign the order that revoked Valenzuela's license.

Trainers continued to ride him because he was one of the best and, extraordinarily, able to immediately win races after months and months on the bench. The racing board, for reasons of its own, has caved in time and again and re-licensed him. Valenzuela has always surrounded himself with savvy lawyers who could find a loophole in a vat of Jello-O. One time, even though Valenzulela's contract called for unlimited testing, the stewards went months without handing him a bottle. I wrote about this egregious oversight, and Valenzuela's lawyer called to thank me for the column. "We want them to test Pat," the attorney said. "Letting him go long stretches without being tested is like turning him loose in a candy store."

Before he bailed on Valenzuela, Tom Knust gave him some advice.

"I told him to give up on riding and find something else to do," Knust said. "He's got four kids, and he needs a reliable means of support. He's got a problem with his weight, and it's not like he's 30 or 35 and can take the weight off easily. He needs to flip (regurgitate food), and that takes its toll. He's got a bad knee that's going to continue to bother him. He's got an addictive personality, and outside of racing he might be able to address that."

Valenzuela won the Santa Anita Derby, with Codex, when he was 17. He's won almost 4,000 races, including seven Breeders' Cup stakes, and his mounts have earned $147 million, which ranks him 18th on the career money list. Jockeys like Bill Shoemaker, Craig Perret and Eddie Maple trail him by plenty in purses. In recent years, there has been a misguided suggestion or two that he be placed on the ballot for the Racing Hall of Fame. If they ever throw that against the wall and it sticks, they better make sure none of his agents gets a vote.

Written by Bill Christine

Comments (18)


Page 21 of 22 pages « FirstP  <  19 20 21 22 >