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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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Tuesday, February 08, 2011


The Battle for the Ballot


LOS ANGELES, February 8, 2011--Now is the time for all good men and women to come to the aid of the Racing Hall of Fame, which is entertaining suggestions from its electorate to determine what horses and horsemen belong on this year's ballot. It never was an exact science, and definitely not a soft go, and the panjandrums of the process made it harder a year ago when they rejiggered the rules for the umpteenth time.

It used to be that the voting mass threw the names of a worthy horse or two, a jockey and a trainer against the wall and hoped that the nominating committee would make them stick. But now the first round in this thinkfest is a Heinz varieties: You're allowed to proffer a mix and match that can't exceed four--four horses maybe and no horsemen, or two horses, one trainer and one jockey for example, and so on and so on. I hope you get the picture, because I barely do. Ever try weighing the Hall of Fame credentials of John Velazquez vis a vis Ghostzapper? Forget apples and oranges, this is rutabagas and eggplant.


I did not get the names of Velazquez and Ghostzapper out of the well-known hat. Ghostzapper, Horse of the Year in 2004, is eligible for the ballot for the first time. Velazquez, after riding 20 years, was first-time eligible last year, and I, along with Mrs. Velazquez, was surprised that he wasn't automatically enshrined.

Randy Romero was the only jockey elected (Don Pierce was also enshrined, courtesy of the Historic Review Committee). Romero, bless him, was no cheese champion, but Velazquez, with his marvelous record, seemed to be the veritable lead pipe. Going into this year, his mounts have earned $241 million, which ranked him behind only Pat Day, Jerry Bailey and Chris McCarron, all retired and all in the Hall of Fame. Velazquez has also won more than 4,500 races, winning with 18% of his mounts while riding on the East Coast, in colonies where the top competition can be found. He should be rubber-stamped by both the nominating committee and the voters.

Ghostzapper is something else again. He lost only twice, when he was masquerading as a sprinter, but his career encompassed only 11 races in four years, and he ran around two turns only twice. But he won the Vosburgh and the Woodward and the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Metropolitan Mile, quite a four-bagger for any horse. I don't know, did he do enough? The bar is being lowered, year by year, because horses aren't asked to do what their predecessors routinely did. More and more, the voters will be asked to judge horses with records like Ghostzapper, and another lightly raced colt before us, for the second straight year, is Smarty Jones. Smarty Jones was beaten only once, out of nine races, but he never raced beyond his loss to Birdstone in the Belmont, wasn't around to challenge Ghostzapper in the Breeders' Cup and never won a Horse of the Year title. I don't think Smarty Jones belongs on the ballot; more of a case could be made for Saint Liam, who was five when he was voted Horse of the Year. This is his first year of eligibility.

Until the Historic Review Committee tapped Buster Millerick, last year would have hit the books without a trainer being inducted. The two trainers on the ballot, Gary Jones and Bob Wheeler, might get another chance this year, but with Steve Asmussen eligible for the first time, the slots will be hard to come by. Asmussen, fifth on the money list with $171 million through 2010, might be thought of as a sure thing, but the many drug positives for his horses over the years might stop some voters in their tracks. Baseball has a morals clause in its Hall of Fame voting rules, but horse racing does not. My guess is that Asmussen will be swept into the hall on the first try, and since the panjandrums don't release vote counts, we'll never know how convincing his candidacy was.

A trainer overdue for induction is Jerry Hollendorfer, who didn't even make the ballot last year. Hollendorfer wins races by the carload, and piles up millions of dollars in purse money as well. Pre-2011, he was fourth in lifetime wins (5,863) and eighth in purses ($119 million).

"Jerry Hollendorfer is the biggest omission. . . " Steve Davidowitz, the veteran turf writer, author and handicapper, told me last year. "It was completely inexplicable that he was (not on the 2010 ballot), given his extraordinary history of success in Northern California and his victories in major stakes with limited opportunities. If Hollendorfer has not earned a place in the Hall of Fame, there is no Hall of Fame worth talking about."

Limited to four, I'm likely to send along to the Hall of Fame the names of Asmussen, Hollendorfer, Velazquez and Ghostzapper. One of the inequities of the process is that those three magnificent fillies--Sky Beauty, Safely Kept and Open Mind--have been effectively working against each other's chances every time they all appear on the ballot, as was the case a year ago. Because they were unsuccessful finalists, we're told that the nominating committee will automatically consider them again without any prodding from the likes of me. In a perfect world, it would be nice if the three of them all went into the shrine together. I'm not making book that that will happen.

Written by Bill Christine

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011


A Poll for What Ails You


LOS ANGELES, February 1, 2011--Got the pre-Super Bowl blues? Don't know where your Kentucky Derby future-book lock is coming from? Bothered by the dreaded psoriasis? Tummy off kilter, and Rolaids won't work, even though millions of people use them? Well, have I got an antidote for you. Courtesy of Jon White, the multi-hatted pundit who's currently hanging his lid at Santa Anita, I give you the Lifetime Horse of the Year Poll. The idea was so delicious, that I'm sorry I didn't think of it first. White, who writes for XpressBet.com, ranked the 33 horses who have been voted Horse of the Year since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971. Then he asked 31 of us to do the same thing, coming up with a consensus that's guaranteed to start an argument in any race-track press box. But in the spirit of the thing, why not do your own rankings, then compare them with the rest of us? No peeking at the consensus, though. I'll list the 33 horses (some of them were champions more than once) in the next paragraph, then stop reading for a time and go do your assignment: Rank them from 1 through 33, in order of greatness. A deal? OK, here's goes:


Ack Ack, Affirmed, All Along, Alysheba, A.P. Indy, Azeri, Black Tie Affair, Charismatic, Cigar, Conquistador Cielo, Criminal Type, Curlin, Favorite Trick, Ferdinand, Forego, Ghostzapper, Holy Bull, Invasor, John Henry, Kotashaan, Lady's Secret, Mineshaft, Point Given, Rachel Alexandra, Saint Liam, Seattle Slew, Secretariat, Skip Away, Spectacular Bid, Spend a Buck, Sunday Silence, Tiznow, Zenyatta.





Finished with your list? Then here are the results, for all the voters, and for White and yours truly:

Consensus

Secretariat
Spectacular Bid
Seattle Slew
Affirmed
Forego
John Henry
Cigar
Sunday Silence
Zenyatta
Alysheba

Tiznow
Curlin
Holy Bull
A.P. Indy
Point Given
Ack Ack
Ghostzapper
Skip Away
Rachel Alexandra
\Lady's Secret

Ferdinand
Invasor
Azeri
All Along
Spend a Buck
Conquistador Cielo (tie)
Mineshaft (tie)
Criminal Type
Saint Liam
Kotashaan

Black Tie Affair
Charismatic
Favorite Trick


Jon White

Secretariat
Spectacular Bid
Seattle Slew
Forego
Affirmed
Zenyatta
John Henry
Sunday Silence
Cigar
Alysheba

Point Given
Tiznow
Curlin
Holy Bull
Ghostzapper
Ack Ack
Skip Away
Rachel Alexandra
A.P. Indy
Invasor

Lady's Secret
Ferdinand
All Along
Azeri
Criminal Type
Spend a Buck
Kotashaan
Conquistador Cielo
Charismatic
Saint Liam

Mineshaft
Black Tie Affair
Favorite Trick

Bill Christine

Secretariat
Affirmed
Seattle Slew
Forego
Spectacular Bid
Cigar
John Henry
Zenyatta
Sunday Silence
Rachel Alexandra

A.P. Indy
Alysheba
All Along
Tiznow
Curlin
Ferdinand
Skip Away
Lady's Secret
Ghostzapper
Saint Liam

Invasor
Holy Bull
Point Given
Azeri
Criminal Type
Ack Ack
Conquistador Cielo
Mineshaft
Spend a Buck
Kotashaan

Black Tie Affair
Favorite Trick
Charismatic

It's fun to see how close you come to the consensus, as though the consensus is any better measuring stick than one of its parts. It must be fairly easy to zero in on the 10 best, because nine of mine agreed with the consensus, although hardly in the same order. I had Rachel Alexandra in my top 10, the consensus had her a distant 19th. Alysheba, 10th according to the consensus, was 12th on my list. I don't know about Rachel Alexandra, maybe I should have had her lower, but I can't forget her 3-year-old season. Has a Horse of the Year, male or female, ever been better than Rachel Alexandra at three?

Spectacular Bid, second to Secretariat by the consensus, was fifth on my list. Bill Shoemaker said that Spectacular Bid was the best horse he ever rode, and that alone could be reason to move him up, but he didn't win the Triple Crown. By itself, the Triple Crown sweep carried a lot of weight as I prepared my list, especially since it hasn't been duplicated since Affirmed in 1978. I won't apologize for placing Forego ahead of Spectacular Bid, either. He carried weight time after time, and won the national title three times, once more than Secretariat, Affirmed, John Henry, Cigar and Curlin.

Not surprisingly, Secretariat got 22 of the 32 first-place votes. The other first-place votes went to Spectacular Bid (5), Seattle Slew (2), Affirmed (2) and Zenyatta (1). One voter (White has kept individual voting confidential) ranked Secretariat no better than seventh, and I'd love to know why. Secretariat also got six second-place votes, one third, one fourth and one fifth.

One voter listed Seattle Slew 11th. I'd love to know why. Three voters didn't have Forego in the first 10--two ranked him 11th and one had him at 12th. I'd love. . .

John Henry got three votes out of the top 10, a 12th, 13th and 15th. Twenty of the 32 voters thought Zenyatta belonged in the top 10, but four ranked her between 18th and 23rd.

I didn't look up any records or past performances in compiling my list. I had seen all the horses run, and while the memory is a devious tool, I trusted mine. It might have been more fun determining which horses belonged at the bottom of the list. If mirroring the consensus is a hill of beans, I can be proud of my selections. The electorate had Black Tie Affair, Charismatic and Favorite Trick bringing up the rear. The same horses made my bottom three, only in a different order--Black Tie Affair, Favorite Trick and Charismatic. It's probably of little solace to Carolyn Hine after all these years, but Skip Away was ranked a very respectable 18th and Favorite Trick didn't outvote anyone. In the 1997 Horse of the Year election, Favorite Trick, an undefeated 2-year-old, outvoted the Hine-owned Skip Away. It was a bitter outcome for Hine and her husband, the late Sonny Hine, who trained their horse. Skip Away won the title the next year, but had he beaten out Favorite Trick in 1997, he would have been that rare horse with multiple Horse of the Year titles. That would have catapulted him to a higher niche on my ballot.

Here in my judgment is the most telling stat of all: Of the horses in the first 10, four were from the 1970s, four from the 1980s, one from the 1990s (Cigar) and only one, Zenyatta, from the 21st century. Other than Zenyatta, the most recent horse in the top 10, Cigar, won his second title 14 years ago. Don't blame the voters. The snubs are for all the right reasons.

Written by Bill Christine

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