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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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Get Out the Lifeboats

LOS ANGELES, September 28, 2010--There was so much drivel coming out of the last California Horse Racing Board meeting that a concession selling hip boots could have turned a tidy profit. Were Dorothy Parker still around, she would have said that this particular session ran the gamut of intelligence from A to B.

Where to start? Keith Brackpool, who chairs this august panel, said in effect that it's all right for California tracks to raise their prices, in terms of increased takeout, because racing is such a grand game and has so much to offer. Name me a business that raises prices when business is bad (well, movie theaters, but name me another). If there were an equipment notation for Brackpool, it would read, "blinkers on." Most of the fans in the grandstand these days are customers disguised as empty seats (the late George Kiseda, writing about a pro basketball crowd in Philadelphia, may have used that quip first).

Brackpool's appointment, as well as three others on the board, was made by the lame-duck governor (who reportedly can still bench press a few hundred pounds while doing a so-so imitation of Frank Stronach), and their confirmations by the state senate are on hold. I'm ambivalent about two of them, Bo Derek and Richard Rosenberg (it's very hard to be ambivalent about Bo Derek), but it's definitely time for Brackpool and David Israel, the vice chairman, to move on. They are supposed to lead racing out of the wilderness, but they can't see the thickets for the shrubs.

I knew Israel way back when, when he was a newspaper working stiff who knew his craft, did his homework, threw around similes and never dangled a participle that I ever saw. He's made a ton of money, I suppose, as a writer and producer in television, had something to do with the 1984 Olympics, and through a friendship with Arnold Schwarzenegger has landed on some state regulatory boards, including horse racing. At meetings, Israel is an outspoken cuss, not a bad thing. He doesn't flinch at putting Stronach, the owner of Santa Anita, in his place, but often, in matters horse, his naivete shows. At the most recent meeting, halfway through his longwinded version of what racing is and what racing ought to be, someone should have shouted, "Get him re-write."

I wasn't there, but a racing board flack put out many of Israel's comments, as though he was Moses coming down from the mount, a tablet in each hand. I've never seen such wrong-headed thinking crammed into a few paragraphs.

"People often say we're competing with the casinos," Israel said. "I think that's shortsighted and wrong. We're not competing with casinos. We're in the entertainment business. We're competing with the Dodgers and the Giants and the Angels and the Lakers, and we're putting on a show."

If racing isn't competing with casinos, then why are most race tracks eager to be converted into racinos? Short answer: Because the casinos are more popular, and if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Casinos are gambling. Racing is gambling. State lotteries are gambling. They're all after the gambling dollar. In California, if a gambler spends a day at an Indian casino, there's a chance he won't go to a race track the next day. There's even a chance he won't go to a race track ever again. Especially with the the takeout headed toward 30 per cent territory.

"There are some expenses incurred by putting on a show," Israel said. "We need to do a better job of selling the concept that going to a race track and experiencing racing has real entertainment value--that it's something people should be willing to pay for. It is not only (emphasis is Israel's) a gambling experience. It is also a gambling experience."

This kind of fallacious thinking reminds me of the late Bob Strub, who owned Santa Anita before Stronach. An elitist, Strub thought racing was above the other forms of gambling, and he had this cockamamie idea that bets on horses should be called wagers, as though nomenclature would gussy up the process. Strub would have called call girls courtesans. He also didn't like anybody talking about Las Vegas in his presence. Before long, they were handing out Eclipse Awards in Las Vegas.

If you took away the parimutuels from racing, there would be more horses than spectators. My skin crawls when I hear somebody at the Kentucky Derby say, "Who do you like in the 10th (the Derby race)?" or afterwards hear somebody say, "Who won the 10th?" and get, "the four horse," but spit happens. There are no surveys, but I'd wager (or bet) that most of the people who go to the races would rather cash a ticket than see a world record set for six furlongs. Racing should sell itself as a gambling experience most of the time. Any other basic marketing strategy needs to be re-thought.

Israel went on to make what I guess was a pitch for higher salaries for jockeys and trainers. This was the only area where he might have been close to being right. Yes, jockeys take risks, and are not paid commensurately with the dangers they face, more so at the small tracks than the major racing centers. But the time is not right to be paying them more, while the put-upon bettors pick up the tab. At Santa Anita and Hollywood Park, I still see many trainers driving fancy cars. I know of many trainers who have a home near Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, and a second home near Del Mar. This is anecdotal evidence, I know. But let the horsemen ride out the rough times, right along with the rest of us. Don't turn takeout into gouging, as though it's not there already.

Israel also said: "We need to do a better job conveying the message that these are great athletes, this is great entertainment, and you're paying for the experience of betting once you get there, because, frankly, the cost of getting into this ball park (race track) costs virtually nothing. It's a really good deal for the consumer. . . "

Oh, sure, everybody likes to pay for the opportunity to lose money. And most of us do lose, take my word for it. Comparisons with other sports wear me out. A couple goes to the track. They pay to park, maybe even the premium that comes with valet parking. They pay to get in. They pay again for a reserved seat, or tip the maitre'd and his assistant who takes them to the table, if they choose to sit in the Turf Club. They buy a Daily Racing Form, maybe even a tip sheet. They buy a couple of programs. Conservatively, all of that might cost close to $40--before they make their first bet. You go to a baseball game, you pay for parking and your ticket includes the cost of a reserved seat. You might need a scorecard. But other than the concession stand, that's all the expense you will have. Racing tries to drain the customer before he even warms his fanny. Then it picks away at what he or she has left with an exorbitant commission on bets. It's a grand game, all right. So grand that's it's crumbling, before our very eyes.

Written by Bill Christine

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