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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Monday, November 15, 2010


The Life At Ten Story Has a Life of Its Own


LOS ANGELES, November 16, 2010--Anybody out there weary of talking about Life At Ten, the 5-year-old mare who ran last in the Breeders' Cup Race Formerly Known as the Distaff? In case you've spent the last week or so in Zanzibar, Life At Ten was the second choice in the betting and ran not a step after showing up in the paddock doing her best zombie imitation. I watched the race from the racebook at the Mirage in Las Vegas. The next day, I read to a seatmate the account in the New York Times, which said that the mare's jockey, John Velazquez, had told ESPN during the post parade that she was listless, and that the trainer, Todd Pletcher, said that she shouldn't have run. "That's (effing) wonderful," this horseplayer from Cleveland said. "All I did was bet five-hundred (effing) dollars on that horse."

Gary Young is not tired of talking about Life At Ten, who was not scratched even though Churchill Downs stewards and Breeders' Cup veterinarians were aware of Velazquez' concerns. In a round-about way, Young was responsible for Candy DeBartolo buying Life At Ten, and had a front-row view of the contretemps that were committed shortly before she ran so poorly in Louisville.

Young has worn so many hats in California racing (clocker, handicapper, assistant trainer, TV analyst, pick-six savant, bloodstock consultant, and probably some that I've overlooked) that I had to ask him which ID he was traveling with these days. "Don't call me a bloodstock agent because I'm not," he said. "Thoroughbred investment advisor. That's about right."

Young's involvement with Life At Ten goes back to her first career start, in November of 2007 at Hollywood Park. "I bet my lungs out on her that day," Young said. At 14-1, Life At Ten finished second. Since Young is not a place and show bettor, either he took a bath or had her in some exotics, I didn't bother to ask. The point is, Life At Ten was still on his mind when Young had dinner with Todd Pletcher at a Mexican restaurant a few days later.

"I need a horse that is ripe to win right away," Pletcher said. Those are the timeless words of a trainer who has a new client and wants to make a good first impression.

"I got just the one," Young said. "A filly called Life At Ten."

So that's the way Candy DeBartolo became a thoroughbred owner for the first time. Her late father-in-law, Ed DeBartolo Sr., collected racetracks, but her husband, Ed DeBartolo Jr., was always too busy running the San Francisco 49ers to logically follow his father into the horse business. Young couldn't remember for sure, but he said that Candy DeBartolo paid well into the six figures to buy Life At Ten.

In her first start with her new owner and trainer, Life At Ten throttled six other maidens at Hollywood; then she tossed in a second-place finish at Keeneland, before returning to Hollywood for a disappointing third as the odds-on choice.

"You can look it up," Young said, "that was a night race. I was in the paddock. She was totally off. Her engine was racing at about 250 miles an hour even before they threw the saddle on her. The result was predictable."

But by the time Life At Ten was ready to run in the Breeders' Cup, she had blossomed into a horse who had won seven of her eight previous starts, including a couple of Grade 1 wins, and her earnings had topped $1 million. Typically, Pletcher had an army of horses to run in the two-day carnival at Churchill, but he told friends midway through the week that his best victory chances were Life At Ten and Uncle Mo, who would indeed win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The day Pletcher shipped Life At Ten the 70 miles from Keeneland to Churchill, he sent this dripping-with-confidence text message to Young: "Even her jogging is impressive. I ought to stop at the Red Mile (a harness track in Lexington) and win a race."

Then came race day.

"She was just too damn quiet when they brought her over (to the paddock)," Young said. "If she was racing 250 miles an hour that night at Hollywood, she was going zero miles an hour this day. Completely the opposite. Todd thought that when he put the saddle on her, she'd come to life, but she didn't. (Velazquez) came out and started smooching to her, to wake her up, but nothing helped. There have been suggestions that she tied up (cramped), but I don't buy that. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred--make that 999 times out of a thousand--when a horse ties up, it's exercise-induced. She hadn't done anything to cause tying up."

Young thought the stewards and the vets should have ordered a scratch of Life At Ten, which would have riddled the parimutuel pools. I asked Young whether he thought Velazquez should have gotten off the horse, refused to ride, and that would have forced the stewards' hand. Then they would have either sent into the jockeys' room for another rider, which would have been a Breeders' Cup first, or scratched the horse.

"(Velazquez) was in a tough spot," Young said. "A gate scratch in a $2-million race? He was in an awfully tough spot."

Young recalled Chris McCarron, a Hall of Fame jockey, scratching Fitzwilliam Place, a filly trained by Charlie Whittingham, in a stake in California more than 20 years ago.

"Boy, was Charlie hot," Young said. "Chris had trouble getting back into that barn for three or four years."

Young has thought a lot about what happened to Life At Ten that night at Churchill Downs.

"She didn't run well when they tried her on grass once," he said. "But otherwise her two worst races were that night at Hollywood Park and this night at Churchill Downs. I just think she's a horse that might never adjust to night racing. I think it's night races that she can't handle."

Life At Ten was scheduled to be sold at an auction in Kentucky two days after her Breeders' Cup race, but she was withdrawn and it was announced that she would continue in training with Pletcher.

"That must mean that they're going to race her at six, and she'll be pointed to next year's Breeders' Cup," Gary Young said. "And where will that be? Churchill Downs. And another night race."

Written by Bill Christine

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