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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Monday, May 10, 2010

This Isn’t a Ballot, It’s a Landmine

LOS ANGELES, May 11, 2010--When the all-new, better-than-ever Racing Hall of Fame ballot arrived in the mail, my first reaction was that Ed Bowen and company had finally struck paydirt. After years of tinkering with the voting process, and being told by creeps like me that he still couldn't get it right, it looked as though nirvana was Bowen's at last.

But then I sat down to fill out my ballot. Hey, Ed, how many ways do you know to say uncle?

It's the Hall of Fame's luck that this is one of the most challenging ballots in years, no matter what the system, and the new voting rules take the degree of difficulty to an impossible plane.

The candidates for enshrinement are jockeys Randy Romero and Alex Solis, trainers Gary Jones and Bob Wheeler, male horses Best Pal and Point Given, and females Azeri, Open Mind, Safely Kept and Sky Beauty. Under the old rules, which allowed voters to pick one from each of the four categories, I probably would have voted for Solis and Wheeler, in extremely tough calls; Point Given, without even looking at his record; and Azeri, in another no-brainer. Then I would have again sent apologies to the connections of Open Mind, Safely Kept and Sky Beauty, who keep getting left at the altar.

But the new rules call for voters to pick any four of the 10 eligibles, a mix-or-match task that eventually forces the electorate to compare apples (4,760 wins by Solis) and oranges (18 wins by Best Pal). If the fourth spot on your ballot, for example, might be between Romero and Open Mind, how do you compare Romero's three Breeders' Cup wins with the one by Open Mind?

What is more, supposing--and this is not a stretch--you feel that all four females are Hall of Fame-deserving? Do you write down all their names, and make Point Given wait till next year?

My guess is that all of the two-legged candidates will take a back seat to the quadrupeds this time. The truth is, Jones and Wheeler don't carry the heft of a Bob Baffert on the ballot, nor do Romero and Solis stack up with, say, a Kent Desormeaux or a Mike Smith, who have been elected in recent years. By contrast, the credentials of the six horses on this year's ballot speak for themselves. Best Pal earned $5.6 million, but because he had trouble winning outside of California, he's likely to come away once more without getting a smell.

In my first crack with this Rubik's Cube, I came up with, in alphabetical order, Azeri, Point Given, Open Mind and Safely Kept.

But that vote discounts Sky Beauty and her 10 Grade 1 wins, her overall record of 15 wins in 21 starts. If only Sky Beauty had won just one of her two Breeders' Cup starts, that would have made this exercise all the more easier.

Still, the 10 Grade 1s are hard to overlook, and Sky Beauty won the Ruffian Handicap carrying 130 pounds. So I substituted Safely Kept with Sky Beauty on my second draft. Safely Kept was only a sprinter, I told myself. But then I took another look at Safely Kept, with her $2.1 million in purses, a Breeders' Cup win and an Eclipse Award. Sky Beauty won an Eclipse Award, but no Breeders' Cup race.

Maybe, I thought, I should round out the ballot with Safely Kept and Sky Beauty, and drop Open Mind, who lost her last five starts. Before that, however, Open Mind was a champion at both two and three, won a Breeders' Cup race at two, and won 10 straight, from the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies right through the Kentucky Oaks, New York's triple crown for fillies and the Alabama. She needed a stewards' disqualification to nail down the finale to the triple crown, but no, Open Mind is as much of a cinch on the ballot as Azeri and Point Given.

So it's Safely Kept or Sky Beauty for the last spot, and Best Pal, Romero, Solis, Jones and Wheeler will have to take the hindmost. I put the ballot under my pillow and went to sleep. I have until May 21. Until then, I'll be counting Ed Bowens instead of sheep.

Written by Bill Christine

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Monday, May 03, 2010

How To Humiliate 2 Derby Jocks in 1 Easy Lesson

LAS VEGAS, May 4, 2010--Maybe the Kentucky Derby is bullet-proof. They can inflate the prices, charge seat licenses for long-time Derby ticket-holders, serve cold food to the high-enders and tell them there's no bread or rolls to go with their meals, but Churchill Downs still draws 116,000 on Kentucky Oaks day, the day before the Derby, and passes the 150,000 mark on Derby day itself. If we could resuscitate H.L. Mencken, he would still say, "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."

This Derby day, they ran a race called the Pleasant Colony Purse on the undercard. If you quizzed all the vice presidents at Churchill Downs, and there is a closet full, my guess is that most of them would be unable to name the jockey who rode Pleasant Colony to his Derby win in 1981. His name, of course, is Jorge Velasquez, and this Derby found Velasquez in Louisville, as a participant in one of the best promotions in racing, the imprinting in cement of the handprints of many Derby-winning jockeys outside the Galt House Hotel.

Another former Derby winner is Spectacular Bid, in 1979, and somebody tell the executive suite at Churchill that Ron Franklin was his jockey. Franklin, like Velasquez, had also been called to Louisville by organizers of the Galt House handprint ceremony. Before Franklin and Velasquez left town, they had been humiliated by the track where they forged Derby history. There was room at the inn, but not at the Downs, and Franklin and Velasquez watched this Derby from the bar at their hotel. I suppose it didn't occur to anyone in Churchill's counting house that it would have been a nice touch, having Jorge Velasquez in the winner's circle right after they ran the Pleasant Colony Purse.

Velasquez, who's in the Racing Hall of Fame, and Franklin planned to attend the Kentucky Oaks, too, but after several days of runarounds, organizers weren't told by Churchill until 2 p.m. on Oaks day that the retired riders and their companions (Velasquez's wife and Franklin's squeeze) could have tickets. In the same breath, in a please-read-my-lips tone, Churchill told organizers that there wouldn't be any tickets for the riders on Derby day. Now we're not talking about free tickets here. Organizers wanted to pay for the tickets, and were reported to be calling Churchill officials at home as late as the night before the Derby in order to buy them. I'm trying to come up with an analogy. If the St. Louis Cardinals were in the World Series, and Stan Musial, the old Hall of Fame Cardinal, wanted to attend a game, would the ball club tell him that you can see just as much on TV?

The handprints outside the Galt are a joint promotion by the hotel, the Kentucky Derby Museum and Jane Dempsey, a Californian whose family has been bringing fans to the Derby via junkets for 64 years. They pay most of the freight for the jockeys, which is to say airline tickets and hotel rooms. Dempsey said she was also willing to pay for the Derby-Oaks tickets, but she was stonewalled at every turn. "If I had known early on what would eventually happen," she said, "I wouldn't have sold one of my box seats and would have set it aside for the poor guys. It wouldn't have been in one of the greatest locations, but at least they would have had a place to attend the races."

The handprints are an impressive historical record of the Derby. When the promotion began several years ago, the goal was to secure the prints of every Derby-winning jockey who was still alive. Bill Hartack, after agreeing to come, died several months before he could get to Louisville. Over the years, Hartack, the winner of a record five Derbys, grew disenchanted with Churchill Downs, which even in an earlier administration had a public-be-damned reputation. Mike Barry, a Louisville curmudgeon who could also write a little, repeatedly referred to the track in print as "Bottom Line Downs."

By the time the handprint organizers got around to Milo Valenzuela, who won the Derby on Tim Tam and Forward Pass (after the disqualification of Dancer's Image), he was too ill to travel from California to Kentucky. No problem. With the help of Santa Anita, the handprint corps had Valenzuela dip into a specially prepared square of fresh cement on the back patio of his home, then shipped the flagstone to the Galt House. Empty hang the pocketbooks of those who ship concrete cross-country. With the additions of Velasquez and Franklin, there's only one living Derby-winning jockey left to imprint--Eddie Delahoussaye.

Perhaps it's not too early to put in a request to Churchill for Delahoussaye's Derby tickets. Providing Delahoussaye doesn't talk to Velasquez and Franklin first and say he's got better things to do. I contacted Liz Harris, one of the vice presidents at Churchill, and asked for an explanation of the Velasquez-Franklin snafu. In an e-mail, she said, "We're trying to ascertain the facts," and then she pitched me to one of the track's other vice presidents. Hey, they're busy people. It's a few days after Derby 2010, and Derby 2011 is just around the corner.

Written by Bill Christine

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Monday, March 22, 2010

They Said It at the Race Track

LOS ANGELES, March 23, 2010--Several years ago, the American Film Institute came out with the 100 best of everything, including the top movie lines of all-time. ("Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn," from "Gone With the Wind," was No. 1, but it was "Casablanca" that garnered the lion's share). Racing can hold its own with any of these lists. How about these lines:

25. "I need to take a nap. Could you wake me in seven minutes?"--Trainer Wayne Lukas, talking to his wife Sherri.

24. "Know why they call me Russell the Muscle? Because muscle's the only word that rhymes with Russell."--Jockey Russell Baze.

23. "For all the good I did in there, I might just as well have stayed home and painted my toenails."--Anita Madden, a Kentucky racing commissioner, leaving a racing board meeting in which the rest of the board voted down her proposal to toughen the state's medication rules.

22. "If you want me to tell a man he can't run his horse in the Kentucky Derby, you'll have to find somebody else for this job."--Tommy Trotter, racing secretary at Churchill Downs, after track management asked him to arbitrarily narrow the field to 20 horses for the Derby.

21. "Why is everybody so sad? Nobody died."--Trainer Bob Baffert, speaking to the media minutes after Real Quiet, the Derby-Preakness winner, finished second in the 1998 Belmont Stakes.

20. "A public hanging would be nice."--Mary Jones Bradley, when asked if she could ever bury the hatchet with Gordon Jones, the turf writer who roundly criticized her after she fired Bill Shoemaker as the jockey of Cougar II.

19. "It's like running on Velcro."--Trainer John Shirreffs, in a discussion about synthetic tracks.

18. "Once upon a time, there was a horse called Kelso. But only once."--Joe Hirsch of the Daily Racing Form.

17. "The thing I like about owning horses is that they don't ask you to renegotiate their contracts."--Gene Klein, former owner of the San Diego Chargers.

16. "Will you hold my horse?"--Trainer Willard Proctor, just before he cold-cocked a horseman who had crossed him.

15. "It's 9 a.m., and change."--Ed Schuyler of the Associated Press, when asked for the time.

14. "Take me off a horse, and I'm just another little man."--Jockey Johnny Longden.

13. "They give their lives just for our pleasure."--Trainer Ron McAnally, after his Bayakoa won the 1990 Breeders' Cup Distaff and Go for Wand suffered a fatal breakdown in the race.

12. "Please, Dolly, don't get in this game. They'll take you like Grant took Richmond."--Kentucky breeder Leslie Combs, to Beverly Hills socialite Dolly Green after she said she was going to buy some horses at Keeneland.

11. "What did you do, ice up a six-pack for Derby week?"--Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, after a colleague, four days before the Derby, ordered a second Heineken and was told by the Louisville bartender that they were all out.

10. "Figures lie and liars figure."--Jimmy Kilroe of Santa Anita, when asked for his opinion of the Dosage rating system.

9. "When Steve Cauthen started winning so many races, his career took off like a flying sausage."--Trainer Laz Barrera.

8. "I want to introduce you to my trainer, Sonny Hine. He made me a millionaire. Of course, I started with five million."--Ben Cohen of Pimlico Race Track.

7. "I treat my owners like mushrooms. I keep them in the dark and feed them plenty of manure."--Trainer Charlie Whittingham.

6. "The stewards gave him five days. I gave him five nights."--Jockey Mary Bacon, after her husband was suspended for fouling her horse in a race.

5. "He's the greatest horse to ever look through a bridle."--Trainer Bud Delp, talking about Spectacular Bid.

4. "The only thing smart about Ronnie Franklin is that he knows he isn't smart."--Delp again, after Spectacular Bid won the 1979 Florida Derby despite a horrible ride by Franklin.

3. "You never know, you might be running over glass at a track like that."--Trainer Woody Stephens, after another trainer, Joe Cantey, asked him if he ought to send Temperence Hill to Louisiana Downs for the 1980 Super Derby.

2. "I'm not down to my last camel, but still it would be a good idea if you could raise purses in this country."--Sheik Mohammed of Dubai, during a speech to an English racing group.

1. "Mrs. C.V. Whitney's Fuzzy Wuzzy has been scratched. Please scratch Mrs. C.V. Whitney's Fuzzy Wuzzy."--Track announcer Fred Capossela, during a post parade at Saratoga.

Written by Bill Christine

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