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, March 24, 2008

The Mare Who Refuses To Lose

LOS ANGELES, March 25, 2008--By winning a one-mile stake Sunday at Sunland Park, the 5-year-old mare Peppers Pride, undefeated in 15 starts, caught up with Colin and Buckpasser. One more win and Peppers Pride catches the mixed bag of Citation, Mister Frisky, Cigar and Hallowed Dreams. Most of these horses are in the Racing Hall of Fame (Mister Frisky and Hallowed Dreams are not), and Peppers Pride will never be, which prompts more jaundiced observers to say that she doesn't belong on the same page with the others in the record book. Will Joe Allen, the owner-breeder of Peppers Pride, please take the stand.

First question: Have you quit beating your wife? No, scratch that.

First question: Can you stand the heat, now that you're in the kitchen? (Well-put, because Allen owns Joe Allen's Pit BBQ in Abilene, Texas).

"It's easy to be critical," Allen said. He is as down home as Will Rogers, as unpretentious as a church-mouse.

"We're not out for the record," Allen went on. "We're out for the mare. We've never said that she ranks up there with Citation or any of those other horses. We're not out for the fame and glory. Whether we set a record or not, all of this has sure been a lot of fun to me, and that's what matters."

There are always the quibbles, more so in horse racing, it seems. Other horses have won more races consecutively, but 16 apparently is the magic number, and as long as we're stuck with it, we might as well X-ray it. Mister Frisky's first 12 wins were against creampuffs in Puerto Rico. Several of the races in Cigar's streak were glorified setups. One of Citation's 16 was a walkover, and there was a 13-month gap between wins 15 and 16. The Louisiana-bred Hallowed Dreams, like Peppers Pride, racked up most of her wins in ungraded races at minor-league tracks.

I say, give Peppers Pride an asterisk, if you must, and then let's move on. Roger Maris, the home run hitter, went to his grave with an asterisk, and it didn't seem to make him a bad person. Even downsized, Peppers Pride is a nice story. Joe Allen--his restaurant is unrelated to the New York boite hard by Broadway, the one with posters of the all-time theater turkeys on its walls--is, by his own admission, not a rich man. Peppers Pride's sire, Desert God, stands as far from the bluegrass as China. Peppers Pride's dam, the 17-year-old Lady Pepper, was put down because of incurable laminitis last year. Sunland Park, where Peppers Pride has won six of her races, is not exactly Belmont Park West. Open since 1959, it was almost shuttered before slot-machine legislation took it off a respirator in 1999. Sunland runs a rich Kentucky Derby prep race--Liberty Bull won it earlier this month--that isn't even graded. Mike Watchmaker of the Daily Racing Form thought so much of Liberty Bull's race that he's made him 50-1 on his Derby line.

Sunland Park can speak for itself, and sticks and stones won't work with Joe Allen, either. "This filly has meant the world to me," he said Sunday in the Sunland winner's circle. "Her sire is such a neat horse. It's so satisfying to know that she's so popular with the people of New Mexico. She's their horse."

Trained by Joel Marr and ridden by Carlos Madeira in all 15 of her races, Peppers Pride began her streak with three wins as a 2-year-old in 2005. She added four more wins in 2006, and went seven for seven last year. The $60,000 winner's purse Sunday in the Sydney Valentini Handicap lifted her earnings to $816,665, all in races restricted to New Mexico-breds. Rocky Gulch, still in training as a 7-year-old, is the No. 1 New Mexico-bred in earnings with just over $1 million. One of the best-known New Mexico-breds has been Bold Ego, winner of the 1981 Arkansas Derby and second behind Pleasant Colony in the Preakness.

Allen says that Peppers Pride hasn't run her best race yet. If she has a flaw, it's taking it easy once she's made the lead, which has led to a few close finishes. Some of the best horses have had this tendency. Ferdinand, winner of the 1986 Kentucky Derby, was one. There was a fine line, Bill Shoemaker said, when a jockey could send Ferdinand to the lead. Jockeys refer to the relax-before-the-wire habit as "cheating." Steve Cauthen said that Affirmed was a cheater early in his career.

At Sunland, Peppers Pride was in third place at the top of the stretch, running out in the middle of the track, but Madeira showed no urgency. Then he hit her twice righthanded with his whip, and she took off. Once in front, Madeira hit her six more times, reminders that they hadn't reached the wire yet.

"She has the best personality," Allen said. "She's real kind, and will do anything to please."

Peppers Pride has never raced farther than a mile, and most of her starts have been sprints. She might be a lowly New Mexico-bred, but her bloodlines read like an entire wing from the Hall of Fame. Desert God, the sire, is a Kentucky-bred who never raced. He is a son of Grade I winner Fappiano, who died in 1990, the same year one of his sons, Unbridled, won the Kentucky Derby. Desert God's dam, Blush with Pride, won the Kentucky Oaks.

"This horse (Desert God) isn't supposed to be in New Mexico," Allen said. With that family, he wasn't supposed to be with the University of Arizona's equine program, either, but that's where Allen bought him, for an undisclosed sum, on a tip from a cousin, who worked at the school. The cousin, Ron Allen, bought 25% of the stallion, who stands for $6,000 and is fully booked to more than 50 mares at the A and A Horse Ranch near Anthony, New Mexico.

The next race for Peppers Pride, when she would be given a chance to win her 16th straight, might be next month in Farmington, New Mexico, at a bullring otherwise known as SunRay Park. I got out a map. It's in the far northwest corner of the state. You can spit on Arizona, Utah and Colorado, in one gulp.

Written by Bill Christine

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Monday, March 17, 2008

Of Geldings and Cal-breds

LOS ANGELES, March 18, 2008--The short list of prominent West Coast hopefuls for the Kentucky Derby includes a gelding, a California-bred and, in what amounts to a double whammy, a Cal-bred gelding. There are few throw-outs when the Derby is more than three fortnights away, but backers of El Gato Malo, Sierra Sunset and Georgie Boy should know what they're up against. Every blue moon, a gelding or a Cal-bred wins the Derby, and a Cal-bred gelding has never won the Derby.

Should these horses actually reach Churchill Downs on May 3, their trainers will eventually be broached about their built-in albatrosses, and the stock answer will be, "The horse doesn't know." But the historians do.

Funny Cide, a gelding, won the Derby in 2003, and even more ridiculous he was a New York-bred, the first of its kind to win the race. Thus the Derby was exorcised of the Clyde Van Dusen Curse. Clyde Van Dusen, named after his trainer, won the 1929 Derby from the No. 20 post, and then 76 more geldings finished up the track at Churchill before Funny Cide broke through. Between the 2003 Derby and the Preakness, when I was ratcheting enough gumption to ask Barclay Tagg, Funny Cide's crotchety trainer, about the celestial nexus his horse had with Clyde Van Dusen, he threw me out of his Belmont Park barn, while ranting nonsensically about how my hanging around was driving up his workers' comp costs.

It's been 46 years, or eight years after Jeff Bonde was born, since a California-bred has won the Derby. The last Cal-bred to prevail, in 1962, was Decidedly, who was the first since Swaps, seven years before. The only other Cal-bred to win the Derby was Morvich in 1922. Al Jolson tried to buy Morvich as a 2-year-old, for $75,000.

Bonde, who's based at Golden Gate Fields, is one race away from his first Derby after the Cal-bred colt Sierra Sunset won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Brother Derek is the only Cal-bred to run in the Derby in the last five years. He was given a good chance, but drew the No. 18 post and didn't deal with the far outside nearly as well as Clyde Van Dusen. Brother Derek was next to last when the race was half over, and after a cross-country route to the wire, he finished in a dead heat for fourth, well behind Barbaro.

Sierra Sunset's owners bought him for $40,000 at the California Thoroughbred Breeders Assn.'s Northern California yearling sale in Pleasanton. Autism Awareness, recent winner of the El Camino Real Derby at Bay Meadows but now on the injured list, was a $1,000 bargain at the same sale. For directions to Pleasanton, see Jeff Bonde. The son of a horseshoer, he was born there.

I talked to Phil Lebherz, one of Sierra Sunset's owners, shortly after he won the California Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita in November. Lebherz told me about the "Bonde Scores," a mathematical evaluation that the trainer uses to help him buy horses. The way I understand it, Bonde X-rays a horse, measures the size of its heart and lungs, and then closely examines the feet and its way of going. Those combined assessments produce a number from 1 to 10. Bonde has never seen a 10, but Spain, who ran for him as a 2-year-old before Wayne Lukas saddled her to win the 2000 Breeders' Cup Distaff, came close.

Sierra Sunset, a son of Bertrando and Toot Sweet, who won only two races, came in at "almost a nine" on the Bonde scale. "He had a tremendous heart, and a great set of lungs," Lebherz said.

Sierra Sunset couldn't keep up with El Gato Malo and Colonel John on the synthetic tracks in California, but at Oaklawn, on dirt, he's put together two solid races. In the Southwest Stakes, he was second to Denis of Cork, who inexplicably skipped the Rebel. Bonde is expected to keep his colt at Oaklawn, for the Arkansas Derby on April 12. Forty-three Cal-breds have run for naught in the Derby since Decidedly won it.

There is speculation that Georgie Boy, the Cal-bred gelding who's won the Del Mar Futurity and most recently the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita, might also turn up in the Arkansas Derby. Racing over nothing but synthetic tracks, Georgie Boy has been awfully consistent, never worse than third in seven tries, and the San Felipe was his first test around two turns. He's trained by Kathy Walsh, whose only previous Derby trip, with the gelding Hanuman Highway in 1998, was preceded by a prep in Arkansas, where her horse, at 27-1, finished second, a head behind Victory Gallop, while outfinishing the previously undefeated Favorite Trick. Hanuman Highway finished seventh in the Derby.

Should Georgie Boy get to Louisville, the 68-year-old Walsh will become the first woman trainer to saddle a horse in the Derby twice. The Derby has had 11 female trainers, their best finish when Shelley Riley's Casual Lies finished second behind Lil E. Tee in 1992.

At Churchill, the media will treat Walsh as rara avis, but she is not likely to hum the second chorus. She was largely puzzled by the extra attention the first time around, as someone who's been chummy with horses for 60 years might be expected to react. She's been a head trainer since 1970, when her father died and she took over the family stable. Well, there were five years away from training when Walsh was married. "I found out I couldn't cook or sew," she said.

Written by Bill Christine

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Monday, March 10, 2008

The 62-to-1 Underlay

LOS ANGELES, March 11, 2008--Not long after the winner of the El Camino Real Derby crossed the finish line, the Bay Meadows tote board blared $126, $46.40 and $17.60. Autism Awareness was underpriced; he should have gone off at a minimum of 100-1.

At any price, this California-bred colt, who cost only $1,000 at auction, has already wrapped up racing's Feel Good Story of the Year Award. Close the ballot box. All other votes are disqualified. Engrave the trophy. Deliver it to Johnny Taboada, the horse's owner, who lives in Pleasanton.

"I've never been more pleased with a horse who's beat me at the race track," Todd Schrup said on TVG.

Accompanying his parents, Johnny and Hedieh Taboada, to the winner's circle was 8-year-old Renzo Taboada, who was diagnosed as autistic when he was two. I had a good idea what autism was, but I still went to the cold, hard words in the dictionary: "A mental condition, usually present from childhood, characterized by complete self-absorption and a reduced ability to respond to or communicate with the outside world." The Autism Society of America says there are 1.5 million people who are afflicted in the U.S.

Renzo Taboada goes to a special school, at second-grade level, in Pleasanton. "He must be tended to every hour of every day," his father said. "All of this (Autism Awareness' improbable win) is too much for him to appreciate, but he likes to be around the horses, and he knows who his favorite horse is."

Autism Awareness is by Tannersmyman, a 10-year-old stallion who has sired less than 40 foals, and out of the Sharp Victor mare Lady Essex. Tannersmyman, who ran only nine times in three years, winning four races, one of them a stake at the Santa Rosa Fair, and Lady Essex were both trained by Bob Hess Sr., whose son saddled Nikki'sgoldensteed, the second-place finisher behind Autism Awareness. Tannersmyman stands at Woodbridge Farm in Oakdale, Calif., for a $2,500 fee. Lady Essex, the dam of Autism Awareness, was retired from the track after she jumped the fence in a grass race at Bay Meadows. She was sold at auction for $3,200, Sue Greene of Woodbridge Farm said, and sent to Korea. I am mentioning all of my sources for this story so that you will know that I am not making any of this up.

Johnny Taboada, who is director of operations for a company in the Silicon Valley, also owns the full sister to Autism Awareness, an unraced 2-year-old filly that he and his wife have named Cure Autism. He paid dearly for that one: $1,200, at the California Thoroughbred Breeders Association's sale in Pleasanton, the same auction that produced Autism Awareness.

Taboada, who races his horses with trainer Genaro Vallejo, who is based at Golden Gate Fields, said that minutes after he bought Autism Awareness, others at the sale, admiring the condition of the yearling, offered him "a couple thousand or so" for the horse.

"I didn't want to turn right around and sell him then, and I don't want to sell him now," Taboada said on Sunday, the day after the El Camino Real. "Horse racing is not about making money."

Autism Awareness was not nominated for the Kentucky Derby. He could have been, for a Triple Crown payment of $600 in January, but at that time Taboada and Vallejo were just trying to figure out a way to get the colt to a winner's circle--any winner's circle. Autism Awareness was 0 for 12, running farther than six furlongs only once. He spread his defeats around--Golden Gate, Bay Meadows and at Pleasanton, Santa Rosa and Fresno on the fair circuit. They even shipped him 400 miles south, to Hollywood Park, but the result didn't change. He ran twice for a $50,000 claiming price, but no one was interested.

He picked up small checks for three second-place finishes and one third. He might have won via a disqualification during the Bay Meadows Fair meet in August, Taboada thought, but after 10 minutes the stewards disallowed the jockey's foul claim.

Then, on Jan. 21 at Golden Gate, he finally picked up his first win. Ridden by Chad Schvaneveldt, he won by four lengths going a mile. Vallejo was shopping for another two-turn race, but nothing came up, so he and Taboada decided to pay $1,500--$500 more than their horse cost--in fees to run in the 1 1/16-mile El Camino Real. The $150,000 race, which has been won by Tank's Prospect, Snow Chief, Tabasco Cat, Cavonnier and Event of the Year, didn't exactly draw a stellar field. There were three local horses, plus six shippers from Southern California, the best of whom was probably Coast Guard, a colt with only a maiden win but who was never worse than second. Autism Awareness dwarfed them in experience--he had run 13 times, and the most any of the others had run was six races.

Schvaneveldt, the sixth jockey to ride Autism Awareness and the only rider to win with him, was offered the mount, but he and his agent chose Pleasure Grounds, a three-time winner under Chad. Pleasure Grounds finished fourth as Luis Contreras, less than a week shy of his 22nd birthday, regained the mount on Autism Awareness. Contreras had ridden the colt twice last year, and was aboard him the morning he worked a half-mile in a swift :46 4/5 six days before the El Camino.

The ante for the Kentucky Derby has gone to $6,000, due by the final Triple Crown deadline of March 29. Entry and starting fees are much steeper. Autism Awareness' share of the Bay Meadows purse was $90,000. "I'm planning on paying (the $6,000)," Johnny Taboada said the day after the race, but two days after that, on March 11, he announced that Autism Awareness had injured his left foreleg, no doubt in the race, and would be sidelined for a few months.

No matter what happens in the hereafter, they won't be able to take away what happened at Bay Meadows for Johnny and Hedieh Taboada and their sons Renzo and Marcel, who's nine. They've unofficially made this Autism Awareness Month. Officially it comes in April.

Written by Bill Christine

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