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 03, 2008

Cushion Track Revisited

ARCADIA, Calif., March 4, 2008--Ron Charles is probably glad that Feb. 29 only comes once every four years. This Feb. 29, Charles was caught in a snowstorm, trying to make a flight at the Toronto airport. This on a day when Canada-based Magna Entertainment, of which he is chief operating officer, announced a loss of $113 million in 2007, bringing its long-term debt to $879 million, and resulting in a teleconference peopled by stock analysts who did their best imitation of piranha. "No disrespect to Ron Charles," one of them said, "but just because he likes horses--I like horses, too, and that doesn't mean that my son or I could run the company any better than the company has been run in the last five or six years."

In the middle of the snowstorm, I reached Charles on his cell phone with a question or two about Steve Guise. "Let's talk about this tomorrow," Charles said politely, referring to Santa Anita Handicap day. Timing has never been my middle name. Once, after a baseball game in which the pitcher Ken Brett argued on the mound about being lifted, threw his glove at his manager when he was lifted, and then continued his blowup an hour after the game was over, I approached his locker with a question or two. I might as well have been a leper. "I need you like I need the effing clap," Brett barked. I assumed that the interview was over.

Guise was the plant manager of Santa Anita who was fired last summer by Charles, in the middle of the track's conversion to, if you'll pardon the expression, Cushion Track. For a freelance piece, I had interviewed Guise not long before he was cashiered. He was gone before the article was published, and I always wondered what his connection to the Cushion Track debacle was. Recently, I began calling Guise, and on the third try he called me back. On Feb. 29, as it turned out.

Guise was an exponent of Pro-Ride, the Australian artificial-surface company that made it to the finals at Santa Anita, only to lose out to Cushion Track, the English firm. Charles made the final decision. When Cushion Track, which cost in the vicinity of $10 million, wouldn't drain well enough for racing or training this winter at Santa Anita, forcing the track to cancel 11 cards, Charles called in Ian Pearse of Pro-Ride to fix the mess. Paul Harper of Cushion Track, according to Charles, bailed out without so much as a fare thee well, and for all anybody knows will never be heard from again. Charles said that Santa Anita's contract with Cushion Track included a warranty that said that if the track was "unusable, Cushion Track would take it out and refund the money."

"You couldn't blame Ron for picking Cushion Track, because it had been put in at Hollywood Park, and it was working over there," Guise said. "But I knew there were going to be problems. I'm not saying that it would have worked out any better if I had stayed on. I'm sad but not surprised at how everything turned out."

Charles is weary of talking about Santa Anita's surface problems, particularly since Santa Anita hasn't lost a racing day since Feb. 8, and he said that he didn't want to get into a spitting contest with Guise, who said they had differences and that he was "terminated without cause." Guise worked for Santa Anita for four years the first time around, and this stint lasted three years. His final undoing might have been taking a two-week vacation after the Cushion Track project was under way. Guise said that he was fired the day after he came back.

"We traveled all over the world looking at tracks, having our jockeys ride over Pro-Ride in Australia, before we settled on the one we had," Charles said. "How could you foresee that there was going to be manufacturer error? What Cushion track gave us wasn't the same thing that was over at Hollywood Park."

Guise said that he had bad vibes about Cushion Track at least a year before it came in to re-do the track.

"We took some of their wax and put it in a Dixie cup and set it on the rail of the track," he said. "Before long, it melted right through the cup and started dripping on to the ground. I don't think (Harper) ever understood the part about the wax melting. Then when it did melt, the drainage problem followed."

There was a difference between the sand used at Hollywood Park and Santa Anita. Hollywood Park's sand came from England; Harper bought the Santa Anita sand in the U.S.

"We didn't claim to know what Harper was doing," Charles said. "Our job was just to give him as much support as we could. We gave him carte blanche, and we would have done the same thing had the job gone to Pro-Ride."

Guise felt that the inexperience of Santa Anita's work crew undermined the project.

"They were dirt guys, used to dirt tracks, and they had formed a lot of bad habits," he said. "These tracks can't stand up to much harrowing, because that pulls the wax out. With these new tracks, it would be better if you got people who hadn't worked on a track before. You know why turf tracks, starting in the early 1990s, started getting better and better in the U.S.? It was because the tracks began bringing in guys who were experts with grass courses."

Charles' Feb. 29th losing streak--Magna's 2007 figures, the teleconference with the vultures from Wall Street, the snow in Toronto and my call about Guise--looked like it was going to continue on Santa Anita Handicap day. He made his flight out of Canada, but early Saturday morning, as he drove to the track, a light rain was falling. There was an intermittent mist throughout the day, and it was bone cold, but a crowd of 41,377 showed up.

"I think that will be one of the top-10 biggest crowds in the country this year," Charles said. "(On Sunday morning) at Clockers' Corner, many, many trainers were coming up to me and thanking us for what we've done. I'm hearing that we have the best synthetic surface in California."

The horses are running over a hybrid, what Cushion Track left behind and what the track doctor, Pro-Ride's Pearse, has prescribed. That Pearse is working with polymers instead of wax is more than you really want to know. Charles is not tipping his mitt on what steps must be taken before the Breeders' Cup is run at Santa Anita in October. He may not even know himself.

"The worst synthetic surface is better than the best dirt track," said Guise, who's now vice president of operations for a landscaping concern in Anaheim. "Synthetic tracks are the best thing that ever happened to racing. They give the tracks a chance to be consistent. But there's still no cookbook of directions if things go wrong."

There are still some trainers at Santa Anita who are unhappy. Bob Baffert seems to be the poster boy for this group. A small-time conditioner came up to me on Big 'Cap day. "I've got just a few horses, and there's something wrong with all of them," the trainer said. "But what are you going to do? It's like going to a bad movie and being unable to leave."

Written by Bill Christine

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Monday, February 25, 2008

Viva de Milo

ARCADIA, Calif., Feb. 26, 2008--A couple of family members gently lifted Ismael "Milo" Valenzuela out of his wheelchair, and helped him stand in front of a large, freshly poured mold of concrete. This was on a patio, in front of a swimming pool, at the rear of the home where Valenzuela has lived for a long time, since he was booting home winners at Santa Anita, only a few miles away.

The idea was for the 73-year-old Valenzuela to plant his handprints in the concrete, and sign the mold, which would be shipped to Louisville and added to the "Gallop To Glory" exhibit of Kentucky Derby-winning jockeys in front of the Galt House Hotel. I wouldn't want to be on the hook for that Fed Ex bill. About half of the 30 living riders have gone to Kentucky to leave their handprints, but Valenzuela, who was invited this year, is a diabetic who is too weak to make the trip. So the mold came to Mohammed.

There was another fresh mold nearby, in case Valenzuela messed up the first one, but he did just fine. He firmly planted both hands, then paused before he wrote his name. "How should I write it?" he said. "Any way you want," someone said. Methodically, Venezuela printed "Ismail Valenzuela," and then he sat back down in his chair, pleased with himself.

Horsemen, including a few who had come to his home for the informal ceremony, know him only as "Milo." On hand were trainers Mel Stute and Henry Moreno, old friends from the backstretch; Laffit Pincay, who rode against Valenzuela; Darrell Haire, a former jockey who's now an official with the Jockeys' Guild; and Vince DeGregory, a jockey agent who has been a longtime friend of Valenzuela's, although he never had Milo's book.

Valenzuela rode the great Kelso 35 times, winning 22 races, during three Horse of the Year campaigns in the early 1960s. Together, they won some of racing's most renowned stakes, but the one that DeGregory remembered was the relatively innocuous Seminole Handicap at Hialeah in 1963. I know this is the Internet, but to protect the unwashed, I'll not deliver the unvarnished version of DeGregory's story here.

Valenzuela had a fun-loving reputation. He and Bacchus would have been peas in a pod. "My job," DeGregory said, "was to make sure Milo got to bed at a decent hour the night before the race. We had dinner, and around 10 o'clock I escorted Milo to his hotel room and said good night. The next day, I found out that Milo had left the room and made a couple of friends. He didn't sleep at all, he partied the night away. But he still won the race, and Kelso won it easy."

The day after the concrete impressions in Arcadia, I started to tell the story on the phone to Joe Hirsch, the retired Daily Racing Form columnist. "Don't bother, I already know that story, because I was there," Hirsch said. "Milo ran into three (friends), not two. I was supposed to get up at 5 a.m., to go to the airport and pick up (Bill) Shoemaker, who was taking the red-eye from California to ride in the race. At 3 o'clock, the phone rings and it's Milo, asking me to come over to his room and join the party."

"Milo, I gotta get up in a couple of hours to get Shoe," Hirsch told Valenzuela.

"Then who should I call?" Valenzuela asked.

"It's 3 o'clock, Milo." Hirsch said. "Nobody."

It's too bad Valenzuela isn't up for the trip to Louisville in May, because this is the 50th anniversary of his first Kentucky Derby win, with Tim Tam. Bill Hartack, who won the Flamingo (after the disqualification of Jewel's Reward) and the Florida Derby with the Calumet Farm colt, broke his leg in a starting-gate accident, and trainer Jimmy Jones drafted Valenzuela to ride in the Derby Trial, which was run only four days before the Derby. Tim Tam won the Trial, then won the Derby by a half-length over Lincoln Road, who was 46-1. Eddie Arcaro, who finished fourth in the Derby with Jewel's Reward, shook Valenzuela's hand in the jockeys' room and said: "Boy, the price of tamales is really going up now."

Valenzuela, who was riding in his first Derby, collected $11,640, his 10 per cent share of the winning purse. Asked how he'd spend the money, he said:

"Maybe buy some more cows." He once owned a farm in Colorado.

Tim Tim also won the Preakness, but in the Belmont, with the chance to become the first Triple Crown champion since Citation a decade before, the colt went lame and finished second to Cavan.

"With a quarter-mile to go," Valenzuela said, "he started to veer out, and then he flattened out completely."

Four years later, in 1962, Valenzuela's Derby mount was supposed to be Sir Gaylord, the 8-5 morning-line favorite, but the colt fractured a sesamoid the day before the race. Decidedly won and Ridan finished third. Sir Gaylord had trounced both of them at Hialeah, while winning the Everglades Stakes by almost five lengths.

By 1968, the Derby gods were of a mind to smile on Valenzuela again. Dancer's Image won the race, beating Valenzuela's mount, Forward Pass, by 1 1/2 lengths. But Dancer's Image was disqualified after he tested positive for phenylbutazone, the anti-inflammatory that was then illegal in Kentucky. While the appeal by Peter Fuller, the owner of Dancer's Image, snaked its way through the courts, Valenzuela suggested to Bobby Ussery, Dancer's Image's jockey, that they "save"--split the winner's commission ($16,510) no matter what the legal outcome was.

"Why would I want to do that?" the cocky Ussery said. "I'm going to get it all when we win our appeal."

Confirming the story, Valenzuela said: "Ussery wound up with nothing."

Pincay tells the story about the day he, Valenzuela, Hartack and jockey Jerry Lambert hired a fishing boat. They caught nothing, and toward the end of the day, as they neared shore they spotted a bird on a rock.

"There was a rifle on the boat, and Milo bet Hartack $1,000 that he could shoot the bird, who seemed like he was 150 yards away," Pincay said. "The boat was rocking pretty good, but Milo took that rifle and hit the bird on the first shot. I think he got that bird right between the eyes."

Valenzuela, who retired in 1980, has been on the ballot for the Racing Hall of Fame many times, but he's always fallen short. His last shot came in 2005, and now he's in the hands of the Hall of Fame's Historic Review Committee. He won 2,545 races, an insignificant number by current standards, but he rode mostly in an era when eight-race cards were the norm, and there was no year-round racing. Jack Westrope, a contemporary, won 2,467 races and was enshrined in 2002.

A Hall of Fame plaque would complement Valenzuela's bulging trophy room, which includes one of his saddles, a pair of goggles, laminated newspaper headlines, and a large portrait of him and his wife Rosa, who died in 1998. On one shelf, I spotted a trophy that didn't appear to be racing-related. I had to squint to read the plate. "Twist Champion," it said, "Jockeys' Guild Dinner-Dance, 1962."

Written by Bill Christine

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Monday, February 18, 2008

Let’s Go to the Movies

Los Angeles, Feb. 19, 2008--With the Academy Awards due to be announced on Feb. 24, it's the right time to list the top 10 horse-racing movies of all-time. The envelopes, please:

10. "A Day at the Races," 1937. At the end of this typically zany Marx Brothers vehicle, there's a steeplechase race that had to be shot twice. Both times, Chico Marx, who would bet on the first fly to leave the window, bet against a crew member on a horse that wasn't scripted to win. Losing both bets, Chico said: "How could I pass up 20-to-1?" In the movie, Groucho is supposed to head up a sanatorium, but eventually, in proposing to his perennial quarry, Margaret Dumont, he says: "Emily, I have a confession to make. I really am a horse doctor, but if you marry me, I'll never look at another horse." At the track, Chico says to Groucho, "Hey, boss! C'mere! Sun-Up is the worst horse on the track." Groucho says, "I notice he wins all the time." Chico says, "Aw, just because he comes in first." Groucho says, "Well, I don't want 'em any better than first." This is hardly a racetrack movie, in the true sense, but it's difficult finding many good films that hold to the genre. "A Day at the Races" is more of an excuse for the brothers to wisecrack away for a couple of hours, and I just couldn't leave it off.

9. "Casey's Shadow," 1978. Since this film, starring Walter Matthau as a crusty quarter-horse trainer, was drawn from the life of Randy Romero, I once asked Randy about the picture. "The only thing my mother wanted to know," Romero said, "was whether that bathtub scene was really true. There was a scene where the trainer and his sons had filled up the bathtub with all their dirty dishes. I had to tell mom that it was." There's the obligatory winning race at the end, but along the way, director Martin Ritt, who was an inveterate horseplayer, gets so close to the game that you can almost smell the backstretch. One day at Hollywood Park, an acquaintance asked Matthau for a tip on a race. "I'm not the one," Matthau said. "Go see Marty Ritt if you want a winner."

8. "The Black Stallion," 1979. Mickey Rooney, who appears on this list twice, was nominated for a supporting-actor Oscar for his portrayal of a once-successful trainer who's run into hard times. The action sequences are stunning and the photography is lush and sweeping. They finally got around to filming the novel that Walt Farley wrote in 1941. Kelly Reno, an unknown playing the boy who falls in love with the horse, was 12 years old when shooting began. A lasting career in pictures eluded Reno, who became a driver of 18-wheelers. The movie triggered a sequel, a prequel and a TV series. One day at Aqueduct years ago, I shared a table with Rooney and a few others. "Between all my marriages and the horses, I've lost millions of dollars over the years," he said. "But I've got a great marriage now, and I've got the horses under control." Standing behind Rooney in a mutuel line a little later, I saw him make an $800 win bet.

7. "National Velvet," 1945. Rooney again, philosophizing as he tries to pull off the impossible, winning the Grand National steeplechase for Elizabeth Taylor's "Pie," whom she won in a lottery. Director Clarence Brown telegraphs the ending about two reels ahead of time, and many of the lines are as high as an elephant's eye, but it's a heartwarming family picture and a teenaged Elizabeth Taylor, in her fifth film, gives a preview of coming attainments. To think that MGM considered Katharine Hepburn and Gene Tierney prior to hiring Taylor. Anne Revere, who played Taylor's mother, won an Oscar for supporting actress. Pie was played by a horse named King Charles, a grandson of Man o'War.

6. "Bite the Bullet," 1975. This is Gene Hackman (after Charles Bronson turned down the part), James Coburn, Candace Bergen and others in a 700-mile endurance horse race in the late 1890s. No exacta betting. The dialogue is snap, crackle and pop, the action is in your face, the location photography is incredible, and at the end the horses are to be more admired than the actors. There were races like this in this era, with no Humane Society to get in the way. Released the same day as "Jaws," the picture had no box-office steam, but has become an oxymoron, a minor epic. In a lifetime of stellar roles, Hackman has never been better.

5. "Premieres Armes," 1950. Every list deserves a sleeper. Also known as "First Weapons," the English translation, and "Winner's Circle," this is a dour French story about a 14-year-old boy who is sent by his father from Paris to Bordeaux to learn to become a jockey. The boy matures rapidly in the face of persecutions and abuse from the stable's trainer and his rival jockeys. The film pulls no punches in portraying his hard-knock existence. Rene Wheeler both wrote and directed.

4. "Seabiscuit," 2003. Full disclosure: My wife Pat and I were non-speaking extras on this film. We were part of a crowd of a few hundred that was made to look like tens of thousands on the day Seabiscuit finally won the Santa Anita Handicap. Those long shots make anything possible. Hollywood did well by Laura Hillenbrand's best-seller, and director Gary Ross got a best-picture nomination out of it. I'm not a Tobey Maguire fan, but Jeff Bridges, Chris Cooper and Gary Stevens were fine in their roles, and William H. Macy, with just a few pages to work with, stole the show as the motor-mouthed sportscaster who lightened the load of the Depression-era saga.

3. "The Killing," 1956. This was a taut telling of a heist that just happened to take place at a racetrack (Bay Meadows, in fact, after several East Coast tracks got wet feet). Sterling Hayden, the leader of the larcenous gang, worked for $40,000, and Stanley Kubrick, looking for a break-out picture, worked for nothing and shot the whole thing in 24 days. Hayden is surrounded by a who's who of character actors, including Elisha Cook Jr., who's as wide-eyed as ever. I don't know why, but Cook, a registered tippler, showed up unannounced in the winner's circle at Santa Anita one day, dressed like he was going to sea. I'm not going to spoil Kubrick's O. Henry ending, but the caveat about airplane travel still applied then: Don't overpack.

2. "Champions," 1984. This British entry would be labeled far-fetched if the story of jockey Bob Champion and his oft-injured veteran jumper, Aldaniti, weren't true. So the filmmakers were able to lather on the heartaches without being mawkish. Champion was a recovering cancer victim who rode Aldaniti to victory in the 1981 Grand National, England's 4 1/2-mile hurdling marathon. In perfect casting, John Hurt played Champion and Aldaniti, who was 11 when he won the race, played himself.

1. "Phar Lap," 1983. When I last ranked racing films, in 1989, this picture was at the head of the class, and it still is. Other than "Seabiscuit," racing films in almost two decades have failed to crash the old list. Meantime, good boxing and baseball movies have come at us at an assembly-line clip. A hint to moviemakers contemplating horse pictures: You don't have to make anything up. The Damon Runyon denizens of the racing world have had their day. "Phar Lap," "Champions" and "Seabiscuit" were good enough real stories that they didn't need embellishment. The Australian director Simon Wincer took the life of a sensational New Zealand-bred and just followed it to its bittersweet conclusion, a win in a $100,000 race at Agua Caliente and a mysterious death in Northern California. Wincer dug deep to make sure that the warts on Phar Lap's trainer (played by Martin Vaughan) showed, and American actor Ron Leibman, in the part of the owner, came off as a mercenary. Of all those around Phar Lap, only the horse's groom (Tommy Woodcock, played by Tom Burlinson) emerged unscathed.

I was tempted to end this with a list of racing's worst all-time movies, but since this is not National Cruelty Month, I'll pass. Films like "Thoroughbreds Don't Cry" will be spared, for now.

Written by Bill Christine

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