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, October 04, 2010

The Tales the Secretariat Movie Forgot

LOS ANGELES, October 5, 2010--The best thing in "Secretariat," the new movie from Walt Disney Pictures, is John Malkovich. His wardrobe is out of Spike Jones and his part is supposed to be Lucien Laurin, Secretariat's tight-lipped trainer, but the way the role is written, Malkovich could just as well be Wayne Lukas. He's got a clever answer for everything and he's as droll as someone out of one of Noel Coward's drawing rooms. But while Malkovich is entertaining, what he can't donate to "Secretariat" is authenticity, something the film left in its other pants pocket. When Secretariat swept the Triple Crown in 1973, I was there, and it's impossible to sit through the picture without wondering why the director, Randall Wallace, shot a script that had so many holes and took so many liberties.

Penny Chenery, who raced Secretariat and who is superbly played by Diane Lane, knew going in that this was Hollywood, but even a resigned Chenery had trouble accepting that Riva Ridge didn't exist as far as Disney was concerned. It was Riva Ridge, the year before Secretariat, who won the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont, forging a career that produced more than $1 million in earnings and kept Chenery's family farm in Virginia from turning turtle. But for Riva Ridge's career, Chenery might not have even owned Secretariat by the time he turned three. In fact, Chenery told me that had her father, Christopher Chenery, died in November of 1972 instead of January of 1973, she probably would have been forced to sell Secretariat outright.

That part isn't in William Nack's terrific book, written 35 years ago when the poker was hot, but everything else is, and it would have better served the picture and the screenwriter, Mike Rich, if they had hewed to the source material more closely. The true Secretariat story really doesn't require any embellishment, there were enough bells and whistles to carry two films. But instead, what moviegoers will get are some cartoonish characters such as Nestor Serrano, playing an overheated Pancho Martin, the trainer of Sham, and James Cromwell, unfairly thrust into playing an Ogden Phipps who, embittered that he lost the rights to Secretariat in that famous coin toss, taunts Penny Chenery with second guesses at every turn.

At one point, Phipps makes Chenery a cash offer for Secretariat that would have exceeded the $6-million-plus that his breeding syndication brought. It's Wallace's way of showing that Chenery wouldn't have given up the horse at any price, even though Chenery says now that there was never a firm offer for Secretariat, from Phipps or anybody.

As for Sham, the picture leads you to believe that he won the Wood Memorial, a major prep for the Derby. The actual 1-2-3 in the race was Angle Light-Sham-Secretariat. Angle Light was also trained by Laurin, but owned by a fellow Canadian, Edwin Whittaker. Perhaps Wallace thought that the average moviegoer wouldn't be able to savvy two horses with the same trainer but different ownership, but in the process the film rewrites history by revising the finish of an important race. According to the Nack book, Chenery and Whittaker had nasty words by the time their horses got to Churchill Downs, and that would have made for much better high drama than Ogden Phipps' feeble I-told-you-sos to Chenery throughout the picture.

Margo Martindale has a nice turn as Elizabeth Ham, the long-time secretary of the Chenery farm who is always there when Penny Chenery needs someone to lean on. I also liked Nelsan Ellis as Secretariat's faithful groom, Eddie Sweat, although a rabble-rousing soliloquy by Sweat on the eve of the Derby is over the top and embarrassing. The find of the film is Otto Thorwarth, the journeyman jockey from Arkansas who plays Secretariat's regular rider, Ron Turcotte. Thorwarth, who had never acted, was so good in early scenes that his role was beefed up before the film was finished.

They asked Thorwarth for help along the way, to make sure not too much was out of place, but most of of his advice went unheeded. He pointed out that Secretariat wouldn't be eating oats out of a common water bucket, and that Turcotte wouldn't be carrying his saddle around, and still be wearing racing silks, for hours after the crushing defeat in the Wood. But the filmmakers wanted Turcotte to do something that showed anger, and throwing a saddle carried the day.

At the screening I attended, Wallace said that the film had put together some of the best racing action ever photographed, but I thought most of the race sequences were ordinary, and a throwback to the way the movies treated the sport decades ago. Evangeline Downs and Keeneland as the Triple Crown venues were obvious imposters. The smartest thing Wallace did, for the Preakness, was to just use the actual rerun of the national telecast.

Ignored, along with Riva Ridge and Angle Light, was Penny Chenery's first divorce, from Jack Tweedy. The Tweedys' marriage was crumbling at the time of the Triple Crown, and would not survive the year after Secretariat's sweep. Marital discord? Divorce? In a Disney film? Only when pigs fly.

Written by Bill Christine

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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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Monday, August 30, 2010

Racing’s Savior (Age 11)

DEL MAR, Calif., August 31, 2010--On Pacific Classic day, my wife Pat and I sat in the Del Mar clubhouse next to a young girl and her grandparents. Pat said she was about 12, I said 10, so let's make her 11. Like the intrepid reporter I am, I never got her name, so let's call her Kelly. Had she been around 20 or more years ago, racing should have bottled her, and anyone like her, and saved them for the many rainy days ahead. The train has all but left the station for this once grand old game, but it is still a delight, watching someone getting awestruck by these wonderful animals while learning the sport at the knee of her elders.

"Kelly" has been a quick learner, believe me. Many girls her age see horses as pets, faithful riding companions, but Kelly's interest went beyond that. She had neatly folded her track program inside a smart blue wallet, and brought a large paper clip to mark her place as Del Mar's card moved along. As the numbers of the first four finishers went up on the tote board, and the payoffs were posted, she dutifully recorded them in her program. She looked like the kind of girl who would have brought a backup pen, had the first one gone dry.

Listening to the conversation out of one ear, I gathered that Kelly's grandparents were circumventing the minimum-age betting rules by agreeing to place two bets throughout the day on her behalf. I would like to think that Kelly's betting money came from lemonade sales, but only Norman Rockwell could play Norman Rockwell. "She's the only one winning," the grandmother said halfway through the card, and when she added that Kelly was $18 ahead, the girl nodded and beamed.

Kelly's other bet was going to be on the Pacific Classic. She volunteered that Temple City, trained by Carla Gaines, was her horse. Because the horse had a win over the track? No, that wasn't it. "A woman has never won the Pacific Classic before," Kelly said. "I think she's going to win today."

I told Kelly that that was only half-right. A female jockey, Julie Krone, rode the winner of the Pacific Classic (Candy Ride, 2003). "Oh," Kelly said. I just know she had committed that to memory as well.

Well, Temple City didn't win, and sweet young Kelly didn't win all of her bets. But by my calculations, she took home more money than what she started with. Her grandparents will be back, and so will she, which is the tonic that racing has so little of. When Alan Balch was the marketing genius at Santa Anita, a long time ago, he grouped fans into three categories: new, occasional and regular. "Our job," Balch said, "is to keep the regulars coming back for more, and upgrade the other two groups over time. Make the new fans into occasional, and the occasional into regular."

It wasn't calculus, but not many tracks gave ear to what Balch said then, and fewer do now. The first personnel cuts sometimes include the marketing department; when Kenny Noe ran Belmont Park, Saratoga and Aqueduct, he said: "Marketing is what my wife does when she goes shopping." Today's tracks are too busy scrambling just to find horses to fill tomorrow's race card. Balch looked to the Los Angeles Dodgers for some of his inspiration, and while baseball and racing are poles apart, there are analogies that can't be ignored. Baseball, like the horses, is played almost every day, and a typical game takes a long time to complete. For starters, the Dodgers aren't a bad model to build on. They draw three million people, more or less, just by opening the gates, but they still prowl the landscape for fresh bodies to put in the seats.

On a number of levels, racing still doesn't get it. The product still costs too much, from the takeout to the concession stands and all points in between. Twenty dollars for valet parking. At Del Mar, directly behind our section, was a popcorn stand, and Kelly's grandparents would have had to pay $3.50 for a cup of popcorn. If you sneezed with it in your hand, it would be all gone. Rita Rudner, the standup, once complained about movie-house concession prices, but she could just as well have been talking about the race track. "You could buy a silo of popcorn for what they charge at the movies," Rudner said. At Del Mar, a silo of popcorn would send Bill Gates to the poorhouse.

After Richard's Kid won the Pacific Classic for the second straight year, we said goodbye to Kelly and her grandparents, and walked out of Del Mar having been humbled at the windows once again. We took the shibboleth, "You can beat a race, but you can't beat the races," to the nth degree. A second box of popcorn would have left us destitute.

Written by Bill Christine

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