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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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Tuesday, December 21, 2010


Thar She Blows!  Santa Anita!


LOS ANGELES, December 21, 2010--The late Jim Murray, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Los Angeles Times, used to root for the worst weather on New Year's Day, when they would play the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. Murray was well beyond a rain dance, he did a flood dance for New Year's. "I don't want all those Easterners coming out here," he would say. "And if they see on TV that the Rose Bowl is being played in 80-degree sunshine in January, they'll come. Our freeways are crowded enough."

Most of the time, Murray never got his wish. The Rose Bowl would be played in brilliant weather and snowbirds from all of North America would order moving vans. It's the same way with Santa Anita, with its traditional season opener, the day after Christmas. The weather gods might frown for a week, but on opening day at Santa Anita, you can bring the suntan lotion and the beach umbrellas. This year appears to be no different. There's been so much rain in these parts lately that there was a wild story about Richard Tedesco, the track superintendent, going into the hospital to have his barnacles removed.


Santa Anita's traditional winter dates jibe with the rainy season in California. In 1998, 38 days, almost half the meet, were conducted over an oval that looked like a hot-fudge sundae, and played just as sticky. That's the record for number of mud days at the track. Of course, in recent years, at considerable cost, Santa Anita installed a synthetic track, to go along with the California Horse Racing Board edict that dirt was a dirty word. The artificial surface, made out of things left over from your attic, the trainer Nick Zito once said, went through much tinkering, and still wasn't the ticket. Last year, while there were only five days of off-track racing, Santa Anita had to cancel five days because the track didn't drain properly. Now dirt is in vogue again. The racing board recanted, and Santa Anita has the distinction of becoming the first California track to leave the synthetics behind.

Even though opening day is several days away, it's a likelihood that the first races over the new dirt at Santa Anita will be in the mud. The track got six inches of rain in a 72-hour period recently, and more storms were in the forecast. Hollywood Park was unable to run a full card of races on its final day due to the deluge. But for three days prior to opening day, the forecast called for partly cloudy skies, with no rain. But some weather forecasters I know are a cut below some handicappers; only right about a third of the time.

In honor of flagging business, Santa Anita will raise its prices, something that they couldn't have learned in Business 101. I'm not talking about hotdogs and beer (although they may cost more as well), I'm talking about the tax bite the horseplayer will feel on his bets. With the racing board's approval, because low purses have been driving owners and their horses out of state, takeout for exactas and daily doubles will be almost 23%, and the off-the-top charge for other exotic bets will be close to 24%. In the lending business, rates like that used to be called usury, but not anymore, and Santa Anita must figure that what's good for the credit-card industry is good for its fans. Members of the Horseplayers Association of America are in a tizzy, and there has been widespread talk of a betting boycott, but as the pundit Bill Finley wrote, "Most people who bet the races pay no attention to takeout, which is what the (racing board) is banking on." What 23% means in simplest terms is that when you bet a dollar, you're really only getting a 77-cent bang for your buck. I'm not an economist, and every time I tried to study the subject in college I went to sleep, but I believe that this means in theory that horseplayers go broke faster. Let's hear it for the racing board, if that was their goal.

Steve Davidowitz, another pundit (the woods is full of them), favors an eventual boycott, but he says that Santa Anita should be allowed to get off the ground first. "If clearer heads were to prevail," Davidowitz wrote, "a betting boycott actually would make sense if it were to be initiated a month or so after Santa Anita wagering trends are set in place." It would be then, Davidowitz went on, that "solid points (by the horseplayers) actually might be made--not only on behalf of racing fans in southern California, but for beleaguered bettors throughout America."

Bruno DeJulio, a respected clocker and handicapper, questions whether a boycott will even fly. "Dirt is in," he says, "the track is doing massive marketing on the return to dirt, and do y'll think this is going to deter the player from sending (money) in with both hands on opening day? Some players won't even know of the takeout hike, or won't care. It's Santa Anita, the Great Race Place. That's all they hear, calendar, Santa Anita. This boycott is a delusional cause. It won't happen."

The wall calendar has been an opening-day Santa Anita giveaway since the flood (a timely reference). The 2011 edition may be especially treasured--it features 12 movies that have been shot at Santa Anita. Most everybody knows that "Seabiscut" was filmed there, as well as its unfortunate prequel, but how about "Charlie Chan at the Race Track" and "Goin' to Town," a 1935 Mae West vehicle. Sometimes, even though the locale is Santa Anita, the track might be identified as a track somewhere else. Santa Anita has been a stand-in, for example, for Hialeah, a mythical track in Buenos Aires and Cahokia Downs. OK, so I'm kidding about Cahokia Downs. No track is that good of an actor.

Written by Bill Christine

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