Commentary


Stan Bergstein’s Daily Racing Form columns

With permission of Daily Racing Form, Stan Bergstein’s bi-weekly columns for that publication will appear here every other week.

 

Racing needs to find a way back to the front page

I was thinking of Kent Hollingsworth, one of the most thoughtful – and thought-provoking – turf writers ever, over the weekend. I think of him often, as a contemporary and close friend, although he left us 12 years ago at the age of 70. For sheer racing entertainment, his “Archjockey of Canterbury,” published in the mid-1980s, still ranks high, and his “What’s Going on Here?” column in Blood-Horse in the 1970s and 1980s was a weekly magnet for Thoroughbred racing fans.

One of Hollingsworth’s ardent admirers and disciples was Barry Irwin, whose Animal Kingdom slipped from Triple Crown eligibility at Pimlico on Saturday as he came from right field but could not catch the pacesetting Shackleford. He will, as he did in the Kentucky Derby, in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.

Hollingsworth’s question – What’s going on here? – came to mind as I looked for the Preakness coverage in the sports section of The New York Times over the weekend.

At the top of the page in my edition was a line reading “Shackleford Holds On,” with a subhead reading “Animal Kingdom’s late charge falls short in Preakness, Page 3.” There was a small head-on picture of the finish.

The rest of the first page of the sports section, on the day after the second jewel of Thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown, was a huge fawning feature called “Boy Genius,” which turned out to be about Lionel Messi, who was a boy a few years ago – he is now 23 – and is a hero in European soccer, where he plays for Barcelona in Spain. That coverage was followed by two full center section pages, with nine color photos, seven smaller color shots, and 17 color diagrams of the Boy Genius’ doings as soccer’s current Pele. A superstar.

As a long-suffering racing reader of the Times sports section, I could not recall any previous subject receiving basically three full pages, but the Times seems to be pushing soccer hard these days.

I found the Preakness story, as promised, on page 3, with another large full-page-width head-on shot of the finish, and two features, one a sidebar story on Pimlico’s new mythical promotional boozing figure Kegasus, and the other a nice feature on Kevin Plank, owner and renovator of Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s legendary Sagamore Farm.

Not bad, but it was strange relative coverage and placement of an American horse racing classic and a young European soccer hero. It recalled Hollingsworth’s resounding and repeated question.

Newspaper coverage of racing, other than the classic events, has eroded precipitously in the last two or three decades, and it should be a paramount expenditure of all racing interests to try to restore it with sports editors brought up on television.

That brings us to Irwin.

He was criticized in various racing circles for washing the industry’s dirty clothes in public, in the glare of national television, swept away in the exuberant belief that it was one of the few chances – perhaps the only one he will ever get – to help get the laundry clean before a nationwide audience.

I have long admired his consistent stand on integrity, from the days he absorbed Hollingsworth’s philosophy as one of his mentored young men. Part of that belief was a strong awareness of the dangers of illegal medication, a major contributor to the lack of public confidence in racing today.

Irwin is not the only one being lied to by trainers as he complained impulsively as an owner from the lofty platform provided by NBC, so are countless other owners, the sport, and the betting public, by the very small crew of cheating chemists who are cashing in big time on secrets locked in their tack trunks or their refrigerators, or in a few cases the back ends of the mobile caches of careless but noncaring vets.

Publicizing the minuscule number of positive tests, as racing organizations love to do, is indicative of nothing. If you can’t detect and identify the designer drugs some of these guys are using, of course there won’t be meaningful positives. That should be the thrust of racing’s effort to regain support, financial and moral, from the general public and great majority of honest horsemen and the owners of the horses they train, ride, and drive. Draconian rules on suspension and exclusion should be the start, and some glimmering beginnings are encouraging.

After two jewels of the Triple Crown, a word on NBC’s television coverage, seemingly based on that network’s belief that the more background noise the better. They also should catch up with available video technology – in current use at a number of tracks – that lets the viewing public in on what’s happening. Racing is a visual event, not an auditory one. NBC’s producers continue to utilize a paint-by-the-numbers approach, filling in the blanks from one year to the next. They should try for a little innovation. We’ve seen enough of the “walk over” with the same trite questions, and the vacuous Bob Neumeier-Mike Battaglia chats. They have a real talent in Gary Stevens, and it is wasted watching him responding briefly to Tom Hammond’s pleasant observations, rather than playing a starring role.

New books offer vivid tales of different types of horsepower

Gentlemen, start your coffins.

That perfect line came originally from the late, great Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray, but was so appropriate that Charlie Leerhsen, the latter-day Murray and former executive editor of Sports Illustrated, borrowed it with attribution to start his exceptional new book, “Blood and Smoke.”

The book is the story of the Indianapolis 500 auto race, which celebrates its 100th anniversary this month.

Leerhsen left Sports Illustrated a few years ago to stretch his impressive literary wings and first turned out last year, for Simon & Schuster, “Crazy Good: The True Story of Dan Patch, the Most Famous Horse in America.”

There are few horses in his new book – one mention is a quote from the American Horse Breeder of June 1902, where it cautioned, “Now that automobiles are becoming so plentiful and are speeded so recklessly, breeders should use greater care than ever to mate their mares with good, sensible, brainy stallions such as to get level-headed, fearless animals.”

Leerhsen concentrates not on improvement of the horse breed, but on the birth and factual history of the early men who drove horses off the road: the sturdy, steely daredevils who challenged death – often unsuccessfully – chasing speed in the early Chevrolets and Buicks and Benzes and Duesenbergs that evolved into the coveted cars of today.

The book is a gruesome history that its title describes accurately, with seven dead in the wake of that first 500 a century ago.

Leerhsen writes with gliding grace of the dashing womanizers who drove those early racers, but he also tells in brutal candor the fascinating story of Carl Fisher, who was mainly responsible for the great race, just as Matt Winn was for the Kentucky Derby.

Fisher started as a bicycle racer and mechanic, then a dealer, switched to cars in 1898, and left a trail of crashed ventures and crushed women along the way. He charmed the ladies and cheated on them all his life and paid for his sins with repeated failures that left him an impoverished and pitiful figure at the end in 1928.

One episode told of a New York Ziegfeld Follies girl who answered a note left for her to visit Fisher in the old Edison hotel, apparently fell in love with him, and was jolted and jilted when, as she prepared to marry him, he married a 15-year-old local beauty in Indianapolis and took off with her on a West Coast honeymoon and business trip. His tenderness, Leerhsen writes, was demonstrated by his vows, “Honey, I love you more than two skunks.”

Like most of Fisher’s ventures – the Indianapolis 500 being a notable exception – other tries at balloon and motorcycle racing and a shot at developing Miami Beach and the Lincoln Highway joined that fling at marriage among the dismal failures and turned out with woeful results. But along the way, Leerhsen tells Fisher’s story with incredible truth and incisive humor and detailed structure from more than two years of dusty research in libraries across the land.

In case his book does not convey all there is to tell about the Indy 500, he offers an exhaustive bibliography that lists what certainly must contain every book, pamphlet, and magazine and newspaper story every written on the great race.

Another author who has written much about horse racing – Albany, N.Y., scribe Bill Heller – has turned out “Above It All,” his 26tth book, this one about jockey Jose Santos.

Written with research by his 22-year-old son, Benjamin, who was a frightening bright racing encyclopedia as early as 8 or 9, Heller does not spare his Hall of Fame subject.

He tells – or retells Santos’s own recollections – of Santos’s early youth cavorting with prostitutes in his uncle’s bordellos in Colombia, of his battles with cocaine and crack, and of his successful transformation as a top jockey when he came to the United States, lured by Maria Casteneda, a friend from Colombia and a sister of jockeys who had moved to south Florida and worked for the racing commission. They were married, and ultimately separated, but it was her guidance and counsel that brought him here and enabled him to demonstrate his greatness as a rider. Her help and that of trainers Angel Salina, a fellow Chilean, and Phil “P.G.” Simms, helped get him started.

From there, Heller and son take you on a journey that seemingly tells of every horse and ride Santos ever made and does list in chart all of his stakes victories.

It’s a success story, from sordid beginning to satisfying end, and paints a picture of a colorful warrior of the turf, from the lows of Colombia to the heights of a controversial Kentucky Derby victory and the Hall of Fame.

Mutuel clerks creating high drama at Meadowlands

“All My Children” and “One Life to Live” are not the only soap operas nearing the end of their long runs.

The one in New Jersey, where real lives are being tangled, real livelihoods threatened, and a real disaster is lying ahead for an entire industry, also is close to the end of its line.

May 12 is the cutoff date for this one, and the selfish stalemate creating it, in which 240 or so mutuel clerks and their colleagues are imperiling the welfare of thousands, continues.

The daily unraveling of the battle between Local 137 of the clerks and admission workers at the Meadowlands and real-estate titan Jeff Gural, who wants to take over the track and rebuild it, is not television fluff or fantasy.

It is harsh and tough and rough.

A look into the psyche of this tragedy – and it is just that – was revealed a few days ago in an industry newsletter run by freelance writer Bill Finley, whose work appears regularly at ESPN and on racing issues in the New York Times, and his co-publisher Mike Farrell.

Finley interviewed a veteran mutuel clerk facing, like his colleagues, a 20 percent pay cut or loss of his job. The pay cut is, Gural says, an ironclad go-or-no-go condition of his offer to save the track, for 35 years the flagship of world harness racing. The mutuel clerks refused overwhelmingly to vote on the issue, and six of seven members of their negotiating committee boycotted a meeting arranged by interested parties in the dispute.

Finley’s clerk interviewee is torn, as he says his colleagues are, by the choice facing them, and he said, “Put a gun to my head right now, and I couldn’t tell you how this is going to go. I think it is a 50-50 split. The vote [against voting on Gural’s offer] was like 114-12 the first time. I think a lot of people have changed their minds since then, but probably not enough to pass this. Personally, I think we should let the guy take over and see what happens. That’s the sentiment among a lot of tellers . . . You still have a lot of people to sell on this. They’d rather take their unemployment and go off into the sunset.”

The long interview continued, with the clerk explaining he had a family to support. Nowhere in his lengthy narrative did he mention the thousands of others, not union members but owners and trainers and drivers and breeders and grooms and farm workers who also face the same problem.

If that attitude prevails, it remains to be seen what Gural does in the next two weeks before Gov. Chris Christie slams the door and shuts down the Meadowlands. Christie has expressed his displeasure with the mutuel clerks recalcitrance, saying, “Apparently one group has decided on its own to put at risk the livelihoods of many others.”

Gural is currently talking with Morris Bailey, his fellow real-estate magnate who hopes to take over Monmouth Park, to consider options.

The options are few, but Finley’s mutuel clerk understood one of them. He talked of a rumor that Gural might go forward without the union, holding a job fair. Gural did just that at his Tioga Downs operation and drew hundreds in that sparsely populated area. It seems logical that he could draw thousands in the densely populated Meadowlands area, where unemployment and home foreclosures follow national trends.

This soap is high drama, but vastly more is at stake than a television series for housewives. An industry and thousands in it will survive or fall by mid-May.