Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Flowers in My Hair

Yes, I was recently on the left coast, yes, in San Franciso, and, yes, I did hum a few bars of Scott McKenzie's song as I boarded the BART. In the absence of live racing at the Big A, I took the opportunity to visit the American Geophysical Union convention, the largest gathering of earth and planetary scientists in the world, some 15,000 of them.
This is the time of year the Moscone Center becomes very scientific. I know this because I read the bulletin boards and the posters put up by researchers. Back when I was in college, bulletin boards announced things like dances and concerts and posters told you where to meet to overthrow the United States govenment.
The first poster I saw at AGU had the following posted on it: Predictability and Uncertainties in Geophysics: from the Butterfly Effect to Ensemble Predictions, Multifractal Predictability and the Anthropocene.
As a non scientific person, I wasn't sure whether it was legal to even be looking at that poster, so I folded my notebad and headed over to the big meeting room, where for the next five days, from 8 a.m. until 10 p.m., geologists, astronomers, meteorologists and seismologists came together to share their work over the past year.
I listened to an impassioned presentation from Jim Hansen, father of the global warming movement, re-evaluating the evidence given by the IPYY and urging a real cutback in CO2 emissions -- NOW. I listened to a professor from Queensborough Community College explaining how to make an introductory course in meteorology relevant to the minority students his college serves. I listened to a polar researcher celebrating that, after decades, an artic exploration ship is finally on the verge of being built.
My mind reeling, I went back and tracked down Daniel J.M. Schertzer, Universite Paris-Est Ecole des Ponts ParisTech CEREVE, whose research centered on "Predictability and Uncertainties in Geophysics: from the Butterfly Effect to Ensemble Predictions, Multifractal Predictability and the Anthropocene." I asked Prof. Scherzer if there was any liklihood his research could have an impact on human life in the next five years or so, and he said no. But that there might be, soon.
This is good enough for me. I definitely think we ought to continue to fund science research that is subsequently presented in cities with great microbreweries, and who knows, in the next ten years or so, they might get around to discovering horse racing.
At least if I have anything to do with it.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Who Wants to be a Jockey?

In a wide-ranging conversation with Richard Migliore the other day (Breeders' Cup, kids growing up too fast, John Kimmel, the cost of college, weight, weather, and so on), one thing that was touched on was the tough job of attracting new fans to the sport of horse racing.
"I hear a lot about 'Let's promote the jockeys'," Mig said, "but the truth of the matter is, not many people can relate to what jockeys do."
"You're right," I said. "Most of the people I know have thrown a football or played baseball or softball or bounced a basketball. And everyone who's driven a car can relate to a NASCAR driver in some way, shape or form. But riding horse races? Most young people I know have never been on a horse."
"And even for those who have, wanting to go as fast as you can and finish first is different," he said. "When I was growing up, I rode races on ponies with my friends. I wanted wear the white pants and the black boots and the silks. I wanted to be a jockey."
I never did. Want to be a jockey, that is. As horse-crazy as I was growing up, I never made the connection between what I was doing during my weekly riding lessons and what was going on at Aqueduct via my parents' little black-and-white television set. I found the stories about Thoroughbreds in the anthologies of horse stories I devoured to be dull, because they were always fromt the point of view of a groom or a trainer or an owner, who were always standing on the ground, and to me, the whole point was being on the back of a horse. (Paying $5 for the privilege of going around and around a paddock on a old quarter-horse for an hour was as close to heaven as I got.)
Now, if someone had told me, as someone once told NYRA paddock host (and former exercise rider) Jan Rushton, that there were places where you could not only ride horses for free but get paid to do it, things might have been different. If there had been someone around like Maylan Studart or Jackie Davis when I was growing up, it might have been really different. It wasn't until I was older and actually began working with Thoroughbreds that I totally fell in love and began writing about them.
People make connections to horses in a lot of different ways. At Churchill Downs, John Asher once told racecaller Tom Durkin he believed that if you could just get someone to touch a racehorse, they'd be hooked.
I know it worked for me.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Hail, to the Chief

So the other morning I'm wandering around the backstretch at Belmont Park, and I walk by Allen Jerkens' barn, hoping against hope that he will be there, and sure enough he's sitting on the old park bench just inside the doorway, hat on, bundled up in two pairs of pants and three jackets.
"And I'm still cold," he says, nodding goodbye to another visitor.
I ask him when he's leaving for Florida.
"Saturday," he says, and makes a face. "Going through the airport, having to take your shoes off ... travelling used to be so much more fun."
Taking a cue from Brooklyn Backstretch, I don't ask a question, I just wait.
"Eastern Airlines," he says after a moment or two, with a smile. "You'd go to the airport, go into the club lounge, and they'd give you a drink, or maybe a Mimosa. (Great mental image: Chief drinking Mimosas) Bacon and eggs, great food. It was something back then."
Another pause.
"You know, the guy who founded Eastern Airlines, Rickenbacker?"
"Eddie Rickenbacker?"
"His plane went down in the Pacific in World War II and he was on a raft for a month before they found him."
"A month?"
There's another pause as I digest this, and then he asks if I'd like to come along to watch a filly work. I make a turn to walk toward the training track, but he stops me and says he's driving (so soon after getting out of the hospital?) but I climb into the cab of his truck and he pulls around to a corner spot and there are horses all over the place. It looks like a cavalry charge.
I notice that some of them have their winter coats coming in.
"You know, I could never figure out why some of them get the wooly bear coats and others don't," he says. "Sky Beauty was one of them. We'd clip her and everything, but that was one of the reasons she never did any good in Breeders' Cup."
The gray filly has galloped by, and Chief backs the truck around and heads back to the barn.
"How she'd do in the gate," he asks the exercise rider, who shakes her head.
"She didn't know what to do," she explains. "Finally, we got her to walk through."
Jerkens then tells Fernando he'd like to see the pony. I, of course, take this literally, thinking he wants to look at Circus but no, here comes Circus all tacked up and there goes Chief up onto the mounting block and with no help at all he hauls himself into the saddle and walks off and I hold my breath and think, Dear God, please don't let anything happen but nothing does, and everything is all right, because the Chief really is back in the saddle, again.

Photo by Sarah K. Andrew

Saturday, November 22, 2008


Harvey Pack tells a story about a horseplayer who would faithfully check the television monitors when the National Anthem was played, to look at the American flag and see which way the wind was blowing.
He didn't realize it was a videotaped flag.
No such problem at Aqueduct on Saturday, with a steady wind blowing from the north at around 15-20 miles an hour and the flags over the infield toteboard fully extended. I forget exactly how to calculate the wind-chill factor, but with the thermometer reading 32 degrees Fahrenheit, it felt as if it were 17 degrees. At least to normal people.
For Gary Contessa, it was downright balmy. While the connections of Wishful Tomcat were bundled in a multitude of layers for their appearance in the winner's circle for the $100,000 Discovery Handicap and winning jockey Ramon Dominguez's face was remarkable for its cherry-like hue, Contessa's camel topcoat was unbuttoned, his hands ungloved, and his head unhatted.
"Make it 20 degrees warmer?" he protested. "I'd like it 20 degrees colder. Maybe it will push the Florida trainers out sooner."
Which would suit him just fine. Contessa has been a dominant force at the Big A since the millenium, and Wishful Tomcat may be one of his biggest players in the upcoming weeks. The New York-bred son of Tactical Cat dazzled in his 17 3/4-length inner-track maiden win here nearly a year ago, and even had Contessa thinking Kentucky Derby, but then underwent surgery to remove a chip in his knee and was out for eight months. He is now 4-for-5 since his return with a graded stakes on his resume.
"All I can say is, 'Watch out New York-breds!' said Contessa.
He's probably right.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Last Lonely Racehorse ....

Richard Migliore once told me the off-season was a wonderful time to visit Saratoga. "When the wind blows the leaves piled up on the far turn," he said, "it's easy to imagine they're being scattered by the ghostly hoofs of the champions who raced there." Last weekend, for the first time, I ventured north. With the backstretch closing on November 17, squirrels easily outnumbered the horses. There were dozens of the feisty little creatures scampering about Saturday morning, leaping from rafter to rafter in the deserted barns or scampering up the leafless trees, angrily chittering at the strangers walking by.

The stall where Curlin reigned all summer was shuttered, the shedrow barren; Commentator's stall was empty, as was those of Indian Blessing and Ginger Punch.

Only a handful of horses were on the track at 7 o'clock; an outrider sat silently on his pony near the gap, and while it was warm and there was a familiar fog hanging over the turf course and the infield, it was more of a gray and desolate shroud than the magical mist of the summer months. And yet, it was not at all depressing, just ... different. There were all sorts of interesting discoveries; a pile of horseshoes behind Nick Zito's barn (who had they belonged to?), a plaque hidden behind a bush near the blacksmith's office commemorating late comrades, the detritus of scores of backstretch workers piled outside the dorms. Here, hoofprints in the mud, leading off to somewhere, over there, a curry comb, forgotten in the move. It was just an empty stage, waiting for the players to spring back into life, in hibernation for the long winter ahead.

Friday, November 7, 2008

On Maylan and Jackie ....

Too many years ago to imagine, an editor at the New York City tabloid at which I worked suggested I begin writing a weekly column about women athletes. At the time, I was covering pro football, baseball, and horse racing, and the only women athletes I knew personally had names like Winning Colors or Personal Ensign. I demurred, suggesting that perhaps the newspaper's tennis writer or golf writer might be better suited for the assignment as they had actual dealings with female athletes. No, said the editor, since I was the only woman sportswriter on the staff, I was the logical choice for such an undertaking. That, of course, immediately got my Irish up. If that's the case, I retorted, perhaps the section should launch a column about minority athletes and assign it to the staff's lone African-American reporter. The conversation rapidly deteriorated into a highly-charged emotional debate (which I have an unhappy genius for instigating) but eventually, order was restored and life went on -- without said column.
As one of only a handful of female sportswriters in the country writing for a major metropolitan daily, I was very skittish about being pigeon-holed. I had put up with too many insults and been kicked out of too many lockerrooms to accept being shunted off the mainstream beats. I felt that being asked to write up close and personal columns about athletes I had nothing in common with (other than basic anatomy) was professionally insulting. I still do.
But the editor, ham-handed as he was about the whole thing, had one good point, that being, anything that draws new readers into the sports section is good.
Which brings us to Maylan Studart and Jackie Davis. Maylan won here at Aqueduct on opening day, and again yesterday; Jackie scored her first victory on Wednesday. Both have been receieving an amount of media attention disproportionate to their success; Sebastian Morales' first victory went largely unnoticed last year, and I do not think much has been made of Victor Santiago or Jose Berrios. It has been suggested it is unfair for young woman riders to get so much publicity. That may well be. Yet I can't help but think back to the argument with my editor, and I remain convinced that anything that can bring in new fans is good. Ride on!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

The Big Sky at the Big A

There is much to be said for the view from the Belmont Park grandstand across the track this time of year, when the trees that form the backdrop to the chute reveal their true colors -- flaming orange, deep burgundy, high-impact yellow. On the south side of the building, the foliage that clings to the walls is just as glorious but slower to turn and therefore largely unappreciated with the move to Aqueduct.
From the pressbox at the Big A, one can see the top of the Belmont Park grandstand situated at about 11 o'clock on the horizon about eight miles away, but it might as well be eight light-years away, so different are the two entities. If Belmont Park is the grande dame of the family, then Aqueduct is its Joe the Plumber. But was it Einstein who said, "A good plumber is infinitely more estimable than a bad philosopher?" There is much to recommend Aqueduct over Belmont in terms of interior comforts as the days shorten and the temperature drops.
There is also My View, a sweeping 180 degree panorama that starts with the unusually high ridge to my left; the end moraine of the rocks and dirt and silt scraped up and then deposited by the last glacier some tens of thousands of years ago, the outwash of which formed Long Island itself. Slightly to the left of center is a cluster of brown apartment buildings, built on the site of the old Jamaica Racetrack, and slightly to the right looms the control tower for JFK airport. Completing the semicircle is Jamaica Bay itself and beyond it, the Rockaways, home to the hawks which occasionally swoop over the infield in search of prey. But most of all, there is the sky.
Opening day, it presented a curious and ever-changing mix of clouds, gathering and darkening to occasionally spit showers, then parting to reveal a freshly washed expanse of blue that was mirrored in the infield lakes around which brown and gray horses raced. Later, creeping east along the Belt Parkway, the rear-view mirror was filled with breathtaking hues of pink and orange and purple, that, when I finally turned into Belmont Park, rendered the dying leaves almost insignificant.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Link to Evening Attire Memory Book


This morning, the memory book I put together for Evening Attire's connections is supposed to arrive from Shutterfly. I am so excited! I think it came out wonderfully and I hope the Kellys and the Grants think so too! I stopped by EA's stall to let him know; no one had any peppermints but he seemed happy enough to crunch away at a couple of Jolly Ranchers. With me was a young intern in the press office, Kyle Fox. A rabid Mets fan (he is leaving at the end of the Belmont meet to work for them) he had never been that close to a horse before, and, of course, was immediately smitten. I just wish there were a way to get more people to be able to touch a racehorse -- I know they would fall in love.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Bye bye to Big Brown

I just got off the phone with trainer Rick Dutrow. During an excellent workout in company with Kip Deville this morning at Aqueduct, Big Brown managed to tear a chunk out of his right front foot, knocking him out of the Breeders' Cup Classic and ending his career. Dutrow, as you might imagine, was stunned at this development especially as the colt had been working so well for that highly-anticipated matchup against Curlin at Santa Anita. It's not tragic, by any means, but it's very disappointing.
Big Brown was a terrific racehorse, but, always appreciated him as much for his personality as his prowess on the racetrack. I remember watching him get a bath a few days before the Belmont Stakes. He was standing there, calmly, when a plane flew overhead. I had never seen a horse do this before (planes are always flying low over Belmont Park) but Big Brown actually looked up at the sky to see where the noise was coming from. At that moment, I totally fell in love with the horse. His curiosity and intelligence set him apart as much as his ability.
And, in case there were any doubts as to the veracity and severity of the injury, check out Barbara Livingston's photos taken this morning at the Big A on http://www.drf.com/

Sunday, October 12, 2008

A Day for Evening Attire

I went to visit trainer Pat Kelly to talk about the special things that are going to be happening at Belmont Park on Breeders' Cup Day for my favorite 10-year-old gray gelding, Evening Attire. As we were talking next to Pat's office at the end of the shedrow, the old guy stuck his head out of his stall and was nodding up and down, as if agreeing with everything we were saying! Plans are not finalized, but what I am most delighted with is that we've set up a special mailbox (eveningattire@nyrainc.com) for fans to write in and share their favorite memories of the horse. I'll be collecting these into a special book that will be presented to the horse's connections in a special ceremony at Belmont Park on Oct. 25, along with a DVD of all of his victories. Funny thing, in his 69 starts, he's only won ONCE at Belmont (it was, of course, his biggest victory in the $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup back in 2002). As I was going through his charts, I noticed that he failed to bring back a check only three times in his whole career. As Pat said, "He put all the kids through college."

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Fall at Belmont Park

From where I sit up in the grandstand at Belmont Park, I can see both the changing colors of the trees reflected in the infield ponds and the shadow of this massive edifice falling completely across the stretch. Both are poignant reminders that racing at Aqueduct will begin in just a few short weeks. Forget that Belmont is but 100 yards from my house and the Big A a painful commute down the Belt Parkway; this time of year Belmont Park is at its loveliest and I hate to leave. On a gorgeous fall afternoon such as today, the afternoon light infuses the banks of flowers and foliage so they practically glow of their own accord, rivaled only by the coats of the horses, which have taken on an added lustre as well. Still, I'd rather look at a horse than a flower, and watching Curlin school in the paddock here last month was a sight I'll never forget. The Fall Championship Meet never looked so gorgeous!