Tuesday, March 30, 2010

On the Set of "Luck" at Santa Anita

Well I've just wrapped up a grueling two days of work as an extra (actually we were called "background") for the filming of Luck at Santa Anita, an HBO pilot written and produced by David Milch and directed by Michael Mann.

And let me tell you, I have nothing but respect for everyone involved in film production, from the multitude of crew members to the actors, assistant directors and director. Apparently non-stop 14 hour work days are nothing out of the ordinary for these people. It almost killed me! It was, however, an experience I wouldn't trade. For one thing, I got to work on the same set as actors Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Richard Kind, and Kevin Dunn.

The days started with a 5:30 a.m. call, and a visit to the wardrobe trailer in the dark.

Wardrobe trailer in the parking lot at Santa Anita.

Waiting in line for costumes.

It was amazing to see Clockers' Corner transformed into a bustling movie set!

Clockers' Corner becomes a movie scene.

One of the best parts of working on the production was getting a chance to meet some of the wonderful people, including a very gracious Richard Kind and some extraordinary extras.

Extras extraordinaire Michael Mallers and Patti Maeda.

Yes, that's yours truly with Richard Kind!

It was a lot of fun, but I'm looking forward to going back to my "real job" tomorrow. Considering I was daydreaming of sitting in my comfy office chair for two days, apparently I'm not cut out for the rigors of movie production... I think I'll watch future filming at Santa Anita on my lunch breaks!

Saving California's Commercial Thoroughbred Market to Help Assure a Steady Supply of Runners

A guest post by Jerry McMahon.

There was no one less surprised than yours truly at the recent disclosure by officials of the Los Angeles County Fair Association that indicated that the company was looking into alternative uses for portions of land and buildings currently devoted to its Thoroughbred operations, including barns utilized by Barretts Equine Limited, a company I helped start in 1989. In today’s brutal California economy (the one in which thousands of tenured teachers have been given pink slips) not even a not-for-profit company can afford to sit passively on 50+ underperforming acres. The Fair’s President, Jim Henwood articulated it well last week in statements to The Thoroughbred Times and Blood-Horse.

More than a year ago now, I looked at everything going wrong in the California game, and realized that I was neither persuasive nor talented enough to do much about it. Having been in a leadership role in the sales business for more than 25 years, it was time for somebody else to bring a fresh perspective. And the current staff at Barretts has done a terrific job under the circumstances.

After reading Mr. Henwood’s statements I decided to revisit some of my core beliefs about the industry. One of those is that you can’t run a commercial auction business in a vacuum. It has to be an integrated part of a healthy Thoroughbred breeding and racing circuit, whether that is local, national, or international.

On the horse supply side, Barretts was developed on the theory that if we built it, they would come. They did come…. from Florida and Kentucky and Virginia and South Carolina (and buyers from the UK, Dubai, Saudi Arabia, Tokyo and points in between), but not so many from Santa Ynez, Temecula, Fresno, or Paso Robles. It seems that the housing boom had wiped out huge amounts of acreage previously devoted to Thoroughbred production. Perhaps the current housing slump could actually be a good thing for the local industry, if we could figure out a catalyst for renewed production of quality runners. Also, I don’t think you can have a deep and healthy racing environment on the island that is California without a viable commercial auction business. The industry can HOPE that its owners and trainers will venture back east to the established markets there and bring back large numbers of future runners, but the truth is that many of those horses get poached along the way by racing circuits in those areas. (Don’t get me started on how our 10+% sales tax literally induces California owners to buy, train, and race outside the state!)

Filling California’s races with quality home-breds is never going to be the answer. That’s primarily because it is well-known within the industry that breeding to race is for billionaires and people who hate money. Just ask a Kentucky breeder how much they enjoy buying one back in September. Unless California’s stake-holders prefer to operate a weekend only and/or seasonal game (because that’s where we’re currently headed), racetrack managers, owners and trainers, regulators, breeders and all the other stakeholders need to care about what happens to Barretts and its first-class facilities, not to mention its track record of attracting top-class talent to the state. Remember Brocco, Brother Derek, Sharp Cat, Officer, Unbridled’s Song, etc.? Do you recall where the late, great Bob Lewis and current heavy-weight Jess Jackson bought their first horses?

So what kind of vehicle could be used to re-stimulate our commercial market? One idea that has been utilized elsewhere in various formats, and previously proposed by others in California, is the concept of providing enhanced stakes purses for runners that have passed through local auction rings. This has usually been undertaken by private auction companies like Magic Millions or Goff’s in an effort to compete with other, more established companies. In those cases most of the purse money is put up by the individual breeders and subsequent owners, a concept that won’t work in California due to the currently depressed breeding environment.

A plan that the industry here might consider would be a lucrative, year-round stakes program for sales graduates funded through a combination of: 1) current purse allocations at each track; 2) racing association contributions; 3) a portion of the funds currently allocated to breeders and stallion awards; 4) auction house contributions, based on commissions earned; 5) breeder/consignor contributions (on a sliding scale, based on sale price; and 6) buyers in the form of continuing eligibility payments.

Of course the devil is always in the details when it comes to these things, but the overriding goals would be to bring the entire industry together in support of California’s commercial market before it is too late to save it, and to insure a steady supply of quality runners for the state’s racetracks.

If Barretts is allowed to go the way of Bay Meadows and (soon to be gone) Hollywood Park, the rest of the industry might just follow sooner rather than later.

For more information about McMahon, see Contributors on the About tab.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

HBO Pilot “Luck” Being Filmed at Santa Anita

Dustin Hoffman, two-time Academy Award winning actor, is on site at Santa Anita this month for the filming of “Luck,” an HBO pilot written and produced by David Milch and directed by Michael Mann. Hoffman stars as a career criminal heavily involved in gambling in a prospective drama series about the world of horseracing.

“Luck” would be Milch’s third series created for HBO. His past credits include “Deadwood” and “John from Cincinnati.” Milch is himself a two-time Breeders’ Cup winning owner.

Also starring in the production are Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina and John Ortiz. Retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens will play the part of an aging, street-smart jockey.

According to Pete Siberell, Santa Anita’s Director of Community & Special Events, filming will take place in most areas of the racetrack including the grandstand, walking ring, saddling paddock, Clockers’ Corner, stable area, and the racetrack itself. Much of the pilot will be shot while Santa Anita is still running live through April 18. A total of 19 days are scheduled for filming at Santa Anita.

HBO has not announced an air date for the pilot, but it is anticipated that it will air in early 2011.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Happy St. Patrick's Day from Santa Anita!

Denise Mitchell (wife of trainer Mike Mitchell) in front of Santa Anita's green fountain.

True to tradition, the Kingsbury Fountain in the paddock gardens at Santa Anita was bright emerald green today in honor of St. Patrick's Day. The annual transformation is accomplished with 2-1/2 pounds of powdered (non-toxic of course) dye. It just wouldn't be St. Paddy's Day at Santa Anita without the green fountain!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Jockey Mike James Scores First Santa Anita Victory

Mike James at Clockers' Corner, Santa Anita.

Apprentice jockey Mikey James scored his first win at The Great Race Place on Saturday, Mar. 13, when he rode Malibu Artiste to an exciting victory in Santa Anita's second race for trainer Paul Aguirre. James and Malibu Artiste held on through the stretch to prevail by a head over jockey Joe Talamo and Twoformeoneforyou.

I spoke to James this morning at Santa Anita and he recalled his experience during the stretch drive. "It was kind of like she knew," he said about the filly. "She reached out, I could feel her stretch her neck to get up there."

Back in the jock's room following the race, James was the victim of the customary hazing, when the other jockeys doused him with "about six buckets of ice water, trash and ketchup."

Congratulations, Mikey, and best of luck for the remainder of the meet!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Paulick Report Features California's Winners Foundation

This week's "Good News Friday" feature on The Paulick Report introduces readers to the Winners Foundation, California's statewide organization that helps front and backside employees troubled by alcohol, drugs, or gambling problems.

Thanks to the Paulick Report for giving a boost to a very worthwhile and important program that supports one of the most important groups in our great sport -- the people who work with our equine athletes. Read the story here.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Rain, Rain Go Away... Country Tough Wants to Run

Country Tough with groom Lionel Molina at Santa Anita.

I'm keeping my fingers crossed for Country Tough, one of my favorites, to get a race in tomorrow at Santa Anita! He has been rained out of his last two starts. He was scratched from his Feb. 11 race due to bad weather then re-entered for Feb. 27, when racing was cancelled due to rain. He looked marvelous Friday schooling in the paddock in the bright sunshine for trainer Howard Zucker.

We'll see what kind of weather tomorrow brings and hope that the third time's the charm.

Friday, March 5, 2010

For What It's Worth

I’ve been reading a lot these days about the good old days of dirt tracks in California and how much better off racing was before the installation of synthetic tracks. But I would just like to offer a slightly different perspective on the subject – a perspective from someone who has worked in racing in California for 30 years and been a witness to many changes.

With the rain cancellations we have experienced this season, it is natural to draw comparisons to the good old days of dirt tracks when racing was rarely ever cancelled due to weather. But there is so much more involved here than just a “show must go on” ideology. Sure, we ran in the slop. I watched many races in pouring rain, when the horses looked like they were running in pea soup and the horses and riders ended up completely coated with mud. But I also remember riders saying it was like “running on concrete.” I remember horrific breakdowns.

What we need to remember is that the times have changed in more ways than one. We haven’t been the victims of some cruel hoax; we didn’t have the synthetic tracks forced on us against our better judgment. Rather, California racing was trying to do what it has always done: boldly lead the industry to make racing safer for both the equine and human athletes.

I think we can be proud, out here in California, of the “kinder, gentler” racing industry we have become. In my early days, in the 70’s and 80’s, the newspapers were not filled with statistics about the number of injuries and breakdowns on the racetracks, but not because injuries were nonexistent.

But things began to change in this country. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) was founded in 1980. Drug testing became a common part of sports, from baseball to horseracing. Where once you never heard about what happened to horses when they were finished racing, today there are more high profile equine retirement facilities and programs than you can shake a stick at (if that’s your idea of fun). It has all been part of an overall trend to examine the traditional ways we have been doing things, to put them under scrutiny, make people accountable, and establish the highest levels of safety and integrity in sports.

As a student of history, I know it is human nature to glorify the good old days. Perhaps it is a blessing of our nature that we remember the good times while allowing the troubles and tribulations to fade into the recesses of memory. On the other hand, if we truly want to learn from history we have to be objective. Maybe the good old days had their drawbacks too.

Before we forge ahead, I hope everyone involved in the decision making process will make their best effort to uncover the truth and to carefully examine the available statistics on injury rates both on dirt and synthetic tracks. The future of our sport depends on the decisions we make now. These are the good old days.