Paving the road to nowhere, one word at a time.

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Location: Tijuana, Baja California, Mexico

American born, living in Mexico since 1992.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Powis Castle

It was nineteen hundred and ninety four, when dinosaurs apparently still roamed the planet Earth and my Spanish wasn't all that stellar, and I wandered into the Caliente Race and Sports book at well before eight in the morning. Slaking the appropriate scratch sheets from plastic bins hanging on the wall near the entrance, I then went upstairs and Robert was already there, barely, adjusting his markers and pens and other accessories in that same persnickety way he always did; I was just a slob. Cesar, our waiter, simply brought up the coffee, he didn't even bother to ask us. Gringos and their habits. We always tipped Cesar out very nicely.

"It's raining over there," I said, unpacking a notebook and a record book and spreading the West, Central, and East issues of the Daily Racing Form across my half of the table.

"I know," Robert said. He seemed delighted by it.

The television monitors in front of us flickered to life, tracks at New York and Florida would come first. The coffee, as it usually was in the race book, tasted weak. Both of us had bought our Racing Forms the day prior, and both of us had studied them for hours, well into the evening, me here in Tijuana and Robert from his rented room in downtown San Diego. It could have been any Saturday back then, but it wasn't. It was the first Saturday in May, and in the late afternoon, the 120th running of the Kentucky Derby would take place at Churchill Downs. One of the monitors switched to a shot of that track. It was a swamp.

Robert grinned.

* * * *

Where I worked at the time I first became interested in horse racing - at a then-famous old foundry in South Gate, California - a man who I refer to as my first mentor in handicapping worked as the purchasing agent at that foundry, and he donned other hats as well. His name was John Billings, and everyone called him "Big John", because he was big, really big. Big John taught me about speed and class, two important aspects when trying to pin down a winner in a race. It wasn't long before I was spending Friday evenings with Big John at Los Alamitos, they had this room down a short flight of stairs that led up to track level, and for around three and a half dollars you could get a prime rib dinner. Good times, good times.

Before that, I would go to Santa Anita with a friend, John Folsom, and we shared a love of the track and a love of drinks containing gin. We didn't go often, but we certainly went often enough. Even back then I knew better than to bet every race. I would read the newspapers daily and watch for one specific race and save my money and bet on one horse in that race. It was a strategy that worked very well. I saved three hundred dollars to bet on Desert Wine when he ran against John Henry on dirt. It didn't bother me at all to bet on a horse that went off at five to two odds back then. I collected my winnings and bought more gin drinks. I didn't know any better.

I would never bet a horse like that now. Robert Marotta, my second and perhaps my last mentor, taught me a lot about value. He taught me that there is absolutely no sense in betting a horse that heavily when there were so many races to choose from and so much value to be found. He was right. I found that I could do more damage with a hundred dollar bankroll on any given Saturday than I could do with three hundred dollars bet once every few months on a single horse. I have Robert to thank for that.

I lost track of Big John decades ago. He would be approaching seventy if he's still around. Big John had started as an illustrator on Madison Avenue, and the pressure drove him out of there. How he wound up at that foundry is anyone's guess. While I was preparing documentation packages at the company copy machine, he would tell me stories about the track. "Andy's Winston," he gushed, "was about the crookedest pacer I ever got a tip on."

He taught me how badly fixed the harness races were.

John Folsom moved up north, and one Friday evening after work he decided to drive to Reno. John was a careful driver, in that even before there was a law concerning seat belts, he would make all of his passengers fasten theirs or he would tell them to get out. I found it ironic, coming from someone who shot rapids in a kayak regularly. Another irony was that John Folsom died on that trip to Reno, apparently falling asleep and driving off of a high bridge, hitting a trestle, and never feeling a thing. I remember attending his service, where the family priest talked John up good. I wanted to throw up. John Folsom was an atheist.

"Such services are for the living," my parents reminded me.

Gin never tasted the same after that.

* * * *

By ten that morning, people were coming into the race book, and Robert and me sat chilly, taking trip notes from the New York and Florida races. He knew who I liked in that Derby. I had been talking up Tabasco Cat for weeks. As with every first Saturday in May, there was always one monitor showing the current odds for that race, because even though it was many hours away, there is so much money bet on that single event that people want to see where they stand. We both took a firm stand against the favorite that year, Holy Bull, but Tabasco Cat was a distant yet firm third choice. I reasoned that I'd never get those odds on that colt again, but it was early in my relationship with my mentor and he'd only had a few months to get through my thick skull.

"What's with the rolling around in the sand?" Robert remarked. He was teasing me. Tabasco Cat's trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, had set up a sand pit in the two weeks leading up to the Derby and the colt took to playing in it. Robert disapproved of taking a horse on such short odds, if you can call six-to-one short. I was stuck on the colt, stuck on his breeding, and stuck with him on that muddy track.

"Time for you to spit out your pick," I said.

Robert balked. It was the oddest thing about him, that he was actually quite superstitious. He loathed giving up his race selections, "Kiss of death," he would say. I argued the point with him at great length many times, that whatever we said in Tijuana couldn't possibly affect the outcome of a race anywhere else. Robert was unmoved.

"Actually, I like two horses," Robert finally confessed.

"Powis Castle, he just always tries. And Go For Gin."

I looked at the screen, Powis Castle was twenty-to-one and Go For Gin was half of that. Even in the short time that I had known Robert, I knew him enough to where I wasn't surprised. Go For Gin scared me. He was bred to love the slop, and there was plenty of slop as Churchill Downs began to run their early races, the horses might have well been swimming. I knew for sure that Go For Gin was not the best horse at that track but Nick Zito, his trainer, was scary good with young horses. It wasn't enough to get me off of Tabasco Cat.

"Powis Castle? Seriously?" I said.

"Hey, he has a chance in here. He tries, you can't ask more of a horse than that," Robert said.

We both made wagers on a couple of races at different tracks leading up to the Derby. Robert missed his, I hit one that paid well. But with fourteen horses going to post after Kandaly scratched out, we knew that the real prize of the day would be had a few minutes after two-thirty in the afternoon. Back in those days, horses beyond ten entered were all considered field bets. Even so, to this day, I can't remember a more contentious Derby, odds-wise, than was that one back in nineteen hundred and ninety four.

* * * *

Charles Edward Whittingham was a great thoroughbred horse trainer, born in Chula Vista, California in 1913, and he trained all of his life, only interrupted once with a stint in the Marine Corps during the Second World War. Among the many great racehorses that Charlie trained was Ferdinand, the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 1986. In a string of odd tragedies, after Ferdinand was retired to stud in 1989, he was later sold to a breeder in Japan in 1994. Sometime in 2002, Ferdinand was then sold to slaughter, becomming pet food or perhaps even people food. In that sacrifice, the Ferdinand Fee was developed some years later once the news went out to a horrified public concerning Ferdinand's unfortunate demise. This fee now insures that thoroughbreds are protected from such an ending, as well as can be monitored with the money that supports that cause.

Ferdinand paid a large price to insure a comfortable retirement for others.

In the late nineteen hundred and seventies, a young, brash, and cocky runaway named Rodney Rash showed up at Santa Anita and began as a hot walker for Whittingham. In the decade that followed, Charlie showed great patience with Rodney, who got himself into trouble on numerous occasions, having problems with both drugs and alcohol, wandering aimlessly in a self-destructive manner. Charlie bailed him out of jail on more than one occasion and made amends financially at times when Rash became irrational and busted up someone else's property.

By the late eighties, Rodney Rash had turned his life around. He was now Whittingham's head assistant. In 1991, Rash decided to stake his own claim and trained his own stable. In 1994, Rodney Rash trained Powis Castle all of the way into the 120th running of the Kentucky Derby. With jockey Chris Antley on board, that twenty-to-one shot was quite a story, indeed.

* * * *

It doesn't matter how long you've been handicapping, and it really doesn't matter how much you have down on a horse or two in that race, if you're a player, you'll get butterflies in your stomach when the horses are in the post parade for the running of the Kentucky Derby. Go For Gin looked happy to be there, and Tabasco Cat didn't look as full of himself as he usually was. Powis Castle was an afterthought, just another horse with fifteen minutes until post. Robert showed no emotion at all, a true pro's pro, we didn't talk as they galloped backside while the crowd sang "My Old Kentucky Home".

I had twenty to win on Tabasco Cat and another twelve dollars in exactas to back him up.

The shine from the water was alarming. It was the first time since 1948 that the Derby would be contested on an off-track, and my only thought was that regardless of the outcome, I had already made a profit for the day. Still, even more than the money, in this race there are bragging rights. So what if my colt liked to roll around in a sand pit? What difference would that make if he won?

I remember them loading into the gate, two at a time. All of that water, all of that mud. They turn up the sound in the race book and you hear the gates close behind the loaded horses, "Clank!" And then again, "Clank!" And so on. The gate handlers yelling, jockeys getting settled. And then you hear Tom Durkin say, "They're all in."

Go For Gin wrested the lead away from Ulises early in the backstretch and never looked back. Before that, he ducked into Tabasco Cat at the start, forcing that one into Brocco, but it didn't matter, my horse didn't care for the mud at all. This is what happens. All I could do was to feel good for Robert, who had a nice wager on the winner. Powis Castle? He ran 8th. The favorite, Holy Bull could do no better that 12th.

(Chart for the 120th Kentucky Derby)

* * * *

The aftermath is the entire point sometimes, in that entirely odd circumstances bring out some sort of a question of whether coincidence trumps such circumstances.

Rodney Rash continued to train up until February of 1996. Thinking that he had a simple case of the flu which included headaches and general tiredness, he ignored these symptoms until his condition became dire, and was then transported to a hospital in Los Angeles where he soon died from a rare blood disorder at age 36.

Chris Antley, the jockey that rode Powis Castle, had already won a Kentucky Derby on Strike the Gold in 1991. Later, after temporarily retiring due to weight and drug problems, he rode Charasmatic to victory in that race and repeated it in the Preakness Stakes. Antley died of a drug overdose in 2000 at age 34.

Charles Whittingham passed away at age 86, in 1999. He is enshrined in the San Diego Hall Of Champions, and there is a bust of Whittingham with his dog, Toby, on display in the paddock at Santa Anita Park.

Holy Bull, in spite of that disappointing showing in the Derby, went on to win Horse Of The Year in 1994. He is generally listed among the top 100 racehorses of all time, winning 13 of his 16 races. Holy Bull has been quite successful at stud, siring Derby winner Giacomo among many other winners. He currently stands at Darley in Lexington, Kentucky, for a $10,000 fee.

Tabasco Cat went on to redeem himself by winning both the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, finishing his racing career with 8 wins in 18 tries. He was very successful at stud, where his progeny earned over 17 million dollars. Tabasco Cat died in Japan in March of 2004 at the age of thirteen, of a heart attack while covering a mare.

Go For Gin finished 2nd to Tabasco Cat in both the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes and was retired and placed at stud due to an injury a year later. He went on to a very successful career as a stallion with his progeny earning over 22 million dollars to date. He currently stands at Bonita Farm in Maryland for a stud fee of $3,000 dollars.

Powis Castle finished 9th in the Preakness Stakes and had only minor success after that. He wasn't particularly popular at stud, only managing to sire four thoroughbreds and a handful of quarter-horse mixes. He died in a freak accident in a paddock in Texas in 2001, although he outlived his trainer and jockey from the 120th Kentucky Derby.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Notes From A Second-Story Window

The kids that roam this neighborhood are terrorists. Of course, we were all such terrorists when we were kids, at least to one degree or another. But here - in a place where I don't have a front yard or a driveway or even a backyard beyond a three foot wide space that houses a washer and dryer and propane tanks and a water heater - there is no space to separate the terrorist children from mischief. A few weeks ago I noticed that our small mat in front of the door was gone. Good thing that the little bastards didn't take the door itself.

So, when I looked out of the window the other evening, late and after all of the traffic got tired of pestering an otherwise peaceful night, and I noticed a dog sleeping on something that resembled what was once used to wipe our feet before entering the house, I had to grin. The dog, apparently, was not attached to any owner, as it came and went as the days wore on. I would go to bed in a second story bedroom here and look out of the window as I undressed in the dark and most of the time, across the street, the dog would be asleep on that mat. Even during the morning at times.

Mexico can be a cruel place for domesticated animals, and at the very least it can be an odd place to have to adapt to. I awoke the other morning and lit a cigarette, looked out of the window, and noticed that the dog was no where to be found, but watched a white cat on the neighbor's roof. It walked slowly, appearing to be amused at nothing. Then it suddenly took a crap, right there on the neighbor's roof. The funny part came when the cat tried to bury its poop. No dirt, no rocks.

No way to hide the evidence.

A couple of weeks ago I was preparing to prep dinner, and I looked out of the front door and noticed the dog again, napping on the mat. I went to the refrigerator and found two cooked bacon-wrapped hot dogs that no one would likely eat, so I took them out and opened the front door. I walked slowly across the street, careful not to approach the dog directly, I didn't want to spook it. It noticed me and seemed unafraid. I came up to it and it rolled onto its back. If the dog could've talked, it would have said this:

"I don't want any trouble, I love you whoever you are."

I gave the bacon-wrapped frankfurters to the dog and went back in and cooked dinner. The dog didn't follow me, didn't want anything more. In fact, the dog was nowhere to be found when I went to bed that evening. People ask me why I don't have a dog. It's because the more you give a dog, the more it wants. But that dog, well, that's my dog now. It can go wherever it pleases, and I don't have to house it. We never grew close enough to care about each other. We don't rely on each other. I gave it some hot dogs one time and it can sleep on my old mat. Otherwise, no one is asking for anything.

* * * *

Children are sometimes an entirely different matter, and last Saturday, I was fleeced. So far as life goes, this is inevitable sometimes. One gets stuck between the proverbial rock and the hard place. My own daughter turned on me. Imagine that. The kids were over a week and a half ago along with their mates and my sister-in-law and two babies and so on. As dusk went dormant, some of us sat out in front of this place, smoking and drinking, and then I got stuck somewhere in the darkness of that Saturday evening.

"Dad, I have to ask you for a favor," my daughter said.

Oh, hell, here it comes.

"I work tomorrow at six, can you walk me to work?"

Six, as in, the morning six hours after midnight. As in leaving the house at four-thirty, and I thought about how many times in recent days I had gone to bed after that hour. Should I decline, then my wife would go, just to make me feel like a jerk. As though I needed any help.

"We'll see," I said.

And, of course, four-thirty in the morning came very quickly, and her husband gave us a ride to the Otay border. I took Anna, who volunteered for whatever reason, and while my two daughters enjoyed a relatively painless border crossing, of course I get the third degree for not having a passport. By five o'clock, in the early morning darkness, we hiked the flat mesa through what's left of fields, about five miles in all. This, on a day where the buses don't run, all for her minimum wage job at a convenience store.

Dropping off my married daughter, the younger one rewarded herself with a two-dollar donut and I got a small coffee. We hiked the five miles back to the border, refusing a ride with a stranger in a van (what, do I look old or just stupid?), and once back in Mexico I felt safe again. Except, oh hell, everything is different now in Otay. We walked another five miles before I admitted to Anna that, perhaps, the taxis didn't use this road anymore. Eventually, we made our way back home.

That evening when I went to bed, I looked out the window. My dog was sleeping on my mat across the street. Everything was quiet. Somewhere on top of the neighbor's roof, there was an uncovered pile of cat poop. Somewhere in the night, there was a white cat that didn't care a bit about what it couldn't bury. Anna and me didn't care anything about walking anywhere for a couple of days.

* * * *

Anna has started school, this time enrolled in the United States of America for her senior year of high school. I see her on weekends. This last weekend, she brought home an assignment in English: write an essay. The essay was about reading. Fun stuff.

So, I instructed her. Organize your paragraphs; topic, then illustrative, and ultimately conclusive. Sentences should follow the same pattern. Make an outline first, and then write a draft and edit it. And so on.

She handed me what was supposed to be her outline, and it was more of a draft. Complete sentences with many misspelled words. But she did one thing correctly, she wrote as if she were speaking, nothing came off as contrived. I never taught her a damned thing about English.

"Why didn't you make an outline like I asked?"

"Dad, I can't do that. This is what I feel comfortable doing."

I didn't argue. How does one tell a painter how to apply a loaded brush to canvas?

"Fine. Put it away, don't look at it, we'll get back to it tomorrow. Go screw around on the internet or watch some television, don't think about it. Tomorrow, I want you to read it again and correct anything you see that you don't like," I said.

The next day, she had changed nothing, happy with what she wrote. I went through it and corrected her spelling, and we discussed minor points in phrasing, and she rewrote the essay neatly in ink. Monday she turned it in to her teacher, who said he would "get to it" when he could. Anna emailed me with that information. She said that she didn't have an opportunity to talk with him because he was giving a quiz.

"Obviously, they won't allow me to take the quiz," she wrote.

Obviously? While Anna has certainly been inserted in the middle of the school cycle of this year-round school, I am puzzled by their treating of her as though they shouldn't expect much of her. But then, she did relate to me that her counselor told her that she didn't expect much from Anna since she was schooled in Mexico and didn't show much interest in achieving high grades there. I only grinned at that because I know Anna. She's lazy, like her father. Must be a genetic flaw.

* * * *

Tomorrow, I'll be sending an email to her counselor. It will read something like this:

Dear Ms. Counselor,

I am Anna's father. While I have lived almost two decades in Mexico, I was in fact born, raised, and educated in the United States of America. I state this only so that you understand that my concern is not that of someone who might not be knowledgeable of schools in California. At least, I would presume that not much has changed since I lived there.

It has come to my attention that some of Anna's teachers are not requiring her to complete exams because she did not start at the same time period as did other students. This is very nice of them, I appreciate their consideration. However, this is not helping her. It is also not allowing me, as a parent, to understand what she now lacks in the requirements of your school system. I cannot tutor her unless I understand where she would fail. Failure is important, because we have nothing to learn unless we know what we are lacking.

The other morning, I woke up and lit a cigarette and looked out of the second-story window in my room. I watched a white cat take a crap on the neighbor's roof. I chuckled as I noticed the cat attempting to bury its poop, as there was no sand and no dirt. The cat, thinking that it had done all that could have been expected of it, simply walked away. Meanwhile, there is a pile of crap on my neighbor's roof.

Without sand or dirt - in the form of quizzes or other assignments - my daughter is no better off than is that cat, and society is no better off than is my neighbor's roof.

I have a dog. I haven't named it, and it doesn't belong to me, it simply sleeps on a doormat I once had in front of my door. That door mat is across the street now, oddly just below a neighbor's house which probably still has a pile of cat poop on the roof. The dog asks for nothing and takes what anyone is willing to give to it. Sometimes I give the dog frankfurters. It's a very nice dog.

And that dog will never learn anything because suckers like me give it food and walk away.

My daughter is not my dog. Please contact her teachers at your convenience and ask them to treat my daughter as though she had been at your school all along. When she fails, I will be able to teach her something. Do not give her any more hot dogs.

Thank you,

Anna's Father