What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Love

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One of the perils of going to an “art house” for some “cinema” is that you might be disturbed by what you see. After all, “Art”, as the saying goes, should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable (an idea also embraced by journalists).

Around this time last year, my wife and I went to see Yorgos Lanthimos’s Oscar-nominated “The Favourite” at our local art house. She liked it more than I did (there was mild disappointment in this corner that it wasn’t about a well-backed British racehorse), but we both left the theater curious to see more of the Lanthimos oeuvre.

A few nights later we screened the director’s “The Lobster” (2015) on Netflix. Once again, the title was somewhat misleading, as the film was not about lobsters per se, but about a man caught in a dystopia who – when offered the chance to possibly be changed into any species across the entire animal kingdom – decided he might join the Nephropidae family. His minder responded enthusiastically, “A lobster is an excellent choice!

Despite being categorized on the IMDb as a comedy/drama/romance, “The Lobster” is hardly a lighthearted romp. Apparently, darkly comic dystopian allegory is not a suitable capsulized description, even in the relatively highbrow pages of the New York Times (which, oddly, saw fit to add sci-fi/thriller to the IMDb’s rom-com-drama trifecta).

One of my failings as a moviegoer is a tendency to take allegories too literally. The “title” character’s choice was based on the lobster’s long life span, enduring fertility, and its “aristocratic” blue blood. While I suppose maintaining a good attitude is helpful even in the face of dystopia, I found it odd that the distinct possibility of being tossed headfirst into a pot of boiling water did not occur to the would-be lobster. That would be like opting for “Thoroughbred” on the magical belief that you will turn out to be AP Indy¹.

Dancing around the subject of death has been with us since humans first developed the habit of whistling past graveyards. People “pass away”. Beloved pets “cross the rainbow bridge” as they are “put to sleep”. Meanwhile, every year, the killing of thousands of unwanted Thoroughbreds is outsourced to abattoirs just across our land borders, largely out of sight and out of mind.

Here’s a sad truth. Slaughter is, effectively, racing’s market-based “solution” to equine population control. It is by far the worst part of American racing’s broken business model. There are more humane options worthy of consideration, but these would bear a financial burden and likely be viewed by racing’s power brokers as either unpalatable (euthanasia) or pie in the sky (a pension for every thoroughbred).

Unlike in the movies, racing will never be able to claim that “no animals were harmed” in the filming of its pictures. That just can’t happen. If American racing is to survive, it will need to show that Thoroughbreds lead long and rewarding lives, and that the inherent perils of racing are therefore risks worth taking. Leave dystopia to the cinema. Racing must show its love is real. This way, when people fantasize about which animal they would like to be, they might actually consider the Thoroughbred. Then, they could even be sincerely reassured that “a Thoroughbred is an excellent choice!

¹AP Indy is a champion racehorse, the most influential American stallion of the last 50 years, and, at 31, the greatest living equine pensioner.

All About “The Pensioner”

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The Pensioner (pensionerspaddock.com) is the online home of Bob Barry. Here’s my story.

My first blog, Around2Turns (2014-2016), was a quirky labor of my love for thoroughbred racing. It was also a quiet act of desperation by a 57-year-old newspaper circulation analyst in dire need of a creative outlet¹.

Around2Turns² gained a following among certain curious subsets within the American racing cognoscenti. This resulted in an invitation from the (in utero) Blood Horse Daily to write a weekly Racing Commentary column. The column ran in most Tuesday editions of the BHD from its launch in August 2015 until August 2018³.

In August 2017, I left my day job with the New York Times to become a full-time resident of a small town in the southwest corner of Columbia County, New York. I started a consulting company and kept up with the column, but country living and semi-retirement only served to confirm long-held suspicions about the supposed salutary benefits of keeping one’s nose to the grindstone.

In late summer 2019, two years after quitting the NYT, a year after being let go by the BHD, and with the consulting work drying up, I filed the necessary papers and started collecting two small pensions (one via the NYT and another from an earlier long-time employer). These futures bets I’d made over 37 years of full-time employment had finally started to pay out. I was a pensioner, free of obligations. This verdant paddock beckoned.

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¹After getting a degree in Literature (Bard ’79), I moved to New York with the bright and original idea that I would work a straight job during the day and write fiction in my spare time. The former proved easier than the latter. The writing bug, however, had never been adequately squashed. On Memorial Day in 1998, at a barbecue in suburban Putnam County, my perceptive wife, sensing a looming mid-life crisis about to overwhelm her husband, cajoled a neighbor of ours who wrote a column for the New York Observer into suggesting that I should write an article about Real Quiet’s quest for the Triple Crown, and he could help the story find its way into print. He sold me on the idea as if it were his own. Thanks to my generous neighbor, my madcap wife, and a friend in the speed figure business who provided some tasty quotes, I had my first byline. But my second would be a long time coming. Right before the millennium turned, when blogging was well on its way towards being a thing, I took on a terribly demanding job with the New York Times. The prospect of writing in my now diminished down time seemed ever more unlikely. It was 13 years later – work demands having slackened – when another opportunity emerged. A friend from another speed figure company, having become aware of my bridled ambitions, suggested he too might be able to help. Thus, with a couple more bylines under my belt, a renewed desire, and a confidence that was perhaps unearned, I started writing regularly about the ponies at Around2Turns.

²Although I retain the rights to the domain, Around2Turns no longer exists (the URL re-directs to here). For every old blog post that still gave me pleasure, there were two more that made me wince. Besides, I needed a fresh start and wanted a different approach. [As a nod to posterity and sop to an ego that still needs frequent stroking, over time I’ll probably repost some of my darlings from @2T here.] This way, I can think of the old blog as just one more absent friend, remembering only the good times we had together.

³The Blood Horse Daily fired me, but it was out of kindness, I suppose. More like the columnist’s version of “suicide by cop”, only with editors pulling the trigger and no one dying. I had been thinking of quitting for a while, but couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I loved having the platform and the access that a NYRA press pass provided. I knew that, once lost, these things would not be easily regained. But columns that might have once been bittersweet started losing the sweet part. Some sacred cows got tipped and some columns got spiked (if your opinions don’t get spiked every so often, it means you ain’t really trying). I had been asking for it. When the axe fell, I knew I had it coming. I’ve had ten jobs over my lifetime, and this was the first one where leaving was not completely my idea. But I couldn’t feel bad about it or be angry with anyone at the BHD. It had been a great run, but it was time to move on. The events that made 2019 an awful year for American racing only served to confirm that the timing of my downfall was providential. I’d grown weary of cutting my content to fit the fashions of the Jockey Club (owner of the BHD). Trying to write Racing Commentary in 2019 would have only made things harder on everyone. The journalists who write for “the trades” (as Racing Twitter ace @o_crunk accurately refers to the Daily Racing Form, BH/BHD, and the Thoroughbred Daily News) are frequently on the receiving end of criticism that is, in my view, often misdirected. Freedom of the Press – as the old chestnut from the print era goes – belongs to the people who own one. If racing’s trades are serving the broader industry ill, that’s on the bloodstock industry bigwigs (BH & TDN) and venture capital titans (DRF) who own them. Humans – and this I know from personal experience – are pretty good at looking out for their own interests. Thoroughbreds, on the other hand, need all the help they can get.

Welcome to “The Pensioner”

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You can call me Bob, but I’m known around these parts as “The Pensioner”.

Home is an old farm in New York’s Hudson Valley, halfway between “The Graveyard of Favorites” up in Saratoga Springs and Jerome Park down in the Bronx. Once upon a time, these were two of the prettiest race courses in the world. But then – 125 years ago this week – one of them was taken by eminent domain so it might be turned into a reservoir.

As reported by The New York Times 125 years ago today …

With the passing away of 1894 there comes also the passing away of one of the most famous and charming spots in America that has ever been devoted to the interest of sport. – – – The men who brought the picturesque spot into existence as a pleasure resort are not those who are responsible for the fact that racing has degenerated until legislative enactments to restrict gambling, the curse of the sport, have become necessary. – – – That the waters may wipe out the remembrances of degenerate Jerome Park and leave only the memories of its brighter and earlier days is the fervent wish of every lover of sport.   

As my cheval pals across the pond might say, “Plus ca change, n’est-ce pas?”

These are hard times for anyone who loves American Thoroughbred racing. What was once unthinkable – that the terrible and degenerate beauty of Santa Anita Park could get wiped out by a cleansing rain in the form of real estate development – has become all too thinkable.

Still worse, the people tasked with navigating the sport between the Scylla and Charybdis of widespread sports betting and a tectonic cultural shift in animal welfare concerns seem to be asleep at the helm. In a feat with a degree of difficulty equivalent to converting the 7-10 split in bowling, racing seems determined to be swallowed whole by the sports betting monster and getting sucked down into the animal welfare vortex.

As a pensioner, I’ve felt fortunate to have watched racing’s annus horribilis of 2019 from a safe distance. I know I’m one of the lucky few. My races have been run, the roof over my head isn’t going anywhere, and there are fresh oats every morning. But it distresses me to see the sport I have loved for so long being led astray. There is nothing in this for me, but that disinterest alone is probably my best reason for speaking out.

Thus, I hereby proclaim that I have rejoined the fray. American Thoroughbred racing, by the combination of its minders’ actions and inactions, doesn’t really deserve to exist. But its thoroughbreds do. They have earned their place in this world, and not just in some fabled lost city of Atlantis that people won’t even remember 125 years from now.

From the Around 2 Turns Archive: May, 2015 – The Smell of Victory

IMG_1039Not to condone the breaking of the ninth commandment, but one of the things that can make journalism fun to read is that the people who participate in its creation are not under oath. It’s no surprise that a reporter’s subject may misspeak for any number of reasons: guilt, ego, money, or, in the notable case of Richard Nixon, because his lips moved. Outright lies are scattered throughout every one of these “he said, she said” newspaper stories, hiding in plain sight, often within quotation marks, like the telltale clues in a well-plotted murder mystery. The fun resides in spotting them out.

Sometimes you need a couple of different angles. Especially when the story unfolds over fifteen years and has a cast of characters that includes Ahmed Zayat, the owner of Triple Crown contender (and scourge of spellcheck) American Pharoah; a convicted felon named Howard Rubinsky; two wayward brothers from New Jersey; offshore bookmakers; and agents from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Zayat declined comment and lawyered up when Joe Drape of the Times was breaking this story last week. Zayat is the defendant in a breach of contract suit brought by Rubinsky, a former recruiter for offshore bookmakers. Rubinsky claims to have fronted for Zayat, advancing him two million dollars in credit that Zayat subsequently lost to the bookmaker, leaving Rubinsky to suffer the actual loss. Zayat was deposed in the case last November and has denied owing Rubinsky anything. At least one of them is lying.

One of the rare facts on which both Zayat and Rubinsky agree is that they were introduced by two brothers, Michael and Jeffrey Jelinsky, sometime in the early 2000s. The brothers arranged for Rubinsky to be a surprise guest at a breakfast meeting at Zayat’s home in Teaneck, New Jersey. Zayat testified that he thought of himself as a mentor to the two enterprising young lads (whom he had known since the early nineties when they were still in high school), and that the meeting was an investment pitch on which he took a pass. Rubinsky claims that this meeting was the genesis of an eventual contractual relationship regarding lines of credit with the offshore bookmakers whom Zayat subsequently stiffed.

Regardless of which side you believe, there is little doubt that fortune has favored Zayat since this foursome sat down to breakfast more than twelve years ago. His Zayat Stables has been one of the leading North American stables since 2007 with horses like Pioneerof The Nile and Nehro and Bodemeister (all Kentucky Derby bridesmaids) and now the Triple Crown aspirant with the misspelled name. Rubinsky has seen financial ruin and pleaded guilty for his role in the operation, leaving him a convicted felon. Michael and Jeffrey Jelinsky were convicted of illegal bookmaking in 2009 and sentenced to 15 and 21 months in prison, respectively, along with a combined forfeiture of nearly $5 million.

But while Ahmed Zayat has seemingly flourished, he is apparently the talk of the offshore betting set for having left bad markers in and around the Caribbean. Three days after Drape’s bombshell dropped on nytimes.com, Ken Kurson reported in the Observer (he is its editor) that two men presumed to have a working knowledge of the publicity-shy offshore betting industry contend that Zayat “still owes quite a few sports books quite a bit of money”  and has “a lot of debts”. While you may be skeptical about someone who loves being called “The Gambling Globetrotter” (and who, despite all that globetrotting, still finds the time to publish a website dedicated to cataloging Zayat’s less-favorable press), the fact that there are others who support Rubinsky’s assertions suggests there may well be some pale fire here and not just smoke.

It seems Kurson did a great job of getting under Zayat’s skin, because rather than say “no comment” and refer to counsel, the defendant opened up his yap and proceeded to protest just a bit too much. Maybe it was Kurson’s sources with inside information about the offshore books. Maybe it was the odd bit that Kurson related firsthand from his previous stint in politics, where Zayat apparently did not vet out sufficiently to be cleared for hosting a 2007 fundraiser for the presidential campaign of Rudy Giuliani. Whatever the reason, Zayat did himself no favors with this interview.

Kurson quotes Zayat as saying “He’s talking about me betting overseas in Costa Rica. I’ve never in my life been in Costa Rica.” Whom is Zayat trying to fool with such inanity? Even a piker of a punter such as your correspondent knows the advantage to having an offshore account is that it allows you to bet beyond the reach of the US government while keeping yourself safely onshore.

Zayat told Kurson “He’s talking 2003. I was in Egypt, as CEO of a beverages company. I was working 18 hours a day. It’s an insanity.” Back then Zayat was spending roughly three workweeks out of every month in Egypt. But he was also spending weekends and down time with his family at his home in Teaneck, which is where he acknowledges meeting with the Jelinskys, who were by then based in Las Vegas and becoming well acquainted with high-stakes offshore bookmakers.

Zayat’s testimony suggests that the Jelinsky brothers reconnected with him after reading a glowing article about his business triumphs in Egypt in the Christmas Day 1999 edition of the New York Times. [Zayat was born in Egypt and came to the US as a teenager. After college he worked in New York real estate and on Wall Street before making his fortune in 1997 by arranging the purchase of a monopoly beer and beverage company from the Egyptian government and then taking it public. The company was subsequently sold in 2002 to Heineken for $280 million – roughly four times greater than what Zayat’s group paid for it.]

In 2013 Zayat suffered the embarrassment of having an untruth detected in his official biography. Even after all of his success in business, and despite actual degrees from Yeshiva and Boston University, Zayat continued to list a nonexistent MBA from Harvard on his CV. It was only when the Record of New Jersey raised the fact that Harvard had no record of his ever having attended that Zayat had the bogus degree scrubbed from his stable’s website. But old habits are hard to quit. About 18 months after the Record revealed his ivy-covered untruth, Zayat found himself in an east side law office, under oath, being deposed by Rubinsky’s lawyer.

Q: Where did you attend (college)?

A: Yeshiva University, Harvard University and Boston University.

If Zayat cannot bring himself to be truthful about his classroom achievements while under oath, how can you believe anything he might say to a newspaper reporter about millions of dollars in illegal offshore betting?

In his sworn deposition, Zayat stated that he handed over hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Jelinskys and smaller amounts to Rubinsky, but he represents these as loans and acts of charity to beleaguered individuals, and not the partial settling of gambling debts with three soon-to-be convicted felons.

The $600,000 in purported loans to the Jelinsky brothers caused a stir when they became part of the public record after Zayat Stables went through bankruptcy proceedings in early 2010. This came roughly a year after the Jelinskys pleaded guilty to illegal bookmaking and would seem to put Zayat in the unenviable position (for a big-time thoroughbred owner) of having associated with known bookmakers. But Zayat seemed to have dodged this bullet back then, owing to his long personal history with the brothers, and his insistence that these were mitzvahs, and not payoffs on gambling debts. But one line in Joe Drape’s February 20, 2010 story about this episode clearly shows that Zayat is all too willing to dispense with the truth whenever it suits his purpose.

Zayat told Drape in 2010 that he had never been contacted by law enforcement authorities about the Jelinskys’ illegal activity (presumably because that would have indicated that he had been knowingly dealing with bookmakers). But in his deposition from last November, Zayat not only testified that he had been visited by agents from the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in May of 2008, but that he had placed bets with Michael Jelinsky during the time period when Jelinsky confessed to having been illegally booking bets.

Should American Pharoah go on to win the Belmont Stakes and you happen to hear a mighty rumbling when Ahmed Zayat raises the Triple Crown trophy above his head, don’t worry: it’s probably just the sound of Jule Fink (the most unfairly maligned owner in racing history) turning over in his grave.

We close this inquiry into untruths and their seeming lack of consequences with this: The Observer reported that Zayat cited the timing of Rubinsky’s suit as a way of capitalizing on the sudden fame of American Pharoah and Zayat Stables. Rubinsky filed his suit in March of 2014; five months before the start of American Pharoah’s racing career. If Rubinsky had American Pharoah in mind when he brought this suit, it would represent the greatest futures bet in the history of throughbred racing.