05/29/2013 9:18PM

In Vain


The horror…the horror

Kurt Vonnegut, a wise and funny man, wrote in his 1990 novel “Hocus Pocus” that “profanity and obscenity entitle people who don't want unpleasant information to close their ears and eyes to you.”

This passage came to mind the other day in the wake of the reaction to the zesty sampling of profanity sprinkled by chairman David Israel over the nearly five hours of the California Horse Racing Board meeting that dealt primarily with the thorny issue of a post-Hollywood Park world.

There were those who were shocked and offended by Israel’s language, even calling for the man in charge to seriously consider removing the chairman from the CHRB because, as one bylined newspaper blogger put it, “Is Israel the kind of person the industry wants to deal with at such a critical time in California’s horse racing history? Does Gov. Jerry Brown want Israel and his offensive demeanor to represent him as chair of such an important state board that in the next few months will decide the future of horse racing in this state for a long, long time to come?”

F—ing A he does. As in absolutely.

There is so much unpleasant information polluting in the air in California racing these days that an occasional breath of honest frustration is more than welcome. Everything is everybody’s fault and nobody’s fault. It’s Hollywood Park’s fault for closing. It’s Churchill Downs Inc.’s fault for selling Hollywood Park to a land development company. It’s the CHRB’s fault for not blocking the sale, as if they could have anyway. It’s the game’s richest investors who are at fault for failing to save Hollywood Park from the wrecking ball. It’s the TOC’s fault for raising takeout. It’s the CTT’s fault for clinging to lasix. It’s California’s fault for having such gorgeous sunsets. It’s my fault for thinking Goldencents could win the Kentucky Derby.

If there were some who stopped listening to the discussion of California’s inconvenient realities just because Israel let slip his inner Chicago street kid, then they missed a kick ass meeting (oops, sorry). Truth is, we live in coarse times, when the seven words you can never say on network TV (see “Carlin, George”) are deployed all over cable, satellite, blogs and Twitter with rampant glee. However, Israel’s off the cuff leakage during a government funded webcast in no way rose to the level of that same language deliberately created, reviewed, edited and then delivered to an audience as text, video and/or audio product.

In 2003, while accepting a Golden Globe for U2’s song "The Hands That Built America," front man Bono joyfully called the award "really, really f--ing brilliant!" Some outfit called the Parents Television Council complained to daddy – I mean the Federal Communications Commission – insisting Bono and NBC (home of horse racing) be held accountable. The FCC said nice try, but NBC had no prior warning and Bono did not mean it in the literal sense. And anyway, he was Irish.

The Parents Television Council did not tune into the CHRB webcast, but given the quaintly Victorian reaction, they were there in spirit. For the record, here is a compendium of Chairman Israel’s detours from the traditionally polite dialogue of the average CHRB meeting:

It was 43 minutes and 18 seconds into the meeting before Israel spoke for all of us not blessed with a law degree in his response to Commissioner Jesse Choper, a UC Berkeley law professor, who defended his fellow attorneys as the people who were best suited to warn against possible consequences of a particular piece of racing legislation. Said Israel, referring to lawyers, “They drafted the damn thing.”

Before Israel delivered his next shot he got in a couple of zingers, first at the various members of the California Association of Racing Fairs and their attitudes regarding the establishment of satellite betting facilities within a certain sphere of influence: “Street gangs writ large,” Israel said. “It’s all about turf.” Then, forty minutes later, when the representatives of California racing associations and horsemen’s groups took their seats in what sounded like – at least on the audio webcast – Vito Corleone convening the Five Families to make the peace, Israel described the “diversity” of the industry leaders before him as “white guys with hair and white guys without hair.” You can argue about delivery, but you can’t fault the message.

An hour passed, substantive topics were discussed, and then at around the hour and 55 minute mark, in the midst of an increasingly contentious discussion of post-Hollywood stabling, the meeting’s sound system began to rebel and several speakers were attacked by ferocious feedback. Now, I don’t know how most folks feel about feedback, but I’d rather hear howling tomcats drag their claws across a blackboard while a Darrell Issa car alarm screams in the background. At 3 a.m. There’s something Clockwork Orangish about microphone feedback. Brain cells can be heard to shrivel and die. Clearly, Israel is likeminded, and after beseeching his sound technician to no avail, he let loose in close order with a “f—ing A,” a “turn off the damn sound,” and a “this is a f—ing…,” with the rest garbled beneath, yes, the feedback.

The sound was then cut for 17 seconds -- lord knows what Israel might have squeezed into that window – then restored without serious snags for the remainder of the meeting.

At the two hour and 16-minute mark Israel reacted to the idea that half-empty horse vans were shuttling horses from off-site facilities to their racing engagements with a “makes no [g.d.] sense financially.” Okay, that one he could have said nicer.

After three hours and 14 minutes the kettle finally boiled. At issue was the idea of postponing a vote on the proposed 2014/2015 racing calendars to give the involved parties another month discuss further where racehorses would actually be stabled during the 2014 season. Israel would hear none of it. The calendar would be voted up or down at the meeting. “Everybody wants to hand in their homework late,” he said. “I think that’s bulls—t. We scheduled this meeting to get this done and we’re gonna g-d-mn get it done.”

For the next seven minutes or so some of Israel’s fellow commissioners seemed intent on provoking the chairman. This is their duty and absolute right. And, well, he started it, so nyah nyah. The big guy, now thrashing like Gulliver bound, suddenly blurted, “Lemme f—in’ finish. Don’t start pissin’ me off.”

That one might have been the breaking point for the language police. But there was still miles to go and opportunities for offense. Somehow, for the next hour and a quarter, Emily Post prevailed until, in the tangled understanding by some of the commissioners regarding exactly what was being voted upon, with what language attached, Israel whispered sort of sad, sotto voce “f—in’…,” too weary by that time to even include the “A.”

In “Apocalypse Now,” its dialogue written by Francis Coppola and novelist/Vietnam vet Michael Herr, the Col. Kurtz character is seen reciting angrily into a tape recorder, “We train young men to drop fire on people. But their commanders won't allow them to write ‘f—k’ on their airplanes because it's obscene!”

California racing faces an obscene amount of challenges. Some of them have been self-inflicted, others imposed by outsiders whose interests went contrary to the health of the local industry. As a result, passions for the solutions are justifiably high, along with pressure to deliver. At the end of the CHRB meeting there was a 2014 racing calendar approved and all but one week of a 2015 calendar, with promises made by the relevent parties to hash out a stabling plan that could be lived with, at least for awhile. Getting to this point was a long time coming, and no matter how anyone came across or got it done, it was really f—ing brilliant.