Editor’s note: Drummer Stefan Marolachakis is traveling the country in a black van with tinted windows, touring for his band Caveman’s eponymous second album. Every week, Marolachakis will hunt the nation to gather musicians and athletes to discuss the link between the two clans. This week our caveman talks to Bob Nastanovich from Pavement about his love for horse racing.
The performance by the Knicks in Game 5 against the Celtics was so depressing, so jarring, that it surely rattled the skeletons in many a Knicks fan’s closet. It all felt so removed from the team culture that Mike Woodson has worked so hard to create during his tenure as coach that it seemed as though the ghost of Scott Layden had reared its ugly head and was bumbling around MSG, haunting the joint not unlike Goofy in the 1983 classic Mickey’s Christmas Carol. (I am forever terrified by the movies that scared me as a kid. That’s just how it is. I’m looking at you, Secret of Nimh.
Now that I think about it, it’s not at all surprising that my instinct is to liken the feelings brought on by the Knicks’ recent woes to those inspired by the nightmares of my youth. My beloved Knicks have been giving me all manner of night terrors for as long as I can remember -- and right now every awful moment of Wednesday night’s game just keeps screening ad nauseam in the cineplex of my mind. So, just for a moment, I am more than happy to set aside Knicks-Celtics talk and allow the tortuous memories of Game 5 to fade into the darkness as I mentally prepare for tonight’s game 6.
In the meantime, I’m thrilled to report that this week sees Bob Nastanovich -- noted horse racing aficionado and member of legendary indie outfit Pavement -- weighing in for the inaugural Kentucky Derby edition of Caveman with a Van! The man isn’t merely a fan -- he’s worked in the industry for years in various capacities, including a four-year stint as a jockey agent. With the Derby just hours away, I endeavored to pick his brain about his long and storied relationship with the sport.
“I became a huge fan during my college days,” he told me. “The first time I went to the Breeder’s Cup was 1990 at Belmont, and then I was a big part of about 15 Derbys in a row. That developed into hosting an annual Derby party, which really becomes a 100-hour affair. I’m actually somewhat relieved at this point that I’m in Iowa and don’t have to worry about waking up in my house and finding 28 people sleeping there -- and only being able to name about 15 of them.”
By way of explanation: Prior to relocating to Des Moines in 2006 -- where he spends his mornings working at a racetrack in nearby Altoona called Prairie Meadows -- Bob logged time in Nashville and Louisville, where he still owns a cottage directly across from Churchill Downs. “I’ve had that since ’93. When Pavement got into a situation where we were going to be on the road a lot, I thought it wasn’t sensible to pay New York rent, so, as a horse racing fan, I relocated to Louisville. The main reason I moved there really was to be by Churchill Downs; it’s actually the closest house to the clubhouse entrance. I guess if you measured it with a tape measure it would be in the top five, but it’s directly across the street.”
Which explains the high volume of party crashers. “It’s incredibly expensive to stay in Louisville during Derby week, so people just sort of generally knew that if they brought a pillow and a sleeping bag they could just crash in all parts of my house and when they woke up they’d be 100 yards from the clubhouse entrance.”
These days, Nastanovich’s routine at the track calls for him to keep earlier hours. “I work for Equibase, which is America’s horse racing database, collecting data during the races; simultaneously I work for a company called Thoro-Graph. And, in the racing office, I clock the horses in the morning and also do the program and the morning line. It’s great.”
I wondered aloud to Nastanovich as to how one would make the transition from fan to participant. “As a kid I’d watch all the big races, and when I got into my teens, I started betting pretty heavily. I always think that the biggest gamble you can take is that step from betting on horses to owning them, and then in the late '90s, I took some of my Pavement money and started to claim horses. At one point I had a stable of 12. I think I’ve won 21 races.”
“The biggest mistake I made from a financial perspective -- because I was actually doing pretty well -- was starting to breed them. You get this horse racing ego when you’ve had some success, and you think you can start making your own.” He currently has two remaining horses in training, including a home-bred 3-year-old filly by the name of Hula Hoopin (an homage to his wife’s Hula-Hoop skills). In all, he’s bred about 15 horses. “Some of them have been all right, but I’ve never really hit that home run to take me to the next level. And really, when you’re competing against the richest people in this country and the world, it’s like playing poker with a really small stack of chips.”
Nastanovich was raised in an exceedingly athletic family -- son of a football-playing father and high-jumping mother, and with a track star as a sister -- and grew up playing everything. He ended up focusing on tennis and went on to be ranked in the state of Virginia; at the same time, he was starting to get into collecting records.
“I was born in ’67, a really glorious time to be 12, 13 years old. All the great bands from the late '70s/early '80s were a huge foundation. I was really fortunate that one of my best friends was able to get a radio show at the University of Richmond and we were the only high school kids who had a radio show, so it sort of made us feel cool. We would go see bands all the time, and there was a really good record store in Richmond. We started collecting records: Echo and the Bunnymen; Gang of Four; Minutemen; all that early SST stuff; early R.E.M.; Replacements, of course; Husker Du. You couldn’t go wrong. It was amazing.”
Nastanovich’s love of both sports and music proved integral to his fate as a musician. “I encountered people in other bands who were way not into sports and totally unaware of them, and I could never really get my head around that because, for me, sports always came first. That was really a huge bonding point between me and Stephen Malkmus at UVA. We were both huge sports fans and also college radio DJs, and that’s why we were able to really hit it off as friends. A lot of our mutual friends would just maybe only care about one sport or not be into sports at all, but we could essentially be fantasy sports nerds before fantasy sports existed and it was OK. It was all right to go to every UVA basketball game and then go to every cool show that came through Charlottesville.”
To this day, sports plays a key role in how the two friends and bandmates connect -- and not just figuratively. “Stephen lives in Berlin, and you can’t really get in touch with him via phone or email. Actually, the only way to really get in touch with him is via fantasy sports message boards. That’s the truth. There’ll be a couple of times a year when I need to get in touch with him for some reason and it’s no problem, because I’m always in a fantasy NBA league with him. We’ve had the same fantasy NBA league now for at least 10 years. There are a lot of other people from bands in it. It’s all his Portland friends: Joanna, his bass player; Janet Weiss; Doug Martsch ... all indie rock band people, for the most part.”
The experience of reuniting with his bandmates in Pavement for their 2010 reunion tour -- after over a decade of not playing together -- surely stood in stark contrast to life at the track. “It was interesting because Pavement was obviously quite a bit bigger than we ever were in the '90s. It was great. Hopefully we’ll do something again but if we don’t, then I’m just really happy we did 2010. We did about 70 shows, and if we hadn’t done those, I would’ve felt like we sort of hadn’t really completed the task. The whole experience was sort of even better than I had hoped it would be. But it’s never that difficult coming back down to earth when you’re a horse racing fan.”
It seems that when it comes to the world of the racetrack, not everyone is as well-schooled in, say, the post-punk era as Nastanovich. “One of the interesting things about horse racing is that I don’t think I could be involved in a profession where a smaller percentage of people were aware of Pavement. People will say, ‘Oh, I heard you’re in a band, you wanna jam sometime?’ And I don’t jam. I don’t know how to jam! I only really know how to play Silver Jews and Pavement songs, and there are a lot of nights I can’t even do that particularly well.”
On tour, the band always made a habit of staying tuned into the sporting world and attending as many live events as possible. “I saw a lot of horse racing, a lot of really good international soccer, baseball games in Japan. But we didn’t have the Internet -- maybe the tour manager would have a computer, and we’d make him check scores -- but you couldn’t check scores on your phone. In the U.S. we had ESPN, but when we were overseas, our only shot was to find a copy of the International Herald Tribune, and they would have scores that were two or three days old. It was way harder; now it’s so easy with Wi-Fi.”
All those experiences on the road helped Nastanovich obtain quite the badge of honor when it comes to horse racing fans. “I feel like my greatest accomplishment as a horse racing fan is that -- as far as I know -- I’m the only American who has been to all 60 British racecourses.” It took him 20 years to accomplish the feat, visiting the last British course on his 45th birthday last year.
Seeing how well-informed he is on all things horse racing, I couldn’t let him go without asking for Derby predictions -- and there was no hesitation when he told me his picks. “I can tell you that the Derby winner this year is going to come from one of these four horses: Revolutionary, Lines of Battle, Goldencents or Overanalyze.”
It didn’t take much prodding for him to elaborate. “Orb and Verrazano are going to vie for favoritism and, in my opinion, you can throw out the two favorites. Goldencents has the same trainer who won last year with I’ll Have Another, and I like him. He says this horse is doing every bit as well as I’ll Have Another was doing last year, and if he is anywhere near as good, he’s good enough to win the Derby. If I had to bet $100 to win, I’d bet on him or Revolutionary. Revolutionary’s a very competitive horse -- he’s the only horse I’ve seen that’s looked other horses in the eye.”