In the late '80s, after graduating from the University of Virginia, Bob Nastanovich and his college friends Stephen Malkmus and David Berman moved to Jersey City, where they moved into a small apartment together and started a lower-than-lo-fi three-piece rock band called the Silver Jews. Eventually Malkmus moved back to Stockton, California, and was never heard from again. Just kidding: He and his childhood friend Scott Kannberg started Pavement, which eventually became maybe the most beloved indie-rock outfit of the '90s. Nastanovich joined Pavement around 1990; the band's drummer at the time, Gary Young, was an eccentric hippie whose drinking occasionally got in the way of his time-keeping, so Nastanovich was recruited as a backup percussionist. Young was eventually replaced by the more reliable Steve West, but Nastanovich stayed on, serving as a boisterously weird hype man during live shows and contributing additional percussion, keyboards, and the occasional screamed backing vocal to four more studio albums before Pavement broke up in 1999. In many ways, he was Pavement's least-essential member, but also its most quintessential — a link to the ad hoc, accidental quality of their early work, and a reminder of the unlikeliness of their rise.
Berman, meanwhile, got an MFA from the University of Massachusetts, published an acclaimed poetry collection, Actual Air, and continued to make music under the Silver Jews name. Over the course of six albums and countless personnel changes, the band matured from a clattering home-taping experiment into an odd and oddly professional-sounding country-rock outfit. In 2003, Pitchfork named 1998's American Water the 72nd-best album of the '90s. That same year, Berman, who'd been struggling with depression and substance-abuse issues, checked into the Loews Vanderbilt hotel in Nashville and attempted to kill himself with crack and Xanax. He survived, began practicing Judaism in earnest, went on tour for the first time, and released two more albums before disbanding the group in 2009. In a message board post announcing the breakup, he said he planned to move on to "Screenwriting or Muckraking"; that same day, on the same board, he revealed that his father was Richard Berman — a PR executive and Washington lobbyist notorious for serving as a corporate-funded enforcer for the alcohol, tobacco, and fast-food industries, among others — and implied that this family legacy had contributed to his decision to quit music. "I decided," Berman wrote, "that the [Silver Jews] were too small of a force to ever come close to undoing a millionth of all the harm he has caused."
After Pavement split, Nastanovich focused his energies on horse racing. It was a longtime passion for him; he'd purchased a house in Louisville across the street from Churchill Downs back in 1992, and when the band toured England he tried to visit as many British racecourses as he could. (He's been to 57 of them to date; there are 60, and he plans to see the last three before his 45th birthday next year.) He's owned, raced, and even bred racehorses; for a time, in the mid-2000s, he was an agent for jockeys. Last month, just before the Preakness, he called me from Altoona, Iowa, where he works at the Prairie Meadows Racetrack and Casino as a clocker and chart-caller, gathering data for Equibase, America's official thoroughbred-racing database company.
The official "news peg" for this interview is the release of an album called Early Times, which compiles the first two Silver Jews EPs, Dime Map of the Reef and The Arizona Record (but not, for some reason, the amazing cocktail-lounge B-side "Old New York," where Malkmus and Berman come off like tour guides pointing out the sights of a city they've never been to, trading immortal rhymes like "Theater in the round, stop by Howard Johnson's/Martinis on the house, you might even meet Mick Ronson"). We did get around to talking about Early Times, and the Silver Jews, and Pavement; if you're skipping ahead, it's about halfway down. But — this being a website about sports — we began with the ponies.
1. The Part About Horse Racing
There's this impression that horse racing is sort of your post-rock-band afterlife. But your interest in it actually predates your music career, right?
Yeah. I mean, I watched the sport when I was a kid, started to get into it when I was a teenager, and then by the time college rolled around, I began playing the horses really heavily, as a passionate pursuit, thinking that I was clever enough to beat what can be considered the toughest game in the world to win.
Did you think you had some kind of edge that other people didn't have?
Yeah, my roommate — Rich Walker was his name — was an incredible math mind. And he thought that just about any game that involved a certain amount of math was beatable. And he sort of proved that, on a few excursions to Atlantic City. You used to have to go that far to gamble. He would go from Charlottesville to Atlantic City and do extremely well playing craps and other games of chance, so I got him to go to the racetrack with me, and he became befuddled, because he could not defeat it solely from a mathematical perspective. Which I was never at all interested in — I was always more interested in the human element, the horses themselves, and trying to figure out and weigh all the factors that go into picking the winner. You start digging deeper and learning more and more, tiny little bits of information, everything you can scarf up. You can never learn enough — and then you end up betting on the same horse as somebody who just looks at the program and says, "I like the name of that horse."
But no — it became a huge challenge. I started playing, and saving money, and putting money aside, and having sort of a gambling budget. Which at times I've exceeded. It could very well be the reason I've never had a family. A lot of ways, your horses, the ones you own, are your kids, along with your dog, y'know? You throw so much into it. I've met very few people over the last 25 years of my life that are able to completely put down what they're doing and just play horses. The New York Times Magazine a few years ago had a piece on a guy in Las Vegas that lived in a casino in Las Vegas and spent 365 days a year playing the horses and was able to give up all of his work and just be a horse player. That guy must be very good; that's unusual. It's just a very difficult game to win. You can be right time after time, and then luck or some other circumstance could stand in the way of you winning money. What you miss, winning by an inch at the end of a horse race, on certain occasions, can be thousands of dollars. Everybody has their nightmare stories about bad heats and misfortune and stuff like that, but it's just a magical game. To me, there's really nothing more exciting than a good horse race.
And they happen every day in all parts of the world. In this day and age we're able to access racing starting at seven o'clock in the morning in the U.K. and Ireland, and if you want to, still be betting them at one or two in the morning from Australia and New Zealand. So it's a very good time to be a horse player, in terms of access. You used to have to drive to the racetrack; now, you can just sit in the comfort of your own home and lose several hundred dollars a day.
Yeah, it's great. It's made it a lot easier for us. But no, I've had some success, or else I wouldn't still be in it.
How did this go from being an obsession to an actual, paying job?
You start off playing the horses heavily, and then one thing leads to another. I lived directly across the street from the clubhouse of Churchill Downs for 15 years, and during that period, I expanded my interest into owning horses, and eventually breeding them, and subsequently I've taken on a wide variety of jobs in the industry. It's become a heavy-duty pursuit.
Was it tough to break in?
Yeah. There aren't a lot of jobs, and the jobs are hard to get. Horse racing tends to be filled with a lot of people at a wide variety of levels that were handed their job via networking or, in a lot of cases, nepotism. One of the reasons why the industry suffers, from a proficiency standpoint, is that there are a lot of people holding down jobs by default and they're sort of miserable. So I started working thinking that I could make a positive impact on the sport at different levels, just because I love it so much.
The first job I had in racing was as a jockey agent, which means that you're representing a jockey and taking care of all of his or her business, so all they really have to do is get on horses and try to win races. I started doing that around 2004. I did that for a few years. That's a very difficult job, and so I decided to start charting the races for Equibase. You're called a chart pol: You go to any racetrack in the country, and basically you're just collecting data. The main thing that you do is chart where the horses are on the track at certain points during the race, and then that information gets transcribed in the program, and you also write chart comments and stuff. I clock horses every morning, and then during the races I chart the races. On Saturday I worked from six in the morning till one in the morning, because the day ended with me needing to write a recap of the stakes race that we were at. So Saturday tends to be my longest day, but usually I work about 65 hours a week when we're in season. And there's seasonal work here at Prairie Meadows, so it's from, like, April 1 to November 1. And in the offseason, mainly what I do, in regards to racing, is just write whatever the Racing Form needs me to do as a field correspondent. Basically, in horse racing, you have to wear a lot of different hats. Which is fine — they're all very enjoyable jobs. And I'd probably be at the track anyway; I just get paid extra to do work.
It's taken me to a lot of racetracks, and it's been a very interesting educational experience for a huge chunk of time after Pavement stopped, which was a full-time job through '99. Y'know, I suddenly then needed to reload and figure out something to do, and I was able to assemble enough employment in horse racing to make a living.
You've said in interviews before that — given the nature of your position in the band — you always felt like Pavement wasn't going to be a permanent gig for you.
Really the most significant thing was that I didn't know how long we'd be able to be successful and feel like we were getting better and entertaining the people that were interested in us. I think if the band hadn't stopped in '99, we would have had a hard time figuring out what to do on a sixth album anyways. And Stephen, who I've been friends with since 1986 — he's been one of my best friends since then — I have a pretty good read on him. I gathered that he was pretty frustrated with the direction the band was going and wanted to do something else, and since he was obviously vital — y'know, it seemed sort of inevitable that we'd disband. With the exception of him, everybody in the band has had to figure out different types of pursuits and work other jobs. Obviously he's gone on to continue to have a successful musical career. The rest of us had to get real jobs. Which is fine.
You've also owned a few racehorses over the years. Do you look at that as a kind of gambling, too? Like you're betting on them on a larger scale?
That's exactly what it is. Just betting on them wasn't good enough for me. I wanted to start owning them, because that's a bigger gamble. I mean, I live less than two miles away from Maggie Moss, who's a lawyer here in Des Moines and one of the top 10 owners in the country. She's really famous. She's been nominated for Eclipse Awards, and she dominates the racing scene at several racetracks across America. And she'll tell you that she never really bets on horse racing. That she doesn't even know how to bet on horses. But she owns 80 of them, and so she's a bigger gambler than anybody I know.
And breeding is an even bigger gamble. You gotta be really a maniac to breed them, unless you're really rich. I didn't have the means to start breeding racehorses. I just thought I was clever enough, and knew enough about horse racing and breeding and pedigrees and brood mares and everything that goes into it, to start actually making my own racehorses. Thank God I only bred about 25 of 'em, which was probably 23 or 24 too many. That's a huge endeavor. You're paying bills a year before the horse is born, and then you're waiting at least two or three years before they even start recouping, at least out of the ones that I've created. And [in my case] we're talking about pretty unfashionable pedigrees, so you can't really sell them. So that's the most foolish endeavor I've ever been a part of.
So wait, you bred how many before you figured that out?
Over the last 15 years, I've bred about 25 horses. Actually the last of my homebreds — that's what they're called, if you own the horses you breed, they're called homebreds — the very last one is a two-year-old now, and I was finally able to sell off all my mares for tiny amounts of money, or give them to my farm manager. I have one homebred in training — she's out of an Irish mare that I owned for years, and she's about to make her first start. Her name is Finish Your Drink. And then I have a homebred who I also own, called Hula Hoop, and he's a two-year-old who's training in Florida. Those are the last two of that project.
It hasn't been a disaster. I mean, I've bred winners. I've never bred the winner of a significant race, but I've bred horses that have won races. I raced a homebred of mine last year called Hersilia, and she won three races, and I sold her for $5,000. She did well. She paid her way. If they were all like Hersilia, then I'd be fine.
I guess that's the point, though. That's why it's a gamble.
It's a huge gamble. I mean, it's a different thing. Like, say you said, "I want to buy a racehorse. I've got $5,000; let's get a racehorse, Bob, and own it 50-50." I'd go out there right now and start reading the Form and start watching video replays, and eventually we'd put $10,000 in a claiming account, and we'd try to buy the best possible racehorse in a claiming race that we could buy for that much. There's a number of different factors that would go into that purchase, but I'd say like, within two weeks, we'd have claimed a racehorse, and we'd be in business, and then you could be racing within a few days of that couple of weeks. And generally if you claim one, you want to assess it and have your trainer get a read on the horse and figure out what type of race you want to put the horse in, but in some cases, you'd actually claim a racehorse and buy a racehorse and already have its next race picked out. If the horse came out of the race sound and you thought it was fit to race and doing well, you'd put it in the race that you'd already picked out for it before you even bought it.
So it's actually pretty easy to get into.
You just get an owner's license and start throwing thousands of dollars around. The prudent thing for most people to do is to get into a syndicate where they own, like, 5 or 10 percent of a horse, and that way if the horse turns out to be not a particularly good purchase, then it doesn't ruin them. I wish I'd stuck to that mind-set, because that's how I started. But at one point, near the end of Pavement, I was operating a 12-horse racing stable. I was insane.
I'm trying to do the math here — what does that run you per month, per horse?
Generally, depending on your trainer, it's anywhere from $2,500 to $5,000 a month, [depending on] whether it's a slow horse or a fast horse. You can do it cheaper than that. People that own their own and train them, they can probably do it cheaper. But in order to take care of a racing thoroughbred properly, you need to spend a lot of money. It depends; I have one trainer friend that charges $60 a day that's outstanding, and I've got another one that costs about $100 a day. They both do an excellent job; they just have a different way of going about it.
Pavement were one of the biggest indie-rock bands of all time, in terms of public profile, but I don't get the impression you guys were ever cashing million-dollar checks.
No, no. You shouldn't be participating in owning racehorses with the kind of money that I made in Pavement. Or in any other endeavor. I mean, there were a few years with Pavement in the '90s where I made over 100 grand. And if you're on your own, and it's all your money, and you're just a dude that bets on horse races, which is what I was — and I guess to a certain extent, even though I'm married now, it's what I still am — then you can afford [to bet.] But breeding, the expense of breeding, is what really bottomed me out. And then, y'know, I made good money in 2010 [when Pavement reunited], so it let me jump back in. I've maintained owning horses through some really lean times. Now I'm down to four of them. To cut my costs, I've sold shares for cheap over the last few months to interested friends of mine, who know the horses and know what's involved with it, and are taking the same gamble that I am. My mother owns 10 percent of one.
Obviously there are also super-rich people who own racehorses. Does being in it with the resources you have kind of feel like being the guy at the poker table with the short stack of chips?
That's a very good analogy. That's what you feel like. You're competing against sheikhs of Dubai. I mean, the guy who won the Kentucky Derby last week, J. Paul Reddam, he owns Cash Call, which is a huge money-lending corporation. He's an incredibly rich man. But what gives us little guys hope is that he's bought horses that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but he won the Derby with a horse that cost $35,000. So technically, you, me, and eight other guys could throw in $4,000 and buy a horse for $35,000 who ends up winning the Kentucky Derby. So that was a particularly great moment for people with smaller wallets, when a horse like that wins the Derby, because it makes people think, "Hey, I can own a Derby winner too. I don't have to be a gazillionaire" — even though it was a gazillionaire winning. And then the year before, Team Valor, which is one of the oldest horse racing syndicates, won it, with Animal Kingdom — so that horse essentially had 20 owners.
But, yeah, that's a perfect analogy, the short stack. For a long time, I considered myself the poorest owner-breeder in Kentucky. I was probably pretty close. I was definitely in the bottom 5 percent. A lot of my friends that have a lot more money than I do, who play the horses all the time, think you're absolutely crazy to own horses, and I probably am. But good things do happen. You work with great people. My trainer, she's great, her name's Susan Anderson. Her staff is great. You're supporting a lot of people — grooms and hot-walkers and exercise riders. And you savor the wins. It's extremely exciting to win a horse race and see your silks carried to victory at racetracks. At the end of the day, you get a framed photo on the wall. And you get the money that you get.
Last year I won a race at Keeneland, which is one of the most prestigious racetracks in the country, in Lexington, during their 75th anniversary; it's the first time I'd ever won a race there, and I was particularly proud of that. It felt like that was a huge accomplishment for an owner of my size. Even though it wasn't a big race, it was a huge race to me, and I sort of felt, after that, that if I never owned another winner, that at least I feel like I accomplished something. So that was a good moment. I mean, obviously I would love to have a good horse who ran in stakes races someday; I just haven't really gotten there yet. I've won some good races, but I haven't had anything that you would call a great racehorse.
You've raced horses and bred them; you've been an agent for jockeys. You're a chart caller and a writer for the Daily Racing Form. It seems like you've tried to get involved in this at every possible level, short of, I don't know, becoming a jockey yourself.
I wanted to experience everything there is to experience in the sport. And with the exception of winning big races, I feel like I've done a lot. I would never try to train horses, because I feel like there's more than enough people qualified to do that, who've been doing so from a very young age, and learned that craft from their ancestors, in a lot of cases. When I started getting into it heavily in my late teens and early 20s, I was already behind in terms of actually working hands-on with horses. I'll walk a horse, but I would never pretend to train a horse. But no, I don't ride them. I'm actually allergic to them.
Yeah. Just your basic, standard allergy to horses. It goes away after about two weeks, but I haven't been around too many horses the last few months, so it would take me at least 10 days of real misery, like incredible itchiness and sneezing. So I don't work hands-on with the horses. I've spent enough time in stables, and on the backstretch — you're always working around horses. But I have enough confidence in the people I hire to train them; they're far better than I would ever be. I like to do everything I feel like I can do on my own, self-taught. That's the same way I was when I was an athlete. I played tennis when I was a kid, and I didn't have any lessons or clinics. I could've, but I didn't want to. So I've sort of applied that same egomaniacal strategy to horse racing. With a minimal degree of success.