This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Paul Moran of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Progress is no subtle beast
First images can be burned forever into memory.
The Grand Canyon. Niagara Falls. The Colosseum in Rome. Big Sur. The Manhattan skyline. The twin spires at Churchill Downs silhouetted against the gentle illumination of first light viewed from the end of the mile chute.
That image now lingers only in memory. The iconic spires remain but are now dwarfed by the towering expanses built to accommodate luxury suites and casinos that have yet to be embraced by Kentucky politicians. The top floors of the new version of Churchill Downs look down on the spires, the historic track’s once crowning glory overshadowed by what some see as progress, others as desecration by architecture.
The Churchill Downs landscape, the Kentucky Derby and the city that is home to both have undergone dramatic evolution since the last Derby winner won the Triple Crown.
Kentucky itself has seen marked change in the past 30 years. The distillation of bourbon is constant, but the autumn air around Lexington no longer carries the pungent scent of curing tobacco. Poultry, not horses, is the state’s largest agricultural product. The breeding industry has contracted as other states offer generous incentives fueled by proceeds from alternative gaming. Louisville has become a livable city.
When Affirmed beat Alydar in the Derby of 1978, Louisville was very much a river town struggling almost apologetically to keep up with the 20th century. Churchill Downs, up close, looked like the work of a dyslexic madman with a life-size erector set, and the Derby was the only race run there that mattered.
What is now a vibrant city — with a nationally prominent medical community, rejuvenated historical districts, diverse cultural alternatives, good restaurants and hotels, expansive public parks, colleges and a large university, accommodating suburbs, nightlife, and an active downtown — has evolved from a town that not too long ago hunkered down on the southern bank of the Ohio River, doing its best to avoid the attention of outsiders except when they brought money in copious sums during the first weekend of May.
In that Louisville, there were, at most, four habitable hotels, at least two of which required a taste for (or at least tolerance of) sketchy decor and all things musty and worn. There were fewer acceptable restaurants capable of much more than a regional stew known as burgoo or a plate of congealed cheese, sliced turkey and tomato known as a “hot brown.” Both were acquired tastes. There was, however, an abundance of dark and often-forbidding bars, most of which had windows decorated with neon signs that said either “Whiskey” or “Girls, Girls, Girls.”
Louisville in 2013 barely resembles the city in which Affirmed beat Alydar, an era that predates guided morning tours of the Churchill Downs backstretch, the orchestrated and convoluted draw for post position staged inconveniently in late afternoon, point systems, and a race presented by a fast-food conglomerate that sells more fried chicken in China than in the land of Colonel Sanders.
There was no Churchill Downs Inc. in those days. The home of the Derby was simply Churchill Downs, a racing association without greater ambition. The stock was owned primarily by people with an interest in the sport and was thinly traded. A typical racing card was not discernibly better than those offered at nearby River Downs or what was then known at Latonia, now Turfway Park, generally cheap horses even on the Derby-day supporting card. In the pre-Internet infancy of simulcasting, there was no advance-deposit wagering platform, no consideration of shareholder interest. With “Inc.” came acquisitions in Florida, Chicago and New Orleans as well as a tote company, casinos and an online poker enterprise. The Derby went from big race to an industry unto itself. With “Inc.” came a new image and a view focused on the bottom line. Homespun, how-y’all-doin’ Churchill Downs was gone, never to return.
This is how the present-day “Inc.” describes itself:
“CDI is a diversified growth company built around three core businesses.
“Our Racing operations occupy more than 800 acres of real estate in four cities: Arlington Park in Arlington Heights, Ill.; Calder Casino & Race Course in Miami Gardens, Florida; Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots in New Orleans, Louisiana; and Churchill Downs Racetrack in Louisville, Ky., home of the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
“Our Gaming operations consist of 33,000 square feet of gaming space, including slots machines, table games and a poker room at Harlow’s Casino Resort & Hotel in Greenville, Miss., 1,245 slot machines and poker room at the Calder Casino, 606 slot machines at the Fair Grounds Slots venue, and 809 video poker machines at our 11 off-track-betting establishments in New Orleans.
“Our online operations include our Internet wagering business, TwinSpires.com, an interest in the horse racing television network HRTV and our Bloodstock Research and Information Services business which provides handicapping and breeding data and publications.”
Rapidly expanding “Inc.” needed an upgraded image, and the eyesore that was Churchill Downs beneath the spires — a patchwork of metalwork in which each of many expansions was clearly evident — fell to the 20th century. From 2001 to 2005, the track underwent a 3½ year, $121 million renovation. The clubhouse and grandstand were replaced with a pair of huge buildings that house 79 luxury suites. The corporate culture overtook the hard boots. The twin spires, an iconic landmark, became a logo.
This ain’t your daddy’s Churchill Downs. There was a certain charm that is no longer part of the racing experience in Louisville. Old Churchill welcomed you back every spring like an old friend. “Inc.” is impersonal and aloof. It revolves around return-on-investment and share price, not tradition. It could be anywhere.
But for all its commercial diversification and ever-widening sphere, “Inc.” still lives and dies with two days in May. Derby eve, Oaks day, was once known as “Louisville’s day at the races,” until “Inc.” — recognizing a captive audience when it saw one — introduced the requirement to purchase tickets for both days and moved the celebration for locals to Thursday.
On most days, Churchill Downs is like any other racetrack — generally empty. Night racing on Fridays has been popular, but day to day, few rattle around in a place built to accommodate large crowds. Unlike other tracks, it has this advantage: About a quarter-million people will be in attendance over the weekend and “Inc.” will maximize the opportunity. There is no draw in American sport quite like the Derby, which holds an audience for some eight hours from first post until last, much of that time devoted to eating, drinking and gambling.
With its various enterprises, “Inc.” now enjoys a national scope that expands exponentially into the international market on the first Saturday of May, but most outside Louisville or without direct connection to the racing industry still know it only as the racetrack that hosts the Kentucky Derby.
Once upon a time, that was enough.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of Bloodhorse.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Five reasons why the effort to ban Lasix has stalled
Enhanced security measures for both the Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) were announced and implemented three days prior to these important Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) prep races.
Santa Anita extended its regular six-hour surveillance period to 72 hours just for the eight horses entered in its marquee race April 6. Surveillance meant having security guards maintain a log of who goes in and out of the barns and to collect the syringes used for any medications administered.
New York also began its monitoring of the 10 horses entered in the Wood Memorial April 3 and took blood samples for out-of-competition drug testing.
“NYRA’s mission statement, ‘meeting the highest standards in Thoroughbred racing and equine safety,’ is exemplified by these additional steps for one of our most important stakes,” said David Skorton, chairman of the recently created New York Racing Association Reorganization Board.
Increased security around high-profile stakes races is certainly admirable, but this kind of one-off ramping up of security begs the question—is racing’s day-to-day security inadequate?
And if the extra security ensures the highest standard for biggest races, why not apply it at least to the other stakes races on the undercards. Aqueduct ran four other graded stakes (grade I Carter Handicap, grade II Ruffian Handicap, grade II Gazelle Stakes, and the grade III Bay Shore Stakes) with a total of 28 horses entered. Santa Anita ran three graded stakes (grade I Santa Anita Oaks, grade II Potrero Grande Stakes, and the grade III Providencia Stakes) and one ungraded stakes, the Thunder Road Stakes, for which 31 horses had been entered. None of the extra security covered any of these horses.
Security at racetracks has simply been too reactionary. NYRA set up a detention barn system in 2005 on the heels of a case involving trainer Greg Martin and milkshaking (tubing horses with a bicarbonate solution to reduce fatigue during a race).
“We think it is an important step in improving the integrity of racing,” said NYRA’s then-president Charlie Hayward.
The detention barn system lasted until 2010 when NYRA announced the barn would be replaced by an in-house drug testing program that utilized state-of-the-art science, technology, and procedural processes. It was reported at the time that NYRA’s new robust testing regimen would be accompanied by equally robust mandatory penalties for trainers whose horses tested positive for illegal drugs.
That is until May 24, 2012, when the California Horse Racing Board handed trainer Doug O’Neill a conditional 45-day suspension for milkshaking. Less than two weeks later NYRA announced it was implementing a new set of security protocols for horses entered in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), which included O’Neill’s Triple Crown title hopeful I’ll Have Another. All Belmont entries had to stable in a special “stakes barn” where they would be more closely monitored than any other horses on the expansive Belmont Park backside.
Trainer Michael Matz said it best when the stakes barn had been announced and disrupted the training and shipping schedule for his Belmont contender and eventual winner Union Rags: “…what I’m disappointed in most is the lack of uniformity. What’s good for New York should be good for Maryland, and what’s good for Maryland should be good for Kentucky.”
Security at a racetrack is essential, but it should not be influenced so easily by individual cases or focus only on individual races. If integrity is the goal, then forget 72 hours of security versus six hours. Instead the focus should be on implementing a consistent, reliable system for all tracks, all horses, and all races 365 days a year.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Steven Crist of The Daily Racing Form…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Five reasons why the effort to ban Lasix has stalled
The movement to ban Lasix from American racing, which looked like an odds-on favorite only a year ago, seems to have pulled up at the top of the stretch with the announcement last week that the Breeders’ Cup has scrapped its plan to enforce a ban in this year’s races.
Lasix will again be banned in only the four juvenile races while the treatment will be permitted in the 10 others, and insiders expect even the juvenile ban to be gone in another year or two. So, if there are 30,000 races in North America in 2013, Lasix will be permitted in 29,996 of them and prohibited in just four.
Regardless of which side of the thorny and divisive debate you are on, this is a stunning reversal. A year ago, Kentucky regulators were on the verge of phasing out Lasix completely but now are likelier to phase in a retreat from those rules. Efforts to enact similar legislation stalled in New York and never got off the ground in California. Numerous industry organizations have retreated from strong anti-Lasix stances.
What happened? Zealots on each side of the issue will call it a triumph of good or evil by forces of enlightenment or darkness, but it may be more valuable to examine why a movement that seemed inevitable suddenly lost its momentum. There probably are dozens of other factors, but here are five that contributed to the sputter:
◗ The willful attempt to blur the clear lines between administering a legal and regulated medication and the nefarious use of illegal and dangerous drugs to fix the outcome of races was a tactical error that alienated potential supporters who have an open mind on the topic.
Proponents of a ban consistently overstated their case and lost hearts and minds by trying to make Lasix sound inherently dangerous and linking its usage – with little veterinary evidence or support – to a supposed decline in the health and durability of the breed.
◗ The claim by proponents of a ban that Lasix use was harming the sport’s popularity was unfounded and unconvincing. After more than two decades of widespread Lasix usage, a span in which the sport had periods of both growth and decline, the argument that it had suddenly begun alienating potential customers lacked credibility. This was borne out when in 2012, a year in which racing probably received an unprecedented amount of negative coverage for medication and animal-welfare issues, American betting handle actually increased for the first time in six years.
◗ The lack of support for a Lasix ban from virtually any successful trainer left the anti-Lasix proponents not only without an influential spokesman but also with the weak and nasty rebuttal that trainers are either incompetent or shady. Even trainers who ban proponents thought shared their views said they found Lasix a useful and humane treatment.
◗ While it may be intellectually defensible (through the “playing by the existing rules” and “level playing field” arguments) to rail against the use of Lasix while continuing to race one’s own horses on it, people both inside and outside the industry found this to be a mixed message at best. Telling people to do what you say, not what you do, never goes over well in general and took the wind from the sails of the position that Lasix was so detrimental to racing that it must be banned.
◗ The argument that the United States is out of step with the rest of the world by uniquely permitting Lasix is both true and sobering, but a lack of conformity is not in and of itself a reason to change. What was needed to make that a more compelling argument was some illustration of how the United States could implement foreign procedures to replace Lasix instead of an assumption that we must be wrong.
There also continues to be a lot of misinformation surrounding comparisons between American and, in particular, European racing. It has become gospel that horses in Europe make more starts per year than American runners, and that Lasix might be to blame, when, in fact, the statistics are almost identical.
Whatever the reasons, the impetus to change Lasix policy has evaporated, but that should not mean the topic is permanently closed. Even those who have come to accept and defend its use would be hard-pressed to argue that it is commendable that American racing has gone down a path where virtually every horse is treated with it. Perhaps the next time the issue rears its head – and it will – there can be a more constructive, civilized, and informed discussion.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gary West of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Rebel proof new points system works
Those Kentucky Derby scholarships have been revoked, those free rides discontinued that would have led to a reserved stall in the starting gate. Sixteen spots for the Derby remain open and vacant; they wait to be won. And so the next five weeks could produce some of the most exciting and competitive racing ever seen on this modern interstate highway system that annually leads to Kentucky.
It’s a healthy situation for the sport, and it’s largely a result of the new point system employed by Churchill Downs. When announced last year, the new system met with skepticism and with tiresome cackles of “If it ain’t broke …” The usual parties circled around, quite predictably, to protect their own interests, whether they were the entitlements of precocious 2-year-olds or the exalted status of certain races. Only a few observers, it seemed, even acknowledged that there might be a larger question, as in whether this change would be good for racing. Well, it is. It’s very good for racing, which the upcoming weeks will demonstrate.
As you’re undoubtedly aware, points in designated races have replaced earnings in graded stakes as the criterion for determining the 20 Kentucky Derby starters. But why is that improvement, and why is it salubrious for the sport?
If the earlier method were still employed today, then at least 12 Triple Crown nominees, not counting fillies or injured horses, such as Violence and Ive Struck A Nerve, would already have a bankroll large enough to virtually guarantee them a run at the famed roses. Even worse, they wouldn’t necessarily be the 12 most worthy horses, nor would they be the fans’ most desirable dozen.
He’s Had Enough, for example, has $442,000 in graded earnings, most of that ($360,000) from his runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, a race that nearly disintegrated in the overheated turbulence of its pace. Under the graded-earnings criterion, that $442,000 would have reserved him a starting spot in the Kentucky Derby.
Last year, with earnings in graded stakes of $184,708, Optimizer was the 20th horse to qualify for the Derby. In 2010, Make Music For Me needed $218,750 in graded earnings to gain the 20th spot in the Derby, and that was the most ever required.
In other words, under the former rules, He’s Had Enough would have earned all he needed in the Juvenile; he, in effect, would have won a Kentucky Derby scholarship by finishing second last November at Santa Anita. But does he deserve a scholarship, a free ride into the Derby? Should he already have a reserved stall in the starting gate and a saddle towel adorned with a Derby logo and his name? After all, he has won only once in his career, a maiden race in his debut. And since the Breeders’ Cup, he has finished fifth in the CashCall Futurity, third (which was also next to last) in the Robert Lewis Stakes and fifth in the Fountain of Youth, beaten by a total of nearly 27 lengths.
Does Fortify deserve a scholarship? With $220,000 in graded earnings as a 2-year-old, he would have had one under the former system, even though he has won only once in his career and finished sixth in his most recent outing in Dubai.
In the new qualifying format, a horse might need something around 40 points to assure himself a place in the roseate lineup. He’s Had Enough has six points and Fortify three, but with 12 races remaining that offer points, they still have the opportunity to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby, and that’s, well, the point. The new system is more meritocratic.
And, in fact, it was indeed broken, that old system for determining the Derby starters. For evidence of that, just look at the leading graded money winners among this year’s Triple Crown nominees and ask yourself how many of the top 20 should run in the Kentucky Derby.
Grades were never intended to be used for winnowing the Derby chaff from the Derby contenders. Success in a six-furlong race for 2-year-olds or in a turf race, no matter what their grades, isn’t predictive of success in the Kentucky Derby. And, frankly, Churchill Downs was foolish ever to allow the Graded Stakes Committee to determine who runs in the Derby. Why would you throw a million-dollar party and let some committee in Lexington make out the guest list?
But with its point system, Churchill took possession of its Derby this year, and the consequences of that decision are already looking very positive. Only four horses — Hear The Ghost, Orb, Verrazano and Vyjack, who all have 50 points — are already in the Derby.
And so, 16 spots are open with 12 races remaining. That’s the sort of drama fans love. Does the new system place too much emphasis on these final races, which are worth more points than earlier preps?
Pondering that question and having realized that the foremost Triple Crown candidate in his barn, Uncaptured, would have, because of a minor injury, only two races prior to the Derby, trainer Mark Casse said, “If a horse can’t run well in either of his final preps, then he shouldn’t be in the Derby.”
If that seems apostasy, it’s because the Derby scholarship has become so accepted. But the scholarships have been revoked and the free rides discontinued.
No, this year, for many, getting into the Derby comes down to these final prep races. Momentum is building; stakes are rising. To reserve a place for himself in the Churchill starting gate, Shanghai Bobby needs another good outing in the Florida Derby, but is that too much to ask of a champion? Revolutionary needs a one-two finish in the Louisiana Derby, Normandy Invasion needs to put his troubles behind him in the Wood, and Uncaptured must return with his best form in either the Spiral or the Blue Grass if they’re to earn their way into the Kentucky Derby.
These final preps are going to reverberate with drama and intrigue. Just look at Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, worth 50 points to the winner, which, of course, is tantamount to a berth in the Kentucky Derby.
Super Ninety Nine, who won the Southwest Stakes in a romp, has returned from California and appears formidable, even intimidating, but few have backed down. In fact, the field is laden with speed, with the sort of horses that could challenge Super Ninety Nine early. Delhomme, for example, who finished third after leading until deep stretch in the Remsen, is making his seasonal debut. Oxbow, who won the Lecomte Stakes by more than 11 lengths before a troubled trip and a fourth in the Risen Star Stakes, could also challenge. Treasury Bill and Den’s Legacy would probably benefit from a lively and contentious pace, and then there’s Carve, an intriguing sort if only because he’s unbeaten.
It’s a terrific race, this Rebel, and it’s just the next step in this progression. Partly because of a new point system, the next five weeks could offer some of the most exciting and competitive racing ever seen on this modern thoroughfare that leads to Kentucky.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Paul Moran of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
The Kentucky Derby Mystique
By late afternoon, the shadows lengthened, 20 horses appear at the gap above the first turn on the Churchill Downs backstretch, gleaming, face to face at last with the moment in their young lives that will either define them forever in history or leave them little more than footnotes among thousands in the Kentucky Derby’s ether.
The ritual begins with the walkover, the procession every owner of a thoroughbred aspires to experience. For the moment, the playing field is level and the attention of an assemblage of humanity in all its forms that spans at least three time zones becomes fixed upon the combatants. At the track, cheers of encouragement ebb and flow, a reflection of status in the betting pools and success in races that began in January and, furlong upon furlong, are now at their backs on the “Road to the Derby,” a thoroughfare with far more egress than access.
By then, Churchill Downs quivers in electric anticipation, a communal, even tribal preparation for what will follow. The field, accompanied with solemn humans aware of the magnitude of what will come within the hour, is led into the tight saddling enclosure, packed with the connected and those in the entourage, encircled by those who that morning had claimed a vantage point from which to view the Derby horses and exercised the timeless right of squatters. Once led through the tunnel and onto the racetrack, jockeys astride, they are gone from sight to most without very expensive seating accommodations — into the noise. Even for those so privileged, watching the unfolding scene unencumbered is a stretch of concentration.
Whether the epidemic, well-documented weeping that underscores the chorus of “My Old Kentucky Home” that accompanies the parade to the post is the product of nostalgia, bourbon, beer or random emotion is a matter of speculation, but it happens as anticipation gathers momentum, spreads through the crowd and ripples over an infield packed cheek to jowl with besotted revelers who arrived at first light, have not seen a horse race all day and will have no view of the Derby. Who cares? We’re here!
The first Saturday of March is yet at hand, its springtime counterpart two full months away, and already the search has begun. Snow covers much of Arizona, a blizzard rages in the Midwest and tornados threaten the South. Distractions will not deter the search for a Derby horse, the gem plucked from a thicket. More than 350 3-year-old thoroughbreds, most yet unknown, remain eligible. Several will have raced in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, in Florida, where Orb raised his profile in a very big way, or in the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans, which deepened the confusion in the South on Saturday last, revealing something perhaps or perhaps not. This is, after all, the point at which confusion becomes part of the equation.
Then, turn to the to-do list. Make reservations for a weekend in May in Louisville — travel, hotels, restaurants, all at three times the usual price. Women shop for elegant hats they will not wear twice. The less ambitious, affluent, locale or duty-bound plan parties in their homes, and these, too, have become traditions at once raucous, solemn and mandatory. From Saratoga Springs to San Diego, there is a celebration, it seems, on every block.
It is not quite clear exactly the point at which the Kentucky Derby became an American icon rather than merely a big day in a niche sport, but it has been so longer than any of us have walked the earth. Perhaps, though, it is a singular enduring vestige of a time when racing was much more than a niche sport, when its giants were superstars on a greater stage. Those days long gone, the Derby remains part of the American tapestry, a cultural anomaly in these times but nevertheless eternal.
“This is the week when dear ladies in Shawano, Wis., get to know about sports figures named Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster,” the legendary New York Times columnist Red Smith wrote in 1979. “Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster are thoroughbred race horses and there are vast and sinless areas in this country where they and their like are regarded as instruments of Satan 51 weeks a year. Then comes the week of the Kentucky Derby, and sinless newspapers that wouldn’t mention a horse any other time unless he kicked the mayor to death are full of information about steeds that will run and the people they will run for at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May.”
The aura of the Derby has outlasted the useful print media and the racing writer is all but extinct in the realm of the American daily newspaper, the gap filled nowadays by television and online sources. Smith likely never heard words such as blog and Twitter. The Derby, however, remains undoubtedly — stubbornly — the most anticipated two minutes in American sport, part of the culture. But no one has ever fully explained how the Derby became the most popular and high-profile horse race run in the Western Hemisphere, with interest that has been expanded to Europe and even Asia.
“This is a day for anyone involved with horses,” said Bill Turner, who trained the undefeated 1977 Derby and Triple Crown winner, Seattle Slew. “There’s nothing like it.”
But it is much more than a day for anyone involved with horses. For them, it is Christmas in May, the focus of all existence. For the rest of the nation, it is Mardi Gras in springtime.
Explaining the Derby’s enduring and in fact growing popularity is a matter of conjecture. Many, human and equine, have contributed to its evolution. But the most durable explanation is that Col. Matt Winn, who operated Churchill Downs for a half century, was a master showman who took the Derby from local celebration to the national stage by luring the most prominent sports journalists of the era to Louisville, paying expenses and supplying entertainment that endeared the river town, the racetrack and its leader to the ink-stained wretches who availed themselves unabashedly to the copious largesse and spread the word to those in the nation’s largest cities, where racing fans lived.
The truth is that Wynn was a Louisville tailor who before taking the leadership of Churchill Downs promoted racing at Empire City in Yonkers, N.Y., a harness track, and Juarez in Mexico — a skilled promoter and student of human nature both consumptive and carnal, but perhaps not the visionary that stands embellished in time and Derby lore, a work still in progress. Undoubtedly, Winn never envisioned the 21st century fruit of the seeds he had sewn.
Winn, however, cannot be denied a singular success pivotal to the Derby’s ascent in the national sporting conscience. He lured the connections of celebrated champion 2-year-old filly Regret, who was based in the East and had yet to race as a 3-year-old, to the Derby of 1915.
When jockey Joe Notter brought Regret home a two-length winner and she became the first filly to triumph in the Derby, it brought a floodtide of national attention to the race. Even then, truly great fillies held a special place in the public heart.
“The race needed only a victory by Regret to create some more coast-to-coast publicity to really put it over,” Winn said after Regret’s popular triumph. “She did not fail us. Regret made the Kentucky Derby an American institution.”
And so it remains.
Racing’s burgeoning transcontinental popularity during the Great Depression and into the post World War II era, when it competed for public attention only with baseball and boxing, contributed mightily to the Derby’s entrenchment in the sporting landscape, a period during which Omaha, War Admiral, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation would win the big race in Louisville and Triple Crown long before that designation was imparted to the sweep of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Television, still in its infancy during the 1950s, played a huge role in expanding the Derby’s sphere, bringing to American homes not only the race itself, but introducing the significant players during broadcasts of preliminary races to winter-bound cities with no more than one or two stations. The emerging technology of the time failed to fully convey the experience and still fails in the present age of the high-definition flat-screen and surround sound.
John Steinbeck, the novelist, wrote this after attending the Derby for the first time and experiencing Needles’ win in 1956:
“By the time this is written, there will be few people in the nation who will not have seen the race on television or heard it on radio, and they will all have felt to some extent the bursting emotion at Churchill Downs. Every step of the great Needles will have been discussed — how he dawdled along trailing the field for two-thirds of the course, then fired himself like a torpedo past the screaming stands and the straining horses to win while the balloon of tension swelled and burst and it was all over.
“Now there is a languor. Over a hundred thousand hearts are more spent than Needles’ heart, and some of them split and their owners on the way to the hospital or the morgue.
“I am fulfilled and weary. This Kentucky Derby, whatever it is — a race, an emotion, a turbulence, an explosion — is one of the most beautiful and violent and satisfying things I have ever experienced. And I suspect that, as with other wonders, the people one by one have taken from it exactly as much good or evil as they brought to it.
“What an experience. I am glad I have seen and felt it at last.”
Steinbeck’s experience is shared and understood fully by anyone who has been at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of any May and was still sober at post time. The place during that two minutes engulfs the consciousness, overwhelms the senses, making it all but impossible to hear anything except a building roar or remain fully aware of what transpires on the racetrack until the horses are in direct view. It is possible to identify the animal about to be enshrined in the Louisville pantheon, and even then you wait to watch the replay before you are certain of the outcome. Literally, the building if not the ground beneath shakes. The experience is enveloping, every witness immersed entirely, a rapture two minutes long that reaches crescendo as the leader enters the final furlong, screams to the heavens and fades slowly in an almost languorous sweetness.
At some point, the leaders of Churchill Downs, a group during most of the track’s long history far less straight-backed and corporate than the one that has come to power, discovered that celebrity sells an image. What the late seminal gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson depicted as decadent in an early ’70s account of the Derby lives today, represented by Millionaires’ Row, where celebrities, entertainers, athletes and titans of industry celebrate the day apart from the merely wealthy and sufficiently affluent who have secured less exclusive dining options. With the possible exception of the Super Bowl, no American sporting event attracts a wider array of famous and beautiful people lured from Hollywood and Broadway not only by the race and ritual ribaldry, but also by the largesse that in another time, at Col. Winn’s behest, lured prominent media figures to cover the Derby and spread its gospel. Priority and the Derby’s public face have been transformed, but not the eventual result.
The cognoscenti began the search for the 2013 Derby winner last year, at Saratoga, Belmont Park, Keeneland and Santa Anita, hoping to identify true 10-furlong-in-May talent in eight furlongs of September. Others take up the quest in January in hope of placing an ante-post wager that will produce a handsome profit. Sometimes, being the smartest person at the neighborhood Derby party is sufficient.
Whatever the vantage point or accommodation in various weathers, they have witnessed unforgettable performances by truly great thoroughbreds — Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Barbaro — horses they will never forget at their best on unforgettable afternoons in Kentucky. At its very heart, the Derby is about the breed and the place.
The eternal pursuit of the nearly impossible, for those involved with horses, is no less a siren now than it has ever been. For them, every thoroughbred foal is three years from a destiny realized by only one. For others, the Derby endures because it is eight months of speculation leading to a moment of truth; two minutes of a year shared by a nation and much of the world; attention undivided by global tensions, politics or the financial markets. It is true purity of competition among horses born to this moment with all odds against, a purity to which we all aspire but few capture, something somehow beyond full human understanding.
Or even, perhaps, explanation.
WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?
This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Mike Veitch of The Saratogian…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!
Woodbine Racetrack’s slots and racing coming to an end
What is the Ontario government thinking?
Injured by a bitter political dispute, the model program of slots and racing at Woodbine in Toronto is coming to an end next month.
Widely viewed as the most successful marriage of its kind, the Woodbine example produced the highest gross purses in North America, and attracted leading owners from the United States to participate in quality racing at a marvelous facility.
Since the institution of track slots in 2000, Woodbine has paid out, on average, some $500,000 per day during the racing season of early April to early December.
The partnership ends on Mar. 31, and Woodbine reacted by eliminating more than 100 jobs on Thursday.
Woodbine has also reduced the number of days it is racing in 2013, resulting in lower gross purses for the season.
You can expect the stakes program to take a hit, although major events like the Queen’s Plate, Woodbine Mile Day, and Canadian International Day will remain this year.
“This is our problem,” said leading Woodbine horseman Reade Baker, a Sovereign Award winner as his nation’s leading conditioner and the trainer of Canadian Horses of the Year Biofuel and Fatal Bullet.
Baker was not only referring to Woodbine, but to all of racing, which is under attack from hostile politicians and activists who do not understand the game.
I fear the Woodbine move is only the beginning, for as the racing purses decline, owners and trainers are going to follow with layoffs of their own.
“This really hurts and it is extremely unfortunate,” said Baker. “I’ve known some of these people for 30 years and from where I stand they are good employees. This is a heartbreaking situation.”
One insider at Woodbine described the situation to me as “chaos,” and was clearly jolted by the job cuts, even though that sword has been hanging for the last several months.
Baker noted that racing still fights an age-old perception that is is controlled by wealthy people, when in fact most owners lose money.
And it is the dedication of those owners that supports jobs on the backstretch, where the life of thoroughbred training takes place and where these majestic athletes receive wonderful care.
Not that I’m expecting government officials to grasp that fact anytime soon.
But I do expect government officials to not use words like “subsidy” to describe the slots program at Woodbine.
When the Province of Ontario wanted to expand gambling in the 1990’s, Woodbine, under the leadership of David Willmot, stepped forward and urged the government to use the track as the socially responsible thing to do.
Further, the government would not have to find space and pay rent, but rather have a ready facility at Woodbine for slot machines.
To that end, Woodbine invested $400 million at the track for the slots component, money that the government did not have to spend.
Does that sound like a government subsidy?
As part of the deal, purses at Woodbine increased, creating a better racing product that in turn produced more pari-mutuel revenue to the government.
In their argument about ending the program, politicians pitted racing against education and health care, conveniently overlooking the benefits to both from the partnership.
Since the Woodbine slots program got underway, the provincial government has realized $17 billion and the participating tracks $4 billion.
Does that sound like a government subsidy?
What it sounds like to me is that the provincial government is going to wreck a program that is working, one that has provided employment, and one that has returned much more to Ontario than the $4 billion that the tracks have received.
The aforementioned owners from this side of the border will be making fewer trips to Toronto, meaning less revenue to hotels and restaurants.
As purses decline, they will gradually reduce their presence on the daily racing programs at Woodbine.
This is a very serious hit to thoroughbred racing, reflective of how the game continues to fall in the public arena.
Woodbine’s owners and trainers are our neighbors, and they support Saratoga racing.
Roger Attfield, Kinghaven Farm, Sam-Son Farm, Mark Frostad, Brian Lynch, Debbie England, Josie Carroll, Ralph Biamonte, and Baker come to mind immediately.
And there is a historic relationship between New York and Canadian racing, especially when it comes to Saratoga Race Course.
When legislation shut down New York racing during 1911-1912, many Saratoga owners raced at Canadian tracks such as Fort Erie, Hamilton, Blue Bonnets, and Windsor.
Racing immortals Man o’ War and Secretariat, both winners of the Hopeful Stakes, made their final career starts in Canada.
Do not think for one moment that we who love racing can ignore what is happening at Woodbine.
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Del Mar considering fall racing dates
DEL MAR — It’s been apparent for some time that horseracing’s days are numbered at Betfair Hollywood Park, but only recently have tracks in Southern California begun to address it, starting with Del Mar and Los Alamitos in Orange County.
Joe Harper, president and CEO of the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club, said Del Mar would like to host a short fall meeting so long as it included the Breeders’ Cup dates in late October or early November. Del Mar plans to expand and install a new turf course for the 2014 meeting and has designs on hosting the Breeders’ Cup Championships as early as November, 2015.
Los Alamitos would like to house more horses and stage more thoroughbred racing and training in addition to its year-round night racing for quarter horses, according to a recent article in Bloodhorse Magazine. Los Alamitos officials plan a $12 million expansion that will add 700 horse stalls to the 300 stalls they currently have dedicated to present thoroughbred racing. They’ll also improve a grandstand that holds 15,000 spectators now. Los Alamitos currently houses 1,100 quarter horses.
Harper said Los Alamitos would be a good location for a limited, three-days-a-week meeting in the spring and a year-round venue for training.
“A year-round training facility won’t work at Del Mar,” Harper said. “It won’t work at Santa Anita. Los Alamitos, from my point of view, is the best place. We have a very good relationship with (track executive and consultant) Brad McKinzie and Doc Allred (owner of the track). Doc’s word is his bond. We’d love to do business with them.
“But for us, any expansion of dates will be done with one thing in mind,” Harper added. “Don’t screw around with the summer meeting. Those dates work great. So we’re not going mess with that at all.”
The matter was discussed Tuesday at the Del Mar Race Track Authority and Race Track Leasing Commission meeting. Tim Fennell, CEO and general manager of the Del Mar Fairgrounds and Racetrack, said he would be in favor of additional dates in the fall for racing. Any expansion of racing would have to go through a series of state governing bodies, but Fennell said he would push for the approvals.
Harper said Del Mar’s fall racing would be an “Oak Tree-type meeting.” Santa Anita Park hosted the fall meeting and the Breeders’ Cup last November and will do so again this November. Del Mar has been in discussions with the Breeders’ Cup and sent a proposal last spring in hopes of luring a future world championship to the surfside track.
For now, Del Mar has no plans to add racing until Betfair Hollywood Park is closed. Bay Meadows Land Co., which owns the track’s 238-acre site, has been approved for a $2 billion commercial and retail development on the site. But financing has been an issue. Bay Meadows refused to commit to more racing after its racing meet ends in December.
Fairplex Park in Pomona was considered the ideal place to expand thoroughbred racing and add additional stalls for stabling the horses that will be stall-less when Hollywood Park closes. But Fairplex Park officials withdrew from consideration as an alternative to Hollywood Park, leaving the industry scrambling to find another year-round stabling and training venue.
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