Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 7, 2010

No Fairy Tale Ending In Louisville

Outside of the five week period every spring when the sporting world focuses on the three Triple Crown races, American horse racing spends most of the year out of sight and out of mind to most sports fans. Even big name tracks like Pimlico and Aqueduct have faced severe financial problems in recent years; and the big name tracks are far outnumbered by aging, hardscrabble ovals. Most of the latter cling desperately to the allure of simulcast betting and slot machines as financial panaceas, with actual live racing more and more of an afterthought. But for one weekend every autumn thoroughbreds gallop back into the consciousness of sports fans with the running of the Breeders’ Cup World Championship races.

Begun in 1984 as a single-day event, the Breeders’ Cup expanded to two days in 2007. Moved around from one major track to another, this year’s season-ending championships were held at Churchill Downs. Home to the Kentucky Derby the first Saturday in May, Churchill’s twin spires make the track’s venerable clubhouse one of the most recognizable sights in horse racing.

But if attention is going to be paid to a sport long in decline, devotees of that sport would obviously hope to put on a positive and inspiring show; one that might attract a new fan or two. By that standard, these were decidedly not the Breeders’ Cup World Championships that horse racing needed.

The trouble began right at the beginning. In the winner’s circle Friday after the 1 ¾ mile Marathon, the very first of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races, a fight broke out between jockeys Calvin Borel and Javier Castellano. Borel was incensed that Castellano had steered his mount, Prince Will I Am, right in front of Borel’s A.U. Miner at the top of the stretch. In the end Prince Will I Am was disqualified, and A.U. Miner was moved up to 3rd, but not before video of Churchill Downs’ first ever boxing match was spreading across YouTube more rapidly than video of any of Friday’s races.

The day ended with Unrivaled Belle winning the 1 1/8th mile Ladies Classic. But that result was overshadowed by the question of whether one of the pre-race favorites, Life at Ten, should have run. During the pre-race warm-up jockey John Valazquez told ESPN that Life at Ten did not feel right. State veterinarians observing the warm-up took no action, and Valazquez basically nursed the horse around the oval to finish a distant last. Trainer Todd Pletcher later acknowledged that the filly hadn’t seemed like herself in the paddock, and probably should not have run.

Horse racing fans no doubt hoped that a new day would bring better results. But in the first race Saturday, the Juvenile Turf, a one mile race with a $1 million purse, 2-year old Rough Sailing had worse than that. His back end slipped out from under him in the clubhouse turn and the horse went down hard, spilling jockey Rosie Napravnik. Napravnik bounced up off the turf and was fine, but it was later determined that Rough Sailing had fractured his shoulder. The horse had to be euthanized.

That tragedy was followed by the $2 million Sprint, a 6 furlong dash won by Big Drama, who led from the opening of the gate right through to the wire. But aboard Atta Boy Roy, jockey Borel eased up immediately after crossing the line. Borel quickly dismounted and signaled for help. A splint was placed on the horse’s right front leg and he was loaded aboard the equine ambulance to be taken back to the barn for x-rays. When the preliminary report was that the horse was uninjured, the ABC television announcers candidly acknowledged that “we really needed to hear that good news.” That first report was later amended to Atta Boy Roy having sustained some ligament damage; but at least the horse was in no danger.

The two days of racing were not wholly devoid of inspiration. Certainly ABC and ESPN did their best in the intervals between races, presenting a series of feel-good vignettes on everything from the making of the recently released feature film about Secretariat to the unexpected career blossoming of little-known trainer Carl O’Callaghan.

The racing itself had its moments as well. With John Velazquez aboard, Uncle Mo won the 1 1/16 mile Juvenile easily, finishing his 2-year old campaign a perfect 3 for 3. There will be many twists and turns through winter and early spring before Churchill Downs is again the center of attention next May. The chances of injury or disappointment are great. But at least for now, horse racing has an early favorite for next year’s Derby in the body of the Todd Pletcher trained colt.

And there was at least one pure moment of unadulterated joy under the Kentucky sun. In the Turf Mile, Goldikova was attempting to become the first three-time repeat winner in Breeders’ Cup history. Bred in Ireland, Goldikova is owned by a pair of billionaire French brothers and trained by French trainer and former jockey Freddy Head. In the early days of the Championships Head was the first jockey to win multiple races.

As the horses turned for home on the inner turf course, the five year old Goldikova seemed too far back. But she accelerated at the top of the stretch with a tremendous burst of speed, storming down the track and into history. After the race, television showed video of Goldikova’s groom, who was waiting on the outer dirt track with all of the field’s handlers. Unable to contain himself as the horses made their final charge, he could be seen running madly alone down the dirt stretch, leaping and shouting as his mare ran to victory.

In the end of course, all of this was but prelude. For the 2010 Breeders’ Cup could fairly have been renamed the Zenyatta Cup. The six year old mare, with the perfect 19-0 lifetime record, was making her final start before retirement. For the American horse racing industry, a Zenyatta triumph would have meant history made in front of millions of casual fans. It would have made everyone forget the farce that began day one and the recklessness that ended it. It would have been a balm on the pain of a horse going down early on the second day. It would have been far, far more important than an impressive but decidedly lesser bit of history being made by another mare, but an unfamiliar one from Europe.

It would have been all of those things. Except that it was not to be. During the warm-up jockey Mike Smith reported that Zenyatta was “on edge.” But he assured everyone that his horse was not getting overheated, and he sounded quietly confident. At the break Zenyatta was squeezed by the horses on either side of her and she immediately fell to the rear. That of course is her racing style, and fans are accustomed to seeing her trail the pack down the back stretch. But on Saturday she was more than 20 lengths behind, and Smith was urging her on earlier than usual.

Around the final turn it seemed impossible. There were too many horses to pass, and too much ground to make up. Against all odds the giant mare found her way between horses and then began her trademark stretch run down the middle of the track, making up ground with each of her giant strides. But in this race she was trying to run down Blame. The four year old colt had won four of five races as a three year old despite not starting his campaign until mid-year. In 2010 he had won three of four starts. His co-owner is historic Claiborne Farm, birthplace of Seabiscuit and burial ground of Secretariat.

Perhaps he summoned forth the strength of those great colts to defeat the mare. Perhaps Zenyatta, in just her third race on dirt instead of the artificial surfaces common in California, wasn’t entirely happy with the track. Perhaps it was the bad racing luck of the great mare getting squeezed back in the first few strides out of the gate. Perhaps, on what would have been an historic day for horse racing, Blame was simply, by a head, the better horse.

After history was not made, after a weekend of tragedy and farce was not rescued by one final run to glory, the television cameras showed in the distance a gorgeous purple and pink sunset. But I couldn’t help but think that a sunset, with its inevitable sense of finality and closure, was not the lasting image horse racing was hoping to provide this weekend.

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