Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 5, 2013

From Start To Finish, A Window Into Racing’s Past

In this country thoroughbred horse racing long since passed into the netherworld of sports. While it remains vibrant in parts of Europe and the Middle East and especially in Great Britain, here the sport is an afterthought on all but a few days of the year. Racetracks that once thrived now either stand empty or rely on simulcasting or other forms of gambling to stay alive.

Once there were two tracks within an hour’s drive of the New Hampshire seacoast. Rockingham Park twice hosted Seabiscuit in the 1930s and was where Mom’s Command, the 1985 U.S. Champion 3-Year Old Filly, began her career. But the Rock hasn’t seen live racing in years. The only action now is in the form of simulcasting from other tracks and a poker room.

Down in East Boston, hard by the runways of Logan Airport, Suffolk Downs still ekes out an existence. The live racing season runs for five months beginning on June 1st. But even on the best of days during its meet vast portions of the track’s grandstand will be cordoned off and empty. The Massachusetts Handicap was once the premier horse race in New England, won by the likes of Riva Ridge, Cigar, and Skip Away. But it’s been five years since the last MassCap, the track’s ownership no longer able to afford the cost of staging a graded stakes race. Instead the future of Suffolk Downs likely hinges on whether a proposed destination resort casino finds favor with state regulators.

It’s a similar story at tracks all across the country, though the casual sports fan who thinks of horse racing perhaps four times a year might not know it. When one tunes in to the three Triple Crown races in late spring or the Breeders’ Cup in the fall one sees packed grandstands and crowded infields. This weekend torrential rains in Louisville didn’t deter more than 150,000 from coming out for the Kentucky Derby. But even Churchill Downs, the most famous racetrack in the country, located in the heart of horse country, will do well to draw ten percent of that number on many days of its spring meet.

Churchill Downs, Inc., the company that runs the track, has adapted to the industry’s long decline. Less than a decade ago it was a pure racing company that owned seven tracks running 650 days of racing. Today it owns four tracks with half as many days of live racing. But in the same period corporate revenue nearly doubled, as the company added slots parlors at some of its tracks and invested in a pair of full-scale casinos in Mississippi that are far from any racetrack. In keeping with the times CDI also moved into online gaming and now owns the country’s most successful Internet betting site. Even as horse racing has become less and less central to CDI’s corporate identity investors have cheered. The company’s stock price has risen by more than 50 percent over the past five years.

What the casual fan saw this weekend was little more than an illusion. The reality at most tracks is a thin crowd of often down on their luck punters, likely paying more attention to a television screen simulcasting a race from across the country than to the live action taking place out on the oval. It’s not a pretty picture, so perhaps it’s understandable that even those who make their living in horse racing would rather focus on the illusion. What we saw in Louisville on Saturday, and will see again in Baltimore in two weeks, on Long Island on the second Saturday in June, and finally in southern California next November, was a glimpse into another time; a glimmering glance into an era that has faded into history, and isn’t coming back.

There were the throngs of people, young and old, knowledgeable and neophyte, out to enjoy a day at the races. There were celebrities by the dozens, their presence stamping the event as one important to the popular culture. There were men in expensive suits and ladies attired in evening wear, their fancy dresses accessorized with hats that seem to grow larger and more elaborate with each passing year. There were vat loads of mint juleps, the overly sweet cocktail that for a day thousands of adults would profess to love. There was “My Old Kentucky Home” during the post parade, the song’s expurgated lyrics no longer quite capturing Stephen Foster’s original lament about the conditions of slavery.

Finally of course there was a horse race. The three races that make up the Triple Crown are notoriously hard to handicap, and, as evidenced by the facts that only eleven horses have won all three since Sir Barton first turned the trick in 1919 and none has done so in 35 years, every bit as difficult to win. That’s in part because they are run by 3-year olds, adolescents on four legs who like their human counterparts develop at different rates and can be subject to wild mood swings.

The Belmont Stakes, the last of the three, is run at a mile and one-half. It is an unheard of distance in American racing, one that none of the horses will ever run save for that one effort in New York in June. For any that race in all three legs of the Triple Crown, the Belmont will be their third race in five weeks. While that would not have been unusual in the age that this weekend’s crowds recalled, it is a monumental test for today’s lightly raced thoroughbreds. Verrazano, one of the early favorites for this year’s Derby, did not race at all as a 2-year old.

The Preakness Stakes, the Triple Crown’s middle jewel, is run just two weeks after the Derby. None of the horses that enter both will have ever been called upon to race in such quick succession, which is why Triple Crown dreams often die in Baltimore when a fresh horse who passed on the Derby crosses the finish line first.

At a mile and one-quarter, the Kentucky Derby is shorter than the Belmont; but when the horses break from the gate it is the longest race any have run to that point in their careers, by at least an eighth of a mile. It is the first time that any will race in front of so many people making so much noise. At twenty horses (nineteen this year because of the late scratch of Black Onyx), the Derby also has by far the largest field of any race the horses will ever enter. When the starting gate opens there is a cavalry charge down the long front stretch at Churchill Downs. Superior horses and the best laid plans of trainers and jockeys have all come a cropper in the bumping and jostling of the first few hundred yards.

Yet against those odds this year the handicappers had it right. The morning line pick that fell to third choice at one point in the early wagering, Orb was the 5:1 favorite when the gate sprung open. Settling well back of a torrid pace set by Palace Malice, Orb was far behind the leader as the field raced down the back stretch. But Palace Malice was turning in blazing fractions over a racetrack made of muck, and he and every horse who attempted to stay with him were doomed from the start. When the field turned for home it was Orb with hot young jockey Joel Rosario aboard who led a trio of late closers, including long-shot Golden Soul and Revolutionary across the finish line.

With Derby Day being a reminder of horse racing’s past far more than a view into its present, Orb’s victory was especially appropriate. It was the first Derby win for Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, and for the Phipps family that owns the horse. Both are among the aristocracy of American thoroughbred racing, having contributed greatly to the sport for decades even as they have seen it decline. The sport today is heavy with nouveau riche owners with money to burn who hunger for a Derby winner. They are supported by trainers who rely too heavily on needles instead of instinct when it comes to preparing horses to race. Such owners and trainers are part of the reason why racing continues its long death march. Shug McGaughey and the Phipps family are their antithesis, and on Saturday they claimed a victory long overdue. In the end all that was missing were sepia-tinted filters for NBC’s cameras.

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