Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 2, 2021

Darkness And Light, Racing To The Wire

Elegance and nobility, seediness and sleaze.  Like two thoroughbreds charging neck-and-neck toward the finish line, the disparate elements of horse racing are never far apart.  It is impossible, even for the most ardent fan – not that there are all that many of those – to recognize one without seeing the other.  That is true even on the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, during the single event most synonymous with the sport.

The good news is that the Kentucky Derby went off as scheduled this year, and it will be followed in two weeks by the Preakness Stakes, with the Belmont Stakes concluding the familiar triad of the Triple Crown on the first weekend in June.  The sequence and timing of these preeminent contests for three-year-old’s was upended last year, done in like so much else in sports by the COVID-19 pandemic.  In 2020 the Belmont, shortened to a mile and an eighth and delayed by two weeks, was the Triple Crown’s opening leg for the first time ever.  The field didn’t break from the gate for the Derby until more than two months later, on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend, and it was another month before the Preakness was held in early October.  The stands at Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, and Pimlico were essentially empty for each race, with attendance limited to track employees and the immediate connections of the horses.

Thus the return of the normal schedule, and even more important, the return of fans, were both signs of the country’s continued progress against the virus.  Just over 50,000 spectators were on hand at the Louisville track, and while that is only about one-third of the Derby’s typical attendance, it was likely the single biggest crowd for a sporting event since the world turned upside down nearly fourteen months ago.

Part of horse racing’s allure is its endless promise of possibility.  The betting public may anoint a favorite, the wise guys who hang out in the back stretch barns may dismiss this or that longshot, but until the gate opens and the horses start their dash, until the field turns for home, until the final furlong is covered and one jockey brings his mount first under the wire, any result is possible.

That certainty meant it was by no means time wasted if one chose to dwell on the significance of Kendrick Carmouche, finally getting his very first ride in the Derby at age 37, guiding the 30-1 longshot Bourbonic to victory.  That result would make Carmouche the first black jockey to win the Kentucky Derby since 1902.  Just the possibility reminded fans that African-American jockeys played major roles in the early history of American horse racing.  Oliver Lewis, a black man, was aboard Aristides in 1875 when that colt became the first on the long list of Derby winners.  Over the next 28 years more than half the winning riders were black, but there have been none since.  Today Carmouche is the rare African-American in the profession, but his ride on Saturday was no exercise in tokenism.  He was the leading jockey at Aqueduct last fall and is 7th in the nation in earnings this year.  

For those who prefer shorter odds, it was fine to imagine redemption for Luis Saez, who saddled the favorite Essential Quality.  The last time the Derby was run in front of fans, it was Saez who heard the awesome roar as he finished first aboard Maximum Security.  But on that rainy Saturday in 2019, Saez’s mount had been spooked by a puddle on the track near the top of the stretch.  Maximum Security veered hard right to avoid the water, and in so doing rammed another horse, with a domino effect to those charging from behind.  Almost half an hour after the race ended, Saez and his mount became the first Derby winners to be taken down, disqualified for interference.  Two years later, but in the very next Derby in front of fans, Essential Quality’s 5-2 odds said that Saez had an excellent second chance.

If one looked beyond the jockeys, there was Vicki Oliver saddling Hidden Stash, thus the possibility of a woman trainer finally winning the Derby.  Or there was Medina Spirit, a horse that sold for the paltry sum of $1,000 as a yearling, and that was later purchased by its current owner for the barely more significant total of $35,000, numbers that one normally associates with horses entered in claiming races at hardscrabble racetracks rather than the twelfth race at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

But to consider Carmouche, one must also think about “My Old Kentucky Home,” the song played every year as the horses come out of the tunnel from the paddock and parade onto the track.  While the profoundly racist original lyrics of the Stephen Foster anthem have been cleaned up, the song remains hurtful for many.  It is true that in the context of its time, Frederick Douglass praised the old lament, but it is equally true that what matters is not the context of 1855, but of 2021.

Or if one dwells on Saez, then Maximum Security’s trainer Jason Servis cannot be ignored.  Along with 27 others, Servis is currently under federal indictment on charges alleging a broad scheme to manufacture, distribute and administer illegal substances to racehorses in multiple states.  One happy consequence of the 2019 Derby result was that news of those indictments last March did not include the phrase “trainer of the reigning Kentucky Derby winner.”  And if the subject is Saez’s mount, the favorite Essential Quality, then attention turns to the horse’s owner, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.  After pouring millions into the sport, the Sheikh is revered in horse racing circles.  But human rights organizations are far more concerned about the whereabouts of Princess Latifa, one of his daughters who was seized while trying to flee Dubai in 2018 and hasn’t been seen in public since.

In the end of course, the story is about the race, and there little Medina Spirit, smaller than most of his competitors, had the final say.  Sent to the lead by John Velazquez from the start, Medina Spirit was challenged first on the far turn by Mandaloun, and then in the final strides when that horse was joined by Hot Rod Charlie and Essential Quality.  The four charged together down the final yards before the doughty leader turned the other three away, winning by half a length. 

But while the tale of a $1,000 yearling winning America’s premier horse race has enormous appeal, part of that story is also the record-setting 7th Derby win for the silver-haired charmer, trainer Bob Baffert.  The face of horse racing to casual fans, Baffert’s record in the sport’s biggest events is unmatched.  Unfortunately, the larger record of his stable is also littered with incidents of positive doping tests and suspensions in multiple states.  To be clear, there is nothing that approaches the charges leveled against Servis, and unlike the Sheikh, the whereabouts of Baffert’s family members are not in question.  Still, any fan who thought the story of Medina Spirit’s victory in the Kentucky Derby wouldn’t have a corresponding dark side, doesn’t know horse racing.

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