MIAMI, April 12, 2013--Triple Crown season is supposed to be the time of year for a celebration of all that is exhilarating about thoroughbred racing. Apparently this is not going to be the case this year.
On the eve of the final major Kentucky Derby preps, three weeks out from the Run for the Roses, a story has broken about the tragic, sudden, inexplicable deaths of thoroughbred racehorses in California.
About three dozen horses have died suddenly over the past two years. They just dropped dead without warning or symptoms. Reportedly, seven were in the Bob Baffert barn. The Daily Racing Form reported that horses in the barns of Myung Kwon Cho, Kathy Walsh, Sean McCarthy, Mike Mitchell and Jack Van Berg have also fallen to the mysterious killer.
The DRF also reported in an online story Friday that Baffert has had as many as seven instances of horses suffering sudden death in the last 16 months. "During that time, there was at least one prominent instance of sudden death in a Baffert-trained runner when the 5-year-old Irrefutable collapsed after finishing second in the Vernon Underwood Stakes at Hollywood Park in November 2011," the DRF reported.
The headline-making line in many of the reports is that rat poison was found in some of the deceased animals. But based on early reports, thereâ€™s a whole lot more smoke than fire despite the best efforts of racingâ€™s detractors, led by the New York Times, to turn this into Equinegate.
Extensive tests ordered by the California Horse Racing Board reported that rat poison was found in only two horses and in trace levels too low to be responsible for the deaths.
The crucial finding is there is no evidence of foul play. Whatâ€™s more, the number of these type deaths isnâ€™t far out of line with recent history. The Daily Racing Form reported that at a meeting of the California Horse Racing Board commissioner Bo Derek quoted California equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur as saying the â€śnumber of sudden deaths has been consistent in the past 20 years in the neighborhood of 20 per year.â€ť
Nevertheless, the New York Times has gone into its customary bash racing mode. A lengthy story on the deaths included lines like, â€ťThe inquiry into sudden deaths comes as horse racing is trying to reform a drug culture that its officials concede is diminishing the sportâ€ť and â€śa New York Times investigationâ€¦showed a pervasive drug culture put horses and riders at risk.â€ť
What does any of this have to do with the deaths in question? The Times attitude toward racing seems to be before there is any evidence letâ€™s just assume the worst.
The pity is the TV networksâ€™ news departments and other newspapers take their cues from The Times, so expect this to become a simmering controversy as racingâ€™s finest hours approach.
Of course, more sunlight on the issue would have helped had Mr. Baffert made himself available for comment. Thus far, this has not happened.
Javier Castellano has made a tough call that could make him this yearâ€™s jockeysâ€™ handicapping champion or haunt him for years. Castellano opted for Normandy Invasion over Revolutionary as his Kentucky Derby mount.
Castellano won the Withers and Louisiana Derby on Revolutionary. He drove Normandy Invasion, who has only one win in five starts, to a fast-closing second to Verrazano in the Wood Memorial.
Revolutionary is trained by Todd Pletcher. Long range, how wise is it to risk doing anything that might get you on the wrong side of a trainer who has put you on hundreds of winners with the promise of hundreds more.
John Velazquez, in a similar quandary involving Orb and Pletcherâ€™s Verrazano, stuck with Pletcher.
Itâ€™s not as if Castellano is jumping off a longshot for the favorite. Revolutionary, who also has a late-running style that figures to translate well to 10 furlongs at Churchill Downs, could go off a shorter price than Normandy Invasion on May 4.
Jeff Siegel, one of the nation's sharpest evaluators of horse talent, said on HRTVâ€™s â€śPursuit of the Crownâ€ť that he feels Revolutionary has as much or more upside than any of the potential Derby starters.
Granted, Velazquez is Toddâ€™s main man. However, even riding second call for Pletcher helped the talented Castellano break out of the pack of NYRAâ€™s many gifted jockeys.
On the other hand, itâ€™s hard to go wrong hitching your wagon to the rising star of Chad Brown, trainer of Normandy Invasion and numerous other stakes horses.
Castellano has ridden both horses, so maybe he knows something that isnâ€™t obvious to the rest of us.
Still the words of Eddie Arcaro (if memory serves) ring loud and clear: â€śYou could get rich booking the action in the jockeysâ€™ room.â€ť
Lots of big winners last weekend but none bigger than Gulfstream Parkâ€™s recently concluded season.
Both Grade 1 races at Aqueduct, the Carter and Wood Memorial, were taken by horses, Swagger Jack and Verrazano, who spent the winter in South Florida. One of the Grade 2â€™s, the Gazelle, went to Close Hatches, who began her career this winter at Gulfstream. The Grade 3 Bay Shore was upset by Declanâ€™s Warrior, coming off a win and a second at Gulfstream.
Full disclosure: the Grade 2 Ruffian did not go to a Gulfstream ship-in. There were none in the race.
It was the same story at Keeneland. Fridayâ€™s customary opening day feature, the Transylvania, went to Jack Milton, who also spent the winter at Gulfstream.
Nothing changed Saturday. Emollient, beaten 30 lengths only a week earlier in the Gulfstream Oaks, did a complete about face and made a shambles of the Grade 1 Ashland, drawing off to win by 9 lengths despite starting from the often lethal 13 post going two turns.
This is not provincial gloating. Thereâ€™s another stakes festival weekend coming up with the Arkansas Derby the main event at Oaklawn and the Blue Grass as the headliner at Keeneland. There will be Gulfstream shippers in almost all of the major stakes. Ignore them at your own peril.