There is still something magic about the winner of a Kentucky Derby.This was reiterated when the biggest non-Florida Derby Day crowd since Gulfstream was rebuilt came out to see Animal Kingdom on Donn Handicap Day. What a wonderful world it would be if more owners recognized what a Derby winner means to the sport and kept their horses in training through their 4-year-old seasons. OK, I'm a dreamer.
February 22, 2013
Allow me a John Lennon moment. Allow me to Imagine a world where Kentucky Derby winners arenāt retired before their 3-year-old season is out.
The magic of a Derby winner was never more apparent than Donn Handicap Day at Gulfstream. The Donn might be the centerpiece race of the season for older horses but it became just an afterthought because Animal Kingdom was making his first start as a 5-year-old (and alas, last in the U.S.) in the Gulfstream Park Turf Cup.
What felt like the biggest non-Florida Derby Day crowd ever at the new facility (accurate attendance figures are impossible in the racino era) made it clear why they were there. It was to see a Kentucky Derby winner.
They were 10 deep around the spacious walking ring, lining up early to be sure to get a look at Animal Kingdom. They cheered as he circled the walking ring.
Gulfstream was savvy enough to have the field go around three times. There was a cacophony of cameras and camera phones clicking.
It was like the good old days when thoroughbred racing challenged the major team sports for attention. Believe it or not, there was a time when racing was bigger than the NFL.
Those who didnāt get a spot near the walking ring packed the apron and cheered when Animal Kingdom took the track. In the opening flash, he was a ridiculous 1-9, although that moderated to 4-5 by post time. It didnāt matter that Point of Entry, who wound up winning, had far stronger credentials.
Wouldnāt it be great if more sportsmen owners recognized what a Derby winner means to the game and kept their horse in training, making a circuit of major races around the U.S. as a 4-year-old?
You may say I'm a dreamer but Iām not the only one.
As long as Iām dreamingā¦
The Kentucky Derby it needs to join the Breedersā Cup Classic as a prime-time TV attraction ASAP.
NBC would do it in a heartbeat. The Derby, which out-rates many prime-time shows and everything on Saturday night, falls during TVās May sweeps ratings period.
The Run for the Roses springs from the gate at about 6:40 now. Whatās another two hours? Most of the undercard would still be run in daylight and the first race wouldnāt have to be run in the a.m. There is no better way to showcase racing than to present its biggest attraction before the largest possible audience, which is prime-time.
A remedy for running Day One of the Breedersā Cup on Friday, a workday for most, is to move the event to Thanksgiving weekend. Millions have the day off. Fans could cut a deal with their spouses. Shop your brains out. Iām going to the track.
There are only one or two significant football games to compete with on both Friday and Saturday, as opposed to countless big games the first Saturday in November.
As for the weather, Churchill Downs has run a big closing weekend for years over the Thanksgiving weekend without problems. If the NFL can stage what is destined to be dubbed the Stupid Bowl at the Meadowlands in February, racing in late fall shouldnāt be an issue. Moreover, itās not an issue in warm weather sites, where most future Breedersā Cups are likely to land.
A final benefit would be that NYRA, Keeneland and Santa Anita wouldnāt have to shoe horn dozens of big money stakes into the first and second weekends of their fall meetings. If thereās a downside, I canāt see it.
Saratoga, the former āAugust place to beā should truly become āthe summer place to beā by running from July 4 to Labor Day.
As part of the package, the schedule could be trimmed-- as it should be anyway given the shortage of horses--to five days a week. Going a taxing six days a week, Saratoga runs 40 days now. A more vacation-like five-day agenda, from July 4 to Labor Day, would add only five dates.
North country hotels and restaurants, which would bitch to their representatives in nearby Albany about a reduction in the racing week, would probably drop their objections if they were compensated with a longer season.
South Florida racetracks need to get together to have the legislature abolish the antiquated 7 p.m. curfew for thoroughbred racing.
It was created decades ago at the behest of greyhound tracks and jai alai frontons to protect their monopoly on evening gambling. Today, the dogs and jai alai have become just an excuse to operate slots and card rooms. Indeed, the night time operations are trying to get the obligation to maintain pari-mutuels eliminated. Thanks to simulcasting, horse races provide more handle than the pups and cesta guys. They would undoubtedly welcome an opportunity to take action on quality horse racing.
Frank Stronach says he wants to put up lights at Gulfstream but has hesitated because of the curfew. Night racing could be a way to mitigate the potential conflict with Calder if Gulfstream goes ahead with its plan for summer racing.
Another Stronach idea, the original concept for the Sunshine Millions, didnāt turn out as well as hoped because California-breds are no match for Florida-breds. The Sunshine State won all nine showdowns before the inter-state format was abandoned and transformed into each state running its own state-bred set of rich races.
How about a new competition between Florida-breds and New York-breds late in the year when there isnāt much going on? Gamblers at both venues are familiar with the horses at the other and with slots money boosting purses for New York-breds, itās only a matter of time before the Big Apple herd can compete with any stateās horses.