As the 143rd Kentucky Derby looms, the state of the game is teetering, fighting to remain popular with even with its staunchest allies while simultaneously efforting to remain relevant to a much wider audience. Like world events, these are worrisome times.

How troublesome? Well, it’s so bothersome that no less than one of the world’s most brilliant comic minds and huge racing fan, Mel Brooks, took to Twitter for the purpose of castigating the Los Angeles Times for “eliminating daily coverage of horse racing.”

At issue is the recently jettisoned daily listing of entries and results. Brooks’ tweet was enough to elicit a comment from his long-time friend and collegial comic genius, Carl Reiner, who replied “anything that upsets my friend Mel upsets me.”

Lamentably, they are not alone, and not everything can be explained away with kneejerk retorts that it’s simply a sign of the times--that encapsulated agate of entries and results has gone the way of classified ads and stock listings.

While comprehensive racing data lends itself well to the endless boundaries of cyberspace, as long as mainstream media and journalistic standards exist, I refuse to acknowledge that mesmerized smartphone habitués can’t learn to appreciate the feel of paper between their digits.

While the world moves forward--whatever your definition of “progress” is--Thoroughbred racing remains frozen in time. Tracks compete with each other at the bottom line and in the equine talent pool, a world that fosters competition, not cooperation.

All in the racing industry agree, e.g., that the perception of drug use, legal and otherwise, is bad yet, owing to the sovereignty of the states in which they are permitted operate, tracks will not unite in agreement that federal oversight is the only true option for reform.

Certainly, no one can blame the industry’s distrust of a centralized federal authority, given the current example of gross incompetence vested in the Executive branch and the intractability of the Legislative branch. This happens when their interests, beholden to obscene-money donors and corporate lobbyists, conflict with the citizens who put them in office.

Even when racing does present a united front—the only way statutes ever gain traction—the process is endless.

What has it been, nearly six years now, before getting a vote on the unfair and arcane taxes on winnings of over $600, needing all that time to make lawmakers understand that not many trifectas that pay off at 300-1 are the result of one-number cold punches?

And this is the kind of progress that summonses industry celebration?

The all-encompassing success of the Kentucky Derby notwithstanding, the only member of a ‘Big Three’ that includes the New York Racing Association and Churchill Downs Inc., only The Stronach Group is setting positive trends. But they have come at some cost.

The TSG is top-class winter racing, but its’ venue on the Left Coast is in dire need of a fix. Emblematic of the greed, arrogance and power wielded by a triad of owners, horsemen and racing governance, Santa Anita has become the poster child for bad publicity.

Until some form of reconciliation is made, Santa Anita’s currently muddied reputation is deserved.

But perhaps the best example of good news-bad news worthiness is the recently concluded “championship meet” at Gulfstream Park. And try as they might, critics cannot argue with Gulfstream’s trend-busting success.

Nitpickers will always find chinks, but the inaugural running of the Pegasus World Cup Invitational was a triumphant sensation by every measure. For one glorious afternoon in South Florida, racing was great again, a sporting event worthy of kings.

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Pegasus Day:
Linchpin of Gulfstream's 2017
Championship Meet

And it is odds-on to continue attracting every great five-year-old-and-up champion before it’s ushered off to the breeding shed, just as it did this year, luring a great “people’s champion” vs. a younger champion that would become the world’s leading Thoroughbred.

The momentum that began in late January was the first stop on the road to record earnings by early April—handle figures that would continue to eclipse previous meetings on a year-over-year basis, on the meet’s biggest mega-stakes event days.

Finally, the 2016-17 championship stand culminated with the emergence of a conceivable Kentucky Derby favorite, the result of a well-structured three-year-old racing program that attracted, to date, this year’s best sophomore runners.

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Arrogate, Latter day Pegasus
But all this came at a price when operations are factored in. In what arguably has grown into the most successful circuit for racing on a year-round basis, it has had its share of embarrassments among racing’s most ardent supporters; loyal bettors and fans.

The one trend the track should lament was the creation of the post-dragging trend that has spread nationwide. What was consistently a tolerable four-minute delay in advance of huge jackpot carryovers and sophomoric guarantees was tacitly accepted.

But you know things are bad when an industry-organ staffer chides the track after an 11-minute Rainbow 6 drag and a 9-minute delay on a guaranteed late Pick 4 on the same program, resulting in conflicting simulcast feature races.

Saturday race-days often lasted more than six hours became extremely tedious for fans and track employees that came into the building in support of live racing.

When playing the long game, some acknowledgment must be made that wagering dollars are finite at every level. At some point, a toll will be extracted for carding 10 or 11 races on weekday programs.

For handicappers of every stripe, time is the game’s only absolute truth. Butt far too often, running times at Gulfstream Park were seriously questioned, breeding distrust where none should exist. These errors manifest themselves when handicapping future races.

The track must provide a fail-safe. Atmospherics will only get worse with unstoppable and unpreventable new technologies, a further intrusion on the method by which Trakus compiles timing data. Only a trained official with a stopwatch can provide fail-safe verification.

Gulfstream’s spring-summer meet has recently begun and common sense dictates this session will top 2016’s. The racing office has shored up quality by attracting a handful of mega-outfits from the Southeast and Midwest and top New York stables have left small divisions behind.

Gulfstream must realize that a thin line exists between overarching success and embarrassing overreach that can harm the huge strides already made by the brand.

BOUTIQUE MEETS: Since Saratoga and Del Mar have seen their seasons extended over the years, the term boutique seems a little less applicable.

On balance, and given overall quality, the sport at both tracks is not quite up to the lofty reputations earned by both, though their brands remain extremely strong.

Considering that top echelon outfits point their best horses to traditional features at both venues, each will maintain its top-class status, especially Saratoga: History, health, and horses is a cold trifecta if there ever was one.

But there is no race meet on the planet that can compare--save Ascot perhaps for its deep, rich and storied events—with Keeneland Spring. It’s fitting that some of the world’s best nurseries are but a long stone’s-throw from such a picaresque environment.

Fourteen days of racing indeed encapsulates the meaning of boutique when it comes to horse racing. We don’t know with certitude that the stars are aligned perfectly these days, then neither do we know that we’ve ever seen 14 days of such sustained quality.

Good weather has helped keep programs intact, but the races themselves? Keeneland’s low-level claimers are better than your average claiming fare anywhere.

As for depth, Wednesday’s Keeneland feature was a NX3 allowances, a race that hardly ever fills in the modern era. But that’s what happens when the quality lives on the backside and the racing office often opts for the best eight-race programs when the need arises.

If only such civility were present everywhere, programs would be more balanced and entertaining for bettors and fans from California to New York, from South Florida to Canada and all the stops in between.

File Photos: Toni Pricci

April 19, 2017