I couldn’t understand it when national handle figures kept rising each month this winter despite less than stellar racing in New York, even by winter standards, and a perceived decline of this year’s product at Tampa Bay Downs.
True, things were looking up at Santa Anita, where there was no horseplayer boycott this time, and at Gulfstream Park, which had a season reminiscent of racing’s glory days when champions routinely showed up in mid-week money-allowances.
Still, given the continued contraction of racing dates at tracks that were hemorrhaging money and those that hosted abbreviated race cards to accommodate a declining horse population, how could this be?
Then came the scandalous takeout story at the New York Racing Association; the sensational treatment the New York Times gave a “disreputable industry” and an on-going raceday medication controversy that has fair-minded practitioners lining up on opposing sides.
Despite all this, betting volume continued to rise this month when Churchill Downs posted double-digit gains on Derby weekend, a trend that continued in Baltimore on Saturday where Preakness business rose for a third consecutive year and a new attendance mark of 121,309 was set.
But from the Derby came stories that raised questions, making casual fans aware of the winning trainer’s checkered past. Further, the ink on the Preakness chart was hardly dry when a Louisville Courier-Journal story told how the owner of the colt that stands on the precipice of racing history had his company branded by the California Attorney General two years ago as a high-interest lender resorting to “loan-shark tactics.”
There are a number of sure bets to be cashed during the three week run-up to the Belmont Stakes. The woes of the event’s host will be recounted, again, as will Doug O’Neill’s milkshaking travails, again, as well as the strong-armed tactics of Paul Reddam’s company.
The one aspect of the NYRA situation likely to be unreported is the unwitting role that the state played in all this. Several of its regulatory agencies in an oversight role failed to detect the accounting error in a timely fashion. Despite that, the state took temporary control of the NYRA on Tuesday by altering the makeup of its Board of Trustees, an arrangement that will remain in place through Governor Andrew Cuomo's term of office.
Sadly, all of what is to come will prove a distraction to the historical matter at hand because other agenda unflattering to racing are at work here. The industry deserves much of what it gets from critics, but not all of it all the time.
Thoroughbred racing has been waiting for a moment like this to come to fruition for 34 years now and the organization charged with putting on the show is rudderless. It doesn’t have a best face to put forward; that face was fired weeks ago.
The faces responsible for moving the show along now are the trainer of a fun bunch surrounding a gifted, gritty and unflappable colt, and his humble from-out-of-the-blue jockey who allows his mount to do the talking despite giving two brilliant tactical performances under the glare of racing’s biggest spotlight.
On June 9, the huge ballpark on Long Island, a racetrack whose size has become anachronistic, will play host to 100,000 history-starved sports fans that will fill every corner of the behemoth track.
The noise these fans will make at Belmont Park if I’ll Have Another is in winning position at the beginning of a stretch run that begins in one county and ends in another will be positively scary.
The roar will shake the building to its foundation as yet another Thoroughbred attempts to boldly go where only 11 have gone before, and where 11 since 1979 have failed to tread.
For two and a half minutes, the only thing that will matter is who finishes first. If that horse happens to be I’ll Have Another, human warts and all, it will remove the bad taste left when a troubled Big Brown was pulled up with a quarter-mile left to run.
Smarty Jones and Funny Cide also shipped into Gotham with the same chance to make history but both were defeated, one via questionable riding tactics and home cooking, the other by the suitably pedigreed betting favorite. At least both were beaten on the square.
Even in victory, the chances are that I’ll Have Another won’t be racing’s savior. Last year, a study conducted by the austere Jockey Club found that the general public does not hold racing in the esteem it once did so who knows how long the afterglow will last.
The recent Times series added to racing’s current undesirable categorization and there is concern that an historic victory might advance this adverse perception of horse racing in this country because of the possible increase of negativity in mainstream media.
But all year the sporting crowd has been voting with their dollars so that any negative perceptions that exist are trending otherwise thus far. So is it an improved economy, increased and improved network television coverage, or is it something else?
Could it be that what makes horse racing great is that a society that has been tethered to the Thoroughbred since racing began over five centuries ago on the Plains of Hempstead, not far from Belmont Park, has and will remain loyal indefinitely?
Are we learning that the game might be bullet proof after all?