Wednesday, March 19, 2008

For the Good of the Game

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla.---Mar. 19, 2008

Caught in a wave of humanity while trying to escape the paddock traffic, I bobbed and weaved my way through a record Tampa Bay Derby crowd toward the winners’ circle, mouth agape while trying to process what I had just seen.

After all, there’s beat, then there’s beaten off.

I saw Mike Welsch and Dave Josephs, heads down, eyes on notebooks, scribbling furiously, so I rushed over, looked up, and saw Robert LaPenta, as shocked as anyone in the building.

War Pass may not be Seattle Slew but in Tampa last Saturday he wasn’t even War Pass.

Craning my neck forward to get closer to the conversation, I strained mightily to hear what was being said while the owner of War Pass recounted what led up to his colt’s operatic non-effort when out came words referencing a slight fever earlier in the week.

“He didn’t just say that, did he?” I asked no one in particular, maybe not even myself. With that, a reporter turned, looked at me as if he, too, had heard something like this before and wished he hadn’t.

When favorites are beaten people begin asking questions, trying to make logic soup from chaotic ingredients. But this was no ordinary favorite. This one was an unbeaten margin horse; this was the protem Kentucky Derby favorite that put a record 12,724 fannies in the seats. This one was 1-20!

And this was the one that spiked a fever earlier in the week.

Thinking before speaking is not always an option. Emotions cloud the brain as it tries to make sense of the surreal. The connections of racehorses never seem to be prepared for such moments, even if the chances are 1-20 that there will be more like these than the one in which they picture themselves draped in roses at Churchill Downs on May’s first Saturday.

So pardon the public if they don’t get it and forgive them if sometimes they would rather turn their back on this thing of ours rather than try to understand what happened and learn from it. It’s just the damn media that gods these horses up like they’re Pegasus reincarnate then are at a loss to provide the why behind such a momentous fall.

And make no mistake. This was King Kong off the Empire State building.

Horses are, first and foremost, living, breathing, magnificent animals. There’s nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse, Lord Palmerston first said. And that’s what the public relates to. Throw in a measure of invincibility and the magic of an American icon as the Kentucky Derby and the crescendo begins.

Racehorses are that and more. They are commodities bought on the open market which gives them value beyond aesthetics. Win some important races, do it in fast time, and the value increases exponentially. If they are singularly talented and high profile, and are coveted by oil glutted sheikhs, they become worth what some successful people call “stupid money.”

The public needs to understand this, factoring in the realization that they are made of flesh and blood and tendons and pasterns and hocks and hooves, and that there’s nothing mechanical about any of it. Sometimes, as Ron McAnally reminded us, they give their lives for our pleasure. But sports fans must realize, too, that racehorses are treated better by their human caretakers than some humans take care of their own. Sad but true, the public needs to know this, too.

And they need to be educated the way other fans in this country are educated to care about baseball, football, basketball and all the rest. If there were really something wrong with Tom Brady’s foot, would Bill Belichick shout it out for all the tabloids to hear?

OK, maybe coach Belichick is a poor example.

But when entries were drawn 48 hours in advance of the Tampa Bay Derby, stakes coordinator Duane Dube had done his best to scare up a few local rivals to support the event to give it the illusion of being a horse race and not a coronation. Had LaPenta or trainer Nick Zito referenced a fever earlier in the week, the event would have been over-filled like some “beaten claiming” race.

As a horse owner with a top prize of $180,000 on the line, would you rather face 10 rivals or five?

To paraphrase a previous administration in Washington D.C., it’s about the money stupid, not about stupid money. Treating racehorses like royalty is a big expense. Racetrackers correctly say it’s money that makes the mare go.

Be it emotionally or financially, everyone tethered to the racehorse knows and understands this. But the general public that attracted to the Derby does not and needs to be educated about the sport’s nuances. It’s nuance that turns a sporting public into lifetime racing fans and horseplayers.

Since last Saturday‘s remarks, the connections of War Pass have begun to back away from the fever scenario. But this is not about whether there was a fever present or not; horseplayers seldom have a problem drawing their own conclusions.

This is about the time of year when sports fans begin to take notice and put their fannies in racetrack seats. In the continued absence of education, pre-race excuses made in post race interviews leave a bad taste and shows little regard for a bigger picture.

It’s about time that the public is made to understand, as racetrackers do, that “they all get beat,” that there’s no shame in defeat, that there‘s nothing sinister afoot.

Even the most well meaning of owners shouldn’t make a bad situation worse. They should know enough to just hold their tongues and take their lumps. Nobody gets to have it both ways. Nobody and no horse, no matter how famous, is bigger than the game.

Written by John Pricci

Accompanying Photo Gallery to "Racing to the Kentucky Derby".
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