(SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – January 3, 2011) Memories of most horse races linger as long as a comma. When turf writers compile their remembrances of years past by listing the best races, readers are able to recall only some of them. Two or three seasons later, they’re chapters in history. Instead, this list attempts to feature the news that intrigued us. A mélange of people who caused us to lose confidence, events that made planning impossible and developments that led to an unclear future marks 2011 as The Year of Dubiety.

Fish Smells. Michael Gill ended his long run as horse racing’s number one poster boy for shame – well, at least, it appears that way. A shady character, who befriended criminals, working small market tracks, he was the sport’s slimiest presence until the Penn National jockeys refused to ride the questionably-healthy horses he owned. Gill’s entries were later banned by the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission. Horse racing seems always to attract some guys with sordid lives that people want to read about. Gill, who was 2005’s Eclipse Award-winning owner of the year, was that guy in 2010.

Jersey Buoys. The Eastern Seaboard is a minefield of horse racing troubles. But for, at least, the couple months of beach season when Monmouth held its elite meet, there was cause for optimism. Horse racing on the Jersey Shore benefited from fewer dates, larger crowds and daily purse hikes, causing other states to take notice and become jealous. As for the real competition, the Haskell Invitational rose in esteem again to lead all other midsummer stakes in intrigue. By year’s end, the Republican Governor Chris Christie and the Democratic legislature of New Jersey agreed on a plan aimed to prop gambling up with privatization, all sports betting and exchange wagering.

Hialea-ugh. John Brunetti was content to let Hialeah Park rot until Halsey Minor offered to buy the track from him. But by the first day of 2010 he had the dormant course opened and holding quarter horse races. The owner’s long-range intentions are to race thoroughbreds and develop the historically-protected property as a casino, hotel and entertainment complex. Although this may seem promising, the new Hialeah will never be the old Hialeah. It’s a sin to excite a nostalgic nation of fans by leading them to believe something will be what they want it to be when it’ll never be. And excited they were when it happened.

Zenyaaaa-ttaaaaa. Track announcer Trevor Denman probably wishes he could have his stretch call of the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic back. But he’s not the only one who refers to the race without mentioning the name of the winner. Blame has become the forgotten hero of the year’s best recalled race, perhaps even an unrequited champion. Regardless, then, and perhaps later this month in the Horse of the Year competition, Zenyatta’s name was and will be the name in people’s minds, in their hearts and their memories.

Not Funny. No FUN in NY. Bearing with the challenges of being a New York horse racing fan seemed impossible in 2010. Gov. David Paterson and the Legislature stumbled badly with the designation of an Aqueduct VLT operator after nine years of trying to find one. Once they settled on carpetbaggers, they granted a license to an out-of-state tribe to compete with a casino in the Catskills. NYRA officials stubbed their toes with the public by threatening to shutter Saratoga if they didn’t get the money the State owed them. By August, NYC OTB was millions of dollars short on its payments to NYRA and the New York Breeders. Not even deal-wizard Greg Rayburn could save the struggling public bookmaker.

Emily Post Time for Palin. Dotage suddenly became an issue for the youthful Marylou Whitney when the Saratoga socialite invited Sarah Palin to the Belmont Stakes. Momma Grizzly embarrassed her by showing up in the Turf Club at Whitney’s invitation in a tee-shirt, cropped pants and a ball cap. When told of her fashion faux pas, Palin concocted a story that her limousine driver lost his way and she didn’t have time to change into something appropriate en route from the airport. Fans made a bigger stink about the track’s decision to broom Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” anthem in favor of Jay-Z’s “Empire State of Mind” hip-hop-flop than the dress code violation. But cameras caught the déclassé veep nominee looking like a clam digger, which is what, with her palm out at each opportunity, she is.

Queen for a Day. Dressed in an elegant bright blue outfit and coordinated hat, Queen Elizabeth II graced Woodbine’s clubhouse, paddock and winner’s circle for the 151st Queen’s Plate. Big Red Mike, a sturdy-do-right gelding ridden aggressively by Eurico Rosa da Silva, showed Her Majesty how things are done on the speed-favoring continent, winning the 1-1/4 mile race on the lead. Woodbine had another banner year, posting an 8.9 percent gain in handle. It was the Queen’s fourth visit to Toronto for the Queen’s Plate, for which a wagering record was also set.

Oak Tree Unplanted. For many people, the fall meet at Santa Anita run by Oak Tree was the best in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. But that’s no longer. Racecourse owner Frank Stronach effectively evicted his tenant by refusing to renew a contract, causing Oak Tree to move to Hollywood Park. Southern California lost a lucrative, long-term deal to host the Breeders’ Cup. In the wake, horseplayers are boycotting Stronach’s winter/spring Santa Anita meet because of a rise in the takeout. Although their fight for a dirt track has resulted in the re-installation of one, they’ve found something other to complain about.

Pop Culture. Hollywood twisted some facts but made the movie about the best thoroughbred in at least 50 years somewhat palpable for even those who remember him. Despite the appearance that horse racing is fading in popularity, the sport is gaining in strength as a subject of movies, television shows and books. In addition to Disney’s popular Secretariat, author Jamie Gordon’s The Lord of Misrule won the National Book Award and filming of the new HBO series Luck began.

Final Words. The Welsh-born mystery author Dick Francis, aka Sir Richard S. Francis, died on February 14. He left the world 39 horse racing thrillers and one premature autobiography – a bestseller he penned in 1957 after retiring from being a champion British steeplechase jockey and before a 16-year career as racing correspondent of London’s Sunday Express newspaper. In the last four years of his life, Francis began writing books with his son Felix. In the preceding years, his wife Mary Margaret Brenchley was his collaborator. Regardless, a Dick Francis mystery found its way on nightstands and library shelves everywhere, creating awareness for the sport that few works of art can parallel.

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