Tuesday, December 30, 2008


Thoroughbred Racing 2008: At the Crossroads


Saratoga Springs, NY, Dec. 30, 2008--Had Charles Dickens lived today instead of two centuries ago and looked at the thoroughbred racing landscape, he might have written, again, that “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

“It was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness; it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity. It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.

“For good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”

On the racetrack this year, the memory of Big Brown’s Kentucky Derby and Big Brown’s Belmont Stakes will endure. As will Curlin’s Dubai World Cup, and Curlin’s Breeders’ Cup Classic; studies in contrast.

It was a three-year-old class in which the early Derby favorite, War Pass, was retired before he could win a single stakes race but also one which saw a pair of sophomores complete a Breeders’ Cup Classic exacta.

And it was a class in which a filly, Eight Belles, made for the worst conceivable headlines that resulted in a federal inquiry, forcing an insular industry to take a hard look at itself and finally make some baby steps in a war on drugs, permitted and otherwise.

It was a year that showcased promising young talent but also one that saw the two leading juvenile Eclipse finalists and early Derby favorites whisked off to Dubai, demanding that they make history if they are to win America’s most coveted prize.

It was a time when an undefeated female and Horse of the Year finalist Zenyatta was as dominant on dirt as she was on the synthetic surfaces of her home state, finally defeating the deepest field of talent assembled in any of Breeders’ Cup 25‘s 14 events.

The year 2008 had its usual share of premature retirements but was also one in which 10-year-old, Evening Attire, won a graded stakes and a seven-year-old, Commentator, won the G1 Whitney for a second time.

It was a year when the trainer of a reigning Horse of the Year also saddled more winners than anyone in history, setting the bar so high as to be unreachable ever again, but won’t be handed an Eclipse trophy by acclimation because of a career mired in controversy.

It was a time when synthetic surfaces continued to change the face of the sport and provided the impetus for one of the most aesthetically appealing Breeders’ Cups ever, but did little to provide definitive answers relative to horse safety and jockey health concerns. Better had someone in authority advocated a return to hay, oats and water on race day.

It was a year when European dominance of an event created by and for American breeders did more to advance the cause of international racing and possibly altered mating practices away from speed and--for the better--toward stamina influences.

It was a time when the notion that gambling was recession proof was dispelled.

It was a year when steeplechase horseman Jack Fisher guided champion Good Night Shirt through an undefeated five-race, eight-month long, Grade 1 campaign to become the first jump trainer to earn $1-million in purses in a single year.

It was a time when thoroughbred track owner Richard Fields saved a storied venue, revived an historic handicap, and made horsemen who would sell animals to horse killers persona non-grata on the grounds of his racetrack, Suffolk Downs.

It was a year when a true sportsman named Jess Jackson demonstrated love for his horse, his sport, and racing’s fans by keeping Curlin in training despite having to shell out $3-million in insurance premiums.

It was a year when the New York Racing Association got its groove back, staying alive by mortgaging its future so that racing’s history and traditions could be preserved and perhaps even prosper once again.

But, like Wall Street’s bankers and brokers, it was a year when the public was bilked, again, when the cost of the product (takeout) kept increasing while its quality waned, the result provincial greed, over-saturation and a lack of central leadership--still.

It was a year when horsemen followed suit by demanding a larger share of a shrinking pie, withholding permission allowing for the dissemination of simulcast signals because it was time to draw a line in the sand instead of acting in good faith.

And when private Advanced Deposit Wagering companies and racetracks did the exact same thing.

It was a time when grass roots organizations were founded and/or continued to grow because taxation without representation will lead to greater erosion and possibly ultimate failure, and because horseplayers need a voice.

It was a year when the NTRA decided to remain neutral in its support for legislation criminalizing the transportation of horses for slaughter by withdrawing its support of H.R. 6598.

Is there any possible way to justify such a callous response, especially in light of unprecedented negative publicity left in the wake of the Eight Belles tragedy?

Clearly, it was a year when the industry continued to talk a better game than it walked as the abolition of steroids is a good thing but not the drug thing that concerns players and plagues the industry most.

It was a time when late-odds fluctuations, whatever the cause, after a race begins continues to send the wrong message and when betting wouldn’t end at post time because the bottom line must be served at all costs.

It was another year gone by when antiquated statutes governing the industry were allowed to continue as the law of the racing land killing any chance of reorganization and growth.

A time when the continued lack of a central authority has helped further erode mainstream media coverage, hastening the demise of a gambling sport in the eyes of an American sporting public.

Or, as Dickens wrote: “We had everything before us, we had nothing before us; we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way.”

Written by John Pricci

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