The announcement that a House subcommittee will hold the first hearing on Jan. 28 on the Barr-Tonko Horse Racing Integrity Act, which has been kicking around Congress for years, is a step in the direction of drug-free racing. But reality tempers enthusiasm. History teaches there are few in racing who have shown any inclination to put the good of the game above their own selfish interests.
Pegasus World Cup 2020 is illustrative of this. The Stronach Group is going into its own pocket to fund a $3 million race (with another $1 million for a turf stakes). It might not be the $12 million or $16 million or even $9 million of previous Pegasus events but there are no exorbitant entry fees, either. It’s still the second richest dirt race in North America.
But some of racing’s biggest stars are passing to run in richer races in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. It could be the death of the Pegasus, especially after the late scratches of Omaha Beach and Spun to Run left the race without a real attraction. This is a $3 million race with a $300,000 field, to be generous.
If the Pegasus were allowed to grow in prestige and tradition, which it appeared to be doing until this year, it could serve as the launch pad for a new season of championship racing, just as the Daytona 500 does for NASCAR. The first three runnings each attracted the Horse of the Year, which was virtually unheard of for a January race.
Now this is unlikely to happen. There’s more money to be made in the Middle East, so who cares if it means America’s stars will be unavailable to U.S. racing for half the year, at least.
Maximum Security, the defrocked Kentucky Derby winner; McKinzie, arguably the top older male dirt horse other than Maximum Security, and Midnight Bisou, the past year’s top female, are all heading to the Middle East. So are a herd of other outstanding runners for the multi-million dollar features and their rich supporting races in the dessert. These horses really would have dressed up the Pegasus program, which is nationally televised in America. It’s an opportunity squandered to put the game in a positive light against the backdrop of all the recent negativity.
The prevalent attitude of selfishness extends from the backstretch to the owners’ boxes to the track executive suites to the breeding operations.
The Triple Crown is the engine that drives racing. The beauty of the Derby, Preakness and Belmont is it’s a series of races. Fans could anticipate and debate how the horses will fare from one race to another at different tracks at different distances.
Horsemen have all but reduced it to a one-day stand in Louisville. Only two horses from the Derby competed in the Preakness and War of Will was the only entrant in all three. This is nothing new. It has been building toward this in recent years.
Maryland is fretting over where to anchor the Preakness, while horsemen for all but the Derby winner are in the process of making the second jewel of the Triple Crown irrelevant. Last spring half the Derby also-rans claimed maladies that would have embarrassed Ferris Bueller.
Getting back to the Derby, there is no more contrarian, selfish organization than Churchill Downs. They shut down Calder and sold Hollywood Park and Bay Meadows fully aware that it would mean the end of racing.
CDI is in the process of doing the same to Arlington Park. Racing in the Chicago area has been declining in recent years because purses not enhanced by casino dollars could not keep up with those in neighboring states that have casino support.
Illinois tried to rectify this by giving Arlington the right to operate a racino with part of the proceeds going to purses. This should have been the salvation of the breathtakingly beautiful track. It won’t be. Churchill has no plans to add a casino because it has a free-standing casino 13 miles away from which it doesn’t have to share profits with horsemen.
Churchill is pulling a similar stunt in South Florida. Its agreement to shut down Calder and allow almost all racing to be conducted at Gulfstream included a stipulation that in addition to running a state-mandated 40-day meeting at Calder, dubbed Gulfstream West, it would contribute about $8 million to purses from its casino profits. This year, it created a joke of a jai alai fronton to fulfill the 40-day requirement and is trying to get out of its commitment to horse purses.
Those in Kentucky who would point to the major investment CDI is making to renovate Turfway Park are naïve. Churchill isn’t investing in racing. It is expanding the facility to create additional floor space for a casino.
Churchill’s anti-racing shenanigans seem boundless. TVG is one of the best things ever to happen to racing. It spends the entire winter and spring pumping the Kentucky Derby. Yet the past couple of years Churchill management has barred TVG from originating from the track in the run-up to the Derby because TVG has an ADW site that competes with Churchill’s.
NYRA and The Stronach Group have their own ADW sites, too, but TVG is more than welcome at their venues.
Churchill even tried to deny media credentials to Caton Bredar, who wears many racing hats including coverage of the Derby for a local Louisville channel, because one of her jobs is for TVG. It took an uproar from the media to make them back down from that.
The Racing Form is the Bible of the sport. But Churchill barred it from being sold on-track in Kentucky and at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans because DRF also has an ADW site.
Perhaps the only good thing that can be said of CDI is it openly admits that it no longer considers itself a racing company. It is a casino-operating corporation, which happens to have racing in its portfolio.
This is not a company likely to join in any coalition unless its goals are totally in line with its own.
Racing is facing an existential crisis because of the perception that it is more chemical warfare than sport. Nevertheless, 600 horsemen, including Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, signed a petition indicating they will dig in their heels against any attempt to outlaw race day medication, the heart of the HRIA. These horsemen are effectively saying they would rather have no racing than drug-free racing.
Gulfstream Park has been dragging post times four, five and six minutes the last few years. If there is anyone in racing from fans to TVG to other tracks that doesn’t wish it would stop, they haven’t gone public with these feelings. The Stronach Group doesn’t care because the thinking is it increases the bottom line, a debatable point.
Breeders have absolutely no regard for fans. Omaha Beach, the morning line favorite until he had to be scratched from the Pegasus, would have been running his last race. He is the latest potential crowd magnet rushed away to the breeding shed before they even reach the peak of their ability.
Anyone who thinks these various factions will ever unite for the good of the game are like the winner of the 2017 Kentucky Derby—Always Dreaming.