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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, April 25, 2021 – Don’t know about your excitement level for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, but it’s a race I’m looking forward to for two reasons:

First, it is one of the more interesting and challenging handicapping puzzles for its depth and quality. Secondly, the betting pools for the Derby and on the day are ginormous.

Unfortunately, this is a pendulum that swings both ways. Since I consider it my patriotic duty to over-bet on Oaks-Derby weekend, especially Saturday, I, like many participants, can either win or lose a small fortune. But the potential reward is commensurate with the risk.

It is for that reason I was surprised by the results of a recent industry online Derby poll. While the plurality of voters indicated that their interest level is about what it normally is, the combined majority had either little or no interest in this year’s race.

Could it be that a spate of negative developments has contributed to the loss of enthusiasm for the sport of horse racing itself? To wit:

How do horseplayers and fans feel about the fact that the Arkansas Racing Commission decided the disqualification of two Bob Baffert trainees which tested positive for lidocaine use last year was much ado about nothing?

Did the Commission cave to the politics involved or were the best lawyers that money can buy successful in their appeal because they were able to find a loophole in the Arkansas’ rules of racing and made the case all about process?

After all, if California authorities could delay Justify’s Santa Anita Derby positive finding until after he won in the Kentucky Derby, why can’t state officials overlook the Arkansas Derby victory of Charlatan, whose positive finding resulted in his losing the testing battle but winning the appellate war?

Were racing’s fans miffed that despite trainer Doug O’Neill’s significant history of drug positives and suspensions, it wasn’t sufficient to stop his Racing Hall of Fame nomination?

Were some non-plussed Derby fans put off by the fact that several star jockeys are refusing to ride at Monmouth Park this summer because of the stringent whip rules put into place by the New Jersey Racing Commission that would bar riding crops?

Or that the Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association has been trying to head off the implementation of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act before it is instituted next summer?

Fans and bettors just might be thinking that they’ve heard the messaging about transparency and acting in the best interests of the horses and their riders before, but everything they see says otherwise.

As stated on MSNBC’s popular TRMS, “watch what they do, not what they say.”

Sound advice, certainly, but words matter. Positive messaging touts hope, a commodity people cannot live without. But negativity, like bleeding, is leading the headlines. Bad news lingers in human consciousness in the manner good news does not.

Since the pandemic began overtaking the fashion in which Americans live– and for 14 months most news has been overwhelmingly negative–everyone has taken a “just move on” stance, a tack that enables most of us to save our sanity.

So, what does all that have to do with the lack of “excitement” surrounding “America’s Race?”

Routine daily life has become exhausting. Keeping up with Kentucky Derby minutia is no less so. It may be “only a horse race,” but it’s one that’s woven into America’s fabric.

It may not be a national holiday but is a national sporting event to be celebrated and enjoyed, Fourth of July without the fireworks.

Lack of interest notwithstanding, we are willing to bet that there will be more Derby Watch parties than Academy Award Watch parties this year. Talk about apathy; who has seen this year’s movies?

If people had, they certainly didn’t exit socially-distanced movie theaters dancing and singing in the rain. These days, there’s not much joy emanating from Hollywood, Toronto, or anywhere considered a movie-making capital.

Bad news may be the only thing that sells but no one is going out of their way to pay for it. There are no stimulus checks for such luxuries, only for survival.

An aside: Since the Derby points system has been instituted, there has been a virtually unprecedented run of winning favorites. This year the Derby favorite is undefeated, and the public loves undefeated horses. But it appears the population has far more pressing issues on their minds.

Maybe troublesome news, isolation living, and exhaustion even has robbed American horseplayers of their usual enthusiasm for one of the world’s great horse races in a year when there are so many talented runners competing.

Or maybe, since mostly everyone is working remotely these days, there’s no chance of getting lucky in a Kentucky Derby office pool.

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10 Responses

  1. I heard that some of the sports books in Las Vegas are only offering horse wagers on Derby, Preakness, Belmont and 2 days of BC races. And a few of the newer hotels don’t even offer horse racing at all. It would be interesting to see how watched The Indy 500 was last year or the NCAA final last month. I use to love ice hockey and haven’t watched in quite a while. Would go to MSG when Rangers would play Philly Flyers. Games would get out really late due to fights and penalty minutes (Fred Shero was coach, loved him). It seems like all I watch now is CNN and hope to get more updates from Dr. Fauci. Jim Acosta tried to get him today to go back and trash Donald Trump. Dr. Fauci did not take the bait which was classy of him.

    1. Dr. Fauci is a dedicated public servant, working for many administrations, regardless of party. A national treasure.

  2. I guess my lack of interest in the Derby is caused by the lack of great horses coming out of the Derby and continuing to race for a while.This years Derby looks more like an Allowance race than the Kentucky Derby. Even the two horses that have recently won the Triple Crown seem less than great, especially the most recent. If you look at the last few years of Triple Crown races, are any horses true handicap stars ? Also,the race has become a showcase for trainers whose ability to play within the rules is very questionable.

    1. Aaron, horseplayers have no control over how horsemen play the game. It’s more about the Benjamins than ever before, like corporations “increasing shareholder value.” And isn’t it more like the stock market with 1% owners forming partnerships like investment bankers in the stallion market. That’s why horses don’t become handicap champions. Hey, they hardly write handicaps anymore.
      Trainers who questionably play within the rules? Reasonable assumption but if no proof??
      And then, when racing commissioners decide to reverse themselves via “process,” it sure looks like The Jordan Rules have been taken to a higher level.
      Tests are not supposed to be “judgment calls.”

      1. Very well said. It has always been about the betting, but never more so than today. Some of us used to actually root for horses like Forego, Affirmed and Seattle Slew. That was then and this now. Thanks for keeping us informed.

  3. “Since the Derby points system has been instituted, there has been a virtually unprecedented run of winning favorites. ”

    I think this has more than a lot to do with the fact that out of control speedballs can’t just step in there and take their no-chance shots like they could pre-points system.

  4. How about the fact that while Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill get coddled and praised over and over, Rick Dutrow is serving a 10 year suspension? That one doesn’t sit right with me at all.

    1. Please don’t get me started on this travesty of justice. From the railroading, the lying testing of state investigate and Gov. Not-Mario sitting on his hands after creating a “second-chance” program. Disgraceful. And this after the state steward said he was rail-roaded and no one wanted to re-litigate; he’s served seven years, paid fines, agreed to special provisions, but no! #Dammit

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