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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

OLD-SCHOOL TRADITION MEETS THOROUGHBRED RACING 2.0: WHICH ONE’S RIGHT?

In italics below you will find a comment posted by “Doctor Disaster” beneath my most recent column about the overall success of a veritable feast of Grade 1 races run on the busiest Breeders’ Cup Prep weekend this fall.

The edited post appears in italics. Immediately below is my response on the issues raised. Most of Doc’s observations were spot on. Indeed, the quality of this comment is Op-Ed material any racing website would be pleased to post.

Other observations lacked a nod to present day conventions that have changed the course of racing history, some of it good, some not so much. It’s not really an issue of right or wrong. We see modern racing as an acknowledgment to what is:

“John: I have a slightly different slant on this past weekend. I miss the Belmont Fall Championship meet. It has been rendered a non-entity by the never ending marketing of so-called World Championships (we will see how many Euros actually show up in Lexington).

There is no question that Belmont Fall Championship meet still produces great performances in virtually all divisions, as does Keeneland’s fall meet, but each have taken “hits” as their best events are now bridges to two of racing’s five biggest days.

That wasn’t the case when Breeders’ Cup had its inaugural in 1984 but times do and have changed. The breed has not gotten stronger, only prettier, as horses are bred for the sales ring by most breeders today, not for the sport of it.

With horses being less stout and foal crops virtually halved as breeders concentrate on the top of the market, pickings have become slim. You can’t make a suit without the material.

I guess that the genie is long out of the bottle and we are never returning to the glory of Forego’s run in the ’76 Marlboro, or Slew’s magnificent Champagne one year later (still the greatest two-year-old performance of the last half century).

My first thought as I watched Jackie’s Warrior cross the finish line was of black and beautiful Seattle Slew’s dominating win in the Champagne, crowning him a champion.

As for Forego, with respect to his size, athleticism, and versatility, he is a once-in-a-lifetime racehorse. They just don’t happen every day, whatever the era.

Everything nowadays is a prep for some Breeders Cup race (even ones [I consider] fake BC races). I don’t know about you but I am bored with the constant regurgitation of the nonsense about ” Win and In” races. Why would local punters care if some Arab Sheik gets his entry fee paid by his own breeding operation in Versailles, KY? I know that I don’t.

It is now Breeders’ Cup that defines champions. I personally take into consideration body of work when there is more than one would-be champion, but a Breeders’ Cup win in a close category is a definite tie-breaker.

I, too, am not fond of the term “World Championships,” a little too ugly American, but on balance the Breeders’ Cup fills the role John Gaines had envisioned. I’m also not interested in earnings, no longer having an interest in a race horse.

The Win-and-In is not about shipping for oil rich Sheikhs or deep-pocketed British bookmakers, it’s about encouraging participation. Competition between tracks is what hurts field size, not the ‘WAYI model.

The WAYI construct succeeds in encouraging participation in fall classics–better if not for scheduling conflicts. I’m happy for smaller outfits such as the connections of undefeated juvenile filly Dayoutoftheoffice, her trainer Tim Hamm getting his first lifetime Grade 1.

Eight horses that won this past weekend at Belmont Park and Keeneland last raced at Kentucky Downs, a new brief but high-profile player on the good-horse circuit.

What about those that didn’t benefit from a run in Franklin, KY? If not for that meet, they might have run at Belmont. And the Keeneland horses might have run at Belmont if this year’s Breeders’ Cup were scheduled elsewhere.

Last week we were discussing your idea to change the TC season. As far as I’m concerned, the KY Derby “point” system and the Breeders Cup WAYI have conspired to undermine what was once a semblance of a “Season” in Thoroughbred racing.

I’m a fan of the Derby point system. Most years the race still attracts limit fields of 20 while clearing out precocious juvenile speedsters who couldn’t get a mile and a quarter in the proverbial van.

By forcing connections to earn points, it helps the cream to rise, hence the success of form horses, especially the betting favorite since the point system was instituted. For the good of the game, betting notwithstanding, I root for the ‘best horse’ to win.

It seems that all that we have now is one of two things: Who has the requisite number of points for the Derby or who is running in the Breeders’ Cup. Nobody is running their horses any more!

I’m as guilty as the next turf writer for using the point system to lead Derby stories, although none of us are as guilty as racing’s TV shill factories who need access to put on a show. All writers need is a backstretch pass and a notebook.

Good horses are running–just not against each other, Breeders’ Cup or not. The purses on major circuits are huge, and if they’re not running at your favorite track, they’re ducking and running somewhere against less formidable foes for the same money.

A typical Derby Starter now has at most three or four starts before the Derby. Moreover, all of the horses other than 3yo colts, only run once or twice before the Breeders’ Cup.

As for the number starts, even three pre-Derby races is about max these days. Many horsemen want a fresh horse on the day and most believe, as I do, that the third race in any form cycle produces an optimal result.

Three-season campaigns are rare due to the considerations of freshness and spacing. When a three-season campaign does exist, all three cannot be full. Time is the Thoroughbred’s and a horseman’s best friend.

Extended time allows for more natural development and is animal friendly; it also compensates for dehydration, often a by-product a raceday diuretic. No hoof-no horse is for real. The greater truth is no horse-no game.

Take a look back at Belmont last Saturday. The field sizes for what used to be the defining races of the year were woefully small and lacking in depth.

While small fields hinder price seekers, value is still available. In their fashion, small-field ‘rider’s races’ are more difficult to predict. Handicap all you want, once the gate opens strategy most often separates winners from losers.

Current Federal Legislation might be a cure for racing’s medication and safety problems but what is the remedy for ensuring that we will have an entertaining and bettable product going forward?

Scheduling is key. A modern championship campaign might take just five races to complete–if they’re the right five races. Trainers don’t run often because they want their charges to peak on racing’s biggest days. And you can count those on one hand.

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25 Responses

  1. The other thing Breeders’ Cup emphasis does is essentially tells people that there’s no good reason to go to a racetrack on a Thursday.

  2. If that were true, I guess that must also include Sunday through Thursday. Don’t really understand the inference ML. Are you saying it should be a three-day event, one-day, what exactly?

  3. For most bettors, the BC is an off-track event, even on a Saturday. Most would-be local attendees are priced out and displaced by fly-in one-percenters anyway.

    Indeed scheduling is the key to greater participation by horseplayers and horsemen. Tiny fields are a put-off. I wonder how many bettors viewed the Jockey Club Gold Cup live?

    Scheduling the first BC day card on a Friday not only limits working class participation, but also can take bankroll, focus, energy, and enthusiasm away from baby boomers for the following day’s watch&wager marathon.

    A change I’d like to see in the BC would be running on two Saturdays, 3-5 weeks apart. The Friday Juvenile card would be moved to the second Saturday which would also include the Classic and the Turf. This would enable top finisher(s) in the Dirt Mile, Mile, Distaff, and F&M Turf to also compete in the two most prestigious events.

    I suspect total handle would increase over the back-to-back model.

  4. I, it takes a village to stage this event. Example: Nothing bigger than Triple Crown and it couldn’t be helped this year but how did months apart spacing help handle in that event. Continuity was killed, so would three weeks between Breeders’ Cups.

    Horsemen would hate it. It takes a great amount of preparation and good fortune for horses to peak on the day. There’s travel, stable help, added costs for participants and fans who might have one weekend to spare, much less two.

    Don’t see Friday as a big put off. In California on Friday with what, five races, later start with the Juvenile in prime time on East Coast. Sunday is a non-starter with NFL, if they’re still playing football in NOV, 2021. With BC at CD, e.g., they have lights for a prime time event, or any track with lights–if they want the event bad enough.

    Simply stated, there’s no big clamor to change the BC format. And who knows if it will be safe next year to open a BC track to the public at 100%?

    1. JP,
      That there is currently no big clamor for a format change doesn’t mean that a different one isn’t worth consideration. Any concept that increases field size AND makes top-level races more competitive shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.

      I wasn’t suggesting spacing like that between the 2020 Belmont and the 2020 KY Derby. I agree that would kill continuity. IMO, however, only the supertrainers entering horses in multiple BC events are likely to be negatively impacted and, perhaps, a small subset of their owners.

      I’m pretty sure that the number of people who couldn’t participate on both scheduled Saturdays would be dwarfed by those would-be bettors forced to work for a living on Fridays.

      1. I hear you on the super-trainers I but face it, most of the best horses are in their barns. It is what is and we have two choices; accept it or not.

        Many have not and between super-trainers and super-syndicates, I know four or five big players who have walked away from the game because of these two issues.

        First and foremost, I remain a fan of the horses and the sport they put on.

  5. On CNN last nite Governor Cuomo told Anderson Cooper 1 more year to ‘normal.’ When do you expect NYRA will allow patrons to return? I agree w/you that Friday/Saturday BC is fine.

    1. Well C, there was a recent report that all states are experiencing some kind of surge, even in Florida where DeSantis has instructed subordinates to lie. The answer is no one knows anything until the Virus is contained.

      If you want me to hazard a guess, how about next spring at Belmont Park, if sooner Wood day at Big A. If the racino is allowed to open, one would think that a very limited number of people masked and distanced would be OK.

      I know I’m in the minority but there is no chance to bring back the economy until it’s safe to leave the house for all ages. And that would take another complete shutdown…

      1. Considering the average patrons’ age,and their illnesses, it would take a while before those rooms will be as busy as they were or even close to that money traffic-exchange. A few days ago I visited the 110- Farmingdale OTB joint and it felt like an all male nursing home whose patients were wearing masks only when they went to bet.It’ s hard to argue,complain, incite and curse with a mask on. After a few minutes ,I bet early,which I rarely do,and left. It reminded me of winter days when crows hide from the cold but in this case,the patrons go where they should not,that is, in a joint full,or at least frequented,by the most vulnerable adults who will then return home with more than they irresponsibly planned. It ain’t easy being addicted,old,weak and selfish. The internet betting jungle Will be the Only Reliable,safe(??) way to bet. Watching horses,riders,trainers and cashing tickets on the spot will have to be part of the past. Just part of an ever growing list of ” used to bees”. Hate to think what will happen in the coming colder weeks,months.If you are old,weak,arthritic and with other pulmonary,cardiac ,weight problems you Should know better than going into such dangerous ,unhealthy joint. It is too risky,worse than trying to cash on a 50-1 longshot. I’d rather take a walk, go grocery shopping or even watch it all on the big screen while eating,exercising…. Will never be as young and healthy as today.Appreciate these precious moments.The ” Sport Of Kings” does not need pawns who bet on their generous purses.I’m not that addicted to discern that. Eat your gambling money.Pay some bills with it,or even save it.Remember what Benjamin Franklin said about saving it.

        1. “It ain’t easy being addicted,old,weak and selfish.”

          Thanks for sharing, “Ain’t.”

          Not to defend recklessness endangerment to others that should not even be legally enabled, but one might also wonder who is left at home for many of those you observed to bring the virus back to.

          You reminded me that, long before COVID-19, I once heard OTB “regulars” likened to a religious group requiring the presence of other believers for prayers (wagers) to be properly delivered.

  6. If the UBS Arena is still scheduled to open on October 2021 (it is as of now), then I cannot see any way it could be justified to not allow limited in person attendance at that Belmont fall meet; it is outdoors and massively large.

    In any case, I’ve always felt the virus will tell us when it’s time to put it in the rearview mirror; not politics. Of course a legit vaccine would be amazing and hopefully sooner than later. Hopefully the situation and infection rates will dictate that it will be safe enough to allow Wood Day attendance even if it’s a 25% capacity situation, outdoors only, with Longshots and Equestris remaining closed, and no seating inside period. They could even do tickets drawn by lottery for the 25%. Personally, I’d probably still pass, knowing how unlikely it is for the typical AQU character to adhere to mask over mouth and nose the entire time, and how unlikely it is for NYRA to do any sort of enforcement of such rules. And there isn’t a ton of room in the Aqueduct stands to get spacing if that happens.

    At Belmont (on a non Belmont Stakes Day), it’s so much easier to distance yourself with the same capacity rules if the entire outside seating in the grandstand and clubhouse are accessible, so that even if every single other person outside uncovered their face, you could create a pretty safe separation.

  7. Doc, Belmont Park in the spring would be my top choice, too, providing it can happen at all. Only the shadow knows…

  8. John: I am honored that you chose to utilize my comments for today’s column. For the past 40 or so years, I have learned so much from the columns that both you and Paul Moran wrote in Newsday, those written by Bill Finley in the Daily News and by Ray Kerrison in the Post. Whether or not we agree on what the problems and solutions are, I know that we both want New York racing to be the best in the world.
    I also know that while you may be slightly older, I was feeling a tad bit melancholy while I celebrated my 60th birthday last week.
    John, in the first year that I went to the track, we watched both Forego and Seattle Slew. I naively thought that horses like that would be around every year. If you first went to the track ten years earlier, in 67, a young fan probably thought that one would see the likes of Damascus, Dr. Fager and Buckpasser all of the time. As you noted above, horses of those abilities are very rare. You have to appreciate them for the short time that they are here. I think that I was just being wistful for the glory days of yesteryear.

  9. Who isn’t wistful about the glory days of yesteryear–especially in 2020–even Millennials feel that way!

    I remember the late, great Bill Leggett of Sports Illustrated who said to me one day at the end of the 70s, “don’t start taking Triple Crown winners for granted. ” He was right for 38 years, until American Pharoah.

    I too learned a lot from my contemporaries, we were like the jockey’s room, friends or acquaintances at least but rivals in print, as it should be in every facet of American life; friendly rivals. Competition is a good thing.

    I’ve told the story many times how Seattle Slew made my career as a “newspaper man,” until Harvey Pack came around and created a monster. I could never forget Slew, as stated, black, beautiful, strong and fast.

    I agree with you, I cannot think of a better performance by a Juvenile, although Arazi comes damn close, but a bit apples to oranges, one turn to two, etc.

  10. NYRA set the next 2 meets today: Aqueduct winter going from Dec 10 through March 28th – 56 racing days. Aqueduct Spring is April 1- April 18, with the Wood running April 3rd.

    So the realistic question will be does AQU allow limited attendance for the Spring Meet in order to have some sort of fan presence at the Wood? Or do they just wait on Belmont in late April?

    it seems like it wouldn’t be worth the bother to set up the track to filter fans to the AQU stands just for the 11 racing days of the Spring Meet. So educated guess is – like John speculated previously here – Belmont Spring/Summer is the very likely target date for fans.

  11. Oh shoot, it just hit me. The loss of a NYC tradition:

    NEW YEARS DAY CALENDARS AT AQUEDUCT WON’T HAPPEN!!! noooooooooooooooooooo

    1. Loved the New Years Day Calendar give away
      Affirming the beginning of a new year with hopes of doing better than the previous year.

  12. “Yesteryear” has me thinking back to a race where Buckpasser was a well beaten third in the Belmont Park stretch, and the two runners in front of him were extending their lead. Buckpasser would have finished in third place had it not been for another runner attempting to pass him. Buckpasser simply exploded. His nostrils fueled with a heavyweight champion like rush of adrenalin, he geared down with all of his innate class, and ended the race in first place at the wire. So wish I could recall the name of the contest, as I would like to see if I could locate a replay on Youtube. Thinking maybe the Suburban?

    It was the most exciting stretch run I ever witnessed in my early involvement with racing. I recall on the evening news that night that the a sports reporter commenting on the stretch replay that this was a race that Buckpasser had no business winning. Without that fourth horse trying to pass him, he more than never likely never would have found the resolve to challenge the two leaders in front.

    Thanks John and Framarco for bringing me back, if only for a few minutes, to the glorious days of yesteryear. I feels like I’m back riding on the bus from the parking lot out back and headed to the grandstand entrance gates. Our horizons were golden back then indeed. So hope we can all find our way back. Would so love to share some of this with my grandchildren.

  13. Hey McD – not sure if it’s the race you’re referring to – but there’s a race on YOUTUBE – Buckpasser, 1966, [email protected] – in which Buckpasser inherits the lead around the 1/4 pole when the pace setters collapse. Not sure if he starts ‘waiting’ on horses but a horse blows by him on the outside and quickly opens up a couple lengths – seemingly on the way to victory – but I guess Buckpasser caught sight of him and had other ideas, furiously rallying to get up in the final strides. I became hooked on ‘the game’ in the early 70’s, when I was VERY young – but remember my Dad and brother in laws CONSTANTLY talking about Buckpasser, Damascus, Dr. Fager, et al….and like everyone commenting here….sure do miss those ‘glory days’…

    1. And Seattle Slew being passed by Exceller in JCGC and then rallying just to lose photo by a nose. Bill Shoemaker aboard Exceller. You can watch on youtube.com. Some say this was Slew’s best race, even in defeat. I was in a NYC taxi and the driver was a horseplayer. I asked him if he liked anything coming up and he said Seattle Slew in Champagne. May as well put Ruffian in your time capsule. Dr. Fager was named after a surgeon that the owner had gone to. I read this somewhere. JP can confirm, ha, ha.

  14. Yes indeed! And actually the reason John Nerud needed to see Dr. Fager (the human one) was because of a fall from a horse! I think he may have been ponying a horse in the morning and something went wrong and he ended up falling off his mount and Dr. Fager was the brain surgeon who saved Nerud’s life. As I said in my earlier post, I got a tremendous education from my Dad about the great horses/trainers just before my time!! Another great horse my Dad raved about? From a few years later? Hoist The Flag. I’m sure his remarkable story has already been ‘talked’ about here – I’m new to the forum

  15. A motivating discussion is definitely worth comment. I do believe that you ought to publish more on this subject, it may not be a taboo matter but generally folks don’t speak about such subjects. To the next! Many thanks!!

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