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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Monmouth Park’s Haskell Invitational
Photo Toni Pricci

This year’s Haskell isn’t the classic some past renewals have been. renewals. This isn’t a knock when you consider the centerpiece of Monmouth’s summer has been won by the likes of American Pharoah, Rachel Alexandra and Big Brown. Even last year, Good Magic had lost a bit of luster but he was the reigning champion of his generation and he performed like it on Haskell Day.

The 2019 renewal will have something none of the others have had, the only Kentucky Derby winner whose backers weren’t paid off at the windows, Maximum Security. Maybe that broke the mojo of what had been an unbeaten career. He came back in the Pegasus (same name, cut rate purse) and was beaten on the square by the streaking King for a Day, who will be back.

The feeling is Jason Servis will have Maximum Security a lot more ready this time. Servis couldn’t be blamed for feeling he didn’t need to unload his whole bag of tricks when he was going to the post as a 1-20 shot. With $1 million as well as divisional leadership on the line, nothing will be held back this time.

Bob Baffert, who wins Haskells almost as often as Meryl Streep wins Oscars, is shipping in his second team, Mucho Gusto. Of course, Baffert’s backups are often better than most trainers’ stable stars. In fact, Mucho Gusto is five-for-seven with a second a third and comes in off a convincing win over Baffert’s Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster.

The expectation is the top performers in the Haskell will make their next stop at Saratoga for the Travers on Aug. 24. Baffert will have his Eclipse champion Game Winner, who had a smashing win over nothing Saturday in the Los Al Derby, waiting at the Spa.

A couple of other Haskell hopefuls have credentials more impressive than their abilities. Everfast was second in the Preakness. Joevia was third in the Belmont. A win by either or any of the rest would be a shock.

The Jim Dandy next weekend, which will be headed by Preakness winner War of Will, and the Curlin, the day before, should produce another starter or two.

Chad Brown is sitting on a couple of lightly raced colts, who could be major factors in those races. Fortin Hill is two-for-two in sprints, including an allowance win last month. Even more promising is Looking at Bikinis, also two-for-two but with a one-mile allowance score on June 27.

Meanwhile, Richard Mandella is taking an extremely cautious approach with Omaha Beach, the morning line favorite for the Kentucky Derby until he was scratched. Mandella is skipping the showcases in the East for a turf race at Del Mar in late August.

This is a strange way to pursue a divisional championship but it probably all will come down to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Mandella is peerless at getting a horse ready for one big race.

Jai alai booming—NOT!

Jai alai is enjoying a renaissance in South Florida—to the delight of no one.

For decades, the handball-type game was played at Miami Jai Alai and Dania Jai Alai. Its primary appeal during the sport’s salad years was it, greyhound racing and harness racing were the only places to gamble after dark.

Once this privilege disappeared as the lottery, Indian casinos, poker rooms and thoroughbred simulcasting became available, jai alai fans disappeared. I’ve personally been at frontons in Greater Miami where there have been as few as a dozen fans watching and (maybe) betting.

Nevertheless, there soon could be as many as six frontons operating in Greater Miami; the two long established facilities, a sham operation in far south Miami-Dade County, another joke of a fronton at the former Flagler Dog Track and proposed frontons at the site of the former Calder Race Course and Pompano Park Harness Track.

The latter is the latest to announce intentions to open a fronton, ostensibly to replace the more expensive trotters and pacers. Magic City Casino (nee Flagler Dog Track) converted to jai alai last year.

All are nothing more than cheap backdoor gambits to keep slots and poker rooms by maintaining they are connected to a pari-mutuel facility. A fronton in Fort Pierce is doing the same thing. For a few weeks during the summer it offers four players competing in a few games each day to keep what has become a thriving card room (slots are not allowed outside South Florida except at Indian casinos). As best I could tell during a recent visit, it’s the same four players all day.

I guess not even their families care. The four players had only three people in the “crowd.” 

In the case of Calder, its parent company, Churchill Downs Inc., is seeking to relieve itself of the obligation to fund thoroughbred racing about $10 million annually from slots profits.

If this strikes some as unfair, consider that one of the conditions of getting a license for a casino at Calder was that it would help support the thoroughbred racing program. No thoroughbred racing, no casino. It was that simple.

Horsemen were marshaled to provide money and their efforts to get this bill passed.  In subsequent years, CDI, discontinued racing and tore down the grandstand, getting under the legal barrier by allowing a short Gulfstream West meeting of just as many days as is necessary to keep the casino license.

In Florida, where a disgraceful Division of Pari-Mutuel Racing has allowed barrel racing and two broken nags to amble about 100 yards at Hialeah to achieve the same end, there is no such thing as the spirit of a law.

The expectation is eventually there will be decoupling; i.e., it will no longer be required to have pari-mutuels to keep a card room and, in some cases, slots.

The short-lived jai alai revolution will be over. 

© Tom Jicha,, All Rights Reserved, 2019

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