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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


This story first appeared in Horse Racing Nation and is reprinted with permission of the author

By Ron Flatter, Louisville, KY, January 9, 2023 — An atypical racetrack story, this drama would be appropriately entitled Bob Baffert vs Churchill Downs.

There is a lot of star power in that title, but it feels like it could be dressed up a little. How about “The Trainer and the Track”? No. That sounds too much like a Disney dog movie. We can work on that.

There was barely time to workshop this one. The backers wanted to get this thing on a real stage in a hurry. Remember? It opened at the end of the spring season a couple years ago in Frankfort, Ky.

Talk about taking this thing on the road to work out the kinks…

They tried a different title when it was rolled out. Bob Baffert vs. Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. It did not have much of a ring to it. They were still working on that one, too.

The first stage was in the old State House, a nearly 200-year-old building that was converted into a place to host these types of productions. It was too bad there were not too many people were in the audience for those first shows. The actors already had grown comfortable with the script.

Casting was nailed down early. The guy who got all the lines was a fellow from Oklahoma playing the trainer’s lawyer. Think Philip Baker Hall, the guy who played the library cop on “Seinfeld.” Deep voice. Insistent delivery. Maddeningly charismatic in a love-him-or-hate-him way. I felt at the time like he was the irreplaceable star. Still do.

Then there was the woman who played the rival lawyer. She got as much stage time as the lead. Sort of like Sigourney Weaver with the kindly voice of a patient teacher. Her character could get knocked off stride, but she still bounced right back with some rejoinders of her own.

The guy who played the judge looked to me like he could have been an assistant coach in “Friday Night Lights.” He was good for the early previews, and he kept popping back up for a while. But the big stage? I don’t think so.

Backers got bold that summer. They quickly took the show to a big room just off Broadway. And they changed the name. Bob Baffert vs. NYRA. It was hard to say how this NYRA cat got there. It seemed like it was awkwardly wedged into the story. Word on the streets was that it actually was forced to buy its way in by paying the backers more than $100,000. That apparently bought some product placement. NYRA lingered in the background of this plot for about a year.

Oh, another rival lawyer came and went. And so did another judge character. He was an old New York actor who seemed like he was barely there. He might have been the ghost of Abe Vigoda. It was starting to feel like these roles were fungible. But that Oklahoma guy? He had legs. Still does.

The show went back to the old title and the old theater for some fine-tuning. By now everyone had their lines down pat. I felt badly for some of the audience who kept coming back hoping to hear something new. The writers were not budging.

“Betamethasone.” “Otomax.” “Topical ointment.” “Injection.” “Stand-down period.” Too bad this thing was not a musical. Hey, maybe it’s not too late.

They went back to Kentucky again with that trainer vs. commission title. This time they workshopped the show. They wrote out the judge character, and they did not even let an audience in. Get this. Part of it was on Zoom. And you thought Kevin Costner mailed in his lines. Some of the backers felt like this was a disaster.

Then it was back to Frankfort, this time for a six-day, summer-stock production before Labor Day. It was done in a building so non-descript, a 7-year-old could have replicated it with beginner’s Lego. The performance space looked like it could have been used for a service club’s rummage sale. The audience and the actors sat pretty much together.

Oh, the guy who played the judge last summer was unforgettable. Think of the guy on the Monopoly cards, and give him the voice of a true Southern gentleman. He was as sweet as Kentucky corn bread. But then came this weird plot twist that had him buying a horse with the Oklahoma guy. The writers have yet to work their way out of that mess.

So that brings us to the present. These are full-fledged previews now. They have switched the name to Baffert vs. Churchill Downs, and the show was moved into a bigger, nicer stage that was retrofitted not too long ago inside one of those beautiful Public Works Act buildings from the Depression.

It is in downtown Louisville, which is pretty quiet during this frigid time of the year. The venue was named for Gene Snyder, a yesteryear politician. A local freeway bearing his name has a reputation for slowdowns and abandoned vehicles. There seems to be a pattern here.

Instead of just one rival for the Oklahoma guy, a bigger cast was hired to play multiple lawyer characters. During intermission I heard one impresario in the foyer saying it might have cost about $25,000 to pay the actors for the first act, which lasted two hours.

The new rival lawyer, at least the one who had the most lines Thursday, came across like Hugh Jackman with an American accent. He was bold and confident and almost lyrical with his lines. He could skewer the lead actor with the sharpest of jibes, yet still not draw blood.

And the new judge. She might have been cast against type. I heard she was hired by a huge investor whose politics are conservative. She did not have too many lines the first day, but she came across as a Judy Greer type who was at once efficient without taking herself too seriously. Quite the opposite of the whole storyline.

By now the writers have made the rival lawyers a little more sassy. They do not have as much patience for our friend from Oklahoma as they might have had back in the old State House in Frankfort. That seems to be the new drama designed to infuse life into this production.

In truth, this reviewer does not see where the show is going. One minute it feels like all the momentum belongs to Mr. Oklahoma. The next minute the other side of the story has all the juice. Even without songs, the words being said over and over again ring in the ears like tinnitus.

Not to offer any plot spoilers here, because the ending has been different every time. Creatively, perhaps, there is not always a conclusion to this show. The audience and even the actors are often left unfulfilled when they leave the theater. The procrastinating writers seem to be kicking that can down the road.

Oh, the trainer? I cannot forget about him. He has an important part, even if he does not say much. Think of Tom Hardy in “Mad Max,” only kinder.

I heard his character will be on the witness stand Friday. I know the audience will be looking forward to that. Otherwise, though, as quiet as the trainer is on stage, he is quoted over and over and over again for things he said before the curtain went up.

No matter what happens with this week’s previews in Louisville, it seems likely the show will go forward somewhere else. The buzz says the backers are prepared to take this all the way to a musty, old playhouse in Washington D.C. I even heard they even are thinking of hiring nine people to play judges.

Frankly, the whole thing has been pretty tedious. And repetitive. And even though everyone backstage tries to get along, the actors and writers and critics and even the Stagedoor Johnnys are getting a little ornery now.

After nearly two years of previews, it is time to get this Baffert vs. Whomever over with. And don’t ask me if it will be a happy ending.

Longtime celebrated turf writer Ron Flatter currently hosts the Ron Flatter Racing Pod weekly and is a featured columnist at Horse Racing Nation. Flatter has covered thoroughbred racing on four continents as well as many sports on an international scale

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2 Responses

  1. If only we could have a jury of our throughbred racing fan peers included in this very questionable and suspect controlled legal process for a more honest perspective of the overseers lack of decision making integrity and incompetence. Strongly suspect it all comes down to the money involved carrying more weight than to what at the end of every racing day would be more honest and just just for the integrity of the sport itself. The scales of justice have little to do with what is honest in the end. All about the money on the table to be counted and divided today. Very little refection on the survival and protection of the very fabric of what is throughbred racing itself,

  2. Sadly, McD, is a bottom line society in a bottom line world. No one seems to aspire to anything anymore, including politicians who attend SOTU addresses and turn it into bleachers chaos; life imitating sports imitating life…

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