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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, May 21, 2023 — The outcome of Preakness 148 was pre-ordained long before the gates sprung open Saturday at 7:05 p.m. The result was sealed Friday morning with the announcement that First Mission, a colt on the rise and the only one capable of keeping the Preakness pace honest, would be scratched.

There’s that, and the fact that only the Kentucky Derby winner bothered to show up in Baltimore—only one in the last two years–to help racing renew and celebrate its most valued and endearing event, the Triple Crown.

Contemporary training regimens and sales-oriented speed pedigrees have resulted in a maxim that more time is required between starts for optimum performance, an exercise in common sense that lamentably has resulted in unintended hurtful consequences.

The way the modern game is played allows horsemen to disrespect the tradition of America’s greatest horse racing series. It has become the norm to eschew the Preakness in favor of five-weeks spacing between the Derby and Belmont, in their words, “doing what’s best for the horse.”

On balance, this mindset is at once timely, correct and righteous. What it is not is good for American racing’s most hallowed tradition.

Seven horses went to the post Saturday, the same number that ran in the 1873 inaugural, but a number sure to double three weeks hence because 12 to 14 horses are just dying to race a mile and a half. Allow me to rephrase:

In case its missed the memo, sportscaster Mike Tirico began yesterday’s national telecast by bringing the audience up to speed, that a horse died on the Sunday after the Derby, upping the number of Derby week fatalities at Churchill Downs to eight.

That might not have been his lead had another horse, Bob Baffert trainee Havnameltdown, not suffered an inoperable ankle injury during the running of the Chick Lang Stakes necessitating his humane destruction.

Havnameltdown was Grade 1-placed and a three-time graded stakes winner making his first start since returning from a gut-wrenching head defeat in the one-mile $1.5 million Saudi Derby in which he finished 2-3/4 lengths ahead of subsequent UAE Derby winner, Derma Sotogake.

What he was doing going three-quarters of a mile breaking from the rail in a race loaded with extreme-speed types for a paltry $200,000 is curious, considering a victory would have added very little to his stud value, only a chance to pick up some easy money in a Grade 3 sprint.

The catastrophic injury occurred 60 minutes after Baffert’s Arabian Lion, previously second to First Mission in Keeneland’s Lexington Stakes, won the Sir Barton impressively by four lengths in fast time, after which Baffert lamentably wished he had entered him in the Preakness, too.

“It would have been nice to have had a couple in there,” he said post-race.

Of course, all Baffert needed was a newly re-blinkered National Treasure in a small, pace-less field that saw the Quality Road colt gamely withstand the stretch challenge of Blazing Sevens beneath Johnny Velazquez’s world class handling.

“This business is all twists and turns, the ups and downs,” said an emotional Baffert after his record eighth Preakness victory.

“We had a horrible race and we’ve just been really totally wiped out after that horse got hurt,” before adding a gratuitous, self-serving “there’s so many responsibilities a trainer has…”

The Preakness, the Triple Crown, and the sport of Thoroughbred Racing deserved better than what it got yesterday at Pimlico, a merry-go-round conducted at a laughably absurd tempo.

The ungraded Sir Barton half-mile, with rounding, was 4/5s of a second faster than the Grade 1 main event, its six furlongs more than two full seconds faster.

Earlier, allowance horses went a half-mile in 48.35, six furlongs in 1:12.65, compared to Preakness splits of 48.92 and 1:13.49. Friday’s Pimlico Special for older Grade 3 horses at the Preakness distance posted internals of 47.58 and 1:10.77.

The Triple Crown series is meant to create occasions worthy of celebratory renewal, but this year’s second leg, like the first, came at too high a cost, leaving participants, fans, and the sport reeling from blows which someday it might never recover.

Yesterday’s events ran the gamut from triumph to tragedy and back to triumph in a matter of hours. How much longer can this go on before fans and critics suggest that maybe it would be more fitting that someone euthanize the sport instead of the horses?

Indeed, how long will it be before racing’s fiercely loyal fans no longer wish to endure this kind of pain it experiences on a semi-regular basis and says enough, how long before America’s animal lovers acknowledge that the nature of the competition cannot be fixed no matter how many safety measures are put in place?

In the eyes of the public, and many of the sport’s supporters, Bob Baffert, a Triple Crown icon, is at once a reviled and celebrated figure, a symbol of everything that’s wrong about horse racing. But he is only a symbol, the result of a tone-deaf industry that refuses to change with the times.

Baffert is loved by those he enriches and bestows larger than life personas but disparaged by others who recognize him as a maker of champions but also one who must be responsible—his word–for too many horses that never make it back to the barn.

But it is not Baffert who is hard of hearing, rather, it is influential segments of an industry that places too much value on bottom-line results with not enough thought given to helpful reforms.

How can racing possibly justify inertia in the name of tradition over current reality? Three races in five weeks are the safety genie that never be put back into any bottle. As a recently converted colleague wrote, if baseball can change so can horse racing.

The game was far better off when horses were born to race and not born to sell, when stamina was valued over speed, when there was no such thing as permitted medication beyond the realm of therapeutics.

Trainers will continue to try doing what’s best for their horses by not over-racing horses bred for speed and not durability in a game where two-year-olds are sold for millions because they can run a furlong in 10 seconds, something they never will be asked to replicate in their racing careers.

The first Saturday in May is sacrosanct but May’s third Saturday and a Saturday in early June is not. If the Maryland Jockey Club and the New York Racing Association fail to act responsibly for the good of the Triple Crown series, maybe they don’t deserve to continue hosting it.

Sensible scheduling as dictated by latter-day horsemen could to worse than to space the Derby, Preakness, Belmont four weeks apart. Further consider that a slightly delayed Haskell and Travers may not end accidents but it could help mitigate some of the risks.

If the keepers of the three-year-old flame want to protect the health of its glamour division by giving the contestants a reasonably better chance to survive the competition, spacing the classics four weeks apart would in all probability improve the quality of five prestigious divisional events.

If racing fails to heed dictates of the way the modern game is played and continuing ignoring more thoughtful ways of turning equine boys into men, it is time to seriously consider whether racing theatre has outlived the sport it purports itself to be.

The choices are to think outside the box or wind up inside of one. The time for change is overdue. If not, continue failing to act and maintain a deleterious status quo, allowing the Preakness to be a beacon for how racing is willing to allow one of its great traditions to languish unabated.

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13 Responses

  1. Yep running at 48 plus and 1:13 plus fractions is no way to treat such a race even if it’s the ugly sister of the three races of the Crown ! But as you wrote on an article years ago about the coming demise of Pimlico and Maryland racing, and yesterday where [handle] showed a 16-plus decrease from last year, which seems another step into that direction, even if a national television network tries to hype up something that it only deserved an hour or so instead of five or six, something which is avoided by many horse owners and bettors alike, just like the fabled Emperor Without Clothes, there ain’t nothing there to get excited about! It’s not the Derby! It’s not even close to being somewhat related to the Belmont! Small field, several lower class horses, three or four of them who happen to look to finish in the money and there you get a winning, boxed gimmick bet or two! Add to it the S=slow fractions which were similar to cheap claimers, the usual slow start of a contender who could never catch up, and there you have it… As exciting as watching a WWE ” wrestling ” match with an arranged, scripted conclusion… Glad that I only spent a few minutes watching it, a dozen minutes before the start… Today, a F=few minutes, Next year, maybe none at all, avoiding the PPs, betting slips and maybe even caring about who won, and how. There’s nothing there, in Pimlico, for me to get excited about. There’s never been A=anything like the other two big time races.

  2. JG: Pimlico is very old, outdated, uncomfortable for the rank and file in the crowd, but not without its romance. The Preakness has a great history, 148 years old and counting. The state of Maryland loves its horse racing. Baltimore could not be more hospitable.

    The demise of Pimlico you refer to was written at a time when it appeared that the Preakness was moving up the road to Laurel and no doubt Maryland has been hurt by a very crowded northeastern racing corridor. Less racing would probably mean more and that might be in the cards one day.

    But the Preakness is the middle jewel in a historic crown and it deserves a chance to rebound, Hard to believe that only nine years ago, 123,000 plus showed up for California Chrome. Yesterday’s race created zero buzz; no wonder handle was down by double digits. The Preakness was always going to be a bad betting race before the scratch of First Mission. But at least it could have contributed to a making the race somewhat more promotable. It wasn’t meant to be.

    As stated, happy for Johnny, and the stretch duel did provide good racing theater. Otherwise, this renewal will be remembered only for the Havnameltdown tragedy, the day’s only profoundly sad takeaway. As stated, the Preakness and Triple Crown deserved better.

  3. JP–Your latest column provides so much insightful commentary for your loyal followers to digest–truly a masterpiece! But one comment above all others hit me right between the eyes–“perhaps it would be more fitting to euthanize the sport instead of the horses” Wow….
    And I am afraid that time may arrive before we leave the planet.
    As you noted, the inertia that must be overcome before horse racing will take the steps needed to ensure its survival is enormous. And I am not sure the powers that be will finally “get it ” before it is too late to save horse racing from itself. A shame, and yet the more I see of Baffert, Navarro and others presiding over one equine death after another, the more I become sympathetic to the wild-eyed crusaders at PETA. And I never thought that day would come……

    1. Thanks Chuck. I think your comment hints of your fear of inevitability when it comes to racing’s future. I fear for it as well, that’s why I wrote the piece. Lengthening the series is a significant gesture, an indication that racing is willing to change out of concern for the horses–and the history of our most cherished events.

      I’m no Polyanna, but Saturday’s breakdown, as I’m sure its effects on the connections of the horse, ruined the rest of Preakness Day for me, and no doubt countless others.

      In nearly 50 years, I’ve seen too many of them. I never, ever can get the image of the great Go for Wand out of my head as she got up and actually tried to keep running on three legs! Talk about the heart of thoroughbred champions.

      Racing needs to do ALL it can to stave off what might be inevitable despite its current efforts to endure., for the life of the horses and the thousands of stakeholders who devote their lives to them.

  4. This is a reprint, with permission, of private email I received on this issue:

    We are not alone.

    Baseball had this moment also. When we were watching Barry Bonds and Mark McGuire set home run records, we knew something was terribly wrong. We didn’t know what it was, but we knew.

    The truth came out in the congressional hearings and testimony . In 2008, Miguel Cabrera led the AL in homers with 37. Confirmation that the public perceptions about baseball players using PED were spot on. Six times in the next ten years, the HR champion would lead the league with less than 40 home runs.

    Just like horse racing, baseball had plenty of chances to clean up their mess. They refused, until Congress intervened. Just like horse racing, baseball records are revered. The fans demanded integrity in the sport they loved, and MLB with the help of federal oversight, delivered.

    The time has come for everyone to play by the same rules. Let the national pastime be the model for our return to respectability, and a new goal of reaching the sports potential for greatness. Baseball met the challenge and made it happen. It can be done.

    Michael A.

  5. I hope Baffert had the decency to chip off some of the Preakness prize money for the connections of the 4 horse.

    1. Doc, it’s been my experience that outclassed horses are incapable of matching speed with the better competition.

      They probably were just hoping to get around there safely and grab a small piece of the purse.

      1. I was super happy to read that White Abarrio has been turned over to Richard Dutrow. Just got back, and he already has a Met Mile contender!!! It’s the least he is owed for being railroaded for a god damn decade.

        1. How right you are Doc, and idiots on Twitter and in racing chat rooms are spreading misinformation re Rick Dutrow. I wonder if they knew they had had fewer horses break down at NY tracks in 11 years than died at Churchill Downs Derby week!

          I know they are pointing for Met Mile but the race comes up quickly.

          I saw that note this morning and called Rick to wish him luck. He said “I sure hope he likes Belmont.” My response was “well, we know he likes Gulfstream. Get him as good as you can this year and come down here and win the Pegasus next January.”

          Wish there were a Futures pool!

          1. That is great to hear. I got so disgusted at the equivalence being made on twitter between Saffie Joseph and Rick Dutrow. It is borne of laziness and ignorance, and I learned long ago that on Twitter, that is a combo you cannot fight.

  6. I agree Doc but I feel bound to engage the laziness and fight the ignorance with facts or, in the absence of that, fair dialogue meant to encourage more of the same. It is frustrating, then what isn’t in the age of truth in decline…

    1. That is the part where we are set up to lose; you are 100% correct – to not speak out on obvious BS is to be complicit in it. But it is demoralizing and soul sucking. It is a cross to bear.

      1. You are correct on all points, a cross indeed… No wonder there’s so much poor mental health in this country… Exhausting indeed.

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