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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


Saratoga Race Course
photo: Mark Berner

SARATOGA SPRINGS – Thank you, Saratoga. I needed that. Just as horses get soured on racing, so do humans. In this case, me. I surely felt I had cause.

The tragic fatalities at Santa Anita broke my heart. The grandstanding by the California Horse Racing Board and the heavy-handed meddling by know-nothing politicians was infuriating.

The over-reaction by Santa Anita was mind boggling. Curtailing whips is as effective as banning unlucky No. 13 on saddle cloths.

The fact that the running scared mentality spread nationwide was depressing. Have no doubt it was largely responsible for the needless cancellations of Saturday racing on July 13.

Talk about hilarious irony. The only major tracks to race that day were in Southern California, ground zero for the madness, and Gulfstream, where the heat index hovers at or over 100 every day. If there has been a heat cancellation at Gulfstream or Calder, when summer racing was recorded there, I can’t recall it. All 15 Major League baseball games were played, many in the heat of the day.

The Kentucky Derby, the race I think about all year, was a debacle, from the scratching of favored Omaha Beach to the disqualification of Maximum Security, a decision that will be debated as long as there is racing.

Then owners and trainers treated the other jewels of the Triple Crown, the Preakness and Belmont, as if they were the Iowa and Indiana Derbies.

Beset by the fiscal issues that are plaguing the entire newspaper industry, the South Florida Sun Sentinel, for which I have covered stakes for more than a decade, had to cut back coverage to just a handful of major events.

I made small investments in a couple of horses as part of a group of friends and acquaintances. One  suffered an injury in his stall the day he was the morning line favorite in a stakes. He never rebounded and we wound up giving him away. The other contracted pneumonia and went to the sidelines for seven months. When he finally kicked the disease, he developed a throat problem.

Personally, I had a significant health scare, which thankfully turned out to not be as ominous as first feared. Nevertheless, it was my first serious reminder of mortality.

The cumulative effect of all this was I seriously considered calling it quits and retiring for good. The only thing that kept me from doing this was the excitement of the relaunch of Horse Racing Insider.

Then I got back to Saratoga last week. For my psyche, it was like visiting Lourdes. The ambiance was as invigorating as ever. Walking around town, it was exhilarating to hear people talking racing in restaurants and bars.

Where else do you see a Hall of Fame trainer, Steve Asmussen, walk unobtrusively among the masses to the top of the stretch then follow a juvenile named Shoplifting down the lane to the winner’s circle. I doubt Asmussen does this with all his young horses, so you might want to put Shoplifting on your horses to watch list.

I reconnected with old friends, some of whom I hadn’t seen in several years but it was like we had last talked yesterday.

The racing was extraordinary. Imperial Hint breaking a 40-year-old track record to outrun seemingly invincible Mitole.

Another track record-setter, Covfefe, dueling Kentucky Oaks champion Serengeti Empress every yard of the Test Stakes before inching away at the wire.

Jorge Navarro, who trained speedballs Sharp Azteca and X Y Jet, tipping Shancelot as “the fastest horse” he ever trained, then having the colt in only his third start run away from a field of accomplished stakes horses to win the Amsterdam Stakes by a pole.

Bob Baffert bringing McKinzie cross country to put in his bid for Horse of the Year in the Whitney, a bittersweet celebration because of the proximity of the race to the death of the beloved doyenne of Saratoga.

I even got to look like a genius in the eyes of my grandson, making his Saratoga debut. We got to the track too late for the first race Saturday. He asked me who I thought would win the second. “Everyone is saying, The Rock Says,” who was 8-5. I told him I would buy him a ticket on Grumps Little Tots instead.

Grumps Little Tots outdueled The Rock Says and paid $10.40, which my grandson put in his pocket and quit for the day. “How did you know?” he asked. I wasn’t about to disillusion him by explaining I thought The Rock Says would win, too, but Grumps Little Tots was trained by Jason Servis. For once, I felt good about that.

To revisit the Lourdes analogy, I got an email during the week that my horse’s throat problems had been over-diagnosed. He was fine and might be able to race again within a month.

All of this in just one week. I’m hooked on racing again.

©, All Rights Reserved, 2019

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⚠ Before you comment

Our staff likes nothing better than to engage with the HRI Faithful and provide a forum for interaction on horseracing and sports. In that spirit, please be kind and reasonable; keep the language clean, and the tone civil. Comments from those who cannot comply will be deleted. Thank you.

19 Responses

  1. I’m pleased that you are rejuvenated about Thoroughbred racing after your trip to the SPA. I’m sure the ambiance, the quaintness of the ‘village’, and the night life were the primary stimulus. I can’t visualize the racing itself being any different in anyway from racing at any other racetrack. The thrill of a plodder you bet being in the ‘hunt’ as they come down the stretch is the same, even at a Fair track.

    As to the temperature, a thoroughbred is an animal, not a machine, though Tom Durkin often said “and he has another gear”. When the temperature reaches 100 degrees, or thereabouts, I will not bet on the races as I believe that many thoroughbred are affected by the heat and will not perform as anticipated – ‘washed out’ is the phrase.

    Now the question, a question that to me is the determining factor as to whether I enjoyed my trip to the track: Did you make money?

  2. Did you make money on your last vacation?

    As a matter of fact, I came home with about 25% less than when I left. I challenge any golfer or fisherman to say this is all their last vacation cost them. Most of the deficit was the result of the ever-rising prices at Saratoga. I’ll have more on that in a future column.

    I had a great time with my son, daughter-in-law and grandson, showing off the delights of the Spa. My sister and brother, each with their families, also were there. Most days we had a group of more than a dozen. We picnicked, drank beer and soft drinks and had a terrific time. Can you put a price on that?

    For the record, not one of them would have been there if I hadn’t introduced them to racing. I’ve often said, racing’s most effective promotional tool is other racing fans.

    During the trip, I made a brief visit to an OTB in Nanuet, NY, I understand now why people who patronize these joints can get so sour. It was dank, dirty and depressing–and not atypical of other OTB’s I have visited. If this is how you take in racing, profit should be the only motivation. If you spent a day in one of these joints and lost, I would call home and tell them to hide the razor blades before I got there.

  3. Your on vacation, Mr. Jicha, and there is nothing better than to gather with family and simply relax and enjoy; to do such at Saratoga, which certainly offers an atmosphere of enjoyment, is understood. But, the attraction for me whether it be Saratoga (where I have only made three bets to date and have an unusual profit, Alice) or any other track is pick’in winners.

    I hope you inform your family and friends that the ‘games’ only incentive to get involved is to cash tickets. Trainers, their promising youngsters (blue bloods, Alice), mean nothing to me and most stake races are simply a joke for a serious gambler.

    Yes, Mr. Jicha, as you write ‘profit is the only motivation’ for me. If I lose for the day I am pissed; if I win it’s a steak or a case of Foster’s. The cat seems to know when I lose, as he still exists much to my chagrin. I walk away from the local joint most days a loser. I guess I love the pain, which Foster’s alleviates.

    Must be nuts, but I can’t wait for tomorrows entries, especially at the mid-Atlantic tracks.

    Keep the casino dole rolling that provides the six/seven figure purse that keeps the trainers Brown, Asmussen, and Pletcher at the top of trainer earnings year-after-year (millions of dollars already won this year, Alice) while I try to win enough for a sandwich and beer.

  4. Casino dole notwithstanding, watching a horse like Zenyatta, or Bricks and Mortar, win like they’re expected to, is worth the price of admission. Yes, returning to the parking lot with a few extra c-notes in pocket is great but some of these SUPER horses are a joy to behold. A woman at Aqueduct, after hearing me say I was saddened to see Zenyatta lose to Blame in her final race, said that she was “glad she lost (Zenyatta).” I had no reply but could only guess that she wanted her streak to be broken, it was a sour grapes sort of thing. Like rooting against the guy on Jeopardy who kept winning. You want them to go down, they’ve won enough. Bricks and Mortar is a monster, easiest kind of winner today in Arlington Million. Great horse.

  5. Wish you were out of the game. Would pay for it. Last post here. John totally respect you but like I said If i wanted breitbart would go there. TJ has ruined this site for me with his nonstop Trumpian BS.

  6. Howard,
    Are you off your meds?
    I scrupulously avoid political comments because as I’ve said many times I believe this is and should be a racing site.
    Could you give me some examples of Trumpian BS.

  7. PETA may not be the only group threatening enthusiasm for racing. It would seem that a new group is forming at the gates of HRI that I would dub “PEST” (Posters who Enjoy Slamming Turfwriters). LOL

    Your advocacy for less spacing between starts and for more ontrack encounters between females and males came to fruition in Saturday’s Fourstardave. Get Stormy set a new course record off a week’s rest, upsetting a more highly regarded female as well as males in the G1 Win-and-you’re-in qualifier for the BC Mile.

  8. Indulto,
    The surprising thing to me is some people are acting like I’m suggesting a radical concept. Horses used to race every two weeks–some every week.

    The reasons for the ridiculous spacing are the sheets and the Racing Form printing trainers’ records. Some think giving a horse one will diminish their percentages and cost them clients.

  9. John, TJ and Indy, Doesn’t Lasix have a lot to do with the spacing between starts in the new era? Is Get Stormy a race day free exception to the new norm?

    Indy, Spot on is your turf bashing comment. I for one enjoy the fact Tom had such a great time out with his family. Win or lose, time away like that is priceless.

  10. Tom: Why do you engage this phony non-person, who refers to himself as a lover of beer from Australia? He has never been to Saratoga, has no intention of going to Saratoga and believes that ANY outdoor activity will negate his love for beer.

    Tom, I thoroughly enjoyed my Whitney weekend at the Spa. As you noted, the throngs of people, mostly families with minor children, are having a great time being at the only track remaining that was created during the Civil War. The only writer that could truly compare Saratoga to the experience at the downstate tracks would be Charles Dickens. It is simply a Tale of Two Cities.

    I’m just pleased to see that the Spa left you with a rejuvenated spirit. Legend has it that the fetid water emanating from those Springs had magical powers of rejuvenation. I have always preferred the restoration provided simply by the first sight of that beautiful grandstand as you travel west on Union Ave off of Exit 14. Red Smith certainly knew what he was talking about!

  11. Mr. Jicha: I would appreciate your answering the above person’s question. Please do not ignore it.

    Mr. Pricci: Why isn’t the ‘Before you comment’ criterion enforced?

  12. What can I say to someone so complimentary.

    I enjoy your comments about a Foster’s and a sandwich. It’s part of your enjoyment of a day at the races (or an OTB). Enjoyment is the key to winning new fans and keeping them.

    I have a tradition of taking one sip of that Saratoga mineral water each year. Anything more and I make a mess on the grass. That stuff is nasty. To me it tastes like salt water with a dead fish dipped in it.

    I don’t know if it has any magic powers but they would have to be really potent for me to take more than one swallow.

  13. FYI on Fosters Lager Mates: Billed as a “uniquely Australian beer” by corporate parent SABMiller, Foster’s has been brewed in Texas for years. British pub patrons may also be surprised to know that the Foster’s on tap there is made in Manchester, England, not from the Land Down Under. In defense of Wendel’s selected libation, when you wrap your hand around a cold can of Fosters Mate, it will indeed be an “oil can” sized beer. Have to try a few cans on the Jeep’s next oil change.

    Still curious how Got Stormy was able to race back so quickly in the Four Star Dave considering her Lasix added med lines in the PPs.

  14. Tom, believe drugs in use by many trainers has also reduced starts. Albuterol is said to be given to horses between starts and a 14 day or more withdrawal time is needed before making a start to avoid detection.

    Response not needed.

    Will this also be deleted? Sticking to rules, I am.

  15. Quick story: a family member visited Australia a couple of years ago. She visited a pub and asked if they served Foster’s.

    “We don’t drink that p–s, ” the barkeep said. “We sell that to the Americans.”

  16. In Lourdes, did the miracles come with a “takeout”? Wasn’t Steve Asmussen’s barn the subject of at least one investigation and an expose?
    BTW, George Washington was denied the opportunity to own property in Saratoga Springs, NY.

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