Friday, June 8, 2012
Another tough break for horse racing
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
Is thoroughbred racing cursed?
It's a legitimate question in light of Friday's development, the stunning news that I'll Have Another has been scratched from the Belmont Stakes after developing tendinitis in his left front leg.
While this may not have been the warmest and fuzziest story because of the spate of drug violations incurred by trainer Doug O'Neill, I'll Have Another's chase for Triple Crown glory was going to be an electrifying 2½ minutes for racing, one that was going to shake the old Belmont Park grandstand that was going to be filled with more than 100,000 people. Win or lose, it was going to be a great moment and, frankly, something the sport needed after three or four of the worst months in its history.
Perhaps it could have been worse. Imagine the disaster of this horse breaking down and, perhaps, dying in the Belmont Stakes.
But this is pretty bad as it is. It's like canceling the Super Bowl or announcing that the Giants won't play but will be replaced by a team from the arena league. It's like expecting to see Pavarotti at the Met only to hear that he got sick and that some guy named Al from the Toledo Opera Company will replace him. Is it the worst moment in racing history? No. Is it the most deflating? Quite possibly, yes.
In a cruel instant, the Belmont Stakes has gone from the race of the young century to a colossal letdown. It has gone from the race we all wanted to see to one that very few will care about. And those people who paid serious money for seats? They can throw them in the trash, go anyway and curse their bad luck or sell them online for $1.45.
In New York racing, the year started with a rash of fatal breakdowns at Aqueduct, which may have been nothing more than an unfortunate coincidence but drew the wrath and attention of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Then The New York Times began its series of unrelenting attacks on the sport. Oh, and the New York Racing Association managed to get itself taken over by the state after it overcharged bettors on certain wagers.
A lot of those problems were self-inflicted. This sport never seems to get it right. But at some point, everyone and everything needs a break. This is a case of the gods kicking something when it is down, and that's unfair. Would a Triple Crown win by I'll Have Another have cured all of racing's woes or revived the sport? Definitely not. But it would have made everyone forget the problems and The New York Times and O'Neill's "milkshake" accusations for a little while, and sorry, that wasn't too much to ask for.
Now we have to wait another year for another potential Triple Crown winner. For those of you keeping score, we'll be up to 35 years without a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. But the smart money is riding on the drought lasting much longer. For the modern horse, the task of winning these three very tough races in a five-week period has become impossible. It cannot be coincidence that 11 straight Triple Crown hopefuls lost on the racetrack in Belmont Park, that No. 11 (Big Brown) was eased and that No. 12 couldn't even make it to the starting gate. The modern trainer babies his horses and pumps them full of Lasix and who knows what else every time they run, and as long as the trainers keep doing that no one is going to win this thing.
So don't look for a Triple Crown winner to ease the pain next year or the year after.
The summer is yet to come, and Bodemeister will be back and could have a terrific year. Saratoga is always great. So is the Breeders' Cup. There are some things to look forward to, but they all pale in comparison to what was supposed to happen Saturday afternoon at Belmont Park, where, now, Dullahan will square off against Union Rags in one of the flattest Triple Crown events ever.
Is thoroughbred racing cursed? That's a sure thing.
Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So now we have to wait another year for another potential Triple Crown winner. For those of you keeping score, we'll be up to 35 years without a sweep of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont.