Mind over matter
The sport made strides in 2013 and the prevailing hope is that trend will continue
Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said he has the mind of a 40-year-old. That's the problem. He's 71 and he hasn't learned anything from the last 30 years.
This is where you might expect to read, in the tradition of these seasonal wrap-ups, that the past year proved horse racing to be just like Jerry Jones, burdened by ancient credulities that remain stubbornly impervious to reason. Actually, though, the opposite is true. The sport learns slowly and moves even more slowly, but unlike the Cowboys' owner it learns and, like a glacier, eventually moves.
Horse racing became a better place in 2013, when 11 states, the most recent being Kentucky, adopted the stricter rules recommended by the Racing Medication and Testing Consortium. Horse racing, in other words, finally began to approach universal medication rules, and they're rules that have resulted from years of research and solid science.
In Europe, they're still eating horses. But in America in 2013, horsemen everywhere worked to find homes and alternative careers for horses leaving the racetrack. Remember Me Racehorse Rescue, Old Friends, Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation, LOPE, Exceller Fund, NeighSavers, New Vocations -- they're all organizations that work on behalf of retired racehorses, and their number grows, their list going on and on.
In Europe, they're still eating horses. But in America in 2013, horsemen everywhere worked to find homes and alternative careers for horses leaving the racetrack.
Horse racing in 2013 continued to shrink -- fewer race days, fewer horses, fewer racetracks -- and redefine itself, reconfigure itself, in painful ways it still can't comprehend and perhaps never will. A butterfly will not emerge.
Corporate ownership of racetracks might be the worst development in racing in the last 30 years. For its effects, just look at Hollywood Park, recently shuttered, its corporate owners not even possessing the foresight or courtesy to provide enough food and drink and programs for the racetrack's closing-day crowd. And that's the problem, isn't it, with corporate ownership, a crippling lack of vision?
The corporate satrap running the racetrack typically can't see beyond his year-end bonus. In 2013, NYRA became so benighted, so distanced from the sport and indeed the world it oversees, that it couldn't even understand the negative effects of increasing the price of admission.
But that was a continuing vector in 2013. More and more, people expert only at plugging in slot machines or at simple math or at schmoozing assumed control over racing.
Nor do today's horsemen provide much vision. They often fail to see beyond the next condition book. That's another problem that 2013 couldn't overcome. The sport's stakeholders -- the horsemen, breeders, and racetracks -- seem willing to sacrifice all their tomorrows for today. They see the future as inevitable, not as potential.
Back in 1969, a group of horsemen that included Bull Hancock and Warner Jones Jr. and John Galbreath saved Churchill Downs from an attempted takeover by National Industries. Could any horsemen match their vision and commitment today?
Well, 2013 was what it was, as Jerry Jones would say. But maybe Bill Parcells said that, or something like it. Yes, it was probably Parcells, who has owned some nice horses over the years, because a horseman would understand that, in the end, no matter how events turned, they're redeemed by the horses that race.
Yes, 2013 was what it was, but 2014 will be better. Something very special will happen during this coming season, something that has been anticipated, longingly and even lovingly, for many years. Is this wishful thinking, or could it be a dream perhaps? Well, of course it's both. Nothing, after all, is better at encouraging wishes or nurturing dreams than horse racing, and so here's a look ahead to 2014.
The new year begins with Best Plan Yet winning the Gulfstream Park Derby over Grand Arrival … A story in a New York newspaper alleges a causal connection between pulmonary hemorrhaging in horses and dung on the racetrack; the story points out that as many as 10 horses a day might leave their "toxic deposits" on the track, resulting in a "pernicious and pervasive" air pollution … Coup de Grace wins the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Midnight Hawk takes the Sham at Santa Anita, and Vicar's In Trouble the LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds … Flashback wins the Strub at Santa Anita by a nose over Hear The Ghost.
Citing a decline in revenue from attendance, NYRA announces it will double the price of admission at its racetracks. Chairman David Skorton says a ticket to Aqueduct still costs less than a grandstand outfield seat at Yankee Stadium … Gold Hawk wins the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park … The Environmental Protection Agency threatens to shut down Parx because of "toxic deposits" of dung on the track … Making his seasonal debut, Honor Code wins the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Hartford romps in the Sam F. Davis Stakes in Tampa Bay, and Havana takes the Risen Star at Fair Grounds, beating Unknown Road by a neck.
The EPA, citing "toxic deposits" of dung on the track and bridle paths resulting in "pernicious and pervasive air pollution," forces the closure of Tampa Bay Downs for a day. The track reopens after requiring all horses to wear diapers … Two horses trained by Todd Pletcher, Matterhorn and Surfing USA, finish in a dead heat for the win in the Tampa Bay Derby … Strong Mandate beats Indianapolis to win the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park … Danza rallies strongly to put his head in front of Bayern in the Sunland Derby … The movie "50-1" opens to mixed reviews; after hitting a movie critic over the head with his crutch, actor Skeet Ulrich admits he might have taken his Chip Woolley role too far … Game On Dude wins the Santa Anita Handicap by 10 lengths … On the day of the Florida Derby, PETA officials and supporters protest "toxic deposits" of dung on the track at Gulfstream Park that threaten the health and welfare of horses and any "other creatures that people who want to donate money to our cause might care about" … Honor Code wins the Florida Derby by four lengths over Coup de Grace, with Mosler third … Before a crowd of a few thousand, Samraat wins the Gotham … Unknown Road turns the tables on Havana in the Louisiana Derby … Palace Malice, the winner of last year's Belmont, wins the New Orleans Handicap in his first start of the year.
Citing a decline in revenue from declining attendance as the reason, NYRA announces it will have to quadruple the cost of admission at its racetracks. In a prepared statement, the NYRA Board points out that admission to the Legends Suite by first base at Yankee Stadium still costs more than a day at the races … Two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan makes his seasonal debut, winning the Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland … Will Take Charge, last year's champion 3-year-old, wins the Oaklawn Handicap … Hartford wins the Wood Memorial over Samraat while a lady in the Aqueduct grandstand swoons; she claims she's feeling the effects of "pernicious and pervasive air pollution" resulting from "toxic deposits." Two days after she files a lawsuit, NYRA bans "toxic deposits" from its racetracks … Strong Mandate wins the Arkansas Derby, Shared Belief hangs on in the Santa Anita Derby, and Bobby's Kitten wins the Blue Grass.
Trainer Larry Jones and jockey Rosie Napravnik team up again to win the Kentucky Oaks, this time with Divine Beauty … A crowd of more than 170,000 turns out for one of the most exciting Kentucky Derbies in the long history of the race. Strong Mandate leads the field into the second turn, but after throwing down rapid fractions he begins to tire. Honor Code rallies strongly in the turn, and then jockey Javier Castellano sends him after Hartford and Unknown Road who, by mid-stretch, have drawn clear in a battle for the lead. Honor Code continues his charge, and the three horses hit the wire together. Honor Code wins by a nose … NYRA fines 30 trainers for allowing their horses to leave "toxic deposits" on the racetrack … Honor Code has an easier time in the Preakness Stakes, winning by five lengths over Strong Mandate … Flashback wins the Met Mile.
Two days before the Belmont Stakes, explaining that it has been forced into making this dramatic change because of declining revenue from declining attendance, NYRA again quadruples the price of admission at its racetracks. In a prepared statement, the NYRA Board of Directors points out that a seat behind home plate at Yankee Stadium still costs more than a seat at Belmont Park, with enough left over for refreshment … Before a gathering that some estimate to be about 930 and that others say could probably fit snugly behind home plate at Yankee Stadium, Honor Code wins the Belmont Stakes by 12 lengths and completes a sweep of the Triple Crown … A photograph of Honor Code adorns the cover of Sports Illustrated … Palace Malice stalks a moderate pace and then draws clear in the stretch to win the Stephen Foster over Mucho Macho Man … Divine Beauty wins the Mother Goose.
On a single day, at various racetracks around the country, 16 horses whose names incorporate "Kitten" in some way, horses that will later be described as a "litter," a "clowder," and a "nuisance" and include Admiral Kitten in the Man o' War Stakes, all win … Although her trainer, Bob Baffert, worries that he doesn't enough Kittens in his barn, Fascinating wins the Coaching Club American Oaks … Concluding that there just might be some relationship between the rising cost of admission and declining attendance, NYRA announces that it will no longer charge fans anything for merely passing through its turnstiles … Before a crowd of 65,466, Wicked Strong takes the Jim Dandy at Saratoga … The EPA fines the NTRA, NYRA, Breeders' Cup, Parx, Churchill Downs, and trainer Karl Broberg for contributing to "pernicious and pervasive" air pollution at racetracks … Hartford wins the Haskell.
Mucho Macho Man wins the Whitney, and Palace Malice the Woodward … Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas announces he has purchased Turfway Park, which means there will be three people running racetracks in America who actually know what they're doing. He declines to name the other two … Admiral Kitten, one of three Kittens in the race, wins the Arlington Million … Hear The Ghost defeats Game On Dude to win the Pacific Classic at Del Mar … Fascinating wins the Alabama over Fiftyshadesofgold … Honor Code, unraced since sweeping the Triple Crown, wins the Travers before a crowd that Saratoga declines to enumerate for fear that the fire marshal might shut down the racetrack.
Despite the vehement protestations of Gov. Chris Christie, the EPA seizes 40 horses at Monmouth Park for leaving "toxic deposits" on the track … Sen. Ted Cruz appears on Sunday morning's television talk shows to say that anybody who would allow "pernicious and pervasive" air pollution in his state shouldn't be running for President. Cruz calls for an investigation into racetrack deposits that are even more toxic than green eggs and ham … Gary Stevens rides seven winners in one day at Kentucky Downs, including Indy Point in the Kentucky Turf Cup … Beholder romps in the Zenyatta Stakes, her seventh consecutive victory, which leads to speculation that she might take on Honor Code, Palace Malice, Mucho Macho Man, and Game On Dude in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Wise Dan wins the Shadwell Turf Mile; Kitten Kaboodle takes the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Keeneland … A Senate committee concludes that "toxic deposits" at racetracks aren't a threat to national security after all and aren't even toxic … The Breeders' Cup announces that its championship event in 2015 will be held at Del Mar … Churchill Downs announces that Clyde Whateveryousaysir, who has 20 years experience plugging in slot machines and changing light bulbs, will be the new general manager of Fair Grounds in New Orleans … Horsemen in Louisiana unite to ask for more lenient medication rules; they also demand more race dates.
Beholder wins the Breeders' Cup Distaff by three lengths over Divine Beauty … Honor Code stumbles at the start, has to race four-wide around both turns and just misses by a nose, finishing second to Palace Malice in the Breeders' Cup Classic … The Breeders' Cup Mile becomes Wise Dan's fourth victory of the year, all at a mile and all on the turf, and it prompts his connections and fans to insist that the veteran should be Horse of the Year yet again, especially since Honor Code lost the Classic and despite -- well, it doesn't matter because it only proves that, yes, in some ways horse racing has the mind of a 40-year-old.