- Bill Finley
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There may be 57 days left on the 2012 calendar, but thoroughbred racing is done for the year. The Breeders' Cup is in the books and what's left in November and December is inconsequential, just anonymous horses running somewhere so people will have something to bet on. That's OK. No one will miss 2012.
Sure, there were some good moments. Jockey Mario Gutierriez came straight out of the minor leagues to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness aboard I'll Have Another. The Travers produced the first dead-heat in the long history of the signature race at Saratoga, where business was robust. The Breeders' Cup was run amid splendid weather at beautiful and classy Santa Anita and the races produced a plethora of memorable moments and championship performances.
But as 2013 approaches, this handful of positive moments seems lost among an avalanche of bad.
This was the year where the sport's uglier aspects exploded out from the rug where they had been buried. The media, and in particular the New York Times, spent much of the year punishing the sport, focusing on drugs, breakdowns and death. The racing industry had to cringe every time it picked up the morning paper, hoping today wasn't the day there would be another damaging story.
There was never a lack of ammunition for horse racing's critics.
Rick Dutrow, a Kentucky Derby winner and one of the most prominent trainers in the sport, was caught up in still another drug scandal and spent much of his year finding legal loopholes to keep his career alive after he was handed a 10-year suspension. He appears to be running out of tricks, but he is still actively training.
A drug called Demorphin, which is said to be 30 to 40 times more powerful than morphine, found its way to backstretches across North America. By the time regulators caught up to the cheaters, there were dozens of trainers in the Southwest facing serious suspensions for the drug they also call frog juice.
At Aqueduct, where purses soared to once inconceivable levels after slot machines were installed at the track, 21 horses died while vying for those fat pots at the Big A. That got attention and drew the wrath of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who didn't need any more excuses to come down hard on the New York Racing Association. Whether intentional or not, NYRA failed to adjust the takeout rate on certain bets, which meant that gamblers were cheated out of $8.5 million in winnings. That cost two key NYRA executives their jobs and ignited Cuomo's coup. He directed a state takeover of the organization, installing a new board of directors and handpicked its new chairman.
On the racetrack, what could have been the best racing story of the decade fizzled when I'll Have Another was injured prior to the Belmont Stakes. For the 34th straight year, there would be no Triple Crown winner.
Even some of the good guys had a rough year. Charismatic trainer Bob Baffert suffered a heart attack while in Dubai preparing for the Dubai World Cup. Thankfully, he survived and returned to Southern California and had another strong year, at least on the track.
It looks like 2013 will go down under the well-at-least-it-can't-get-any-worse category. And it won't.
The sport is taking its problems seriously and is starting to make changes that were long overdue. In the aftermath of the Aqueduct breakdowns, a task force and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board worked together to enact tougher drug rules and put other changes in place that should make New York racing safer. The Jockey Club has stepped up to offer the sport the sort of institutional leadership it had been lacking for so long and is working hard to make the game safer, cleaner and better.
The hope is that the focus can return to what happens on the racetrack and that 2013 can shine in that area. Most of the top horses from 2012 that remained healthy through the year will be back and the results of the Breeders' Cup indicate that the 2013 Triple Crown campaign could be a good one.
The Breeders' Cup Juvenile was won by a determined colt named Shanghai Bobby, who will go into his 3-year-old season undefeated. The best part of this is that he is ridden by a female, Rosie Napravnik. She is articulate, marketable and, best of all, a helluva race rider. Can a female jockey win the Kentucky Derby? That could be the type of feel-good story the sport so desperately needs.
Finishing right behind him was He's Had Enough. A horse that had shown nothing prior to the Juvenile, he ran a terrific race and might have won if not having a lot of traffic problems. He's ridden by Gutierriez, trained by Doug O'Neill and owned by Paul Reddam, the exact same team that brought you I'll Have Another. One year later, could they possibly take another crack at the Triple Crown that slipped out of their hands?
They, like all other 3-year-olds, will have to qualify for the Derby under a new system put in place by Churchill Downs that favors horses who run in Grade 1 races as 3-year-olds and de-emphasizes important 2-year-old races like the Juvenile. So they may have to prove themselves all over again next year.
January is typically a sleepy month in horse racing, but horses such as Shanghai Bobby and He's Had Enough may resurface as soon as February in important Kentucky Derby preps. A new year will soon be here. Thank goodness.
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.