Drama! Controversy! Excitement! With a post-race brawl, an eased key contender, and the thrilling stretch run in the Breeders' Cup Classic, this year's World Championships had it all. What racing can learn in the aftermath.
LOUISVILLE, KY -- The stands at Churchill Downs are relatively silent now, and cheers that emanate as allowance runners and claimers roll down off the turn are decibels lower than those uttered here more than a week ago. The 27th running of the Breeders' Cup World Championships is in the books. It's back to business as usual.
But the Thoroughbred racing industry keeps buzzing over the Nov. 5-6 event and its' various headline-making scenarios, good and bad. Drama! Controversy! Excitement! This year's Breeders' Cup had it all. And although the sport has walked away from seasons past without applying lessons learned at the grand finale, this recently-concluded edition should impact the way racing does business for years to come.
Fights and Suspensions
When jockeys Calvin Borel and Javier Castellano got things off to a rousing start on Friday with their scuffle in the winner's circle following the Breeders' Cup Marathon, the perpetrators were almost more shocking than their public brawl. To see the affable Borel, usually spotted at Churchill with an ear-to-ear grin, go after the soft-spoken Castellano, whose squeaky-clean reputation gets him top mounts in New York, stunned racing pundits and fans alike. Within minutes, footage of the fight had gone viral on internet.
Castellano, aboard second-place finisher Prince Will I Am, had swung out from a place on the rail to make his run. He sent his horse directly into the path of jockey Martin Garcia, who only remained in the saddle aboard Romp due to a whole lot of luck and some impressive athletic ability. Borel and his mount, A.U. Miner, were bothered as a result. The entire situation could have gotten very ugly very fast.
One look at the replay shows even the completely uneducated viewer that Castellano was in the wrong, and on Sunday he should have been serving his well-deserved penalty, not sitting in the saddle with a chance of winning a high-stakes international race.
Prince Will I am was disqualified and placed 10th and Castellano was also given a six-day suspension, double the usual, for careless riding. In the aftermath of the confrontation, during which shoves, punches, and obscenities were exchanged, Kentucky stewards issued penalties to both parties -- a $5,000 fine for Borel (the maximum amount) and a $2,500 fine for Castellano.
But Castellano, who was contractually committed to ride the Roger Attfield-trained Ave in Japan's Nov. 14 Queen Elizabeth Commemorative Cup (a race worth more than $2 million), appealed the suspension which would have prevented him from fulfilling his obligation. And when the Kentucky Horse Racing Board denied his request for a stay of the penalty, the jockey obtained a temporary injunction from a Kentucky circuit court judge that allows him to race until a hearing is held. On Sunday, he finished 16th of 17 aboard the 4-year-old filly.
Understandably, the rider has a right to appeal, and the KHRB was in a sticky situation while attempting to have him serve his penalty before the matter was fully adjudicated. But the loopholes that allowed him to go merrily on his way -- while Prince Will I Am's trainer, Michele Nihei, and owner Susan Atkins bore the brunt of a disqualification caused solely by his blatant mistake -- are inexcusable. There's no appeal for the owner, no chance for the trainer to recoup losses suffered when their horse missed the winner's circle by just 1 ¾ lengths, but forfeited a $90,000 share of the purse. This is not a case of a questionable mistake or an issue of who is at fault. One look at the replay shows even the completely uneducated viewer that Castellano was in the wrong, and on Sunday he should have been serving his well-deserved penalty, not sitting in the saddle with a chance of winning a high-stakes international race.
The appeals process for riding suspensions in various North American riding jurisdictions has spiraled out of control to the point that a lack of appeal is viewed as unusual. Jockeys essentially determine when it is convenient for them to take their so-called punishment, and unless the suspension in question is highly severe (say 30 days versus the usual three or seven) the penalties generally translate into a mere inconvenience for the offender, who goes off to take a nice little vacation when he or she otherwise would not have been aboard particularly attractive mounts anyhow. The "designated racing days" rule that allows jockeys to ride in select events (like Breeders' Cup races or the Kentucky Derby), then serve an extra day of suspension time, further complicates a matter that should be very straightforward.
Serious riding errors should bear equally serious penalties, because serious riding errors can result in equally serious consequences. Suspensions should be rigorously enforced, with jockeys required to take those days regardless of upcoming engagements or opportunities. If you want to ride, don't make careless mistakes. If you do make careless mistakes, man up instead of looking for the most convenient way to take the penalty. Do your time on the bench and be thankful the result wasn't worse -- you or one of your fellow riders ending up in the hospital.
Life At Ten Drama
In October, jockey Garrett Gomez made news when he refused to ride a horse he believed to be unsound after the State veterinarian denied his recommendation of a gate scratch at Keeneland Race Course. Gomez was subsequently taken off his other mounts for trainer Mike Maker, essentially penalized for doing what he believed was in the horse's best interests.
Given the under-investigation situation that ensued less than one month later with Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic contender Life At Ten, I find Gomez's thoughts on the issue particularly poignant. Granted, in his situation the race in question was for $10,000 claimers versus a $2.5 million event on one of the sport's biggest days. However, that doesn't change the fact that jockey John Velazquez, who did not return a call seeking comments for this article, was the buck-stops-here guy for his mount. At least the Jockeys' Guild chairman protected the filly after breaking from the gate by wrapping up and galloping around the track without asking her to run, but the question of why she was not scratched when she exhibited lethargic and unusual behavior in the paddock and during the pre-race warm-up. -- by her rider, by her trainer, or by track veterinarians or the stewards -- remains. And from buck-stops-here we go to pass-the-buck, which is essentially what those at the Kentucky Horse Racing Board have done since the incident took place. In a "he said/she said" situation that has spiraled out of control, someone is not telling the whole truth.
Incompetent racing commissions and racing officials are one of the game's biggest problems, and the discrepancies in model rules and regulations from jurisdiction to jurisdiction don't help either. Especially after such a suspicious lack of performance, it should have been a no-brainer to send the 7-2 second choice to the test barn. Also, this industry cannot afford to spurn the support of owners like Candy and Eddie DeBartolo, who said in a statement that the horse should have been scratched.
In the aftermath of this debacle, it has been suggested that pre-race interviews between riders and broadcasters may be prohibited at future big events. This is an outrage. Instead of seeking to further shroud the game in secrecy, racing officials should strive for more transparency and improved communication -- while working to make sure this doesn't ever happen again.
Zenyatta Fever -- and Other Racing Celebrities
Go figure, the best quote from Breeders' Cup weekend wasn't even uttered by someone running horses in the event. California trainer Doug O'Neill, speaking to ESPN broadcasters, had this to say at the beginning of Friday's telecast:
"Zenyatta's legacy will be that she put racing back on the newsstands, so to speak. When everything's said and done, we can look to her as the one who got racing back going in the grand way it should."
This is the truth. From 60 Minutes to W Magazine, from Oprah to ESPN The Magazine, from her own website, facebook, and twitter feeds to legions of fans who came out to see her race, the big bay mare put her sport back on the national map. But it is the sport's job to stay there, to build on the momentum. And that has been the consistent downfall of those who market this game.
Reaching for a mainstream audience, Thoroughbred racing has more identifiable figures to promote than ever before. There's Under Armor founder Kevin Plank, who won his first Breeders' Cup race, the Filly & Mare Turf, on Nov. 6 with 46-1 shot Shared Account. Country music superstar Toby Keith enjoys the game and has a promising up-and-comer for the 2011 season in a colt named Sherriff Cogburn. And who could deny the charisma and charm of self-made Vitaminwater billionaire Mike Repole with his Breeders' Cup Juvenile victor Uncle Mo and second-stringer Stay Thirsty?
So where are the promotional spots, the television commercials, the advertisements in national magazines? Where are the pitches to mainstream media outlets? Where are the interviews with radio show hosts on local and national levels?
Many questions abound from the events of the 2010 Breeders' Cup -- not the least of which is this: when a show-stopping celebrity gives racing the ball as far as recognition and awareness are concerned, shouldn't those in power do everything they can to run with it?
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets, including The Blood-Horse magazine, the Times Union (Albany, N.Y.) and NTRA.com. She lives in Lexington, Ky.