It has been five days since the Kentucky Derby and Governor Andrew Cuomo has issued 15 press releases, but none of them have recognized the New York connections of Derby winner Orb. (Today’s first one highlights Luke Bryan headlining the New York State Fair.) The colt is owned by Stuart S. Janney III and Ogden Phipps who also bred the son of Malibu Moon to Lady Liberty. Janney is currently a member of the Reorganization Board of the New York Racing Association, and was also a member of the “old” Board along with Phipps. Trainer Shug McGaughey is a son of Louisville, but when he returned to Belmont Park with his horse and roses, he said it was good to be home.
A year ago at this time, Cuomo was engaged in a campaign to discredit the integrity of the NYRA Board as part of his effort to take control of thoroughbred racing in New York. He successfully rolled the NYRA Board into agreeing with his taking control, and then rushed legislation through the Legislature without any apparent debate – and just one dissenting vote in both chambers. He never articulated a legitimate reason for privatizing one of New York’s signature industries, instead relying on a complicit media to talk about the “scandal-plagued” NYRA. There was some talk about his father – whose gubernatorial tenure ended 19 years ago – having had a bad relationship with NYRA. Then there was the “unnamed source” quoted by Fred Dicker back in July when he was still Cuomo’s authorized hagiographer, who said this would be the “last hurrah for the blue bloods who have controlled [NYRA] for so long.”
Orb’s victory was a popular one throughout the industry, in large part because McGaughey is viewed as an “old school” trainer who lets the horse determine the agenda, and is not one of those who starts thinking Derby as soon as they purchase another expensive yearling. Indeed, his last Derby trip was in 1989 when he sent out favorite Easy Goer, who had the misfortune to run against a better horse in Sunday Silence. Contrast that with a Todd Pletcher who sent out five horses in this year’s Derby, bringing his overall record to one win from 36 starts, and is now talking about running two fillies in the Belmont Stakes. Pletcher learned from Wayne Lukas who had two Derby starters this year, and plans on three for the Preakness, but you could also throw Nick Zito or Bob Baffert into the mix, each of whom has won the Derby, but not before going through literally dozens of promising two-year olds who could not keep up with the “program.” Of course, McGaughey could not do the right thing by the horse unless he had the support of owners such as Janney and Phipps.
What makes Cuomo’s uncharacteristic reticence even more surprising is his supposed concern for promoting the well-being of the horse. That was another of the rationales tossed around last year when the attack on the “old” NYRA began. The “new” NYRA Board should be commended for carrying through on the recommendations made by the Task Force on Racehorse Health and Safety that completed its work under the leadership of the “old” NYRA. Central to its recommendations were changes in rules governing the administration of permissible medications. It is ironic that another New York trainer with a Derby horse, Rudy Rodriguez, could not be licensed in Kentucky until he made a special appearance before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission. Rodriguez had just completed a suspension in New York for one drug violation, is under investigation for another, and has been the subject of countless rumors regarding his reliance on pharmaceuticals. While I try not to be place much stock in such suspicions, it is noteworthy that McGaughey is not one of those trainers about whom you hear such speculation.
This, then, would have been an opportunity for the Governor and his administration to focus on what is right about horse racing, with a particular focus on New York. One fears, however, that his failure to say anything is simply representative of the petty vindictiveness that appears to be as much a hallmark of the Cuomo persona as his boundless ambition and ego. Or perhaps, in the interest of fairness, maybe he was not aware that the Derby was run Saturday.