With the fourth full week of racing over, here are some random observations:
What’s wrong with Wise Dan? From what I know, there is nothing wrong with the reigning Horse of the Year, although you would not know that from the disparaging comments about the gelding’s connections not entering him in dirt routes. It is perhaps a reflection of the America-centric view of racing that only considers dirt races at 1 1/8 or 1 1/4 miles as worthy of attention, but I do not see anything wrong with a superior turf miler. Not only did Wise Dan win the Breeders’ Cup Mile – certainly one of the top events in the world – but has now compiled a record of nine wins from ten starts over the past two years. His only defeat came in the 2012 Stephen Foster at Churchill – 1 1/8 miles on the dirt – where he lost by a head to top dirt horse Ron the Greek. In last week’s Fourstardave, he was assigned 129 pounds – a number rarely seen this side of the Fall Highweight Handicap – giving 11 to 14 pounds to his opponents.
Quote of the week #1: “it’s easy to throw darts when you’re uninformed.” That was trainer John Kimmel’s comment after one-half the crowd at Albany Law School’s Saratoga Institute responded in the affirmative to Kimmel’s impromptu survey of how many thought horses were over-medicated. While Kimmel’s less-than-gracious comment did little to advance the dialogue on a topic that was foremost in all of the racing industry’s seminars held in Saratoga in recent weeks, it does typify the level of emotion within the sport on what is clearly its most visible challenge. Included in the legion of Kimmel’s uninformed may be Joel Turner, a leading equine law practitioner, who chaired a panel later that day. Turner rhetorically questioned why so-called “super-trainers” seemed to not do well in the Triple Crown races or in the Breeders’ Cup when there is heightened scrutiny and drug testing. Or maybe it was Ogden Mills Phipps, Chairman of The Jockey Club who, two days earlier in the same room, threatened to throw the weight of his organization behind federal legislation should states not get on board with the adoption of uniform medication rules. Perhaps he meant the Task Force on Racehorse Safety that, a year ago, concluded that the medications administered to a group of fatally injured horses at Aqueduct may have contributed to their breakdown, and recommended the adoption of more stringent rules – a step later taken by New York’s regulatory agency.
Two members of the Task Force appeared on panels later in the day and argued that the sport has made considerable progress in improving medication rules, emphasizing that horse racing is actually a leader among professional sports in addressing the issue of drugs. This is a topic that warrants a more in-depth analysis given its complexity, but Kimmel did make one point that resonates. He blamed much of what he thinks is an inaccurate perception on the mainstream media that fails to distinguish between permissible therapeutic medications and illegal drugs. If further proof were needed, the nation’s “paper-of-record” obliged three days later with an editorial referencing their own “report” finding “pervasive doping by owners and trainers.” There is, however, little actual evidence that illegal drugging of horses is a widespread problem.
Quote of the week #2: “If humanity was to end, and you could save only one race track, that track would be Saratoga.” That is a rough approximation of a statement by Paul Roberts speaking on Seth Merrow’s program Racing Across America on the Capital OTB station. Roberts is an internationally-recognized authority on race track design and planning who also consults with NYRA on development issues. While Saratoga has obviously changed over the years, it retains what seems to be an immutable sense, whether you are wandering through the grandstand, backstretch or Oklahoma. It is a dramatic contrast with what is happening at America’s other signature track, Churchill Downs. The first track I ever went to was Churchill, and I was awed by the iconic twin spires that I had so often seen on the television coverage of the Derby and in news photographs. Now, however, you need precisely the right angle to see them. They are now dwarfed on both sides by luxury seating that has been built next to them. Churchill’s appetite for increased revenue seems to have no bounds. Most recently, they evicted the press box from an area that could produce high-paying patrons with a facility entitled “The Mansion.” Recently, they announced new construction at the head of the stretch “to better serve their customers.”
Attendance: At the end of the third week, it looked like the attendance figures were starting an upward trend from the 2012 numbers, but after nine more days the total number remains at about three percent below last year. What is particularly interesting about the decline is that it consists almost entirely of a drop-off on the give-away days, when attendance is inflated by the “spinners” going through multiple times to pick up that day’s cheap gift. Yesterday’s attendance, for example, was 51,847, significantly below last year’s 58,701. The attendance on non-give-away days is down by less than 4,000 over the meet’s first 27 days, a decline of less than one per cent. There is a certain irony that if these trends continue, the perception will be of a major disappointment from an attendance standpoint even though it will be attributable almost entirely to NYRA’s inflated figures on the give-away days.