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TrackNotes: A Show About Nothing

This sounds like a broken record, but I wonder if I have a sport anymore. I'm not anesthetized to these kinds of things - maybe I should be - but that's kind of the point.

Things were proceeding rather swimmingly last weekend as the two-day Breeders' Cup World Championships, in their 30th year, kicked off with an intriguing and touching appetizer Friday afternoon and swung into the substantial and mostly satisfying middle courses on Saturday.

What should have been the sweet dessert, the Breeders' Cup Classic, turned into such a sour experience, it was as if the pastry chef used tar and salt instead of chocolate and sugar in the tiramisu.

I could crack wise, but it's not funny. The race should have been so much better and its results so different; ignore any hype you may have heard about the result and Trevor Denman's industry-safe call.

Many headlines talked about how the winner "stole" the race, as if he just got loose and ran away, but this one truly did steal the race. A punk trainer, Bob Baffert, and his punk jockey, Martin Garcia, used the fine horse Bayern to make such a sudden left turn two steps out of the gate that many of the rest of the horses looked like the cops crashing into each other chasing The Blues Brothers.

Baffert knew he couldn't beat Shared Belief in an honest race. He tipped that off when he used two other horses to harass 'Belief in the Awesome Again, the local prep for this race a month earlier. His two muggers didn't win that day - Shared Belief did - but it looked like Baffert was crafting the big setup for the Classic. Baffert is smart enough to know that he has some influential essence in Southern California and that the spineless California stewards would probably not do their jobs. Especially in a race this big, as if that should matter.

One of the things that bothers me the most about the whole scenario is how so many people just seem ready, even eager, to accept it - from the racing stewards who cowardly put the DQ in their back pockets to the lowly horseplayer who thinks that victims deserve to be victims.

Don't worry, everything's alright. Situationally ethical, amorphously vague, "I'm not responsible." If that's the way they ruled . . . It's all the rage these days.

The festival started so enjoyably.

Eddie Olczyk was in the house to make his picks and it was gratifying to see Eddie O's success mirror mine. He must be mortal after all.

Goldencents won the Dirt Mile for the second consecutive year, difficult for any horse in any Breeders' Cup race. Lady Eli positioned herself for Kentucky Oaks 2015 leadership after impressing in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, a niche race to be sure.

And in what became the bestest and sweetest moment of the weekend, Rosie Napravnik, with her mother unusually in the winner's circle, announced her retirement immediately after guiding the great filly Untapable to a handy 1 1/4-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Rosie's 'spectin', but us selfish SOBs hope she comes back some day and reclaims her position as one of the classiest people in the game.

On Saturday, Judy the Beauty, daughter of the great Ghostzapper, gutted out a head win in the Filly and Mare Sprint. Yet another Kitten's Joy progeny, Bobby's Kitten, won the Turf Sprint.

Going into the Classic, even with the track playing inscrutably - when are they going to just set up these tracks middle-of-the-road fair for big days - it still appeared Bayern, Moreno, and Cigar Street would vie for the lead, set the early pace and see if one of them could hold on or if someone else could close into it.

Instead, we had Garcia and Bayern taking a left turn a step-and-a-half out of the gate.

Like a NASCAR bump, the seven Bayern slammed sideways into the six Shared Belief. The five, V.E. Day, was slightly in the air at the start and didn't get a quick release out of the gate and thus was behind the skullduggery. Bayern hit 'Belief so hard that he slammed into Moreno, the four. Moreno cut off the three, Imperative, and Javier Castellano had all he could do to keep from sidewinding into Cigar Street, the two.

Joe Talamo, asked what he saw from behind aboard V.E. Day, said "Shared Belief, sideways."

Bayern quickly moved to get the lead, his only chance in any race he wins, and, still veering like a drunken . . . horse . . . cut off Moreno, who was trying to shoot to the lead just outside Bayern. While those two were duking it out up front, and to add even more insult, Shared Belief, who recovered as only the great ones can, was again cut off, by Toast of New York, who would finish second.

California Chrome, safely out in the 13-hole, ran a fantastic race, his race, but couldn't catch Bayern or Toast'. Bayern was running on fumes - I never thought he'd get the distance, and he didn't get it without cheating. The wire came up just in time, a half head.

The stewards' inquiry sign lit up. Shared Belief's jockey Mike Smith, a California veteran who should have known better, said he did not lodge a jockey's protest because he saw the inquiry sign and thought the stewards would sort it out. "I think it cost me the race," he said.

"Getting turned sideways like that took away any chance I had to have a clean shot at getting any kind of position. Bayern was always going to outbreak me. I knew that. But I wasn't going to be down in behind horses, taking up off their heels, with that other horse coming over on me," Smith explained.

The stewards' decision and statement were ridiculous. Shared Belief and Moreno "were not cost the opportunity to place where they were reasonably expected to finish." Steward Scott Chaney tipped off the stewards' premeditated approach: "At the start of a mile-and-a-quarter race we're really loathe to make a change. You really don't want us handicapping the race."

I will tell you this: When you get 14 of the most talented, fastest Thoroughbred race horses in the world in one starting gate - the only time that ever happens - the margin for error, the difference between winning and losing, is razor thin. A slight stumble out of the gate, a lost chance to fill a hole, even just an outside gate position, you lose the race. The car wreck at the beginning not only cost Shared Belief and perhaps Moreno and even California Chrome the victory, it allowed Bayern to get the victory. If he has any challenge up front, he doesn't win.

Bayern's start, executed by Garcia with instructions from Baffert, was despicable and the stewards were not interested in doing anything about it. Which I knew at the time. Whether it's a $5,000 claimer at Hawthorne or the Breeders' Cup Classic, a race is a race and should be treated as such.

I believe this picture from the New York Times says it all. Notice how Garcia, red and white stripes, red cap, orange number seven saddle blanket, has his whip out on his right side. At least either showing Bayern the whip or actually slapping him. Slap on the right side, the horse goes left. Notice how none of the other jockeys are showing any whips. They're just trying to get a good safe start, just like at Indy.

As usual, the racing journalists disappointed again, with some exceptions.

Curmudgeon Andrew Beyer, inventor of the Beyer Speed Figures, called Bayern a champion.

Beyer completely contradicted himself, though, saying the start trouble did not have an impact on the race, but that it took out Moreno, who would have been a real pace factor.

"When the gate opened, Bayern (No. 7) broke inward and banged #6 Shared Belief, the favorite," Beyer wrote. "A chain reaction continued as Shared Belief bumped #4 Moreno. Although he was a 28-1 shot with little chance to win, Moreno's misfortune would be crucial to the outcome of the Classic. The speedster had been expected to put pressure on the front-running Bayern in the early stages of the race. Because of Moreno's early difficulties, Bayern was able to seize a clear lead - a significant tactical advantage."

HUH?

"There was no DQ because stewards almost never disqualify a horse - in any race, big or small - for actions like Bayern's."

Well, the ones with guts do, and these should have, Andy.

Steve "My God These Horses Are Beautiful!" Haskin from Blood-Horse, betrays himself in his lead: "The first time I watched the replay of the start of the Breeders' Cup Classic I was standing on the racetrack, and I let out with an emphatic 'Whoa!' This comes from decades of watching races, a gut feeling.

Then, he curiously plays the status game. "If Shared Belief and Moreno had drawn outside Bayern and (Bayern) did the exact same thing and interfered with two 50-1 shots would anyone have paid any attention to the start of the race or even cared in the slightest?"

That's not the point and Haskin knows it.

"Did Bayern interfering with Moreno change the pace scenario and how the early part of the race was run? Probably. Did Bayern interfering with Shared Belief hamper the chances of the favorite? Probably, although Shared Belief did not make up an inch of ground in the stretch and never looked like a winner at any point."

Well there you go, Haskin, a show about nothing! Shared Belief was mugged once (could he have had the wind knocked out of him?) and then cut off, forcing him to go wide for his own safety.

Apologist Haskin completely dismisses the demolition derby at the start.

A pleasant surprise was the Daily Racing Form's Jay Hovdey, a columnist I've kind of slotted as a go-with-the-industry-flow type. Worth the read, he calmly comments on the situation from a few different perspectives - some that I don't have.

Perhaps his best observation about the importance of the start of a horse race is this: "To scoff at the impact of a bad start - self-inflicted or otherwise - is to deny the very nature of American dirt racing, which is based on speed and position from the drop of the flag."

I'm always amazed at the football coach who says that the ticky-tacky penalty inside of two minutes "didn't cost us the game." Really? Such a close margin where one play can turn a game and and this didn't matter?

When you get 14 Thoroughbred horses who can all hit 40 miles per hour in about five strides, you'd better believe the start matters.

But the California Horse Racing Board gets to see Bo Derek at every meeting. So they've got that going for them.

Thank goodness the Breeders' Cup exits brain-toasted Santa Anita next year and heads to Keeneland in Lexington.

Although on second thought, we remember what happened last time it was in the Bluegrass State.

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Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.

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