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TrackNotes: Angels and Devils

Being a horseplayer or even just a horse racing fan presents a real conundrum, the good angel vs. bad devil dilemma.

Toss in the "H" word, hypocrisy, when you weigh what you know about the unseen aspects of this sport versus the magnificence of these animals and pageantry of the race day.

Recent developments have us turning our heads as if at a tennis match, hoping to assuage angel and devil alike.

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NBC and its support channel Versus, now both part of the Comcast juggernaut, have signed on to provide eight hours of coverage over seven weeks of the 2011 Saratoga meet from hallowed Saratoga Race Track, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

The "Summer Derby," the Travers Stakes, was not shown on national television last year, a travesty in this game akin to not showing one of the Triple Crown races. Needless to say, races like the Coaching Club American Oaks, Diana, Whitney, Vanderbilt, Sword Dancer, Alabama, and Woodward have also received short shrift on television and with the way things are going in California racing, the Saratoga schedule towers over any other this summer.

While touting its "incredible commitment" to Thoroughbred racing, the press release fails to discuss reasons or strategies. So here's a guess. With the Triple Crown locked up, an available cable station that seems to be positioning for "exotic" sports events (lacrosse, Tour de France), and the economic largesse of Comcast, you can see a niche.

With the fragmented betting platforms TVG and Horse Racing Television providing spotty coverage, it would make sense for NBC to tout its "boutique" coverage of Saratoga in cool and beautiful HD. Let the online outlets squabble. You try watching Arlington, which is offered in HD, on a small computer screen or on butchered, lo-def tape-delay on TVG.

Seems to me like the people behind this deal should be shouting from the rooftops. Keep your eyes peeled for televised house ads on Comcast and NBC.

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But what about those who decry the treatment the horses receive and, although they enjoy the spectacle of the game, will never sign on because of it?

Well, they have this as evidence.

As far as I can figure, there has been no official ruling on consequences for journeyman (to be kind) jockey Tommy Molina for stomping on his horse's hind spine to straighten him out in the gate. The mere fact the Illinois Racing Board and stewards have not yet announced a decision makes me believe any penalty will be light.

But will a small fine, which might not even be publicized, be enough? Should Molina be made an example of and sat down for a couple of months or longer? For the image of racing? Yeah, he should, because you have to start somewhere to get this stuff out of the game.

For what it's worth, Victor Molina (don't know if there's any relation) received 30 days and a $1,000 fine for kicking his horse in 2007.

This unavoidably raises the issue of whipping a horse in a race. In many racing jurisdictions around the world, excessive whipping is frowned upon and penalized. No jockeys "urge" their horses as they do in America.

Many jockeys do it, but I've been negatively impressed by Calvin Borel and even Mike Smith on Zenyatta in last November's Breeders' Cup Classic.

But even if there is some humanity and enforcement, you're never going to see it unless you surf the Illinois Racing Board website. It recently posted decisions to penalize Arlington jockeys E.T. Baird and Florent Geroux for "repeatedly (striking) their horses without giving them a chance to respond."

While the usual forum posters yell "Nahhh, that won't hurt the horse," others say it can raise welts and pain and, perhaps as significant, mentally affect the runners, to the point of diminishing returns.

Whatever, these incidents need to be stopped and penalties publicized.

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John Pricci at HorseRaceInsider.com reports that horseplaying (right behind divorce) is morally okay.

"Gambling is not a moral issue to 59% of older Americans, a majority you would expect because it's become an accepted form of entertainment for those most inclined to have disposable income, even in this economy," he said, taking it a step further and urging more education in handicapping. "The NTRA (National Thoroughbred Racing Association) pushed for the creation of a fan education component at racetracks back in 2005. Name one that did so. Sorry, pre-race seminars have more to do with touting winners than educating fans: Teach the man to fish."

One the one hand, it might be too late for this self-taught - with the help of the OTB old-timers - horseplayer, but I'm never one to blithely spurn continuing education.

But morally, we've got it going on.

* * *

The Life At Ten saga continues, which means it never ends.

It's been eight months since jockey John Velasquez told announcer Jerry Bailey that Life At Ten wasn't ready for the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic.

Johnny V. has already accepted a $10,000 fine from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and a demerit on his permanent record, more for talking to Bailey than anything else. The commission then went after Chief Steward John Veitch and recently held what appear to be final hearings to decide his fate.

My latest take on the issue is that while horses can and do warm up sluggishly before a race and then run well, Velasquez' behavior in shutting her down around the track is the smoking gun that something was wrong with her.

Along with some bettors changing their wagers on the race, that compromised wagering integrity, something the commission has already swept under the rug in finding no fault.

Rather than institute reforms and heads-up procedures, it's about the blame game. Typical.

And how is Life At Ten doing? Not so swell.

Running gallantly in a small Gulfstream race, the Grade III DuPont Distaff on the Preakness undercard and the recent Grade I Ogden Phipps, 'Ten showed that she doesn't have it anymore and might not even want it back. That seemed the same signal she sent on Ladies Classic evening.

Pricci makes a strong case for listening to Life At Ten and retiring her.

"What remains is the knowledge that Life At Ten has been very good to her connections, including her owner, Candy DeBartolo. It's time for them to return the favor and send the six-year-old mare home. Life At Ten owes them nothing," Pricci said.

* * *

As TrackNotes reader Bob Caito writes, "Horse racing has no leadership." He couldn't be more right.

And he notes a sense of urgency. "The two best managers in horse racing are an aging Charles Cella at Oaklawn and an aging Dick Duchossois at Arlington. Bob Evans at CDI and Frank Stronach at Magna couldn't lead a one-horse parade and yet they are managing the two biggest racetrack companies in America."

The game needs unity and marketing. Now that Saratoga is TV-bound, racing is going to have to tell people it's easy to get started and fun to learn, with the premier racing meet of the year. The casino commercials tell you that you will win and then have a great steak. Racing can't do the same? Except for the steak, which they really need to work on.

Racing has two ends to its candle, online/simulcast wagering and the fun of going to the track.

Perhaps it can light the way for all the morally upright gamblers.

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

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