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TrackNotes: Derby Lament

Like any Kentucky Derby, the 136th gave us a couple of dozen story lines.

You had trainer Todd Pletcher winning his first Derby with Super Saver, a horse that was down on his depth chart earlier this year. You had Calvin Borel winning his third Derby in four years, and his third Triple Crown race in the last four. We rehashed the good trips and the bad trips and asked the inevitable question: "Who's going to the Preakness?"

Dis and Dat
  • Ofman takes a Taser to the local sports scene.

  • But if you care about the game, and know what you want out of it, you can't be anything but disheartened and disappointed with the failures of many of the people who touch this race. The humans who find it impossible to reach, or even attempt to reach, the zenith of performance they ask and demand of the 20 magnificent Thoroughbreds. Nineteen colts and a filly we figure aren't as smart as us, but who never fail to deliver it all, or fulfill every expectation.

    I took a more lackadaisical approach this Derby season, keeping tabs, and seeing who stood out. I won on Saturday, and I helped others to win. And there was a rush of satisfaction during and after the breathless 2:04.45 minutes of the race that my hunches and ideas worked out. That's the handicapper's fix.

    It's in the post-mortem, the impressions, and most of all the stories, where we see the humans failing to deliver. Unable to properly conduct, or deliver, two of the greatest days racing has to offer. It's been twisted into an assault on patrons with profit the motive, and content cross-promotion and the elevation of meaningless people into meaningless celebrity as the weapons.

    In a rough chronology, all gleaned after the Derby:

    * We found out that Doug O'Neill, handler of such nice horses as Great Hunter, Lava Man, Notional, Square Eddie, Stevie Wonderboy, and Thor's Echo was fined and suspended for an illegally high level of carbon dioxide (usually administered with a "milkshake" of bicarbonate of soda) found in Illinois Derby runner Stephen's Got Hope after he ran at Hawthorne April 3.

    The punishment? A suspension of 15 days and a $1,000 fine. He'll continue to train because California will honor his appeal and he wouldn't set foot in Illinois until the Arlington grass festival at the earliest, if then. I don't have to tell you that this does nothing to solve the problem of drugs in American racing.

    * As always, in racing, only the horseplayer or fan is hurt by the childish squabbling of various caretakers of the wager.

    Because TwinSpires Inc., through its coupling with Magna Entertainment, is trying to conquer the world of American advance-deposit wagering, the only racing channel I can get on DirectTV, TVG, was not allowed enough access to produce The Works, a useful and entertaining show it used to do that highlighted how the horses were working and faring in the week or so before the Derby. HGTV has its version, but because of racing and cable/satellite bickering, I can't tune that in.

    I liked the show. It got me fired up during Derby week. They took it away.

    What if you snare a customer as he's flipping past college lacrosse or bar brawls in cages? Wouldn't that be nice? Meanwhile, those of us pushing the dollars through the window are ignored.

    * The corporate menace continues.

    Seems an independent promotion by Louisville's "Galt Hotel, the Kentucky Derby Museum and Jane Dempsey, a Californian whose family has been bringing fans to the Derby via junkets for 64 years" turned sour when Derby-winning jockeys Ron Franklin and Jorge Velasquez were not able to score tickets to Churchill Downs and were aced out of attending either Friday or Saturday.

    Living Derby winners put their hands in cement at the Galt Hotel, immortalizing their accomplishments and ensuring at least some flow of tourist dollars for companies like Churchill Downs Inc. to grab. Thanks a lot, Churchill.

    They even ran the Pleasant Colony Purse on the Derby undercard. Velasquez won the Derby on Pleasant Colony in 1981.

    While we are treated to reality show floozies who would hurt themselves around a stove or TV Q-Listers forced upon us through cross-promotion, Franklin and Velasquez, who put more on the line to make the day possible than anyone, couldn't even get a seat on the clubhouse turn.

    But think of it. This is not unusual behavior by a corporation. It's not a horse race, it's a TV show. The Super Bowl is not a game, it's an extended version of America's Best Commercials. While the Masters golf tournament has gone way over the top with its obsessions, at least it controls its product for the presentation of the golf.

    * See if you can follow me.

    NBC has the television rights for the Kentucky Derby. I'm sure they called dibs on Kentucky Oaks on Friday. But instead of daring to interrupt the profitable local news, where we can all keep up with a dog on the expressway, they shunted the Oaks to the NBC-owned Bravo channel.

    What did we get? Coverage of the race? Nope. Nothing but effin cross-promotion of some cooking show they have and people cooking. And hats. And more hats. And no odds. And the tormenting of Mr. Stomach Staple Al Roker as he introduces Derby dishes we might like. Of course, for what Roker gets paid to say it's going to rain somewhere in the country today . . .

    It got worse on Saturday.

    * I can't critique ESPN for its coverage of the Derby Day undercard, because I saw very little of it. But I did hear Hank Goldberg get a bet down on a horse that had been scratched six hours earlier. He's the one who couldn't make the piggy bank the network staked for him last for more than a couple of races one Saturday, and ended up smashing it. Then he continued to make losing bets.

    * They must all be Buffys and Biffs straight out of Syracuse broadcast school. The director from over in the entertainment division. And the consultant on demos, you know, the age groups. And, of course, the keepers of the corporate profits. I think they have their own room in the truck out back.

    How else would you explain the abominable coverage of the Derby from NBC, and its missing the story story of the day.

    Why didn't they ever show the odds? And when they did, it was for mere seconds, not enough to even write them down. I was in a bar, like millions of others. And I have a phone account, like millions of others. Don't they understand that even the julep-chugging Hat Sallys in the crowd bet on the Derby? I had people asking me to make bets for them, right after they asked me "Now who's running again?"

    Wouldn't you think Churchill Downs would demand more showing of the odds? If just to tap into this naive betting pool.

    And what a story those odds were. The favorite, Lookin At Lucky, went off at better than 6-1, the highest price ever for a favorite. Ever. The longest longshot, Make Music for Me, went off at 30-1, a decidedly low figure for a longshot in a race where a few of them should have been in the 75-1 range or higher.

    The story was twofold. It was the Giacomo-Mine That Bird Syndrome in that no horse should be counted out for the win, no matter the handicapping. No matter the shape of the race.

    And it was that this Derby was the most ambivalent in memory. No horse stood out. There was no Big Brown, or even an Eskendereya. For all intents and purposes, for this Derby, it was as if all the horses were basically taking the same kind of money.

    In seeing the nano-flash of the odds a good 45 minutes before the race and then as they were loading, it also seemed as if the odds held pretty steady most of the afternoon. Another story.

    But let's throw it back to the cooking set and watch them defile some Woodford Reserve.

    And NBC's camera work was horrible. This isn't the N-Frickin'-L. Just because you can put a camera on a wire on the top of the turn, doesn't make it a good idea. They had every camera angle known to man, except the one that told you who was in front. Wide lenses made it look like they were always on the turn.

    When you could see the horses, from the overhead blimp, you couldn't tell who they were. In one shot, the horses appeared to be going the wrong way. God forbid you want to see how Calvin Borel put together his winning trip. You could only see that after he basically had the race won and was gliding toward the wire, on the rail.

    * The tote services.

    I had an early hunch the odds were holding, catching glimpses on the TV or on the smartphone. Then it happened. The Oregon wagering hub went down and it was increasingly difficult if not impossible to get a wager down in the hour before the race.

    You heard right, the Commodore 64s went down!

    "Some bettors across the country nearly got shut out of the May 1 Kentucky Derby when AmTote International's multi-jurisdictional wagering hub in Portland, Ore., locked up twice within 50 minutes of the Derby's post time. The outage affected several advanced deposit wagering platforms including, XpressBet, and"

    No, not nearly. I did get shut out for the 20 minutes before the race.

    Luckily, figuring I had done enough studying, I placed my Derby bets very soon after the previous race ended. I was okay. But trying to get in a couple of cover bets and bets for others, I couldn't get through. I actually got the message "Due to unusual call volume . . . click."

    The people had no clue, before or after:

    "I think where AmTote and the whole industry can improve is to do a better job testing for big days," AmTote president Steve Keech said. "It is so tough to test that big day because that is when things get fragile. I want to stress it wasn't the wagering volume, we know how to handle that. Was it the creation of new accounts and funding of those accounts? We're not sure."

    So this guy is one of those corporate wonks who feigns concern by asking and answering his own questions, and essentially blaming me for opening an account or adding money to my existing account. Stick it, Mr. Keech.

    From the bad Oregon hub to the ancient machines at the OTB, Thank You, racing industry for keeping up on the technology and providing a seamless and enjoyable experience for us all.

    * Calvin Borel.

    You can't deny the success he's had. As mentioned above, his record in recent years is remarkable.

    But let me ask you this, Calvin. Could you be a little more humble? The wise, grizzled, little Cajun gnome act has worn mighty thin and you don't have to be in every picture.

    And you should be ashamed of yourself for the way you whipped Super Saver in that race, especially in the last eighth. In most parts of the world, you would have been suspended for unnecessary whipping. So I don't want to hear about your love of the horse because when you whip like that, it becomes all about you.

    And where are the lords of racing who have dragged their heels on a no-brainer issue that would help the industry? Jockeys here whip the horse as in no other jurisdiction.

    And shame on the Daily Racing Form's editors who hid Stan Bergstein's insightful column on the issue behind the login for premium subscribers, of which I am one. Mr. Bergstein also talked about how they are greatly reducing the amount and severity of whipping in harness racing in America. I can't remember the last time one of his columns was run online pay-per-view.

    And one more thing, Calvin: While the announcers crown you Captain Courageous for the way you take the rail in these races, don't forget that it can probably now be said that the other jockeys, for some reason, don't have the guts to challenge the rail against you. You stole some candy, and I think you know it.

    One of the most thrilling aspects of the Kentucky Derby was the way Ice Box struggled to get into the open and head for the wire. By the time he did, it was too late. Nevertheless, he displayed a tremendous determination and exertion in an attempt to catch Super Saver, finishing second in the process.

    He may have known he couldn't catch the winner, but he put in the best effort he could.

    Too bad we can't say the same for all of the Kentucky Derby people who's responsibility it is to try their hardest, do their best. Too bad.


    Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes (nearly) every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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