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TrackNotes: Horse Racing Is Dead; Long Live Horse Racing

As badly as many things seem to be going in Chicago, where on earth would this city be without Eric "E-Z" Zorn?

He knows just what to do with local TV news: more of the same! He's able to explain to us simpletons just what the Blagojevich sentencing gambit really means. And in just 268 words and a video link he tells us e-books are coming and even touches on the true meaning of traditional libraries.

I've never really read or paid much attention to Eric Zorn, and I'm not really angrily seething at him here either (he doesn't seem worth it), but when he talks about horse racing, it's part of this gig to notice. His overall efforts seem inconsequential, unless they're just meant to rile up people and keep the site hits coming. He just seems like a general interest pages' Jay Mariotti.

So upon returning from Las Vegas - more on that later - I see Zorn's blo(b)g hitting the fan.

In what really appears to be a bald-faced ploy to generate hits and comments, Zorn arm-chaired it and used a report by the Sun-Times's Natasha Korecki and Dave McKinney on the declining state of Illinois racing to eat up bandwidth and regurgitate a column he wrote in the early 1990s to bash horse racing and its fans and to explain the essence of sport.

Horses and jockeys are not athletes, and nobody would care about the races if it weren't for gambling, Zorn emotes, even using the tired old columnist's "spare me" line from atop his Gothic Tower pedestal. E-Z fills us in on the true sports, which include ultimate frisbee and bowling. The man's a hipster, no question.

I don't really give a damn about Eric Zorn or what he writes, but his self-superiority must be taken down like the Hindenburg and his condescending words must be challenged.

"A sorry and shrinking collection of rail-birds seem to be all that's propping up what's left," he writes. E-Z, I'm not a sorry railbird. I'm a professional, in a modernized version of the same industry you are. John Doyle, recent winner of $500,000 in the NTRA National Handicapping Championship, is a former IBM executive who now handicaps the horses full-time.

Sorry you had to fall prey to the horseplayer stereotype, but my handicapping friends, characters as they may be, are some of the nicest and loyal friends you could want, and they're intelligent too. They've spent their lives working hard and keep sharp through the mental calisthenics of handicapping races. And they can teach you a few things about life itself.

There's this: "[A] group of horses owned by rich people and steered by small people race around a track to see which one is fastest. Would anyone care if no one could bet?"

And this: "[S]top pretending the tracks are anything but gambling dens."

Do I feel the word "opium" there?

E-Z, my man, settle down! If you don't dig the horses and don't approve of gambling - there's that moral high ground again - back away. Hey bro, you didn't lose the nest egg on Zenyatta to win, did you?

Horse racing in Illinois is responsible for employing thousands of people, from down on the farm to the backstretch to the ticket takers. Illinois racing is in trouble. The casinos command the attention of the politicians' wallets.

Is E-Z the kind of guy who kicks people when they're down? He sure seemed like it with this smarmy little BB on Tuesday.

One more thing, I would love to see how football, or any other sport, would fare if we really eradicated gambling, including fantasy leagues, from the equation. If I wouldn't have been able to bet on the NFL this past season, the Bears and every other team wouldn't have gotten the time of day from me. I don't think I'm alone.

E-Z, you ain't liv'd 'til you've won the coin toss prop bet on the Super Bowl. I know you've got your observations, reports, tips, referrals and tirades to keep your juices janglin', but you're always very welcome to scour the column here for a tip on a horse.

Illinois Extinction?
And what about that Sun-Times's extreme-unction job on the state of horse racing in Illinois?

Korecki's and McKinney's description of the financial straits of the sport are true, with Illinois being one of the most racing-depressed states. Owners and trainers are going elsewhere, where the purses are higher and the competition better.

The sport itself deserves much blame, especially when you look at the internecine greed squabbles that keep track simulcasting signals from large numbers of horseplayers in any year and the exorbitant take-out rates at the tracks and the OTBs.

But one thought occurred to me as we played the races in the dazzling race and sports book at Bellagio last week. How is horse racing ever going to pick up new players and fans when an entire generation of school kids and young people don't have the attention span of a bug and ingest the prescriptions to prove it?

Horse racing is a terrific combination of patience and study, topped off by two of the most exciting minutes you could want. The more you play, the more you build up a body of experience, not unlike building a personal library. And I defy you to not get excited by the thundering herd racing by you on the rail.

People my age usually say these kinds of things about those "young people." But I see examples of it every day within an ever-widening age range. Can people really not concentrate for more than the two seconds it takes for the slot machine to stop or the 60 seconds of finishing a blac jack hand?

Just because I can, E-Z, don't trash on me.

OTB Blues
When you visit Las Vegas, you're asking for it, especially as a horseplayer.

Great company, great dining and fabulous weather included, you also see how a race book is run out there. Then you break down on the plane home knowing there is no venue like it anywhere in Chicago.

You know the story. The Jackson Street OTB, faithfully patronized my many of us for many years, shut down. The faithful trudge to LaSalle Street and the Stretch Run, only to run into bad service in cramped quarters with malfunctioning machines and high take-out. Then it too closes. The Mud Bug? Perhaps I should give it one more shot.

But we don't have anything here like the Bellagio or any number of Vegas books with the plush leather recliner rockers, free beer for a small tip, individual simulcast monitors, decent food and sports betting off to the side. I get that in my den, but it's not the same as playing with the guys at the OTB or the track. It's all about service in Vegas, and I guess all I can say is, we don't get it here.

And that's truly a bummer.

Our Oak
Our guys on the Giant Oak beat, the Sholis brothers, Dave and Vic, check in with the news that the Oakster is Number One!

That's according to the latest National Thoroughbred Racing Association (NTRA) Thoroughbred Poll. The Illinois-bred Giant Oak vaulted into first place off an exciting and impressive win in the February 5th Donn Handicap at Gulfstream. Seemingly biding his time, Oak steadily swallowed the leaders in the stretch to win by two lengths.

I'm not entirely sure what the poll really means, but to Giant Oak fans, he's on the radar and his finish in the Donn and a win in last November's Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs portend very good things for 2011.

He's training very well at Gulfstream right now and trainer Chris Block appears to have him pointed to the April 9th Oaklawn Handicap. We would also hope to see him on one or two of the Triple Crown undercards.

The Big Mo
This weekend, catch up with Uncle Mo, the most touted Kentucky Derby candidate going, as he starts in the Timely Writer at Gulfstream. If not written for him, the race purse was enhanced to get him. It also keeps him separated from barnmate Brethren, who will go in the Tampa Bay Derby. Trainer Todd Pletcher did not want the two facing off before the May 7. Uncle Mo need not worry about having enough graded stakes earnings to get into the Derby after his win in the Breeders' Cup Futurity.

The two-year-old champion, Uncle Mo figures to have only two preps, at most, for the Derby, so the microscope will be on him for this race. The Road to the Roses is clearly what-have-you-done-for-me-lately when it comes to pre-race Derby hype and Mo won't be facing much here.

But it will be nice to finally see him running for the first time in 2011.

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

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