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TrackNotes: Murderous Marketers

There's a marvelous episode in Seabiscuit: An American Legend, Laura Hillenbrand's wonderful chronicle of one of America's greatest sports stories, of how the seeming upstart Seabiscuit trained for his legendary match race against the supposedly invincible War Admiral, winner of 1937's Triple Crown.

Back in November 1938, one aspect of racing was in a bit of an evolution. Until that point, race starts were generally primitive, ranging from a simple chalk line on the track, to wood rail "chutes" to the common starting wire. It was simply a wire across the tracks, above the heads of the horses. Jockeys would slyly get their mounts walking into position to anticipate, the wire would be snapped upward and the horses would go.

Though the starting gate as we know it today was in limited use by the time of the big match race, it didn't come into widespread use until several months later.

Because of War Admiral's dislike of starting gates, owner Charles Riddle insisted on an old-fashioned wire-and-bell start for the big showdown.

Trainer Tom Smith knew that War Admiral was one of the best starters in the game, and that if his Seabiscuit was to even keep up in the early stages of the race, he would need a good start. But 'Biscuit was a horse who would make his start, measure the field, and then wreak whatever havoc he could in the stretch. That would have been an inevitable losing proposition in this race.

In the lead up to the race, the Baltimore Fire Department-issue bell used at the track went missing. Coincidentally, or not, Smith began a training regimen, mostly at night, of simultaneously swatting Seabiscuit on his hind end just as the loud fire bell went off. Soon, Seabiscuit would respond to the bell without the swat. The rest is history.

In following the racing game, you learn a few things about horses. They are intelligent, often highly-strung animals who are creatures of habit, very fragile, and also claustrophobic. They need to be taught how to take a saddle, how to take a rider in the saddle, how to interact with other horses. And how to deal with the modern starting gate.

They are given hours of instruction and, in fact, must prove to racing officials before certification that they can stand the close confines of the gate and react properly to the bell of the start and the loud clang of the gate doors. Our 2014 Triple Crown candidate California Chrome is still learning and improving at the task.

Churchill Downs, the self-styled cradle of American racing, has forgotten, or chosen to forget, everything we all know about horses, and it resulted in an absolutely needless death of a horse, five-year-old mare Never Tell Lynda.

On May 22, 'Lynda was walking toward the paddock (schooling, again, to get her familiar with the surroundings) when what her trainer, Kenneth Wirth, described was a loud commercial, came from the obscenely large video screen and 750 loudspeakers Churchill Downs unveiled just in time for the Kentucky Derby. Apparently the commercial included the loud noise of a starting bell and the gates clanging open. Doing what she was trained to do, Never Tell Lynda bolted, twisted, fell and hit her head. She was injured so badly, she had to immediately be euthanized.

The screen is larger than what should ever be permitted on earth. Besides the audio the system is spewing, add the overwhelming noise of a crowd of 150,000 or more.

Wirth could only be obvious in his reaction. "We teach horses to break from that," he said. "And you've got it on a loudspeaker that everybody in a two-city block can hear. Well, what's she going to do? She thinks she's supposed to take off. And that's what she did. And when she did, she lunged and she lost her balance and went down."

Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens complained about the noise from the sound system, blaming the gate troubles of two horses (Empress of Midway actually flipped and fell over before the race and was scratched), including his, at the start of the Kentucky Oaks. Rosie Napravnik, winner in the Oaks aboard Untapable, also said the noise level was "overwhelming."

Kentucky racing officials conceded they had received many complaints about the new system. Churchill Downs officials offered the usual "condolences, thoughts and prayers" after the death of Never Tell Lynda. Churchill apologists instill in us the rightful fear that nothing will be done.

On a smaller scale, I remember complaining vociferously about the deafening noise a bad Pink Floyd cover band was making at Arlington Park years ago immediately after races and right up to the next one. I think there were many others and they then toned down the band. I've seen and heard these race noises in commercials on Arlington Park's video screen.

"If you had sound that was gradually getting higher, it'd be different," said veteran Churchill trainer Dale Romans. "I'd rather my horse listen to a rock concert than one real quick blast of sound. They get scared, and they want to get away from it."

So how does Arlington Park justify its annual Fourth of July fireworks show, when the sounds of random explosions have got to be aggravating to the horses? By it's being the highest attendance Arlington gets every year, that's how.

It defies bedrock common sense that nobody at Churchill Downs was capable of anticipating that something like Never Tell Lynda's death would happen. But then, Churchill is infiltrated with MBAs and marketing experts - hence the video advertising delivery system - who know nothing about horses or racing. It's never about the horses or the racing with these people.

I sincerely believe that Churchill Downs Inc. is well down the road to losing its privilege to conduct Thoroughbred horse racing, especially the Kentucky Derby. It has embraced in the Derby every bit of the crass spectacle emblematic of American sports today. It has turned its overall participation in the game into a massive money grab with many of its priorities set well above that of racing itself. It really wants slots and card games. It doesn't really care about racing. I wouldn't mind a bit seeing the Derby run at Keeneland. Or anywhere else - call it "The America Derby."

We can only hope that Churchill Downs Inc. will just go away. Until then, all we can do is stay away from its toxic atmosphere - at HQ in Louisville, and at Arlington, Calder and Fair Grounds.

* * * * *

In good Twin Spires news, it appears a players boycott advocated primarily by the Horseplayers Association of North America just might be working, at least a little.

After increasing in April the takeout (top level wager skim) from 16% to 17.5% on win, place and show bets and from 19% to 22% on exotic (exactas, trifectas, superfectas, pick fours, etc.) bets, it became clear the Churchill Downs Inc. was looking to take bettors for even more on the bonanza of Kentucky Derby weekend.

HANA president Jeff Platt said wagering at the Churchill spring meet is down about 6.4%, or about $1.4 million per day, including Derby weekend.

Consider the Derby itself took in $124.66 million in wagers itself, down 0.8% from 2013, and the full Derby Saturday card betting was up 1.4%, to $180.75 million. And that attendance Derby day was 164,906, second largest of all time. It would seem to me that at least some small percentage of off-premise bettors were staying away.

The powder keg was lit when Churchill announced the takeout increase, with forum and blog participants almost universally denouncing the grab and vowing personal boycotts - after the Derby. But it does seem some actually did boycott Churchill on the first Saturday in May.

It's a grassroots effort we can all get behind. I'll tell you, I'm doing my part.


Previously on The Beachwood Radio Hour: Lost Faith In A Ruined Sport.


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

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021