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TrackNotes: Reaching The Civilians

Perhaps because it is just one race, there is no greater mental or even emotional decompression than what we horseplayers experience after the Kentucky Derby.

The Breeders' Cup is a luxurious indulgence in some of the world's finest racing, but it is spread over two days and 14 races. You don't get as caught up in any one race because there's another big one in 38 minutes or so. The Dubai Festival and Travers Day and even Arlington Million day get me too.

After watching Animal Kingdom turn in an impressive performance in winning last Saturday's 137th edition of America's marquee race, all the while understanding the stone cold truth of how Thoroughbred horse racing is down in so many ways by so many self-inflicted wounds, it's still the Kentucky Derby.

It is the one race each year that draws anything close to a general audience. Women and men alike who we horseplayers call "civilians" jump on the bandwagon to enjoy the pageantry and pretend they're wiseguys for a day. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. If you know anything about racing, you know it needs new fans. A lot of them.

The fractured and dysfunctional lords of racing in many ways play the same parochial game Samuel Riddle and Charles Howard played in their peacock dance to get War Admiral and Seabiscuit on the same racetrack. Why can't the buzz of the Derby translate to other races and the game in general?

Why can't the sport act as one sport?

Derby favorite Dialed In and Shackleford are in line for big money bonuses in the Preakness because they achieved a measure of success at Frank Stronach's Magna tracks, of which Pimlico, the suffering track in Baltimore and the site of next week's Preakness Stakes, is one. When the top horses almost never face each other on a regular basis, who cares if old Frank is bribing them to come to his place.

Milwaukee radio talker Mark Belling owns horses and pieces of horses through a racing syndicate. It seemed he was particularly cantankerous when he wrote his Derby preview.

"The Kentucky Derby used to be America's greatest horse race. It's not anymore; it's just the weirdest. I could go on forever about the frailty of the breed, the inability of modern horses to run a distance, wimpy training techniques, the insanity of a 20-horse field and a lot of other reasons why this race has become an inscrutable mess in which the winner often goes on to, well, nothing," Belling said. There are no truer words.

While racing dips deeply into its nostalgic past (even then not so effectively), like the Cubs erecting statues like so many toy Army men, the Kentucky Derby is also a victim of today's game itself. NBC sure didn't get it, never mentioning the three great Triple Crown winners of the 70s, the gutsy Ferdinand, speedy Monarchos, or even the origins of the Derby itself. It's our biggest race. Why? Because it is, even though the Preakness is older.

Today's worst practices have now come to adversely impact its biggest race. The Derby, at least when the big network comes to visit, is nothing more than some sort of big event and the civilians are given no history, no perspective, no chance to build appreciation.

My epiphany came about Monday or so when I realized what racing as a game does not know or care about. Something they sure as hell had better learn before people like me leave the game.

And that is, I now own a part of Animal Kingdom, a part of the 137th Derby, a part of May 7, 2011. A part of what turned out to be a good race. I had Animal Kingdom in both an exacta and straight up as a winner. Animal Kingdom and Nehro and Mucho Macho Man and many of the other horses in the race will now get my undivided attention for as long as they run. I won, and I will remember and tell the stories of this Derby.

I'll always disparage the tomfoolery of Mine That Bird's Derby upset, but there are a few of those out there who had him. I've told you about Pete the Bartender who had Giacomo. We still talk about it.

And it seemed to me that this is exactly what racing must come to understand. You put in time and effort - or not - to figure out a race and you remember the big wins and the tough beats. You remember them for a long time, a long time. But the fans and their enthusiasm and perspective are always ignored.

You don't think the bean counters and marketing men at Churchill Downs Incorporated, that predatory "gaming" company run by a man who is afraid of horses, won't close Arlington Park in a heartbeat if it doesn't get slots? And that it probably stays open only because Richard L. Duchossois still draws breath? Its Calder Race Course is now Calder Casino & Race Course. Think that doesn't send a huge signal?

How do we commiserate with the boo-hoo of track officials when they put major energy and resources to into American Idol or REO Speedwagon concerts?

It would take many millions of dollars, a years-long advertising campaign and a shoring up of the game to fix what's broken. Wouldn't it be worth it to remind the civilians that the great things about Derby Day happen all the time? But we know they're incapable.

We won't know how good this Derby was until we see what Animal Kingdom and the others do this summer and fall. But even though they try, I've got my piece and they can't take it away from me.

The Big Mo
Whoever they is, they say that we shouldn't stereotype people. Sorry.

Mike Repole is a loudmouthed obnoxious New Yorker. And I can say that because I once lived there.

His height came announcing on Thursday the scratch of Uncle Mo for a health issue they still haven't pinpointed. Repole gave the racing world, and any civilians watching, the big middle finger when he took off his Uncle Mo hat and donned that of Stay Thirsty, his other horse in the race. The fortified-water king has a few billion dollars, but he can't buy class.

His and trainer/house savant Todd Pletcher's failure to clear Uncle Mo from the entry box when they knew he would not and should not have been in the race rubbed it in the faces of the connections of Sway Away, who would have taken the 20th spot in the field with an earlier scratch.

Instant karma's gonna get these guys, if it hasn't already.

Flay Away
Do we have to comment on the television coverage? Okay.

It was generally decent with the big improvement being the odds trailer on the bottom of the screen. I'd rather see it permanently on the left side of the screen, but at least they tried.

They still used the blimp and overhead wire-rig shots they learned in the NFL to give us those weird angles. I'm not sure if they heard me scream, but in the earlier races of Friday's Kentucky Oaks card, you missed 30 or 40 percent of the races because of the infestation of corporate tents on the infield. It appeared they changed the camera angle for the Oaks itself and were more careful on Derby Day.

Instead of trying to give some background on every horse and connections, TV did what TV does in taking just a few stories and pounding them into the ground.

Rosie Napravnik has her own jocks' room. Figure that!

Calvin Borel has humble Cajun beginnings, as footage they dusted off from last year reminded us. Too bad his horse had no chance.

Maria Menounos is so hot that it was easy to overlook the fact she knows next to nothing about horse racing. But she did a valiant job interviewing celebrities, including Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers, who knew even less. And who were those celebrities? I didn't see any A-listers. Where's a Jordan or a Barkley or a Pesci when you need one?

But I'll admit I'm a huge fan of celebrity chef Bobby Flay, an accomplished horse owner himself. He had the best moment in the fluff department when presenting the obligatory mint julep recipe piece.

The Woodford Reserve bourbon guy was slowly waxing poetic about the mint muddling, sugar introduction, the greatness of Woodford Reserve and the Tasmanian ice made with rainwater that has never touched the face of the earth in the making of the $200 julep. Bobby knows cooking and Bobby knows TV pacing, so he forcefully and with a very slight roll of the eyes told the guy to get moving already on the damn cocktail. I don't think Bobby likes mint juleps - what a waste of good bourbon - and he said outright he doesn't like Kentucky burgoo after presiding over a preparation of what is more commonly known as roadkill stew.

Trumped
It's official: Bob Costas's hair is now a national distraction. The little guy standing on an infield planter wall in hopes of a good camera angle - and woefully miscast as a horse racing host - Bob's hair looked darker than Black Beauty, who he probably thought was in the Derby. If it's a wig, it's a damn fine one. But the 'burns a different color and texture than the top? Has there ever been a hair hat you couldn't detect? If it is his real hair, you gotta think he's special enough to stop with the Clairol at home and go professional.

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Comments welcome.

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