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TrackNotes: Slumlords And Slot Hustlers

We're nearing the end of The Big Wait.

Belmont's Jockey Club Gold Cup, like the six horses who unheroically had no chance to catch minor-stakester Diversify from bell to wire, is in the rearview mirror.

This lull before the November 3-4 Breeders' Cup from Del Mar gives you a chance to look around, and you don't always like what you see.

If the tree choppers in pajamas on MLB nines all across the land don't look scary, they certainly look slovenly. Levon Helm did it way cooler long before you guys were even born. Seeing Jake Arrieta clean-shaven is kind of like filing past the box at the dearly departed's wake. I guess that's him, but he sure doesn't look the same.

In the NFL, they don't practice anymore, and it shows. But they can Tony Manero you no matter the score, the beating they might be taking, with no humiliation even when the trophy goes to the couple from Secaucus. A spinoff, Dancing with the NFL Stars, could turn the league into a glorified school for the performing arts. With Mike Glennon choosing a minuet (defined as - perfect - a slow, graceful dance in 3/4 time) for his showcase number.

I really did see a professional basketball player punch another guy in the face, more than once in just a few minutes. It was former NBA hang-arounder Kendall Gill. In a real ring, on a real fight night, for real money. Career, he was 4-0-0, three KOs, but how do you get inside the wingspan of a condor before getting slapped down? You should have seen the frustration on the faces of the fireplugs he fought. A fifth fight of Gill's is mysteriously missing from his BoxRec rap sheet.

Thoroughbred horse racing, as we approach the two-day Breeders' Cup bacchanal, is not immune to such reflection by any means.

It's been a lousy racing season, and in recent weeks, it's snowballed into an ice boulder of bad news, including sadistic greed, disturbing trends, defection and even death. Prioritize any way you want.

Keeneland announced over the summer that it would increase its takeout - skim from the top, really - for all wagers during its October meet. Win, Place and Show takeout was increased by almost 9.4 percent to 17.5 percent and exotic wager (Exacta, Trifecta, Superfecta, etc.) take would grow 15.8 percent to 22 percent. Both takeout levels are the maximum allowed by Kentucky law.

The Horseplayers Association of North America, securing the backing of its namesake supporters first, sprang into action and called for a boycott of all wagering on Keeneland during the meet. A month of great racing we all look forward to.

HANA President Jeff Platt told me that the estimated 9.1 percent drop in handle Keeneland experienced in the first 13 days of the 2017 fall meet versus the same period last year, may be nearly neutral in revenue because of overall increases in the industry, but he maintains that Keeneland might actually be suffering greatly from the boycott.

"Belmont now ranks number one in market share among tracks competing for handle dollars this fall," Platt said. "Last year, it was Keeneland."

He also said that an average handle increase of 12 percent by Belmont and Santa Anita this fall, coupled with Keeneland's nine percent skid, amounts to a 20 percent negative position from where Keeneland might have been.

The lower the takeout, the higher ticket you cash, the more you churn through the windows, the more you lose, ad infinitum. "Keeneland is down 20 percent from where my gut tells me they would be had they not had a takeout increase," Platt said.

Horse owner Ken Ramsey, who has built a dynasty with the wonderful runner and tremendous sire Kitten's Joy, lashed out at Keeneland during Billy Koch's LATalkRadio podcast (35:45) shortly after the takeout announcement.

"It's a red herring," Ramsey said. "Keeneland says they're doing this to bolster the purses. They should be bolstering the purses through commissions and auction entry fees - which they just raised again - and by profits from the casino they operate. If we lose the two-dollar bettor, who is the backbone of the industry, because of what Keeneland is doing, why I don't know, the industry is doomed. They're robbing David to pay Goliath."

The why-I-don't-know was answered a month later when Keeneland and Churchill Downs announced a joint venture to build two new race tracks at opposite ends of Kentucky, both hard on the Tennessee border. Both could draw heavily from Nashville, Knoxville and even Chattanooga.

The western track would be in the back yard of Kentucky Downs, which runs the niftiest little hill-and-dale turf meet you'll ever see, with the biggest purses and lowest takeouts of the year. The eastern track is not really far from Keeneland but will never run at the same time, don't you know. America does not need two more tracks, so bet that two or three current tracks will die.

Down on the track, Bloodhorse.com's Steve Haskin wondered out loud why trainers aren't running their horses much any more in prep races, particularly for the Derby, Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup.

His Derby prep synopsis says it all: "Going back to 2008, of the horses who captured the Kentucky Derby off only two preps at 3, Big Brown self-destructed in the Belmont Stakes and never made it past September 13, depriving fans of seeing the much-anticipated showdown with Curlin in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Mine That Bird (2009) never won another race. Super Saver (2010) never won another race, racing only three more times in his career. Animal Kingdom (2011) didn't make it past the Belmont that year. I'll Have Another (2012) never made it past the Preakness. Nyquist (2026) never won another race."

Haskin talks about the copycat syndrome, emulating the success of a certain trainer with a certain horse in a certain race. But if the horses never prep, that's not so uncommon. It robs the horseplayer, thank you very much, of the ability to spot any kind of trends in form for handicapping.

In his two-part series, Haskin doesn't really explain what trainers are thinking, except to speculate that trainers are afraid that if a horse runs a huge prep, he'll bounce in the main event. While we fans and bettors have given up on horses running against each other, now they're hardly running at all.

Forget the old days. What about the just yesterdays of American Pharoah, California Chrome, Curlin, Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Gio Ponti? In next week's BC preview, you'll be seeing a lot of "hasn't run since . . . "

* * * * *

Arrogate, who Bob Baffert said is "the greatest horse I've ever seen run," will retire after the Breeders' Cup Classic.

After a smashing victory in the 2016 Travers, he beat 'Chrome in the Classic and then added the Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup, all in convincing fashion. But when he enters the gate for this year's Classic, he might have a big question mark on his saddle cloth. See, he bombed in the San Diego and the Pacific Classic, both at Del Mar, the site of this year's Classic. Just sayin'.

Classic Empire has already been retired. Although he did win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and the Arkansas Derby, you can still wonder all you want. Loaded with pure talent, he developed a foot abscess after the Holy Bull in February, got bounced around in the Derby and gutted to second in the Preakness. A horse once "benched" for refusing to train, he was scratched out of the Belmont with the same foot. We'll never know.

And this bulletin on deadline, Keen Ice is out of the Classic, one race before his planned retirement after "wrenching an ankle." You may hear about this son of Curlin's tremendous upset of American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, but he just ran up into a meltdown pace. He would have had enough name recognition to get a lowered morning line next week.

* * * * *

Beverly Lewis, of Bob and Beverly Lewis fame, passed away October 20th at 90. Most famously, the Lewises campaigned Silver Charm to wins in the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. He was edged by less than a length for the Triple Crown by Touch Gold. They completed a personal Triple Crown with Commendable in the 2000 Belmont Stakes, and won the 1999 Derby with famous 31-1 longshot Charismatic.

Less than a month earlier, Penny Chenery, the racing matriarch who brought us Secretariat, also passed away.

On October 18th, six-year-old colt Effinex died near Saratoga Springs, apparently of a ruptured heart artery. He won the Clark Handicap and Suburban Handicap in 2015 and finished second to American Pharoah in that year's Breeders' Cup Classic. I always liked him, but usually at the wrong times. I couldn't cash the same days he did.

Three-year-old Irap, who was running into big expectations, was euthanized October 20th after developing laminitis after an injury in the September 23rd Pennsylvania Derby. He suffered a left front sesamoid (ankle) fracture in finishing second to West Coast and apparently had undergone successful surgery. But the injured area got worse and the son of Tiznow developed laminitis, an extremely serious, often fatal, hoof condition. It killed Barbaro and Secretariat.

At 31-1, he took the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in April and finished 18th in the Kentucky Derby. He won the Ohio and Indiana Derbies and finished third in the Travers Stakes. We would have had our eye on him through the Breeders' Cup and beyond.

The ebb and flow of life and death in any arena is always natural. But these few above are worth remembering.

* * * * *

It's paradoxical in horse racing to want a dominant superstar frolicking from track to track in race after race. It can make races unbettable. But if no stars are made because none of them run, that's on the humans.

If the breed itself is suffering because owners and breeders can make big profits after a horse's lollipop career on skinny legs, that's on the humans.

If you're a racing slumlord and slots hustler waiting for the nice old guy in 1A to die so you can demolish a true gem in one of the cradles of American racing, meanwhile running unbettable races on a plastic track and jacking up admission and concessions prices to eke out a make-even, that's on the humans.

The senseless, heartless corporations conspire to skim worse than the Spilotro brothers, when it has been proven lower takeout means bigger handle and profits. Gamblers, with money and numbers always on their minds, know the ponies are more a sucker bet than ever. When they drive us to a third or fourth successful wagering boycott, it's on the humans.

Breeders' Cup weekend is the best, not-great two days of the year. I cheer for all the horses, you know that, but I'll really root for those who have campaigned, either seven or eight races this year or a steady race tab coming in.

What was once a strong hunch, hook, play of the day, is now a hoping guess, a maybe, just get a price.

To come into this with such a jaundiced eye, that's on the humans.

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Comments welcome.

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