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TrackNotes: Angels, Devils And Drugs

Do you ever get the feeling they're trying to take your sports away from you?

The very fabric of baseball is deeply woven with a monied laziness embodied by the pull-up, good-enough double or the touch-the-plate-very-slowly-with-your-tippy-toe (Oh, for a hidden ball here!) plays.

No less an authority than Phil Jackson calls the NBA hard to watch. NHL hockey has embraced such an absurdity of senseless violence that it's top stars are almost literally getting their heads knocked off. After years of reactionary, situational NFL legislation enforced inconsistently, a guy in a funny shirt checks under the hood and then tells us we did not see what we just saw. Never mind wagering on it.

Thoroughbred horse racing, for me, has come down to this. Do it. Don't do it. One on each shoulder.

Like bad body spray for twentysomethings, just because they make it doesn't mean guys have to wear it.

But the lords of racing, as arrogantly as the rest, depend on the idea that just because they send out the magnificent animals and provide the betting action, we will buy it.

I dig the action. Man, I really do. But I'm buying it less and less these days. Really, do I have to abandon my years of study and experience that help me identify a huge show pool, pound it, and have a profitable day as a result?

This latest Sybil moment started as I checked Saturday's stakes action and found that Arlington Park will be hosting Million Preview Day, featuring the American Derby, Arlington Handicap, Modesty Handicap, the Stars and Stripes and the Coach Jimi Lee Stakes.

As the name describes, it's the big prep card for Arlington Million Day come August 18, and the second biggest day of the Arlington season - racing-wise, not fireworks night. A real turf extravaganza right here and now, which would hold me in good stead as some of these same horses will run in the big races a month from now.

Does Arlington Park or the game itself deserve my money?

For example, the sadistic, racing-ignorant MBAs of Churchill Downs Inc. effectively emasculated the tradition and importance of Hawthorne's Illinois Derby by excluding it as an eligibility event from its new NASCAR-style point system that will determine who qualifies for the Kentucky Derby,

This is the same Illinois Derby which has produced recent Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner War Emblem and Kentucky favorite Sweetnorthernsaint.

Organizationally, CDI and Arlington Park have made a higher priority of putting Hawthorne out of business (and crying for slots at the track) than providing quality racing. Arlington's annual gluttonous grab for racing dates and simulcast priority dates have made that clear.

"Churchill . . . looks petty by excluding the $500,000 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne entirely from this scheme," Daily Racing Form editor Steve Crist writes.

"The official explanation is that the race falls in April and thus would have to be a 100-point race under the rigid calendar-based system. More suspicious minds would say that it also has something to do with the fact that Churchill-owned Arlington Park just had a bitter Chicago-area dates dispute with Hawthorne and that stripping its crosstown rival's biggest race of any Derby-qualifying significance is payback."

Still, Dick Duchossois will use all of his benevolent powers to see that Hawthorne isn't harmed, if you believe an apologetic, ill-reported piece by Tribune veteran Neil Milbert.

With an odd no-quote, thank-you-sir-may-I-have-another tone, Milbert throws out a bone of hope: "Illinois Racing Board members are hoping Duchossois thus will exert his leverage as the biggest shareholder in Churchill Downs' parent company, do some arm-twisting and get the Illinois Derby on the qualifying list."

They are? Says who?

How long does the petulant Duchossois get to keep his kindly grandfather image?

* * *

Meanwhile, the saga of I'll Have Another, the Triple Crown hopeful who was scratched the day before the Belmont Stakes last month, continues to unfold.

A side benefit of the draconian restrictions put upon known cheat trainer Doug O'Neill was that thorough records of IHA's treatment in the days before the Belmont were kept.

The New York Times reports that I'll Have Another suffered from a number of ailments, including osteoarthritis, and was given a number of drugs as late as possible before the race. Normal and legal drugs, but if he's a gelding and not slated for high-priced stud duty, would they have made the same decision?

The horse turned three in April.

One thing jumped at me in the Times article, that being that despite anti-inflammatories, heat and swelling developed in a joint the day before the race.

"The fact that response was able to present itself in the face of those two powerful anti-inflammatories is just evidence that this was a very significant injury," said Dr. Sheila Lyons, the founder and director of the American College of Veterinary Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation.

Naturally, the racing press accommodated industry veterinarians.

Pick a quote, any quote: "All of these treatments are perfectly normal routine care," said Kentucky-based racetrack veterinarian Dr. Foster Northrop. "All of these medications are used frequently and all are peer-approved treatments." Well, sure, they are normal in the circles you travel. That doesn't make them right.

Both O'Neill and owner J. Paul Reddam said they he didn't know I'll Have Another, who was sold to Japanese breeding interests for $10 million last week, was x-rayed soon after his win in the Preakness. Huh?

So square this: "'Your nerves are tested when you're a trainer because the horses are in your care,' said O'Neill, who prepared I'll Have Another for the Belmont with daily gallops in New York. 'I X-ray them routinely. We were coming up to the biggest race of his life, and I wanted to make sure that he was perfect.'" Yet he didn't know of the post-Preakness x-ray?

[Reddam said he knew about the x-ray but not about the diagnosis.]

So it's tough not to draw some of the same conclusions when we learned that yet another potential star, Belmont winner Union Rags, will be sidelined the remainder of the year after what his connections said was a minor tendon injury. How much you wanna bet he never races again?

* * *

Beyond the horizon, we see that some trainers have come up with yet another drug, a synthetic form of the pain killer dermorphin, the natural version of which is found on the backs of a certain South American frog species. Another challenge for any forces of good in a use-it-if-you-got-it culture. Maybe just race the frogs.

* * *

Speed figure guru Andrew Beyer also seems to have the devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other.

In "U.S. No Longer Breeds Horses For The Belmont," Beyer writes in the Washington Post that horses today are bred for speed and not stamina, putting a big strain on their already fragile suspensions:

"As sales of 2-year-olds-in-training came into vogue, a youngster who could fly one-eighth of a mile in fast time would often be more valuable than one with the genes to win the Belmont Stakes."

Perhaps he hadn't had time to reflect when he initially dismissed concerns about I'll Have Another's scratch, essentially writing that, hey, these things happen:

"But the tendon injury that prompted the immediate retirement of I'll Have Another underscored the more banal truth: Thoroughbred racehorses are fragile and injuries to them are commonplace. They have been bred for three centuries to produce maximum speed and stamina by carrying a powerful body on spindly, delicate underpinnings. Their ankles, knees and legs are always vulnerable."

This is a mixed message and you can't have it both ways. Whenever I'm in doubt, I look at the thick, strong legs of Seabiscuit or Citation and compare them to pictures of today's horses. No wonder a kid racehorse has arthritis.

These are deeply embedded problems that linger, and not just in the back of your mind. If you're really going to get into it, and betting on horses with any success requires absolutely diving in, you know these things. You can't ignore them.

Do I go through the long day's rigmarole of jumping the train for Arlington? Do I stay and bet at home and deprive Arlington of my entrance fee and concession spending? There, take that! Or just not participate at all?

These two on my shoulders are getting mighty heavy, but one of them has to win out, if even just by a nose.


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

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