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TrackNotes: The Near Total Demise Of Thoroughbred Horse Racing

Tommy Skilling might say, we're keeping an eye on the computer models on this one.

I might say that if we're not already in it, a perfect storm is brewing for the near total demise of Thoroughbred horse racing. It's a slow kind of kill, and painful.

This is a sport that has never had the organization or discipline to manage itself in the modern age - or, After Simulcast - and as conditions worsen, is not structurally equipped to handle the load. It's getting its ass kicked by everything from the NFL (check out all the Bears coverage in what is still just the beginning of the offseason) to cage fighting. I don't think even Mike Holmes can save it now.

Sure, much of the evidence is anecdotal, but it's good enough. These are the latest episodes, collecting like losing wager slips in my pocket.

* Hate the 2 percent to 10 percent house take on slot machines? How about up to 35% on certain horse wagers?

* Illinois racing, and Hawthorne Race Course specifically, are in trouble. Purses are declining and fields would be dwindling to nothing if it were not for the reduction in racing days. Owners are shipping elsewhere just to make a living.

* And don't believe the local racing industry is going to see the $10 million to $20 million the State of Illinois owes it as part of a deal for the 10th casino license.

Hell, even the politicians in Kentucky are turning on the game, and racing and breeding are two of largest industries in the state.

But how do you expect state legislators across the land to react when track owners or horsemen come crawling like babies demanding that they get slots - now proven to be a dubious goal - or a hefty cut of other people's slots, when casino interests are lobbying like crazy, with the money that entails?

New York Racing is being gutted even as it still bickers over installing slots that were approved nearly 10 years ago. The largest New York OTB is in bankruptcy.

And we now have the musings of one Frank Stronach, the impresario behind Magna Entertainment, the bankrupt corporation that owns, among other things, Gulfstream Park (now more of a mall than a track), Santa Anita, Golden Gate Fields and Pimlico.

Labor laws in California, such as wages and unemployment compensation, are such that racing in the Golden State is difficult and in trouble. Bay Meadows has already been destroyed and Hollywood Park looks to be next. The land Santa Anita sits on is probably eminently more valuable for development than it is for racing.

Granted, California racing economics are poor, but Stronach isn't helping, offering little more than vague platitudes that might contain veiled threats. But we do get a feel for how the entities are not nearly on the same page: "I am out here to plead with the horse community. We've got to change things. I would do everything I can for racing to remain in California. I can't do it alone. The horse community has to help."

Said esteemed trainer and synthetic track critic Bruce Headly of Stronach's Free Enterprise Summit: "We kept telling him we're here to talk about the track and you can't shut him up about free enterprise. We told him we weren't there to discuss free enterprise, that's not our decision because we're the track committee, but he still kept going on and on about it."

And that's the simpler issue facing Stronach and Santa Anita: the lousy condition of its track. Many tracks (including Arlington Park), instead of dutifully and honorably trying to maintain just the very best dirt course they could, rushed willy-nilly into installing synthetics when their neglect started to exact a terrible toll on the animals. California mandated it on a wholesale basis. It's been a disaster, especially for Santa Anita.

"Rain was never a pressing issue in California until the synthetic era. In its first 74 years of racing on dirt, Santa Anita canceled four cards due to rain. In three years of synthetics, it has had to cancel racing 17 times," Stephen Crist of the Daily Racing Form reports.

At the previously cited Free Enterprise Summit, it appeared Stronach was going to announce a return to dirt, after promising the track would be redone in the summer anyway.

Instead, he's holding the track hostage.

"Santa Anita will stick with (synthetic) Pro-Ride for the time being until Stronach gets what he wants - the ability to run the track with less state regulations," reports Art Wilson of the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin. "He told the trainers in a two-hour meeting that he won't dole out the estimated $8 million to $10 million needed for a new surface without assurances he can race at Santa Anita whenever he wants, calling it 'free enterprise,' and he also wants a partnership between the tracks and horsemen."

OK, so we've got Stronach's political regulatory blackmail, a track that cannot handle an inch of rain at one of the most prestigious courses in the world (or is it anymore?), and a racing colony that is becoming competitively disadvantaged (Says Bob Baffert of current Kentucky Derby favorite Lookin At Lucky: "I think Lookin At Lucky will go to Arkansas. In case it rains at Santa Anita, I cannot afford to stay here.") on a national basis as horses making their careers on the synthetics are having difficult times succeeding on the dirt courses of the East. You know, the Triple Crown, Travers Stakes, those nice races. This sounds like the flotsam and jetsam in the vortex. Which way do toilets flush in California? Clockwise or counter?

You'll notice none of these people mention the fans.

Another stellar notion is the hell-bent-for-leather idea that the Breeders' Cup should be permanently sited at one track. And that one track is: Santa Anita!

* * *

Ah yes. The Breeders' Cup festival, intended to crown the champions of racing. Coming soon to a track near you as it visits the hallowed grounds of American racing's most storied venues. Belmont, Churchill Downs, even beautiful Arlington Park and Monmouth.

If they could, Satish Sanan would be in the gulag by now. Not for being wrong, but for spilling the beans.

"Breeders' Cup board member Satish Sanan indicated March 2 the organization is leaning toward selecting a permanent host site for the World Championships," reported. "Sanan said Breeders' Cup representatives planned to meet March 3 to discuss the host-site plan and could make a decision soon. In response to a caller who asked if a decision had been made, Sanan said: 'It's not ratified yet.'"

You can tell he's probably telling the truth. This was quickly released: "The Breeders' Cup board is extremely disappointed with recent statements from board member Satish Sanan with regard to host sites and those views in no way reflect the official position of Breeders' Cup, LTD. The Breeders' Cup has longstanding and valued partnerships with Churchill Downs and the New York Racing Association . . . yada, yada, yada."

And a self-flagellating Statement from Satish Sanan: "I mischaracterized the Breeders' Cup's relationship with Churchill Downs and other host sites in a recent radio interview. I regret my poor choice of words. As part of the Breeders' Cup strategic planning process, the board continues to evaluate future host sites and other core business issues."

One Kentucky politico is trying to goose the proceedings.

"A bill passed by a Senate committee Tuesday would force the Breeders' Cup to commit by Nov. 4 to running the 2011 or 2012 event in Kentucky in order to qualify for a pari-mutuel tax break this year," the Louisville Courier-Journal reports. Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said his plan that was added to House Bill 347 attempts to get the Breeders' Cup in Kentucky more often or permanently.

"Breeders' Cup President Greg Avioli has said previously that Churchill Downs is the most profitable site."

Greg, talked to my main man Satish lately?

It's all just so precious.

Handicapping and horse wagering are the domain of an aging population that either remembers going to the track as its only gambling outlet, or was introduced/taught by someone who did. Like me.

I'll say attention spans are shortening, and instant gratification is demanded. Thus, slots. Handicapping takes patience and concentration. I certainly don't see any of today's young whippersnappers being able to handle it.

When you combine this with the polar opposites of casino marketing and woeful Thoroughbred marketing, racing may not survive. As we speak, Oaklawn officials are still trying to line up TV coverage of the biggest horse race in decades, the Apple Blossom Invitational featuring Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

* * *

Is racing fully on the up-and-up? We had a very upsetting race Feb. 20 in the Tampa Bay Breeders Cup when, coming down the stretch, Karelian pulled a Snagglepuss and went exit, stage right. A hard charging Gio Ponti was forced to go with him across four or five lanes. There is no way on earth Karelian did not affect Gio Ponti's race and the final outcome. Gio was out-bobbed and took the loss.

But the two horses did not touch. Is that why they let the result stand?

Then we get this: "[I]n an unusually high number of turf races (at Tampa Bay), some horses bear to the outside in the stretch as they cross the indentations left by the mowing tractor's wheels where the infield chute joins the main course.

"'It has to be the paths because if they bear out it's always at that same spot,' [jockey Daniel] Centeno said. "You try to prepare yourself, but when you're down riding hard you are focused down the course.'

"'Its certainly something we'd like to see corrected, if it's possible,' Karelian's jock, Rosemary Homeister Jr. admitted."

Thanks, Tampa, for the heads up on that.

These are the feelings a horse racing rat gets. I think I need an antidote to the anecdotes.


Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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