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Tracknotes: Two-Armed Bandits

Three chords and the truth.

* Churchill Downs Inc. thinks it has The $99,000 Answer as it forges ahead with casinos at Fair Grounds and Calder Race Course, all the while threatening Illinois politicians through our own Arlington Park. They're trying their best out at AP with tribute bands and horse-frightening fireworks and Idol idols.

* Out West, Canadian magnate, racing lord and weird duck Frank Stronach appears ready to fall off the Left Coast with Patrick Henry-esque cries for free enterprise (i.e. all the racing dates go to him), a solemn promise to change out the disastrous synthetic track surface at Santa Anita (to another synthetic!), and an eviction notice for the Oak Tree Association, a benevolent group that has run the fall Santa Anita meet for 41 years.

* Whether or not you agree with slots at the track, New York State approved them about 10 years ago and, with the same sloth and corruption we're used to around here, can't line up three cherries to save its souls.

Unless you're a hard-bitten gambling type cursing the first leg of the double or endlessly incubating your Pick 4 dream, it comes down to the horses. The game needs horses with star power like hoops needs the Buckeye King.

There's the undefeated queen, Zenyatta, building greatness by volume, conquering many lesser provinces.

And you have Rachel Alexandra, the upstart Horse of the Year in 2009 still looking for her first chart-topper in '10.

Logically, we've given up on the two meeting this year, or ever. But sports speculation not being confined to ballers in culottes, Thoroughbred prognosticators seem to favor the dream-on funnel route to the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Firstly, we must settle for just a few wishes of racing luck for Rachel Alexandra, a queen in her own right. If you're talking about racking up top-level victories like notches in her saddle, those days just might be over. But we do know Rachel will always give us everything she has on the track.

She's slated to run July 24 in the Lady's Secret, a non-graded stakes at Monmouth Park, the scene of her tremendous victory last year in the Haskell Invitational. They've pumped up the purse to $400,000 and the race should be in her wheelhouse at nine furlongs.

She's lost two of three this year and you'll get mixed opinions about her convincing victory last out, the Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs. She didn't beat much, but her time was respectable. I will choose to remember that race as Rachel measuring her speed and changing gears just as she always has.

But it's boiled down to everything from head scratching over her involvement in a lowly ungraded stakes (ironically, Monmouth took up the Lady's Secret name for its race after Santa Anita, in it's over-the-top deification of Zenyatta, renamed its Lady's Secret Stakes the Zenyatta Stakes) to whispers of her connections ducking better females in the August 1 Ruffian Handicap at Saratoga.

She ran her guts out in the Woodward last September and was out of training for many weeks after that. In my opinion, trainer Steve Asmussen and owner Jess Jackson don't know what they have in Rachel this year. Female Thoroughbreds can change a lot from their third to their fourth year, and Rachel has had to carry higher weights in races this year because of her stature.

Meanwhile, Zenyatta has won three Grade I races this year, upping her record to a perfect 17-0. Her connections say they will evaluate the synthetic surface at Del Mar when it begins its meet July 21. The surface there changes throughout the day as the temperatures rise and track superintendents vow to work it more and keep it watered in an effort to avoid 140-degree track readings.

The game needs horses, and these are two of the best we have‚ if Rachel regains her form. But, as usual, racing lost any opportunity it had to get these two on the track together last year primarily because of artificial surfaces. Zenyatta stayed home on the plastics and Rachel's owner boycotted them after seeing his Curlin struggle on the stuff. Thus, racing was unable to exploit Rachel in the midst of one of the best sustained campaigns in many years, or Zenyatta at the peak of her lifetime form.

Now, as often happens, they've both moved on. Zenyatta's connections will do all they can to preserve the perfect record, and Rachel's people might try to get her a few significant wins this year and then retire her.

The idea of them meeting in the Breeders' Cup Classic is absurd. While Zenyatta might be able to seize the immortal mantle of greatness with a win there, you can't be surprised if they hold her out of a race where she'll face the toughest of competition on a legitimate Churchill Downs dirt surface. On the other hand, Jerry Moss is so miffed at losing Horse of the Year honors that his judgment could get mighty clouded.

As for Rachel, I don't see how on earth she could win such a race and go 10 furlongs. That's not her distance.

For now, all we can do is wish better days for Rachel, good campaigns for them both and perhaps a meeting in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic.

Arlington Games
I'm not sure what Vic Zast's point or prescription is here, but he outlines the latest corporate admonishment from Churchill Downs Inc., specifically regarding Arlington Park.

"The future of racing at any track without added gaming is going to be in question," CEO Robert Evans told the Thoroughbred Times several weeks ago. "If you think it's bad now, wait and see in a few years," he predicted, even though Arlington Park, sans the slot machines, was down less than one percent in pari-mutuel revenues in 2009. "If we get to the point where you know, not racing is the best answer, well, that's the best answer," he told the Louisville Courier-Journal.

Arlington has already cut $750,000 overall from stakes purses in its current meet. Off-track wagering revenues are down this season.

But yet again, we hear rumblings of slots coming to the tracks in Illinois. A friend of mine in the industry says many racing officials are confident slots will be approved.

We have to remember that it was cash-strapped governments that reinstated racing and pari-mutuel wagering during and after Prohibition and during the Depression.

And we all know the Quimbys in Springfield have no new ideas.

Just sayin'.


Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes (nearly) every Friday. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Nov 26, 2021