Not just from the questions about the horses dieing early this week in a polo match but the sport itself is in trouble. In many ways, this year’s Kentucky Derby, just 11 days away, will be a horse of a different color.
The actual two minutes of racing should not be a departure from the past. There will be a large field. The start will be a cavalry charge. The best horse may or may not win, depending on jockey pilot success in finding a crack in the usual Great Wall of Churchill that the horses create as they turn for home.
Other similarities will remain. The mint juleps will taste like medicine and be overpriced. New boundaries, in design and common sense, will be pushed in women’s hats.
And, within 30 seconds of the winner’s crossing the finish line, the horse’s connections will be asked about winning a Triple Crown.
Indeed, the Derby is the happiest time of the year for racing. But then, this year’s especially needs to be, because much in the sport leading up to it hasn’t been a belly laugh.
Here’s a scorecard of current-day horse racing:
Item: Hollywood Park’s summer meeting begins Wednesday and goes through July 19. It is held at a time when weather in Southern California is near-perfect and the interest of the wagering public is rekindled by Triple Crown season.
Problem: The land developers from Northern California who purchased Hollywood Park for its real estate value have not committed to racing at the Inglewood track past the close of the 2009 fall meeting, which ends just before Christmas. This now appears to be more about grading land than graded stakes.
Item: Santa Anita, during its Oak Tree meeting last October, held what Breeders’ Cup officials termed its “best-ever” event, and is scheduled to do it again this year, Nov. 6-7.
Problem: Santa Anita, a profitable track, is owned by Frank Stronach’s Magna Entertainment, an unprofitable corporation currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. Monday, the Breeders’ Cup gave Santa Anita an April 30 deadline to establish a plan assuring that whoever owns the track in November can actually put on the event. Ron Charles is president of Santa Anita and an officer of Magna. He says the situation is close to being fixed but there is “still a little cloud” right now. Remember Charles in your prayers.
Item: The second leg of the Triple Crown, the favorite among the three for most horsemen, is the Preakness at Pimlico in Baltimore on May 16. Pimlico has as much tradition as it has peeling paint. It is a charming dump.
Problem: Pimlico is also owned by Magna, and the bankruptcy proceedings have Maryland politicians — many of the same people who hemmed and hawed while neighboring states added slot machines to their tracks and not only saved racing but enticed away many Maryland horses — in a panic of breast-beating and oratory. The fear is that the Preakness will be taken from Maryland, and with it more than a century of horse racing tradition.
Last week, the state passed emergency legislation that authorized, if necessary, the takeover of Pimlico by eminent domain. The New York Times quoted interested developer Carl Verstandig, who says that he never said he would tear down Pimlico, as saying the politicians “have been going off half-cocked into a rampage of political chaos and showboating.”
Item: Last year, the National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. (NTRA) established its Safety and Integrity Alliance. It has a group that travels to tracks, inspects them and hands out accreditation. Its stated mission is to “protect the sport’s integrity and increase public awareness of horse racing’s safety and integrity programs.”
Problem: Ernie Paragallo, a prominent owner and breeder from New York, was arrested April 10 on charges of animal cruelty for allegedly allowing horses under his care to become malnourished. Various animal protection groups have been vanning away horses from Paragallo’s farm and describing some of them as “bags of bones, literally walking hides.” Paragallo is not some small player in horse racing. He owns half of super-stud Unbridled Song, winner of the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial in 1996 and a fifth-place finisher in that year’s Kentucky Derby.
Problem: California trainer Jeff Mullins will saddle I Want Revenge for the Derby. On the day I Want Revenge won the Wood at Aqueduct in New York, security guards found Mullins giving one of his horses (not I Want Revenge) a substance called Air Power with a syringe. The substance has been likened to cough medicine. Horses are not allowed medications on race day, but Mullins said he thought it was OK because he had been allowed in the area with the material to administer the substance. Then, last week, Mullins watched one of his horses train at Churchill Downs without having a license to do so, and when confronted, said he had been told the licensing office had been closed that day. It wasn’t.
Mullins was given a one-week suspension and a $2,500 fine for the Aqueduct incident and was not penalized for the Churchill Downs incident. Apparently, the “sport’s integrity” is best protected during weeks other than those of the Triple Crown races. Mullins’ one-week penalty will start the day after the Kentucky Derby.
Item: On April 4, the Santa Anita Derby, one of the top prep races for the Kentucky Derby, attracted 50,915. Most were there to see two great 3-year-olds, Pioneerof The Nile and The Pamplemousse. It had the makings of a match race.
Problem: Most fans were on-site when they learned that The Pamplemousse had been scratched that morning because of a tendon injury. The determination of the injury had been made by state veterinarian Jill Bailey. Trainer Julio Canani was so furious that he could be heard yelling at track officials. Word even circulated that the horse would be fine, that Bailey had overreacted, and that The Pamplemousse would race the next weekend at Keeneland in another Derby prep.
By Monday, it was announced that The Pamplemousse would be out for at least six months. And at the end of Santa Anita’s meeting Sunday, the track announced that Jill Bailey had been named “employee of the meeting.”
Item: On March 7, Einstein, a Brazil-bred horse handled by Florida trainer Helen Pitts-Blasi, won the Santa Anita Handicap. Pitts-Blasi became the first female trainer to do that. It had been another well-attended day, 31,496, during a Santa Anita winter meeting full of upticks.
Problem: A month later, lawyers Bill Gallion and Shirley Cunningham were convicted of stealing millions of dollars from clients for whom they got large settlements in the fen-phen diet scandal. Each faces more than 100 years in prison. Einstein, a likely favorite for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, is owned in part by Gallion and Cunningham.
Also, the largest purse-winning horse in North America, the recently retired Curlin, is owned and beloved by Kendall-Jackson Winery founder Jess Jackson. His partners, inherited in the purchase deal, are Gallion and Cunningham.
Item: Racing is the sport of kings, and in so many ways, deservedly so.
Problem: The kings are the animals who compete, not the people who surround them.