THE “GRAY GHOST” IN THE KENTUCKY DERBY

Kentucky Derby history is full of 3-year-old horses that have come up short in America’s most famous race and then have gone on to achieve stardom or even Hall of Fame careers.  None stands out more than Native Dancer, whose only loss in 22 starts came on a fast track at Churchill Downs on May 2, 1953.

Alfred G. Vanderbilt’s Native Dancer arrived on the scene when television was coming of age.  Millions of people therefore had the means to see the sensational “Gray Ghost” for themselves (the Derby was telecast nationally for the first time in 1952).

The official Daily Racing Form chart of the 79th Kentucky Derby succinctly told the sad tale of Native Dancer’s fate in the most famous race of his life:

“DARK STAR, alertly ridden, took command soon after the start, set the pace to the stretch under steady rating, then responded readily when set down in the drive and lasted to withstand NATIVE DANCER, but won with little left.  NATIVE DANCER, roughed at the first turn by MONEY BROKER, was eased back to secure racing room, raced wide during the run to the upper turn, then saved ground entering the stretch and finished strongly, but could not overtake the winner, although probably best.”

Dark Star, who paid $51.80 to win, had managed to pull off the upset of upsets, winning, as Tom Durkin might say, by a “desperate head” under a masterful ride by Henry Moreno.

Native Dancer’s jockey, Eric Guerin, was roundly criticized for getting his mount into trouble in the 11-horse field and for moving too late in his frantic quest to catch Dark Star.  Native Dancer’s classy connections did not fire Guerin, who continued to ride the colt for the rest of his career (with one exception when Eddie Arcaro rode).

Native Dancer is in the same category as Man o’ War and Secretariat, and is categorically one of the very best racehorses of all time.  His blood is prevalent in racehorse pedigrees of today.  Native Dancer’s daughter, Natalma, was the dam of Northern Dancer, the most influential sire of the latter half of the 20th century.

A story has lingered about a young boy who happened to cross paths with Bill Winfrey, trainer of Native Dancer, at Churchill Downs on the morning of the 1953 Kentucky Derby.  The lad politely told Mr. Winfrey that Dark Star was going to beat the mighty Dancer that day.

Copyright © 2014 Horse Racing Business

HORSE RACING INDUSTRY UNITY A MUST

Emergence of a video tape released by the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals purporting to show animal abuse in the barn of a prominent American racehorse trainer provoked much consternation within the racing industry. The danger now is that the outrage and concern will dissipate without substantive reforms being instituted, particularly on medication, because animal-rights organizations are increasingly exerting political muscle via candidates they helped put into office.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal described the growing efforts in cities like Atlanta, Chicago, Cincinnati, New York, and Philadelphia to ban horse-drawn carriages on the grounds of cruelty. The Journal wrote: “the movement to outlaw the carriages has been spurred by highly publicized deaths and injuries to horses, along with a push from animal rights groups such as PETA.”

These groups supported the successful campaign of New York City’s first-year mayor, Bill de Blasio. As a quid pro quo, de Blasio pledged to replace horse-drawn carriages with electric cars; he is working to keep that promise despite a reputable poll showing that two-thirds of his constituency wants carriages on the streets.

It is prudent to extrapolate that animal-rights-backed officials could be persuaded to seek the elimination of horse racing at urban racetracks like Aqueduct Racetrack and Hawthorne Race Course.

To defend itself as a worthy sporting endeavor and commercial enterprise, racing needs to quickly get its internal house in order regarding medication, whip use, and other negatives that hang over it like the Sword of Damocles. The industry badly needs a unified strategic thrust to protect and advance its interests.

While unification has been an elusive concept in American horse racing, the counsel Dr. Benjamin Franklin gave to his co-conspirators at the outset of the American Revolution is cautionary and apropos: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”

Copyright 2014 Blood-Horse Publications. Used with permission.

ALICE AND WONDERLAND DECISION-MAKING AT PREMIER RACETRACKS

It often appears that some of the individuals and enterprises whose livelihood depends on a viable racing industry go out of their way to ignore what is best for their success in the long run.

Case-in-point 1

Effective with the beginning of the spring meet on April 26, Churchill Downs intends to increase takeout percentages on straight wagers from 16% to 17.5% and on exotics from 19% to 22%. Management stated that the rationale is to maintain purse levels necessary for quality racing.

With the Kentucky Derby upcoming on May 3, this tactic will no doubt enhance profits in the near term because the vast majority of people who bet on the Derby card will do so irrespective of the takeout increases.  Many amateurs, so to speak, bet on Derby Day and they are not concerned with takeout percentages.

However, once the Derby is over, Churchill Downs will have to attract and retain year-round handicappers, who are acutely aware of takeout percentages. In this regard, the Churchill decision is terribly myopic.

Pari-mutuel wagering in North America has been in a persistent downturn. Whenever demand is being so destroyed, price hikes are almost certain to accelerate the process. Rather than increasing takeout percentages, Churchill Downs should be experimenting with making their pari-mutuel products more attractive via price cuts.

Case-in-point 2

On March 31, 2014, the Jockey Club released new statistics from the Equine Injury Database, covering the period 2009-2013. The data continue to confirm the vast superiority of synthetic racetrack surfaces. In 236,167 starts on synthetic surfaces, there were 289 racing-related fatalities, which translates into 1.22 fatalities per 1,000 starts. By comparison, in 1,383,690 starts on dirt surfaces, there were 2,882 fatalities, or 2.08 per 1,000 starts. Finally, there were 411 fatalities on turf surfaces from 251,665 starts, or 1.63 per 1,000 starts.

Elementary logic would lead one to conclude that races run on synthetic surfaces unquestionably and significantly reduce the physical risk to horse and jockey.

Yet, almost in concert with the release of the Jockey Club data for 2009-2013, two of racing’s premier racetracks, Del Mar and Keeneland, announced that their synthetic racing surfaces will be replaced with dirt. Whether intentional or not, they are sending a message to the public, PETA, and the New York Times, “We are choosing to race on the surface that results in the largest number of horse casualties.”

Moreover, the top executive of a prominent industry organization referred to the use of synthetic surfaces as a failed experiment. By what rationale is reducing horse deaths incurred while racing from 2.08 per 1,000 starts to 1.22 per 1,000 starts a failure? To the contrary, it is a resounding engineering success.

Synthetic surfaces at Del Mar and Keeneland are obviously being replaced because of reasons other than safety, so why not just say so and be honest that the safety of horse and rider is not the number one priority.

The collective racing industry seems intent on continually providing ammunition for its critics in the media and animal-rights organizations. This blundering is on its way to eviscerating a magnificent sport.

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Why do some racetrack executives continue to ignore the lessons of history and make choices that are not in the best interests of concerned parties and send the wrong signals to the public?

“That’s the reason they’re called lessons,” the Gryphon remarked: “because they lessen from day to day.” (Lewis Carroll in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

Copyright ©2014 Horse Racing Business