Most reasonable racing insiders will concede that less-than-brisk business at the more pedestrian tracks is the result of a flawed product. But when an upper crust venue like Saratoga dips, the search for scapegoats begins. While most blamed the economy (or, yawn, the weather) for Saratoga’s relatively poor showing this summer, racing writer Bill Finley offers his own, rather unique explanation (ESPN, 9/10/13):
“The answer is that the two New York tabloids drastically scaled back on their horse racing coverage. … OK, so newspapers aren’t what they once were. But the combined circulation of those two papers is still at 1.5 million. That’s 1.5 million people who no longer read about horse racing, no longer are reminded every day that Saratoga is going on and that it is special.”
Once upon a time, “both [papers] gave extensive space to the sport, with charts, entries, race coverage and handicapping analysis.” Now, alas, virtually nothing. As print-media downsizes, racing, because of its declining popularity, provides “an easy target for cutbacks.” And this, Finley says, exacerbates the problem: “Their abandoning racing is a signal to everyone else in the media that the sport isn’t relevant.” So, fan Finley wants NYRA president Chris Kay to reach out “and see if maybe he can’t change their minds.” Seems to me when a “sport” is reduced to begging for coverage, oblivion beckons.
For insight on racing’s descent into irrelevancy, Finley’s own words describing the current Saratoga product are instructive (bear in mind, this is an accomplished writer who means exactly what he says): There was a time, he notes, when “NYRA didn’t dare card races for the flotsam and jetsam [italics added] of the backstretch.” So while we see intelligent, sensitive beings, he sees but wreckage and waste marring a “special” Saratoga experience. Horseracing’s depraved core laid bare, once again.
If ever there were a reason for racing patrons to come, the summer-long 150th anniversary celebration of “America’s Oldest Sports Arena” should have been it. But it wasn’t. Not only did attendance decline almost 4% from last year, but the daily average attendance is down over 25% from the high set in 2003 (21,679 against 29,147). What’s more, the ’13 average is the lowest in the last 10 years. In a post-meet column for The Saratogian (9/7/13), sportswriter and apologist Mike Veitch worries for Saratoga’s future, arguing that NYRA greed (more days, more races) threatens to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”
Others are more inclined to blame the weather (isn’t it always the weather?) or, more often, the economy. But as I’m fairly certain that this economy is better than the 2009-2011 editions, that explanation rings hollow. I’d like to offer one of my own by paraphrasing a Clinton ’92 campaign slogan: It’s the product, stupid. Now seems a good time to re-post something I recently wrote for our Facebook page:
Horseracing is in trouble. Although much of that is due to gambling competition and the growing reluctance of state governments to continue subsidizing the industry (racinos), an emerging public sensibility also plays a part. Because of this, advocates must not squander this unique moment in time. By persistently exposing the horseracing wrongs – doping, breaking, slaughtering, et al. – a planet devoid of “The Sport of Kings” can be achieved. Imagine that.
This point in animal-exploitation history reminds me of President Lincoln’s famous telegram to General Grant towards the war’s end: “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.” Indeed, let the thing be pressed.
When six-year-old Irish Thoroughbred St Nicholas Abbey, one of the most celebrated racehorses on the planet, broke his pastern while training in July, the prognosis was bleak. But not to fear, if a horse is valuable enough – and with huge stud fees on the horizon, he is – extraordinary measures are undertaken. Extraordinary measures here are defined as 20 screws, 2 plates, a steel pin, and a bone graft.
Coolmore Stud, the world’s largest Thoroughbred breeder and St Nicholas Abbey’s latest guardian, released this video on the procedure. But don’t be fooled by the manipulative background music, to Coolmore, this horse is but a potential revenue stream, a simple asset. And should the repair fail, boardroom tears, if any, will be shed for money lost, not because another beautiful, sensitive creature has perished. Like Barbaro before him, and in contrast to the thousands of plebeian Thoroughbreds who break and die on tracks each year, St Nicholas Abbey is being forced to endure an extended suffering. And all so that a new set of men can profit on his head (or semen, in this case).
St Nicholas Abbey’s “misfortune,” of course, has inspired a groundswell of racing-fan support. Saving a racehorse, this racehorse, is a feel-good tale. But I cannot help but wonder why these same well-wishers fall silent when horseracing sends its refuse – by the tens of thousands annually – to be strung up and slashed. Whatever the explanation, however, the horseplayer should know this: No amount of love and sympathy for the rare St Nicholas Abbey can wash the slaughterhouse blood from your hands.
When a racehorse breaks down, especially one as popular as former-claimer-turned-stakes-winner Saginaw, the garbage starts to flow. In the Times Union account of Friday’s death in the 3rd race at Saratoga, jockey Junior Alvarado said, with “tears in his eyes,” “It’s very sad, there are just no words to explain it. It’s just very sad for everybody. When there were horses going by him, he tried to chase them. In his mind, it was ‘run, run, run.’ I wish I could have helped him, but there was nothing I could do. I knew it was bad.”
Saginaw, the TU reports, “was visible in the ambulance, his eyes looking out at the applause that followed him down the track.” Mike Repole, a competing owner, “lost interest in the race after he saw the breakdown.” He said: “It’s a tough sport. These athletes are going 45 miles an hour on legs that are the size of my wrist. An NBA player tears his ACL, he comes back a year from now. These horses break a leg, he never comes back. He doesn’t always survive. It’s sad.”
Twice in the past week, the Times Union (“Grieving for Kris Royal”), being a publication clearly sympathetic to racing, has attempted to manipulate readers by underscoring the horsemen’s sorrow. See, they cry when their horses break; their hearts ache when the pink courses; they struggle with their professions. The horse people care. Meanwhile, the utter insanity in “athletes” whip-forced to go, as owner Repole helpfully reminds, “45 miles an hour on legs that are the size of my wrist” gets glossed over, whitewashed. “His eyes looking out at the applause”? Times Union, have you no shame?
To Charlie LoPresti, Junior Alvarado, Mike Repole and everyone else in and around horseracing: Your “sport” is not a sport. These “accidents” are not accidents. And your “love” is not love. Racehorses are slaves and you are their masters. If you truly wish for no more broken sesamoids, cease and desist. Cease and desist.
Tim Wilkin is a fine sportswriter, even if one of his duties is to cover horseracing for the Albany Times Union. (Of course, horseracing is as out of place on the Sports pages as blowing away Whitetails in autumn.) But his latest contribution (“Loss Leaves Empty Feeling,” 8/27/13) on the aftermath of Sunday’s 9th race in Saratoga almost seems written with the express purpose of eliciting sympathy for those at the heart of this exploitative business. Pity the poor horseman, for he so loved his former charge.
Wilkin on Charlie LoPresti, trainer of the late Kris Royal: “His heart was breaking because of stall 16. It was empty. Kris Royal, a 5-year-old chestnut gelding who was there on Sunday, was gone on Monday.” Little, Wilkin says, can “soothe [LoPresti’s] aching heart.” And LoPresti himself: “It just makes you sad, number one, because he’s just a neat little horse if you knew him. If you look there and you see his empty stall … what a nice little horse to be around … a fun little guy … he never bothered anybody … he tried. It really makes you rethink what you do. I kept waking up in the middle of the night thinking, ‘It didn’t really happen, did it?'”
Perhaps, Wilkin writes, the rain-starved fast turf was simply too much for these horses. LoPresti, however, magnanimously refuses to blame anyone. His “fun little guy” just took a “bad step,” “hit a rough spot.” But if you delve a little deeper, certainly far beyond what this article is willing to reveal, you’ll find the root of snapped Thoroughbred legs everywhere: $2 bets and the resultant pots of gold that men like LoPresti relentlessly chase. The tragedy here, is horseracing itself.