Six months and three days into the year and where do we stand? To answer that question we need to sift through what’s dominated the news cycles in the world of Thoroughbred racing in 2014.
The first quarter brought the big splash, or at least that’s what the folks behind an animal rights group and The New York Times when a video accompanied by accusations of animal cruelty surfaced.
The industry reeled for a few days, doing it’s usual stick and move defense strategy. The Hall of Fame backpedaled and removed trainer Steve Asmussen’s name from the ballot. Certainly some thought about forming some task forces.
Finally everyone cooled down, racing continued to operate coast-to-coast without incident and without losing any fans (probably not gaining any either, but that’s how it seems to go these days), and everyone realized the worst part about the whole affair was the profanity laced blather of an immature assistant trainer who was the central figure of the “expose.”
A short while later the Triple Crown rolled from Kentucky to Maryland to New York, like it does every year, producing stories that range from heart-warming to inspiring and disappointing to deflating.
California Chrome’s Triple Crown journey captivated the nation for the better part of two months. The California-bred colt’s Kentucky Derby win was one for “the little guys,” and his trainer, jockey and owners and breeders were the toast of the racing world.
California Chrome added the Preakness two weeks later and he became the story of the sports world. People started calling themselves “Chromies,” started wearing purple and green to match the silks of co-owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin and nasal strips were suddenly back in the news.
Racing got all the publicity it could during the three weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes. Father and son Art and Alan Sherman made themselves uber accessible as fans around the country figured out a way to get to New York so they could witness history and buy some $2 win tickets to put in a frame or up on eBay.
Then California Chrome lost and racing got itself in another mud pit when Coburn started talking, and talking and talking. The man the industry celebrated for being the little guy’s champion started calling people cowards and questioning the establishment.
Whether he’s right or wrong – and he later apologized for his actions – it wasn’t good for racing’s image. No doubt it made for good television, but there aren’t many who would deny that good for television is rarely good for the world at large. Please see O.J. Simpson slow-speed chase, subsequent O.J. Simpson murder trial, countless national anthems by celebrities, contestants at beauty pageants with nary a clue about anything of substance, Tom Cruise and Matt Lauer and anything with Zach Galifianakis.
(Read Sean Clancy’s column “Apologies Accepted,” the fourth most read blog post in the history of This Is Horse Racing)
Less than a month later racing rolled out its latest chapter of men behaving badly as Ed Mussleman, author of the satirical and often offensive Indian Charlie newsletter, and Eclipse Award-winning trainer Dale Romans were involved in a fight that sounded more like the garden variety junior high cafeteria slap fest than the Thrilla in Manila.
Most of the parties involved have since apologized, including Romans’ longtime life partner Tammy Fox, who allegedly got involved in the melee after it was underway. Any apology from Mussleman would be his second of the year, the first coming May 1 following his comments about Mexicans in the April 26 edition that led to him losing advertisers and access to distribute at racetracks across the country.
So all of this childish and occasionally boorish behavior leads us to today, July 3, 15 days until the opening of the 2014 Saratoga Race Course meeting.
Saratoga? Who needs Saratoga?
Easy answer. Racing needs Saratoga and racing needs Saratoga badly.
Why you ask?
Well you see, people generally enjoy themselves when they come to Saratoga.
They come to see horses like Wise Dan, Palace Malice, Untapable, Tonalist, Will Take Charge, Princess of Sylmar, Close Hatches, Sweet Reason and Wicked Strong, all scheduled to start at the Spa.
They don’t come to get in fights – at least not so publicly and embarrassingly (and we can’t speak for the reprobates out after dark).
Sure the meet’s too long and there are probably too many races, but few would argue that there’s really no better place to be the summer months.
Saratoga gives the racing industry the opportunity to put its key ingredient in front of the public six days a week for nearly seven weeks. If you don’t know what the ingredient is, perhaps you’ve been snowed over by the idea that selling the game is all about promoting it as some sort of social experience. Sure it’s a social sport, but it’s the racing that people come to see.
They’ll come to Saratoga to see the racing and to hopefully forget about those other silly affairs mentioned earlier and a few others that left the fan experience of 2014 with a lot to be desired.
They’ll come to see the stars mentioned above and the others that we’ll all know the names of by the time the last of 40 programs is run by Labor Day.
Thank goodness it’s right around the corner.
It’s always a special time, but especially so in 2014.
Saratoga really couldn’t come at a better time for our game.