A MORE SELECT KENTUCKY FIELD AND A WEAKENED TRAVERS FIELD IN 2020

Presently, the Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday September 5, 2020 and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga is to be held on Saturday August 29, 2020.  In addition, the 2020 Saratoga meet won’t end until Labor Day on September 7.  Since both the Travers and the Kentucky Derby are contested at 1 ¼ miles and are only a week apart, the likely outcome is that the 2020 Kentucky Derby will be a showdown of the best 3-year-olds and the 2020 Travers will attract a field that is a cut below the top horses.

It could very well turn out that the Kentucky Derby will have a smaller field than its usual 20 entries.  By September, the preeminent 3-year-olds will have been confirmed through a summer of Grade I races and their connections will opt for the Kentucky Derby.  By contrast, many owners and trainers of second-tier colts and geldings will choose to send their charges to the prestigious Travers, with a better possibility than normal of notching a Grade I win and part of a large purse.  Some owners of the kind of third-level horses that traditionally are run in the Kentucky Derby but have no realistic chance to win are likely to avoid both the Kentucky Derby and the Travers, attracted by the opportunity to win other lucrative races in August and September that won’t draw the leading 3-year-olds.

The situation would change if, for instance, the Belmont and even the Travers were to be rescheduled.  The Preakness has already been postponed to September and the Belmont is unsure.

Assume that NYRA moved the Travers to early in its meet, towards the end of July.  This would open up the possibility that a horse could compete in the Travers and then go on to the Kentucky Derby five or six weeks later.

Rarely do 3-year-olds come into the Kentucky Derby having run in a 1 ¼ mile race.  This year the 1 ½ mile Belmont Stakes is on schedule to precede the Kentucky Derby and, if it does, some horses will run in both races.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business

HORSE RACING LIFTED FANS’ SPIRITS DURING THE PANDEMIC OF 1918-1919 AND IS DOING SO AGAIN IN 2020

Over a century ago, the Spanish Flu was taking lives by the millions and casualties from World War I were adding to the heartbreak.  Yet the then-major sport of horse racing was able to carry on and offer a needed diversion in a time of so much human carnage and sadness.

The Center for Disease Control states that the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, erroneously known as the Spanish Flu, was the worst in modern history in terms of the number of people infected and the resulting death toll.  The CDC says that the flu was initially identified in the United States among military personnel in the spring of 1918.  It spread during 1918-1919 (World War I formally ended on June 28, 1919 with the signing of the Treaty of Versailles, although Germany had agreed to stop fighting on November 11, 1918).  Autumn of 1918 was the height of the flu’s devastation.  It is estimated that, before it ran its course, the virus infected 500 million people, or about a third of the world’s population.  This resulted in some 50 million deaths worldwide, including 675,000 in the United States.

In the midst of World War and the virulent influenza pandemic, horse racing in the United States was largely business as usual.  On May 11, 1918, the great gelding Exterminator won the Kentucky Derby.  A contemporaneous report of the festivities said that “Throughout Kentucky Derby Day in 1918, school children started a ‘swat-the-fly’ campaign,” evidently in an effort to curtail contagion from the dreaded flu.  The Triple Crown went off as planned in 1918 as did the remainder of the racing scheduled. 

Racing in Great Britain needed some accommodation, but because of the war rather than the flu.  The Epsom Derby, for example, was moved to Newmarket for the fourth consecutive year.

In the second and last year of the pandemic, 1919, the racing calendar again went ahead as planned despite the influenza that was killing so many victims.  In fact, 1919 proved to be historically significant for American horse racing, for two reasons. 

First, arguably the greatest racehorse ever, Man o’ War, arrived on the racing scene as a 2-year-old and ran in ten races, with the only loss of his storied career coming at the hands of the fatefully named Upset in the Sanford Memorial at Saratoga in August. 

Second, Sir Barton swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont.  In the 1930s, these classic races would be labeled the Triple Crown and Sir Barton would be recognized as the first winner of the series.

Fast forward 100-plus years to the present.  In spite of the ominous coronavirus pandemic of 2020, self-quarantined racing fans are able to watch and bet on horse races from remote and sanitized environments while most other sports are idle.

In the influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, the horse racing enterprise “kept calm and carried on” in the manner of its British roots.  The same can be said today, thanks to television, the internet, and races run without on-track customers.

Horse racing insiders and fans of long ago and today give credence to the adage “Where there is a will, there is a way.”

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business

27 INDICTMENTS, JUST ANOTHER DAY AT THE OFFICE

When news broke about federal indictments of 27 people (trainers, assistant trainers, veterinarians, and performance-enhancing drug suppliers) for their part in doping racehorses, I immediately recalled a remarkably candid admission about race fixing in a book published in 2019 titled Better Lucky than Good, which contains 34 self-told life stories from people who work or use to work on the backside at Churchill Downs.  In the vignette by trainer Bob DeSensi, he said:

“There’s a book called Fixed that’s about two fixed races here on Derby Day.  It’s about these horses Scottish Thorn and Postal Milagro, and I just happened to be in on both races when they ran.  That was a big deal on Derby Day, to fix the last race every year.  This went on every year for a long time until finally they stopped the last race from being a claiming race.  Everybody on the backside knew it.  It’s the way we got money to go on to the next town.  It went on everyplace.  It wasn’t just here.  You never asked questions but you could figure out what was going on.  You knew the trainers that would be involved…The only way you would be in on it is if you had a horse in the race, or one of the jocks would tell you in advance, or one of the grooms…”

Scheming to defraud bettors is reprehensible but hardly surprising.  Cheating is a perennial problem in competitive sports, especially if money can be made doing so.  While horse racing has many dedicated and honest participants, unscrupulous actors are looking to swindle…and if given the opportunity, they will. 

The 27 defendants indicted this week will have their day in court (or possibly to plea bargain), so all have a legal presumption of innocence until proven otherwise.  Nonetheless, the indictments are a public relations disaster and are materially damaging to a sport whose economic sustenance depends on bettors having confidence that they are wagering on fairly run races.  Moreover, administering performance-enhancing drugs to racehorses is animal abuse.

American horse racing has proven time and again that policing is lax, to say the least.  It is highly unlikely that the last race on Kentucky Derby day could have year-after-year been fixed, as alleged, without track management or at least one Kentucky regulator hearing of it?  In 2020, why did it take the U. S. Attorney from the Southern District of New York to zero in on 27 alleged criminals in horse racing, rather than racing officials?

No policing system can guarantee that cheating will not go on, but horse racing in the United States has a long way to go to even approach perfection.  Yet, notwithstanding that pari-mutuel wagering is in secular decline, a meaningful number of insiders continue to resist much-needed reforms.

Copyright © 2020 Horse Racing Business