Monday, July 20, 2009

Monday musings: How 'bout that Va. Derby? And the sad state of horse racing publicity?

I'm tied up beyond belief for about eight days playing sports editor in addition to my normal job, which is boss of everybody in our dwindling newsroom at my local paper.

But at least that gave me an excuse to squeeze horse racing into Sunday's paper.

It also gives me cause to pause and gripe about the sorry state of general-audience racing journalism in the U.S.

On Saturday, two horses battled tooth and hoof for the second straight meeting, with Battle of Hastings again emerging the victor by a narrow margin over Straight Story in the Virginia Derby-G2. The pair had previously thrown down the gauntlet for the final furlongs of the Colonial Turf Cup-G2 in June, with similar results.

Now Battle of Hastings is poised to perhaps become the first horse to win the Grand Slam of Grass -- a four-race series that includes his recent two victories at Colonial Downs, plus upcoming dates in the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park and, if he's deemed fit and ready, the Breeders' Cup Turf in November at Santa Anita. If Battle of Hastings could win both the Secretariat and, against elders, the B.C. Turf, he would win a pot of purse money and incentives worth $5 million.

The Associated Press sent me 7 inches of copy on the race, with no quotes. (I know the horses don't talk, but the trainers and jockeys do.) And, the AP moved no photos. ... Nada. Zero. Zilch.

Searching the AP sports wire for items related to anything named "derby" in the last month or so, I received a story of similar length (also no photo) on the Rainbow Derby from Ruidoso Downs, where Inseperable won that Grade 1 race.

Also under recent "derby" coverage at AP: A nearly 20-inch story on Prince Fielder winning the Major League Baseball All-Star Home Run Derby, complete with 70 related photos -- seven ... zero ... seventy -- three of them art of not-even-the-latest American Idol winner, David Cook, singing prior to a virtually meaningless skills exhibition on the evening before a virtually meaningless baseball exhibition game.

(I used to be one of the biggest baseball fans you'd ever meet, by the way. A dozen reasons in including labor strikes, umpires who can't call strikes, and generally Bud Selig -- particularly his handling of the 2002 All-Star Game that ended in a tie, showing just how meaningless MLB had decided that game really was -- have sealed the "great American pastime's" fate on my sports radar.)

Among the remaining odd conglomeration of items filed under "derby" were: four photos from a children's fishing derby in Little Rock, Ark.; two pictures of the late Lawyer Ron (who didn't win the Kentucky Derby, but the fact he ran in the race the was apparently AP's reason to mention his death); two pictures from the Worland (Wyo.) Demolition Derby; a story just as long as the Virginia Derby piece about a company promoting lawn mower demolition derbies in Kentucky; and a couple of pics of Mine That Bird, one a "mugshot" to go with a brief about a promotional visit he's making to New Mexico, and one a pre-Preakness workout file phoot to illustrate the story of Magna Entertainment's bankruptcy.

Oh, and seven pictures from the Kingfisher Derby -- one of the most prestigious races in India, Bangalore, to be exact, with its purse of 12,500,000 rupees ($256,305, which actually is a pretty good chunk of change). ... I'm not sure whether a story moved to go with those photos, and the winner, Aboline, was unmentioned and not pictured. Maybe it was supposed to be a feature package just for color.

Point is ... what the bloody hell?

I know horse racing has fallen on hard times in gaining the public's eye. But have our top races not on the Triple Crown trail really slipped to equal in the ranks with AP's "BC-ODD" news like lawn mower derbies? Fewer photos sent than those from an Arkansas fishing derby where nobody outside of Little Rock -- and probably few of the 185,000 people in Little Rock -- even know any of the kids in the pictures?

I know the D.C. papers have probably dropped virtually all racing coverage. (I met laid-off Washington Post turf writer John Scheinman at a past Virginia Derby; a heckuva a nice guy and a very good handicapper.)

But the Richmond Times-Dispatch was on hand, and a butchered version of its story was probably what made the wire. (Though it could've been the butchered version of something from the Daily Racing Form.) ... And the Times-Dispatch had photos; why would that paper not move pictures for other AP members? And why -- when they failed to do so -- wouldn't the AP national sports desk rattle the Times-Dispatch's cage to obtain a photo?

Because just about nobody cares anymore, that's why.

I'm convinced it isn't just or even primarily because of doping and horse welfare issues, and it isn't only the fact that not everybody gambles (and many of those who do prefer casino games). It isn't largely the introduction and rise of other sports (soccer, NASCAR) to steal the limelight.

It's all those things, yes. But more.

I think horse racing's decline is just as much because those whose job it was and is to market racing dropped the ball along the way. And kicked that ball backwards about half a century. And sent nobody back to get the ball and run his ass off to catch up.

More on that rant later. Back to laying out a sports section in which nostalgia and tradition -- Tom Watson nearly winning the British Open at Turnberry -- is what still has the sports world buzzing from an otherwise fairly quiet weekend.

Quiet, and yet a pretty nice gelding wins a knockdown, drag-out race over a horse who is becoming his arch-rival, to put himself halfway to earning $5 million, and it was almost as if a tree had fallen in the forest with nobody there to hear it.


  1. Glenn, the Indian race was the Kingfisher Derby Bangalore, and I had coverage on it:

    It is the second most important Derby in India, after the Indian Derby at Mahalakshmi in Mumbai, which I also covered:

    There's a very good filly in India named Set Alight, who I think is of top international class. She lost for the first time in the Indian Derby, when she was asked way too soon by her overly confident -- bordering on arrogant -- pilot.

  2. Sid,

    I had noticed your coverage of the Slovakian Derby and Russian racing recently. I missed the Kingfisher Derby Bangalore! ... Looks from the AP photos that they had a very good crowd.

    Thanks for the insight.

    -- Glenn

  3. Man - keep stumbling upon your posts today.

    This one reminded me of how well into Zenyatta's career, there were precious little photos of her available. I happened to catch her on TVG for her maiden race (ironically the first horse I gave out publicly as a handicapping selection - how's that for beginner's luck?) and was instantly enamored with her style.

    I recall reading numerous forum posts after her allowance victory that she was a "future Grade 1 star" - yet still nothing available.

    It wasn't until she won about her 2nd or 3rd stakes that suddenly pictures started popping up.

    Another frustrating experience with this was in trying to find pictures for each of the KY Derby contenders the last couple of years. A month out from the Derby, unless the horse has won one of the major preps, it's excrutiatingly difficult to find a picture of each of the horses. This is compounded by the fact that many of us are cut off from many of the tracks on live tv and thus only able to ever see them on grainy youtube replays (themselves often pirated from tv broadcasts).

    In another related twist, I made the mistake of posting something about being worried about Quality Road's feet heading into this year's Derby (should've said "hooves", as you'll see in the next sentence). The volume of foot-fetish related web searches that some how found their way to me via combinations of that key word "foot" and other random postings (in particular, references to Xue Chen of the Chinese Women's Beach Volleyball team and other assorted Beijing athletes)was enough to make even Quentin Tarrantino blush.

    I can only imagine their extreme disappointment when they realized they had in fact stumbled upon a thoroughbred racing blog. :-)

  4. Chief wrote:

    On Saturday, two horses battled tooth and hoof for the second straight meeting, with Battle of Hastings again emerging the victor by a narrow margin over Straight Story in the Virginia Derby-G2. The pair had previously thrown down the gauntlet for the final furlongs of the Colonial Turf Cup-G2 in June, with similar results.


    Where is the logical progression in that?
    Grade 2, 1 3/16 mile Colonial Turf Cup serving as a prep for the Grade 2, 1 1/4 mile Virginia Derby?

    Should it not be the Grade 2 for a Grade 1 progression the way the 1 1 8 mile Jim Dandy sets up the 1 1/4 mile Travers stakes? Now that may be the Grade stakes committee's fault but...

    Between the two races, we just witnessed $1,250,000 of purse money thrown away in a month for a lackluster 3 year old turfing division. A division that traditionally has not captivated the imagination of the general public.

    Seven figures gone for a stakes program that does not cater at all towards the more popular dirt track racing. Is it any wonder that Colonial Downs has failed to captivate the local public (and the local papers)?

  5. Hey, some of us ADORE grass racing. And there are plenty of big races, big purses and incentives for dirt-track runners, with several of those races not giving us much worth watching.

    I mean, a four-filly Grade 1 Mother Goose that Rachel wins by 20? A four-horse G2 Tom Fool in which only one of the entries has ever won a stakes race, and in which Munnings cruises to victory? ... Both of those run at Belmont, certainly a more "marquee" track than Colonial Downs. And by "more popular" dirt track horses.

    Colonial is not in a great location for drawing crowds and had chosen to emphasize turf racing as a means of setting itself apart. And they do a pretty good job of it. The turf course is immaculate, the races are exciting and the layout and grandstand aren't built to accommodate over 100,000 like a Kentucky Derby, so when 7,000 or 8,000 appear it's a fun atmosphere without being overwhelming.

    Whether this 3-year-old crop of turf runners is lackluster still somewhat remains to be seen. Battle of Hastings' time for 10 furlongs certainly wasn't scintillating (2:03 and change, 92 Beyer). But these two races, the Turf Cup and Va. Derby, are building a history of drawing good-sized fields and being won by horses you'll hear from later.

    The last five winners of the Virginia Derby prior to 2009 all have gone on to be Grade 1 winners (Gio Ponti, Red Giant, Go Between, English Channel, Kitten's Joy) and two of them champions. Don't be surprised if Battle of Hastings and Straight Story, twice in a row now a close second, aren't better than you might think.

    As for the grading, the Turf Cup is in only its fifth year and has already reached G2 status. I have no doubt that the Virginia Derby will become a Grade 1 (perhaps the Turf Cup, too) and then you could be looking at a Grand Slam of four G1s, the last against older horses, and if a 3-year-old's winning that quartet isn't worth the kind of purse money being offered, nothing in racing is.

  6. Well you make good points Chief. But there is a major imbalance in the Colonial stakes program.

    Only two of the eighteen stakes on the calendar are for main track horses this year:

    The Chesapeake stakes at 6 furlongs for 3up
    and The Jamestown for Va-bred two year olds.
    That kind of program is not going to fly in Peoria (or New Kent).

    Hey it's great that this track has two different turf courses with a multitude of layouts due to the portable rails on each course, and I would get to like it if it were my home track, but the popularity of this signal seems to have plummeted nationwide.

    One can only sell this as a Saratoga of the South if it were positioned better on the racing calendar. Right now the meet takes place at the conclusion of the Triple Crown season. Not very ideal IMHO. ;-)

    If the management and horsemen really want to get the most bang for the buck they should reposition the Colonial meet. But placing it smack dab in the middle of the summer is clearly counterproductive to almost everybody.

  7. I'm not sure what's to hate about the timing of the meet.

    Since the Maryland Jockey Club was instrumental in getting Colonial off the ground, the meet-timing was set years ago not to conflict with open dates for Laurel and Pimlico. (Now, if one of those were to close, that opens up the calendar considerably.)

    There's much talk about how too many regional tracks are open at the same time, but who is really conflicting with Colonial? I think it's timed well, giving Maryland-based trainers the opportunity to ship north to Delaware Park, Philly Park or Penn National, or southwest and south to Charles Town or Colonial, during times when the Maryland tracks are closed.

    And if you have a non-NY-bred grass horse on the eastern seaboard in the summer, I think it's the best place to be.

    I would like to see more balance in the Colonial stakes schedule via the addition of some dirt races, without subtraction from the turf. That, of course, would require more revenues. And it's a huge head-scratcher for me that at a track where almost every stakes race is on grass (and where 60 percent or more of all races are run on turf), the only statebred stakes race for 2-year-olds is a dirt race. ... Huh?

    With the pride of the track being its turf course, obviously Colonial won't race thoroughbreds in months when the grass isn't green. Colonial also has its harness meet in the early fall, so those dates are off the table unless a major switch in-house takes place.

    When would you prefer to see a Colonial Downs meeting?

  8. No joke: When our office staff staggered out of the 1993 WTC bombing (grimy but otherwise intact), we were all still in better shape than racing in 2009.

    Your road traveled - once a baseball fan, no longer - has both of our paired footprints leading to the off-ramp.

    Thank God for non-sports related enthusiasms! If you get a chance, you'll find yourself finishing historian William Manchester's A World Lit Only By Fire in @ four days, it's that good.

    It sure beats flipping through photos of the 4th place American Idol finishers who are ending their ten-minute careers presenting the tin trophies at the Slovakian Derby.

    Regards, Don Reed

  9. The timing of the meet is perfect. Does anyone remember what it was like 10 years ago? November at night. So lets not blame that. Summer racing is perfect.

    As for local media, where I live, the Virginian-Pilot is the worst newspaper ever. Their editorials are along the lines of "Murder: BAD" The sports columisits are really bad. Its a painful paper to read. With a lack of brains like that, I don't expect them to cover racing.

    As for the Washington Post, they have always been hostile to horse racing and that includes their editoral department and that jackass Michael Wilbon who thinks that if it isn't NBA, it isn't worth covering.

  10. First the Blood-Horse and now Michael Wilbon. ... I wonder if he'll come over here and insult us!

    Just kidding. Since this blog is about horse racing, he'll probably never know it exists.

  11. Is CD still holding those insane harness races where the horses start the racing going 0 MPH in a mini-chute (the Manassas Quick-E Mart parking lot)?

    All that's missing: The puffed rice, the "Just Married" hoopla signs and the trailing cans on strings.

    I accidentally made a bet on one of these events. Never again.


  12. I've never been to the harness races at Colonial, but yes, to my knowledge they still start from the chute.

    What I do know is, by starting from the chute it's a one-turn mile, and so even breaking flat-footed, the horses run faster times for the distance than any other harness horses, anywhere.

  13. Yes, good point. Having not expended energy uselessly before the starting wire, those who finish the race are capable of turning in faster times.

    But the liability of this strange procedure is that when they are -

    (Well, we can't saying "starting from scratch," because the horses are definitely still in the race) -

    Is that when they start from a dead standstill, I suspect that it is more probable that they will get tangled up - compared to when they're already in stride as they hit the starting line.

    This is a dicey situation - the response to which was best expressed by Ginger Baker (in an entirely different context: his response to an interviewer's question about a notorious fem fatale):

    "No sane man would go near her."

    I'm a light-year and a day from the date when I'll be a harness expert; just an observation.


  14. Getting back to answering your question.
    I think Colonial Downs got the short end of the stick by the Maryland Horsemen.

    The Marylanders had DelPark and now Philly as alternative places to race during the summer
    for better purses. If their stock could avoid racing on a mostly turf meet they would have no qualms.

    Clearly they dumped the hot weather dates onto Colonial. Do birds fly south for the summer?

    I'd think Colonial's best placement would be in September/October during the crisp autumn weather and I'm sure the fall colours would serve to be a remarkable backdrop for this track.

    As it stands the Maryland racing calendar is all over the place. Racing being switched to Laurel three times in one year. And Timonium. Ah yes.
    The obligatory state fair meet - one where too few horsemen dare to race on the bullring.

    Waste of opportunity.
    The core bettors are not going to support junk fair circuits from around the country.
    And if it's important for fairs to conduct racing, try quarterhorses, mules, weiner dogs,
    arabians, anything that can handle the tight turns.

    But I digress.
    As much as I'd like to see a place for Colonial Downs on the calendar, it's not going to happen
    when a state is dependent on another state's horse colony.

  15. The dates you prefer (presently the exact dates of the harness season at Colonial) are actually very similar to the earliest days of Colonial Downs.

    It's a little hot -- sometimes a lot hot -- in central Virginia during June and July. But it isn't all that bad. Virginia sounds "south," but it really isn't. You've still got North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia between you and the Florida line.

    Temperature-wise it isn't as nice as Saratoga, but I've been to Chicago in August, for instance, and Arlington Park can't be any better.

    Presently it's 78 degrees in New Kent at 8:20 p.m. Overnight low of 71, high tomorrow 85. No expected high this week above 93 with lows of 69 to 74 and bear in mind that other than weekends, Colonial races at night. (And I believe has pushed back the start time of an evening card due to heat, just for good measure.)

    I agree that September would be a beautiful month to gallop-race at Colonial Downs. But it isn't too likely to happen.

    And I also agree that so long as Colonial is reliant upon Maryland horses (not wholly, but in no small part) they have to take what they can get. That's one reason I've urged a bit (on this site and privately) for Virginia to get its act together and rebuild its breeding industry, which has slipped to the point of virtually nil.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.