The Brock Talk

Monday, December 28, 2009

An Academic Look at Horse Racing in 2009

My late mother Joan taught second and third grade for more than 30 years and my father Phil was a successful math teacher and coach before he began training Quarter Horses full time. So I guess it's in my blood to qualify things on an A through F basis, sometimes throwing in extra credit, "works well with others" or my mom's smiley faces.

If I were to sit down at the dining room table after dinner and grade horse racing and a few factions thereof, I guess this is the logic I would follow.

I'd give a solid A to the racing with Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta giving the valedictions and the commencement with their A+ report cards throughout the year. Without having to recall a moment of any of their races, I can justify this grade with Zenyatta being named the runner-up to Serena Williams as the Associated Press Female Athlete Of The Year and Rachel Alexandra's victory in the Blackberry Preakness being ranked among the Top 10 Sports Moments of 2009 by Time Magazine.

I'd give the Triple Crown a B+, only because each race was won by a different horse and Mine That Bird never won again after taking the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum.

The diminutive gelding from New Mexico arrived at Churchill in a Sooner Trailer two-horse instead of in a custom equine van behind a Peterbuilt 389; with a trainer in Chip Woolley Jr. (photo below) donning a cast, two crutches, a big black cowboy hat and a mustache the envy of every 14-year-old bronc-rider this side of the Pecos. And dag burnit if they don't go and win the whole pumkin' rollin' at 50-to-1 odds. And they have the super charismatic Calvin Borel in the saddle to boot.

Then Rachel Alexandra comes along and steal's Mine That Bird's jockey in true TMZ fashion and wins the Preakness before a little known Summer Bird takes the Belmont. Borel, now back on Mine That Bird for the Belmont but finishing third, was denied a chance to become the first jockey to win a Triple Crown on different horses but gives the trilogy story a boost with the effort.

It was a very enjoyable Triple Crown, but I hesitate to give it a top grade.

The older horse division of 2009 gets a C minus with only Gio Ponti's A plus, a B plus for Presious Passion (top photo), Einstein, Bullsbay and a few others others pulling the group out of D range.

Frank Stronach did his best to flunk out all of track management this year with bankruptcies dominating the Magna Entertainment front, but I'm not going to give the whole bunch an F.

That would not be fair to the foot soldiers that managed these tracks with budgets and personnel slashes that had all the rational of a Lady Ga Ga hairstyle. I can only speak personally about Lone Star Park who produced some very nice events and race cards with not much more than the personal experiences, creativity and relationships built in the local and national markets when things were more profitable. I can only assume the management teams at the other tracks were faced with similar hurdles.

Pimlico management still gets my Dunce Cap of the year for their infield crowd restrictions on Preakness Day. I was the track manager at tiny Manor Downs near Austin, Texas in the mid-80's when our track infield hosted Farm Air II, numerous Grateful Dead and Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble concerts in an equine environment. Pimlico's lame justifications for crowd reduction fell on deaf ears with this blogger.

I will also give extra credit to the New York Racing Association for putting on such great racing during the Summer and Fall at Belmont Park and Saratoga and proving that good horse racing can bring good crowds and a great horse can bring a crowd to remember.

Now ending the year with the New York comptroller asking for your financial records is reason for concern, but I'll still give NYRA a passing grade this year.

Churchill Downs always gets an A plus for their Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks presentation, their racing, facility, etc. And with the installations of lights and the beginning of Friday night racing at the historic track they only solidified that grade.

Arlington Park's season was filled with highs and lows. No. I'm sorry. It was filled with highs and two tragic injuries to jockeys Rene Douglas and Michael Straight. Both Douglas and Straight are battling paralyzing injuries suffered in spills at Arlington Park. I'll give Arlington Park an A plus for their handling of both incidents both in the moments after each accident up through the following months. They have organized and produced fundraisers for both riders but more importantly, I believe, have acted professionally and compassionately.

On the West Coast Santa Anita management gets the Magna exemption and really the same thing applies to Hollywood Park which may have hosted the last meeting at the Track of Lake and Flowers. More to come on that. Del Mar? ... I give a C. How can you screw up the Pacific Ocean, Zenyatta and Bing?

The jockeys get an A plus from me this year for their performances both on and off the track. Nothing shows character like taking care of your own and the jockeys made a big stride when their Jockeys' Guild was able to close their bankruptcy case in July. That ended the two-year case and the beginning steps to repair the damage of what will go down in Guild history as the decade of darkness.

And while Douglas and Straight suffered catastrophic accidents at Arlington Park this summer, fellow riders and their wives rallied to their assistance both financially and in friendship. The Don MacBeth Memorial Jockey Fund completes their 22nd year of assisting fallen riders and the Permanently Disabled Jockeys Fund passed the the $2 million mark in disbursements during the year.

Calvin Borel electrified America as only "Boo" can with appearances on the network morning show and late night circuits while Mike Smith, Chantal Sutherland, Joe Talamo, Alex Solis and others opened their lives and their jocks' room in the popular Animal Planet television series Jockeys.

On the track there were standout performances like Joe Talamo's performance on I Want Revenge in the Wood Memorial, Calvin Borel on Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby, and that flying partnership of Elvis Trijillo and Presious Passion in a United Nations victory and a Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up.

To the fans (come on... you brought me an apple), I place you on the honor roll and you also gets my mom's smiley face at the top of your paper. I want to recognize the New York fans that wore cowboy hats on Belmont Day and gave Rachel Alexandra ovations that will be written about for years. I salute the fans of California as well for their Zenyatta signs and ovations and of course the fans that have supported the various charities of our sport.

At the end of it all, I'd say racing made it through the year with a B minus. And I give that grade on a bell curve influenced by the economy. When all is said and done, I'm sure attendance and handle will have taken significant hits and horse racing didn't have many home runs in television ratings either. But California racing didn't fall in the ocean, no mares had eight foals, Chantal Sutherland didn't hit Mike Smith's Escalade with a golf club and Chip Woolley didn't crash into the Hudson river with Mine That Bird.

As bad as 2009 was for a lot of folks, I think racing did okay. Certainly well enough to move ahead in 2010 but not quite good enough to break out the good "bubbley" tonight.

But Happy New Year everyone, nonetheless.


Lisa said...

Brock-loved this! Great writing as always. I think 2009 was certainly a better year for horse racing than 2008 and I hope the trend gets even better for 2010. Wishing you a Happy New Year filled with happiness, health and prosperity! :-) Lisa

joani said...

Brock~ when I glanced at the Heading-"An Academic..." yada yada yada, I begrudingly took a look. I'm so glad I did. What I mistakenly thought would be an intellectual diatribe turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable 'Brock' masterpiece! Nice ending to the many enjoyable reading moments you gave us. For all the work you do, I thank you. Happy New Year!

Celeste said...

Well said. Thanks and have a Happy New Year!