The last place that a person would think to look for lessons about horse racing would seem to be classic works of children’s literature. Yet the seminal books of Ted Geisel, better know to the world as Dr Seuss, provide many sage words that the leaders of a sport with an uncertain future truly should heed. In light of the latest transgressions by the games biggest name these simple yet poignant quotes eerily highlight ways the game has gone off the tracks.
“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s just not” – Dr Seuss
I say this with all due respect to the people that put on the horse racing show on a daily basis. I’m talking about the worker bees, the backstretch workers, the people who work on the frontside of racetracks or ADW’s, the bettors that show up in person or online. I know you care, I really do. The passion and love for racing of so many is why this great yet flawed business has survived. However I question if many of the leaders of the sport have that same passion or love because it sure doesn’t seem like they do to the rest of us. Passing legislation isn’t love. Throwing parties and big events isn’t love. Dropping stud fees isn’t love. Attending the Breeders Cup isn’t love. No one loved the game more than the late, great track announcer at Churchill Downs, Luke Kruytbosch. On the day following the Kentucky Derby when everyone else in Louisville would be taking a quiet day after the long grind of Derby week, Luke would drive up to River Downs to take in a card of Ohio-bred 5000 claimers and hang out with the guys. No one expects everyone to be as passionate about racing as Luke was for that is an impossibly high standard to meet, but if you really care about racing you have to care about the ordinary horses, the less than fancy people and smaller tracks that aren’t holding big races too.
“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple” – Dr Seuss
Whenever medication violations are revealed, especially when the connections of the offending horse are of the higher profile variety, the response is generally loud yet often misguided. The connections usually rifle off a defense of some sort which are factually accurate though less than compelling. Social media erupts with calls for the head of the trainer to be served up on a platter or fanboy defenses that use suspect deductive reasoning. The difficult and complex reality is that everyone is probably a little bit right and a little bit wrong. The system of medication rules that has been used in North America for years is massively flawed. Not because the technical minutae of the rules vary from state to state but because of the entire premise of how it’s designed. Without going into a long, dull explanation of the mechanics of drug rules lets just say that the holes and weaknesses of the system are often exposed. The names of the medications in question often sound sinister yet are many are hardly performance enhancing if at all. Having extremely low allowable limits that amount to residual traces that simply don’t have much ability to alter the outcome of races is just poor regulation policy. The 6 o’clock news doesn’t lead off by announcing who got parking tickets but in racing many of the violations which are akin to minor transgressions are revealed as though they are felonious. That said the biggest training outfits need to do a better job of quality control as it’s a terrible look for the sport for them to get repeated violations with no visible punishment. It’s a simple answer, write better rules and enforce them fairly and no the current federal bill doesn’t qualify. It’s just larger version of a system of rules that just aren’t very effective nor are they focused on the true performance enhancing substances.
“Oh the things that you can find if you don’t stay behind” – Dr Seuss
Racing in North America has rarely been ahead of the curve when it comes to innovation on all levels. The way racing is presented on air has changed yet still feels like it lags behind other sports and international jurisdictions in terms of promoting the actual wagering product. We have more mainstream television coverage than we ever have had before. Between NBC covering the Triple Crown races and Breeders Cup as well as other unique events like the Haskell and Royal Ascot, the daily FS1 coverage of NYRA and Churchill, the holdovers including both TVG1 and TVG2 puts a high volume of racing over the airways. In general the networks do a good job covering the actual races despite sometimes getting a little too cute with camera angles during the race. It’s the lack of focus on betting strategy or the TVG philosophy of non-wagering experts putting up terribly constructed tickets on every race that isn’t helping move the sport forward. Perhaps this isn’t easy to do and still keep the telecasts “entertainment value”, I don’t know. However let’s not forget where the revenue that keeps horse racing going comes from and misinforming those who are providing those dollars is a bigger sin that not educating them in the first place.
“They say I’m old fashioned and live in the past, but sometimes I think progress progresses too fast – Dr Seuss
Racing is often accused of not modernizing itself or changing to meet differing times which in a way is both true and false. The actual mechanics of the running of the race; paddock saddling, walking ring, post parade, loading in gate and running to the wire is virtually the same as it was 100 years ago. What could be changed to improve on that? Well frankly I can’t think of any major changes that would. The push to eliminate the riding crop (lets be clear, that’s what this movement is about) is where progress is progressing too fast. The core of racing’s existence is competition, to essentially see whose horse is fastest. Lately I have seen the word encouragement used as a negative in regards to riding crop or whip use which is a strange concept. The idea of strictly enforced regulations that allows the jockey to do his or her job safely and at the same time protects the horses from over-aggressive use is what should be the goal. What we are getting from the regulators with baffling encouragement from some segments of the industry with seemingly no input from jockeys or bettors, isn’t that. The idea of societal changes impacting modern sport is not a novel concept. Going overboard and financially damaging your product, aggravating your customer base and generally confusing everyone with no actual, tangible benefit is very typical of modern day racing.
“When you are in a slump, you’re not in for much fun. Un-slumping yourself is not easily done” – Dr Seuss
California horse racing I’m talking to you…
“Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks that you can think up if you only try!” – Dr Seuss
Sometimes when we talk about the lack of innovation or forward thinking in racing we assume that it’s about the customer experience or betting menu or something of that nature. While it is true that those areas could use some enhancement one issue that doesn’t get addressed is the huge talent distribution issue on the backsides of America’s tracks. Oh sure there is hand wringing about super trainers but it’s usually in the category of “yeah it’s a problem but we can’t do anything about it”. One of the biggest flaws in the way American racing is structured is that there is no department of research and development, a lab where smart, passionate people are looking to develop innovative ideas that can solve or temper issues from a less than direct angle. Where I’m going with this is that condition books and the way races and schedules are written has changed over the years to the advantage of the big outfits and is not only squeezing the smaller players out, its leading to a less than ideal wagering product. At this years Jockey Club Roundtable conference, Sal Sinatra of the Stronach Group laid out an outline of a different model of classifying horses that can reduce the number of claiming races and better utilize the horse population. This system which is meant to increase field size and competitiveness, protect owners investments by not forcing them to race for claiming prices and reduces the power of large outfits as they wouldn’t be able to systematically control classes of races by using sheer volume. Industry reaction to that system? Crickets. Doing the same thing and expecting different results…
I will leave you with one last quote from the legendary Dr Seuss and this one is straight from the people whose voices racing leaders just aren’t hearing, the ones who are just walking away from our great sport.
“Being crazy isn’t enough”
ONCE UPON A TIME…Going in Circles Podcast
Once upon a time we lived in a much simpler world. Believe it or not there was actually human existence before social media, before cell phones and Instagram. People read these things called books and newspapers. They believed what they saw on the evening news. Fake news and twitter hadn’t been invented yet and political positions like President and Governor and Senator were still respected.
All across the land the most popular spectator sport was horse racing, more people attended horse races than any other sport in America. It seems impossible to believe if you have been to a weekday card of races at a place not named Keeneland or Saratoga or Del Mar at some point in the last decade but it’s a true story, not fake news at all.
Racing itself was different back in those simpler times as well. There were no syndicates or partnership groups of thousands of so-called owners. The racetracks themselves were run by families or trusts and actually focused on horses not slots or shopping malls or whatever else tracks seem to care about more than racing these days.
A forty horse stable was considered a large outfit, trainers generally trained at one track, on one circuit. And the horses? They were called racehorses for a reason as they raced and they raced a lot. A small field was eight horses, entries were coupled and a month was considered a lay-off. The grade of a race was talked about as a matter of fact thing, handicaps were still handicaps and the Belmont Fall Championship Meet actually was a championship meet, the battle ground where many titles and Eclipse Awards were ultimately determined.
The purpose of waxing poetically here isn’t just reminiscing about the good old days. No the reason that these words were put to paper (taking literary license) is to convey an incredible season of a single, uniquely great horse and the folly of the current racing fan in trying to find modern day comparisons.
A Season to Remember
The curmudgeons would have you mistakenly believing that every classic race of the past was an overflow field of hall of fame horses which most certainly is a false premise. As a matter of fact one of the most famous races of the bygone era was a grade 1, one horse exhibition that wrapped up an incredible season and a brilliant career.
The race was the 1980 Woodward Stakes, the career was Spectacular Bid’s and the tour de force that was his his age four campaign is unlikely to ever be seen again. The reasons are many but what can’t be expressed strongly enough was the sheer dominance that he displayed over a really solid group of older horses.
We aren’t going to rehash Spectacular Bid’s entire career here. Peter Lee wrote an excellent book Spectacular Bid: The Last Superhorse of the Twentieth Century which covers his entire life, from foaling to retirement. No we are only going to focus on 1980, starting on January 5th at Santa Anita and ending on September 20th at Belmont Park.
The Malibu stakes at Santa Anita is now a grade 1 race that is a closing point, serving as the years final graded stakes restricted to three year olds. In 1980 it was a seasons opener, kicking off the year as the opening leg of a prestigious series of races called the Strub Series restricted to four year olds. The Malibu was a grade 2 race in those days and trainer Bud Delp used it to sharpen up the Bid whose previous race had been the Meadowlands Cup back in October when he had romped over older rivals in track record time.
Facing four other rivals that 5th day of January, including the outstanding colt Flying Paster, Spectacular Bid under 126 pounds including legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker made short work of the group. Sweeping up four wide on the turn, the Bid rolled past the field under minimal urging from Shoemaker, crossing the wire five lengths in front in a blazing 1.20 which set a new track record for 7 furlongs. Flying Paster rallied to be second though no match for the winner, which along with broken track records will prove to be a common occurrence throughout the 1980 campaign.
The San Fernando Stakes was run two weeks later on January 19th and only drew a four horse field as no one was all that eager to test Spectacular Bid. Relaunch, a fast, almost white son of In Reality who had won the Del Mar Derby and La Jolla stakes as a three year old joined the fray and Flying Paster was back for more. Run over a heavy track listed as good, Relaunch, who was back on 6 days rest after finishing a solid 2nd against older horses in the San Carlos Stakes, went to the lead in the early stages and was setting reasonable fractions which seemed to force Shoemakers hand. He made a bold run down the backside to engage and pass the pace setting Relaunch while Flying Paster was content to sit back and make one late run. Bid looked to be cruising as usual passing the quarter pole at the head of the lane but Flying Paster made a menacing run at him as the rumbled down the home stretch. After an excited track announcer Dave Johnson proclaimed, “Flying Paster flying on the outside second” Shoemaker did something that he had rarely done to Bid. He used the stick on him, five left handed strikes that seemed to motivate Spectacular Bid as he drew away in the final yards to win by only a length and a half while Paster was 15 lengths in front of Relaunch who was third. No one knew it that day but that was the last time any horse would even remotely threaten to defeat Spectacular Bid.
The Charles H. Strub Stakes was first run in 1948. Named after Santa Anita’s founder and owner, the mile and a quarter, grade one race had been won by many great horses over the years including Round Table, Crimson Satan, Ancient Title and in 1979 the Triple Crown winning Affirmed. The 1980 version however was unlike anything else that the venerable racetrack in Arcadia had ever seen before or since. With the good horse Valdez joining Relaunch and Flying Paster in the starting gate opposing the Bid, the scene was set for a wild race once the gates doors opened. Relaunch bolted to the lead, running off on the lead with Flying Paster and Valdez chasing as a team and the Bid content to sit last going into the first turn. Over a lighting fast racing strip, Relaunch set insane fractions of 22 and 44.3 to the half, opening up a 9 length lead. Shoemaker guided Bid to the inside on the first turn while moving up past Valdez who worked hard to keep up as Paster dropped back a few lengths. The Bid who was two wide and Valdez who was three wide moved towards Relaunch as they headed down the backside towards the three-quarter pole. As they moved past that marker in 108.2 Valdez was having a hard time matching strides as Bid and Relaunch briefly dueled till midway on the final turn when Bid began to pull away. At this point Flying Paster was making his patented run and for a moment it looked like we would be having another stretch duel like in the San Fernando. This time however Shoemaker asked Spectacular Bid earlier, passing the quarter pole and he spurted away from Flying Paster while maintaining the unbelievably fast fractions. He stopped the timer in a stakes, track and world record 157.4, records that still stand today, forty years later. The official margin was 3 1/4 lengths and the comment in the official chart was ‘handy score’ and Bid carried 126 pounds once again giving five pounds to the runner up. The Strub was run on February 3rd, just 34 days into the new year Spectacular Bid had already won three races, sweeping the Strub series, set two track records and a world record. Yet the most important race of the Spring was still a month away.
Handicaps and packing on the weight
In the days before the Dubai World Cup and Pegasus, the biggest, richest and most prestigious race for older horses in the United States in the early part of the year was the Big Cap, the Santa Anita Handicap. Seabiscuit, Round Table, Ack Ack, Cougar II, Affirmed, John Henry, Broad Brush, Alysheba, Best Pal, Tiznow and Lava Man are some of the famous winners of this illustrious race that was traditionally the highlight of the Santa Anita Winter meet. In 1980 Spectacular Bid was assigned to carry 130 pounds in his first foray into handicap racing as an older horse. He would be giving significant weight to his rivals including 7 pounds to rival Flying Paster and 8 pounds to the speedy Beau’s Eagle. Handicaps have decreased importance in American racing today unlike the 80’s and era’s prior but this is where a horse like Spectacular Bid has an edge when comparing him to modern stars.
Like most of his 4 year old season, Shoemaker allowed him to settle in the early stages as Beau’s Eagle set the pace over a sloppy track. Down the backstretch Shoemaker asked Bid to move up into a stalking position just as he had in his three previous races over the Santa Anita surface. Flying Paster was glued to his outside flank as they ran past Beau’s Eagle turning for home. When Shoemaker asked him for speed at the eighth pole, Bid accelerated away from the others to score by 5 lengths in 200.3. The chart comment said ‘ridden out’ and he was not only 4 for 4 on the year but clearly the dominant horse racing in America.
Trainer Bud Delp gave his horse a little breather after the Big Cap romp and didn’t enter him again till May 18 when the racing scene had moved crosstown to Hollywood Park. His next race was the grade 2 Mervyn LeRoy handicap going 1 1/16 where he was handed a weight assignment of 132 pounds. Flying Paster was back once again but he didn’t fire and finished a distant fourth, seemingly the effort extracted from chasing Bid all winter had taken its toll. Sent off at 1-5, Bid cruised to a 7 length win in a sizzling 140.2 while conceding 13 pounds to the runner up Peregrinator.
His next start was also at Hollywood Park and concluded his California domination as he dusted 6 other rivals under 130 pounds in the grade 1 Californian Stakes setting a track record of 145.4 for the 1 1/8 distance. The chart comment for the race was easy score and as he strolled across the wire, it seemed to be the perfect description.
Delp was having some issues with Bids ankles from training and racing on the fast California track surfaces so they packed up and went on the road with him. His next race was July 19 at Arlington Park, located in the western suburbs of Chicago, in the Washington Park Handicap which was a grade 3 race going 1 1/8. Under threats by Delp of skipping the race if he was weighted too heavily, Bid was assigned 130 pounds while facing five other mostly overmatched rivals. He won by 10 and despite barely breaking a sweat, he set yet another track record going in 146.1 with the win being described as ‘easily’.
The final race of his summer campaign came in the Armory Haskell, a grade 1 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey. Hold on you are probably saying, isn’t the Haskell a three year old race? Well it wasn’t always the race it is today which is a mid-July invitational for three year olds, essentially the first big post-triple crown race for those horses. Back in 1980 Monmouth also had a handicap race that was called the Haskell Handicap as well as the Haskell Invitational. Spectacular Bid was assigned 132 pounds by the racing secretary to face a field of 7 other horses including the star European mare Glorious Song who was in at 117. The 1-10 betting choice was content to sit at the back of the pack in 7th during the first half mile of the race. Shoemaker angled Bid to the 5 path heading down the backstretch and made his move on the leaders heading into the final turn. Glorious Song was also on the move and she got the jump on Spectacular Bid moving to the lead three wide heading towards the top of the stretch. Shoemaker asked for and got the amazing acceleration that Spectacular Bid had and despite giving up 15 pounds to his rival, he quickly closed ground on the filly straightening up into the stretch. Under light urging Bid pulled away to win by 1 3/4 described officially as ‘ridden out’. No one knew at the time but it was to be his last actual race.
Spectacular Bid was assigned 136 pounds in the Marlboro Cup and Delp balked at what he felt was an extreme jump from 132. Delp decided to skip the race and shoot for the Woodard and Jockey Club Gold Cup which weren’t handicaps but weight for age races in which he would carry 126. The Woodward was scheduled to be a very short field and when entires were to be drawn, no one else decided to take him on. Temperance Hill was among the nominations yet his trainer Joe Cantey passed because he was trying to win votes for three year old of the year and figured getting beat 20 lengths on national television probably would not help his chances. Imagine these days an older horse so good that the trainers of Tiz the Law and Authentic would fear getting beat 20 lengths by him?
So on September 20, 1980 in between the 7th and 8th races Spectacular Bid and Bill Shoemaker stepped foot onto the Belmont track surface, the scene of his most bitter defeat, alone. The 1980 Woodward was a bet-less exhibition race called a walkover. There hadn’t been a walkover in a major race since 1949 when Coaltown, the horse of the year that season ran unopposed in a stakes race at a long defunct track called Havre De Grace. Shoemaker just sat motionless aboard the great gray as he cruised around the huge oval in 202.2, adding $73000 to his tab, ending his career with earnings of $2773557.
He was supposed to run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup but he was a late scratch due to those ankles acting up again but that is but a footnote in history now, forty years later. The lasting image of him waltzing around the empty track at Belmont, the final star from the era of super horses of the 70’s, is the one that endures. That final season of racing cemented his greatness in the pantheon of the best that ever did it.
9 races. 9 wins. 4 track records. 1 world record (still standing). Easily. Drew clear. Handy score. Ridden out. Ridden out. Easy Score. Easily. Ridden out. In hand. From 7 furlongs to 1 1/4. Five tracks. West coast. Midwest. East coast. Fast track. Good track. Sloppy track. Walk over.
That would be a great career by itself but let’s not forget that we didn’t talk about his four eclipse awards or being champion at two and three and four. Or winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness or Marlboro Cup at age three. Setting 8 track records at 7 different tracks from 5 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4. About winning 14 grade 1 races. It’s a shame if you missed it because there won’t ever be another like him again…but now you know.
Going in Circles Podcast beginnings
I started doing the Going in Circles podcast because first and foremost I love horse racing. It has been a big part of my life since I was a kid growing up a few miles away from Saratoga Racecourse. Racing has for the most part been the only real job that I ever had though I have worn a lot of different hats during my career. I have been a hotwalker, a groom, a barn foreman, an assistant trainer as well as training my own string of horses for 20 years. I have bred horses, purchased and sold stakes winners at auction, including grade 1 winners, both here in the US and abroad. There is also frontside experience on my resume as I have charted races (both thoroughbred and Standardbreds), punched tickets as a mutual clerk and used my University of Arizona racetrack management degree for a few years as an assistant racing secretary. So I have seen the sport from many different angles which gives me a unique perspective on many of the issues that face racing. Writing limits your ability to express a lot of the subtleties on various topics as if you aren’t a talented wordsmith, a long soliloquy can get rather tiresome. Podcasts allow me to say what I want to say without being encumbered by space limitations, easily incorporates views of others as guests and once a week on our Tuesday LIVE format gives us the chance to directly interact and hear input from followers of the game.