Weren’t we just here? The 146th Preakness Stakes, and all its connection to big-time racing, returns to the region, to Maryland, to historic Pimlico Race Course – seven months after the race’s 145th running. That’s right, Covid-19 sent the middle-of-May classic to the beginning of October in 2020.
That still doesn’t sound right, and boy does it feel good to at least have the schedule make sense in 2021. Much of the rest still seems like some kind of upside-down bad dream – limited fans, limited media access, social distancing, masks, vaccines and so on. Pimlico received approval from state and local health authorities to host 10,000 people for the Preakness, Saturday, May 15. That’s not nearly enough to make it feel like Preakness Day, but it will have to do.
I was at the 2020 Preakness, and never want to do that again. There was no buzz, no thumping music in the infield, no screaming crowd as the horses left the gate, no crush of people caught on the turf course as the minutes to post clicked down, no celebrities (Bob Baffert and Mike Smith don’t count and neither does Larry Hogan). Only the race – bravo Swiss Skydiver and Authentic – was Preakness-like.
The 2021 version won’t feel like normal, but it might feel like one more step toward normal. Let’s take it.
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Check out Milt Toby’s feature on Cañonero. It’s been 50 years since the Venezuelan wonder horse won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. How much fun would it be if a Cañonero showed up again? I guess the Derby is out because such a horse would never have enough points to make the field of 20. But the Preakness and Belmont would work. Sadly, today’s racing world doesn’t cultivate many Cañoneros – a horse whose owner and trainer simply didn’t care that they were improbable longshots. They liked their horse, and they took a chance. If a 3-year-old won four races and showed Triple Crown promise in Venezuela in 2021, some international bloodstock agent would have computed Beyer Speed Figures and sold the horse to a partnership of hedge-fund dudes. Cañonero would be in the barn of Bob Baffert or Brad Cox or Chad Brown, and the story wouldn’t be nearly as good.
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Sometimes I forget, but talking to people about horses might be the best part of my job and the conversations around the story about Fasig-Tipton Midlantic’s 2-year-old sale proved it yet again. Thanks everybody.
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Last month’s column in this space generated plenty of attention, fueled by internet chatter and links from other sections of the Thoroughbred industry. Thanks for reading, and for caring. My words didn’t offer solutions to the problems facing the sport, but the main conclusion to me is that the actions of a single person or entity can impact far more than anyone realizes. What might look like harmless corner-cutting or a one-off lapse in judgment might put an entire sport in jeopardy. Remember that.
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Mid-Atlantic states should be more prepared than ever to defend their portion of revenue from casinos. People get it, racing needed to be supported when slot machines became realities in Delaware, West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and beyond because the industry supports jobs, animals, farmland, open space and so on. Racing mattered, and states were opening the gate to additional forms of gambling which would impact gambling on horse races. Carving off a piece of the revenue for racing made sense. Still does. But now, all these years later, those same states face constant pressure to do more with limited revenue streams. Big picture, slots contributions to racing need to go beyond purses and address aftercare, horse health and safety, jockey health and safety, backstretch and farm worker conditions, breeding and stallion farms and . . . well, the list could just keep going.
Think about it, get outside help, go above and beyond, literally audit your contribution from slots. Purses and racing days are part of it, always will be, but draw a bigger ring. And make sure you’re touching as many segments of the industry as you can. Make the case that racing deserves that money. Be good stewards of it. Compare your state’s program to others. Change if you need to.
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You ever really consider the people who work with racehorses? Is it a career, or just a job? I know, I know, people do it because they love it, because it’s a passion, because they’re working their way up the ladder. The long hours and difficult schedule are all part of the process. But, could it be different? I hear of the one-day-off-every-two-weeks schedule and cringe. Who would do that, for very long, and not feel overwhelmed? Or at least overworked? Again, I get it, they’re animals. They need to be taken care of every day. But the trainer who figures out how to hire enough staff to have a five-day work week will have people lining up at the tackroom door.