The horses can’t possibly know when we need them, but sometimes it sure seems like it.
Racing’s reputation took a punch on the chin in late November when three trainers and a clocker were arrested–not suspended or fined, arrested–on federal charges at Penn National Race Course in Grantville, Pa. A United States Attorney’s Office press release mentions fraud, drugs, race fixing. Now that’s a trifecta you don’t want to hit. The bruise was immediate and didn’t help any argument for racing’s ability to regulate itself by coming just days after a congressional hearing about federal oversight of Thoroughbred racing.
Does racing need government involvement to right itself? The sport would be better off without it, in the long run, but might need it–or the threat of it–to get to the place everyone seems to want to be. Face it, the state-by-state regulation doesn’t work. It’s outdated and was created to protect bettors, not horses.
Everybody talks about uniform rules, sensible penalties, accredited testing laboratories–and the Mid-Atlantic has led the way in this area–but we’re not there yet and a long investigation involving the FBI really doesn’t make the case that we’re ready.
Five days after the charges were announced, Ben’s Cat spoke for the horses, delivering yet another signature performance in a career so full of them it’s getting difficult to discern the most meaningful. But to me, this one is on the short list.
Owner/trainer/breeder King Leatherbury’s now 8-year-old gelding won Penn National’s Fabulous Strike Handicap for the second consecutive year. Ben’s Cat, so badly injured as a young horse that he didn’t run until age 4 (and that was in a maiden claimer), won his 24th race, collected his 19th stakes victory and passed the $500,000 mark for the third consecutive season.
The son of Parker’s Storm Cat and Leatherbury’s Thirty Eight Paces mare Twofox reached $1.86 million in career earnings. The win came in his first start after a loss going a mile (his race, the Turf Sprint, was canceled) at the Maryland Million.
More importantly, Ben’s Cat–that’s him in the photo with me on this page–spoke up for the sport, for the horses. Despite all the things that bring negative attention on racing, there is one enduring, bright, shining light. It has four legs, a mane and a tail.
The horse will never let you down, if you take care of it. The horse will try. The horse will overcome human mistakes. The horse will make people look good. The horse will create interest, business, excitement like nothing else. Not year-round racing, not casinos, not Pick Six carryovers, not jockey karaoke, not million-dollar purses.
When people in racing lose sight of that impact, we put the sport at risk. We open racing to scrutiny from investigators, interest from the federal government, attention from mainstream media. Stupidity and greed have done more to hurt racing than anything else. Human beings have given horses illegal drugs, faked workouts, created crowded racing schedules, inflated purses, over-bred stallions, sought technology instead of horsemanship, cheated and generally pushed the limits when we knew we shouldn’t have. The horses didn’t do any of those things. They just ran the races and waited for us to feed them, hang up the hay nets and fill the water buckets.
To think a Thoroughbred of humble beginnings could do what Ben’s Cat has done–while carefully managed by an 80-year-old racetrack lifer–is pure magic and it matters. Admittedly, all horses aren’t Ben’s Cat. Talent and ability count for something, but the horses don’t know that. Ben’s Cat didn’t know racing needed something good to happen in late November, he just tried to win a race.
That’s the real power behind the game. It’s up to us to use it wisely.