Editor's note: Our apologies for not posting this earlier. It was published in Saturday's editions of The Buffalo News.
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By Gene Kershner
We’ve hit the midpoint of the thoroughbred racing season, and the first half of the year gave racing fans plenty to cheer about.
The 3-year-olds, led by California Chrome, took us through a great spring, and the older horses and handicap division will start to take center stage this summer.
The second half of the season will take us first to the summer destinations of Saratoga, Monmouth and Del Mar before returning in the fall to Belmont Park and Keeneland Race Course before the season culminates at Santa Anita Racetrack where the Breeders’ Cup World Championships will be held Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
The race for Horse of the Year is wide open with several horses in position to claim the sport’s most prominent award next January at the annual Eclipse Awards ceremony.
Here are some thoughts on the year’s highs and lows in racing at the halfway mark of the 2014 season:
1. California Chrome’s Triple Crown bid. After winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in fine fashion, the son of Lucky Pulpit captured the racing nation with the possibility of winning the first Triple Crown in 36 years. Unfortunately in the final leg, he was stepped on at the start of the race, encountered unfortunate positioning on the backstretch run and his modest breeding finally caught up to him. His Triple Crown bid falling less than 2 lengths short of rewriting the history books. The bright side for California Chrome is his connections pointing him to continue racing through the end of the year and hopefully in the Classic.
2. Belmont Festival Day racing a huge success. With nine graded stakes and purses exceeding $8 million, the Belmont Stakes day card was one to salivate over. Big wins by Close Hatches in the Phipps, Palace Malice in the Met Mile and Sweet Reason in the Acorn, to name a few, were highlights before the day’s main event. Record handle figures both on and off-track were testament to the big day of racing at Big Sandy.
3. Untapable wins Kentucky Oaks. The leader of the 3-year-old filly division won the Run for the Lilies emphatically and is poised to make a run at the divisional crown. She’s up next in the Grade 1 Mother Goose at Belmont Stakes, with Hall of Famer John Velazquez to take over in the saddle for the injured Rosie Napravnik. She breezed through the Oaks prep races and won the biggest filly race of the year with ease.
4. Keeneland, Del Mar awarded Breeders’ Cups. Two big name tracks were awarded their first Breeders’ Cups in the 32-year history of the event. Keeneland Race Course, in Lexington, Ky., was awarded the 2015 Cup and Del Mar, where the turf meets the surf in San Diego, was selected as the 2017 site. Returning to Breeders’ Cup founder John Gaines’ vision of rotating the Cup around to different tracks is one of the year’s highlights.
5. Game on Dude captures his third Big Cap. After back-to-back disappointing defeats in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the old boy picked up his game and won a record third Santa Anita Handicap in March. It was Game on Dude’s second straight and third in the last four years in the Big Cap. Trainer Bob Baffert captured his fifth lifetime win in the premier race of the winter Santa Anita meeting. Don’t count the 7-year-old gelding out just yet.
1. Steve Coburn’s post-Belmont rant. It was the rant that kept on giving. Everyone I talked to after the failed Triple Crown bid discussed California Chrome’s co-owner’s tirade about the system. Chalk it up to a heat of the moment impulsive response, but it didn’t put the sport in the best light. It did drive some serious discussion about the Triple Crown trail, but that discussion is for another day.
2. The PETA tape. In late April just before the Kentucky Derby, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released an eight-minute tape taken by an undercover employee in the training camp of trainer Steve Asmussen focusing on the treatment of horses by assistant trainer Scott Blasi. The tape also included trainer D. Wayne Lukas and jockey Gary Stevens laughing at a dinner table about shocking a horse with a buzzer. The contents of the tape were not pretty and cast a black eye on the sport.
3. Churchill Downs raises takeout, player boycott ensues. Churchill Downs, part of CDI, a publicly traded company, raised its takeout on certain wagers prior to the Derby causing a horseplayer revolt and boycott of the historic track. Takeout is the amount removed from the para mutuel betting pools and is used by the tracks to fund purses, breeding programs and maintain operations. After the player boycott, handle for Churchill’s spring meet has been down significantly.
4. The Post-Belmont NYRA/LIRR Disaster. After attracting over 100,000 fans at Belmont Park for the Belmont Festival of Racing for California Chrome’s Triple Crown try, a public relations disaster ensued. With a ridership of over 36,000 taking the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) from the city, delays reaching upwards of three hours to get out of the track resulted. In addition, many were stranded in dark parking lots without any NYRA employees to guide them out. At 10:45 p.m., cars were still lined up leaving Gate 5 to the track. Not exactly the guest experience you would want to attract new fans.