Sunday, April 18, 2010

Power and privilege

My favorite political blogger, Andrew Sullivan, led me to this wonderfully insightful and true paragraph from another blogger, Rod Dreher, whom I do not read regularly:

"What a terrible thing power and privilege can be. Those who live with it come to think of themselves as entitled, and in some sense specially gifted with insight. That's when the trouble begins and the corruption sets in. The thing is, most of us in some way have power and privilege in our own spheres. It is in our nature to lie to ourselves--and when we are entrusted with the care of great institutions (the presidency, the church, banks), the cost of our blindness and hubris can be devastating."

Dreher, in turn, is pivoting off an op-ed piece by conservative Washington Post writer Peggy Noonan (a former Bush speechwriter who should know plenty about power, privilege, and hubris) on the Catholic church's current sexual abuse scandal. But Dreher's paragraph succinctly describes one of Thoroughbred racing's biggest problems. The people in charge are gifted with power and privilege and their blindness and hubris has been pretty devastating over the years.

It began, perhaps, with the late George Widener and his Jockey Club/NYRA (pretty much the same organization at the time) cohorts in the 1960s when Off Track Betting legislation loomed in New York. A product of Victorian paternalism, Widener and his peers believed that the unwashed masses should not be tempted to lose their rent money by being able to bet at the corner drugstore, so they adamantly opposed OTB and refused opportunities to participate and to control the final product.

Most of New York racing's current problems stem from, if not that decision, then certainly that attitude from racing's stewards. They think they know better than we do.

In the 1990s when the movers and shakers managed to co-opt Fred Pope's original, brilliant concept of the National Racing Association and turned it into the NTRA, I was still hopeful that it might work....up until the moment when the philosophical descendants of George Widener killed the inaugural "Go Baby Go" commercial, reportedly because they thought actress Lori Petty looked like a lesbian. That made it obvious that nothing had changed. It didn't matter that audience tests showed that the commercial worked, that it appealed to the audience for which it was designed. Lori Petty's tomboy appearance offended those with power and privilege, and that was more important.

The problem presented by the blindness and hubris of privilege is ultimately more serious for Thoroughbred racing than it is for the church, the nation, or the financial system. If the church, the politicians, and bankers do not mend past errors and set more realistic courses, they lose (at least in theory, though one never knows in the current toxic political climate) their followers, their jobs, their money--which is to say their power and their privilege. If Thoroughbred racing's powers that be continue their long, painful stumble toward oblivion, they may kill the sport they love, but they will still have their money, their power, their privilege in every other sphere of their lives. They will regret the loss, but you can be sure they will not think it was their fault.

Once upon a time the fact that Thoroughbred racing was run as a rich man's hobby was seen as an advantage. That meant that their motives were pure and they made decisions for the good of the sport (of course it was never really that simple and pure, but that was the theory and the sport thrived that way for 300 years).

That era ended around the time that George Widener and friends said no to OTB, but the oligarchy that runs Thoroughbred racing didn't notice for the next 30 years. When they did, when Fred Pope produced his revolutionary proposal, their response was not dissimilar to the response of the Catholic church to the sex abuse scandal--denial followed by self-serving attempts at moderate changes while maintaining power and privilege.

It hasn't worked for the Catholic church, and it hasn't worked for Thoroughbred racing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Timeform Sees the Stars

Regular readers of The Pedigree Curmudgeon will remember the lively discussion that ensued last October after this post and this follow up post about the victory of Sea The Stars in the 2009 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Some readers, particularly our good friend Sid Fernando, disagreed somewhat with my rating of Sea The Stars at about 140 on the Timeform scale, believing he should be rated higher.

At the time my personal Timeform-scale ratings of the Arc principals plus Rip Van Winkle, the second best horse in Europe last year, read like this (some of these ratings were explicitly mentioned in the discussion, some not):

Sea The Stars 140
Rip Van Winkle 134
Fame And Glory 132
Youmzain 132
Conduit 130
Dar Re Mi 128

With Timeform's Racehorses of 2009 arriving this week, I thought it would be interesting to post their final ratings on those same horses, so here they are:

Sea The Stars 140
Rip Van Winkle 134
Fame And Glory 133
Youmzain 130
Conduit 130
Dar Re Mi 124

Obviously I'm pleased that my own ratings are so close to Timeform's, but then I possess the considerable advantage of owning every Timeform annual since 1943 in my library. I have read them all cover to cover (some biographies many times over) so I have a pretty good idea of how they go about compiling their ratings.

As I suspected, Timeform does not consider Sea The Stars's Arc performance to be his best. Correctly, in my view, they rate his length score over Rip Van Winkle in the Eclipse Stakes and his 2 1/2 length demolition of Fame And Glory in the Irish Champion as his two best performances. Here's the key paragraph from their 16-page writeup:

"What established Sea The Stars as a great horse was not just the fact of his winning six Group 1 races in a row, but rather his performances in some of those races. His Eclipse performance was that of a true champion, but his performance at Leopardstown was even better, probably the best on turf in Europe since Dancing Brave in the 1986 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe."

Timeform notes that Sea The Stars's superiority could not be measured simply by his margins of victory, "...his racing style and general demeanour often contributing to his winning with something in reserve, while he wasn't usually made to race right through to the end and demonstate his superiority to the full."

Timeform's comments on the Arc are equally apt and revealing: "The prestige of the Arc and the attention focused on Sea The Stars--who was cheered when he came into the paddock--led to the victory being lauded as the finest of his career though, judged solely on the quality of performance, it wasn't on a par with his Eclipse and Irish Champion efforts. ...The impression that Sea The Stars had plenty left was confirmed when Sea The Stars took off again as Stacelita came alongside after the leaders had crossed the line."

That last comment, of course, alludes to something that no one watching on television would have seen. It also makes me, at least, a little sad that trainer John Oxx adamantly resisted pressure to attempt to complete the Triple Crown with Sea The Stars because he was convinced the horse would not stay the almost 1 7/8 mile trip of the St. Leger. Obviously, Oxx knew his horse better than anyone and his opinion must be respected, but I strongly suspect that, like Nijinsky II before him, Sea The Stars was simply so superior to his contemporaries that he would have beaten any of them at any distance.

But of course if he had run in the Leger, we almost certainly would not have seen Sea The Stars burst from the pack at Longchamp, and that was something not to be missed.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Don't waste your money, son

The occasion of my first visit to Kentucky alluded to in my previous post (Setting the hook, below) was the 1967 Kentucky Derby. I had planned to go to the Derby the previous year, but when my beloved Graustark broke down in the Blue Grass Stakes, that took away my reason for going (as well as, briefly, my reason for living!).

The following spring, though, I boarded a Greyhound in Knoxville and rented a snappy red Corvair when I reached Lexington (yes, Ralph Nader, that Corvair). Since *Ribot was then (and remains now) my ideal racehorse, the first place I visited was Darby Dan Farm. When I pulled up to the stallion barn, the unbeaten Italian was out in his paddock which was surrounded by a six-foot high solid wall of white fence plank. If Ribot could see another stallion he would never stop running the fence. Whether he was still trying to outrun everything else, just as he did on the racecourse, I cannot say.

Ribot was not alone in his paddock. His groom, Floyd (sorry, cannot remember his last name) was sitting in a folding chair near a huge oak in the middle of the field, talking to the horse constantly. Ribot was standing under the tree backed up against the trunk. It took me a while to figure out that the occasional loud "THUNK" I heard was the sound of Ribot lashing out at the tree trunk with a hind leg.

Ribot, of course, was famous for his temperamental quirks, but, contrary to legend was not mean. Bored and capricious, yes, but not mean. When Floyd brought the horse back to his stall, he showed me the hoof marks Ribot had left above the beams at the top of the wall of his stall, perhaps 16 feet up, and the tooth marks where he liked to hang on that beam and chew on it. You can still see that chewed beam in the last stall on the left in the Darby Dan stallion barn, though it's been painted over many times since.

I happened to arrive just before a tour group of folks heading to the Derby in a few days arrived to see the stallions, and Olin Gentry, Darby Dan's legendarily crusty general manager came down from the office to greet the group. When Gentry had finished his spiel and the group was getting back on the bus, I dared to ask the great man's opinion of the chances of Darby Dan's Proud Clarion in the Derby two days hence.

Proud Clarion had a spotty record, nothing close to that of Derby favorite Damascus, but he had finished a closing second in the Blue Grass Stakes the previous week, and I had a powerful hunch that he was going to run big in the Derby. Gentry, who had already bred four Derby winners for E.R. Bradley and one (Chateaugay) for Darby Dan, was not impressed.

"Don't waste your money, son," the old man said, "he's a cheatin' son of a bitch."

Come Derby day, I arrived early, parked the Corvair in the enormous Churchill Downs parking lot, hoping I could find it at the end of the day, and made my way to the infield. This was long before the turf course was built, and long before the chain link fence that keeps infield fans far away from actual horseflesh. I was early enough to find a spot on the rail close to the finish line only a few feet from the track itself.

I had my own binoculars, but I wanted to see the backstretch as well, and, even at 6'3" I wasn't tall enough to see over the crowd satisfactorily, so I bought a small canvas camp stool. This was also well before the days of huge infield TV screens that allow anyone on the grounds to monitor the progress of their favorite horse.

I was a bit more agile at 20 than I am now, so I balanced on the stool and watched Barbs Delight flash to the front out of the gate. I was able to pick out Damascus's polka dot silks settling close to the pace, but Proud Clarion was lost somewhere in the pack.

As the field disappeared around the first turn I carefully got down off the camp stool, pivoted around the opposite direction and climbed back on. As I did so, however, I put my right foot down a little too close to the inside of the wooden support of the stool and felt the canvas start to rip. Determined to stay upright I balanced on the stool as best I could and managed to see that Barbs Delight was still battling for the lead going down the backstretch, with Damascus not far behind, but where the hell was Proud Clarion?

As the horses swept into the home turn that canvas stool split wide open and I crashed to the ground, much to the annoyance and amusement of the folks packed tightly around me. Undaunted, I picked myself up and leaned forward on tiptoe just in time to see the cream and brown silks of Darby Dan sweep past the toiling Damascus, run down Barbs Delight and keep right on going to win the Derby.

That $102.50 to $6 across the board bet remains the biggest longshot I've ever hit.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Setting the hook

Frank Mitchell's recent historical series prodded me into exploring my own historical wetware and software. There's enough stories in there to fill several books....but since the thought of publishing books of any sort, much less horse books, is enough to reduce strong men to crying for mommy these days, we all know that's not going to happen.

The first horse race I can remember seeing on TV is the 1955 Kentucky Derby. My family had acquired our first television earlier that year and my older sister and I had been fighting over which grainy, blurry shows to watch ever since. I don't know how I won that battle, but I remember Swaps beating Nashua.....not that it meant much to an eight-year-old.

By the time the 1957 Derby rolled around, however, I'd inhaled Walter Farley's Black Stallion series, and a naive Tennessee farm boy was in love with the glamor of horse racing. I had started following racing as well as one could in the Nashville Tennessean--in other words, considerably better than one can now in the same newspaper--and I knew who Bold Ruler and *Gallant Man were. The big, almost black Bold Ruler was surely far closer in appearance to Farley's fictional hero than the diminutive *Gallant Man, but it was the Irish colt's dramatic charge from behind that set the hook in my heart for Thoroughbred racing. *Gallant Man's 8-length Belmont victory in record time a few weeks later established a preference for come-from-behind runners that took years to eradicate.

Ten years later when I made it to Lexington for the first time, Bold Ruler was well established as the Lord of Speed, and, excellent stallion though he was, *Gallant Man was never going to catch him again. I know I took pictures of both horses with my trusty Kodak, but the shot of *Gallant Man has disappeared into the crack of time.

The picture of Bold Ruler above, taken at Claiborne in 1967, does not do him justice. He had a look about him that I have often seen in his descendants that is almost indefinable. It's something about the ears and an airy way of going that keeps showing up over and over again.

I've always been a curious sort though. What is your earliest memory of racing, and what did it mean to you?