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Layden: Horse racing seeks to show its best face at the Breeders’ Cup

Tim Layden traces Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert's tumultuous history of run-ins with drug violations and digs into what it means for the sport of horse racing.

It’s tempting this week in advance of the Breeders Cup on Friday and Saturday at Del Mar to announce in a stentorian voice that racing is once again presenting a signature event while “in crisis.” After all, the sport’s preeminent trainer – and its only genuine celebrity – is competing under harsh (and appropriate) security restrictions while also fighting in court to keep possession of last year’s Kentucky Derby trophy and to preserve his right to stall space at several of the most important racetracks in America. Historic legislation passed to bring order to the sport is being challenged in court by multiple racing bodies. And at least 16 horses have died in the last two meets at Santa Anita – 12 last spring and four this fall – more reminiscent of the dark winter of 2019 than last fall’s cleansing meet, in which there were no deaths at all.

Crisis seems like the right word. But another phrase is also appropriate: Business As Usual.

Racing has always been a sport whose dark underbelly often becomes its homepage. A sport where the raised eyebrow could be a logo on every saddle cloth. Where the statistical profile incudes an equine mortality rate (and for a long time, unspoken and unaddressed, as acceptable losses). Where joy and consternation do a dance in the daylight, evermore. All of this goes back to Man o’War, and far beyond.

The current state of affairs dates back to, well, let’s just pick a date: 2008. That was the year when Big Brown, a horse on legal steroids trained by a classic line-pushing trainer (Rick Dutrow, who is now banned from the sport) won the Kentucky Derby, and filly Eight Belles collapsed beyond the finish line with two broken forelegs and was euthanized on the track. This was a bad moment, but an arbitrary one on a timeline (see paragraph above) where you can almost always find a starting point for controversy, yet rarely an endpoint. In the 13 years since Big Brown won the Derby and Preakness and halted on the far turn in the Belmont (a moment that has spawned dozens of conspiracy theories, also de rigueur in racing), the sport has endured a succession of further controversies in the areas of medication, equine safety and regulation.

With each incident comes a dire warning that if this continues, racing will surely die. But the sport has proven sturdy and resilient; it has not died. Hundreds of races are contested each week at racetracks large and small. The big issues persist – and less noisy issues that do not make mainstream news: field and purse size, backstretch conditions, jockey safety. Yet racing lurches forward, day after day, week after week, month after month. Reports of its demise have been greatly exaggerated.

But there is another, broader problem: Racing is likely to survive these relentless – and very real – problems because it always has. But a curtain has been pulled back in a much more open culture than existed a generation, or even two decades, ago. The immediate danger to racing is not that it dies altogether, but rather that it becomes marginalized.

Consider: There are – and always have been – two kinds of Thoroughbred horse racing fans. They move in the same world, but breathe different air. They tell the same stories, but speak different languages. One lives for the big score and dies (not literally) by the bad beat; the other lives for the ethereal narrative of the winged horse, and dies (not literally) when Pegasus is grounded. One is pragmatic, the other dreamy. One measures success with the wallet, the other with the heart. Both will be in attendance this weekend, as ever.

The first group are gamblers. For them, horse racing is a financial enterprise, either as hobby or vocation; it is intellectual, academic, impassioned. The other group are – this is tricky, but for clarity let’s just call them fans. (Yes, gamblers are fans, too. Hang on for second.) For them, horse racing is sport, entertainment, spectacle. It is alluring, captivating, also impassioned, if in a different way.

There is plenty of overlap between the two groups. (Told you it would only be a second.) Many of the gamblers who cashed on Rags To Riches at 4-1 in the 2007 Belmont also loved her savage stretch run against Curlin. Many of the fans who swooned at California Chrome’s unlikely origin story and dominant victory in the 2014 Kentucky Derby also dropped some coin on Chrome at 5-2. It’s not fair to say that gamblers don’t love horses – many do. It’s not fair to say that fans can’t see horse as moneymaking machines – many do. Nevertheless, there are two universes and two distinct reasons for attending the racetrack or consuming racing content in all its forms.

Horseplayers will not only endure controversy, they will deftly fold it into the handicapping process. When I first began covering racing in the 1980s in upstate New York, and briefly entertained the very flawed notion that I could make some money at the press box betting window while doing my job, I made a pick in a race, only to have a more wizened peer tap my program and say, “Oscar Barrera, first-time starter,” and then wink. (Barrera was a magician in the claiming business, particularly with first-outs; he died without having malfeasance proved. He might have been the precursor to Jason Servis or Jorge Navarro, minus the wiretaps, or perhaps just a miracle horseman. Either way, you wanted to bet on him.)

The larger point: Any detail – however sordid or sad – is useful information to a serious bettor. If crop use is redefined, that’s handicapping information. If the track is causes breakdowns, that’s handicapping information. (I mean, sad handicapping information, but handicapping information just the same). If Bob Baffert is suspended and not sending out brilliant 2-year-olds, that’s handicapping information. There is no disenfranchising the serious horseplayer. They will bet just as ambitiously on a sport in crisis as one in paradise.

But let’s take a wider view. Racing as a pari-mutuel enterprise lives in a box. It’s a comfortable box for those in it, and a durable box. And while gambling has long been vital to the popularity of the biggest sports in America (and the world), the explosion of legalized sports gambling in the U.S. has thrown back that curtain for good. But racing’s business model is entirely dependent on gambling – that’s what pari-mutuel means. The NFL would remain popular (less popular, for sure, but still popular) if gambling had never been invented. Hence, horse players have a massive role in sustaining the game. (So do politicians, a whole other topic).

But racing soars when the sport connects with those who do not have a TwinSpires account. When a horse, or a narrative, surfaces that engages beyond the rail, and beyond the walls of the racetrack itself and into family rooms and man caves and Derby parties. When people who do not follow horse racing are talking about a horse. Like Smarty Jones. Like Funny Cide. Like Zenyatta. Like California Chrome. Like American Pharoah, most of all in recent times. But it has been ever thus; the tale of the popular horse that enlivens the nation is decades old, centuries old. Seabiscuit. Secretariat. Ruffian. Seattle Slew. Cigar. (Add to the list in your own headspace; there are no rules).

Every niche sport lives in this place. And nearly every sport is a niche sport, beyond the NFL, college football, the NBA and Major League Baseball (and judging from current TV ratings, MLB is inching further from mainstream and closer to a very big niche; that’s another discussion). A niche sport becomes something more when a story or a star emerges who demands that we watch. Mike Tyson in boxing’s last real heyday, nigh on a quarter century ago. Pre-doping revelations Lance Armstrong in cycling. Michael Phelps in swimming. Usain Bolt in track and field. Tony Hawk on a skateboard or Shaun White on a snowboard. Maybe, just maybe, Mikaela Shiffrin on skis in three months on mountainsides above Beijing. Maybe, just maybe, Chloe Kim in a halfpipe.

Racing, as a function of its breadth and egalitarianism, has been blessed with enough stories to effectively offset the very real dark side. There’s no sport I’ve covered that presents a richer tableau, from self-made owners to workaday trainers to jockeys who are among the bravest and most talented athletes on the planet. And the horses? They will make your heart beat faster and then melt it. There will be compelling stories this weekend at Del Mar, the most beautiful racetrack in America.

But the bad news scuffles with the good. Baffert has been the public face of the sport for years, ready with a quip, available and seemingly open, and relentlessly successful. He will saddle horses this weekend under a cloud, and his doping rap sheet undercuts the entire game. The Horse Racing Safety and Integrity Act, which will go into effect next summer, is being challenged by the National Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and at least six station racing associations, despite its potential to bring order to a chaotic universe. Horses continue to die, the irresolvable dilemma. There are too many wealthy, faceless conglomerates in the winners’ circle and too few embraceable humans (whether or wealthy or not).

If a brilliant 2-year-old (with or without a compelling narrative) emerges from this weekend’s Juvenile, and in the winter and spring becomes Pharoah or Slew or Big Red, the sport rises. If modern versions of Affirmed and Alydar appear, battling each other every month, the sport rises. There is no easy solution to the very real issues that racing faces, and in some form has always faced. The best answer is the best of the game, on the track and under tack.

Because racing is too big to fail, but not too big to disappear.