Derby week: Piling on the bad press
If horse racing was football, the refs would have run out of flags last week after calling countless “piling on” penalties.
We've gotten used to Derby Week being exploited by those who want to expose the bad side of racing taking advantage of the one time during the year that the general public pays attention to the sport.
But last week was ridiculous.
Politicians, the news media, animal rights groups and others all fought to get in the brief, flickering spotlight. Members of Congress, the New York Times, state and local politicians, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, even some miscreant individuals who used to be in the game took their shots.
The week that was began with a Congressional hearing in Kennett Square, Pa., where an eclectic panel of witnesses ranging from a wealthy Jockey Club member to a failed, bitter and confused trainer tried to portray racing as a game exploding with Thoroughbreds juiced to the gills with illegal, performance-enhancing drugs. It was a dog and pony show of the highest order.
On the morning of the April 30 hearing, the New York Times dropped its second bomb in just over a month, devoting considerable time and space to the issue of horse racing fatalities at tracks like Penn National and Aqueduct, where revenue from slot machines has led to a sharp increase in purses, especially for low-level claiming horses. One of the targets of the article, the former controversial horse owner Michael Gill, struck back on Kentucky Oaks day with a press release trying to discredit the criticism and throwing people at Penn National and the Pennsylvania Horse Racing Commission under the bus.
On the same day as the New York Times article on racing fatalities came a published report from the New York State Racing and Wagering Board suggesting New York Racing Association CEO Charles Hayward cheated horseplayers out of millions of dollars by knowingly violating racing law relative to the amount taken out of certain wagers. Hayward and another NYRA executive, Patrick Kehoe, were suspended and then terminated by week's end.
A couple of days later, the New York attorney general's office filed a lawsuit against the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation and members of its board of directors, alleging the charitable organization of misusing its funds, mistreating the horses in its care, and general incompetence.
Then PETA got in the act, citing but not releasing what its zealots called incriminating internal documents from the cancelled HBO series “LUCK,” and asking for someone to be punished for the death of three horses during the filming of the show. Talk about a beating a dead horse.
No one, it seems, was safe from the Derby week drama.
Then there was some self-inflicted bad news. The Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association and Arlington Park had a very bitter and public contract dispute that threatened the opening of the 2012 race meeting and could have shut millions of Illinois residents out of wagering on the Kentucky Derby. It was resolved at the last minute.
There also was the grim problem of jockey Robby Albarado being arrested for a second domestic abuse assault in just over a year on the eve of Derby weekend. And then, the morning after the Derby was run, security personnel discovered a murdered groom in the Churchill Downs stable area.
Despite all that bad news, some of it purely coincidental to the Kentuky Derby but most of designed to get maximum exposure during horse racing's biggest week of the year, the game has survived, and maybe even thrived.
There were record crowds and record handle for both the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. The television audience on NBC was greater than that of such major events as the Masters golf tournament or NASCAR's premier event, the Daytona 500.
Perhaps Nietzsche was right: What doesn't kill us makes us stronger.