COLLUSION, AN ONLINE FIRESTORM, AND SURRENDER

by | 11.17.2010 | 12:47am
By Ray Paulick

For those of you who decided to disconnect from the racing world on Sunday, let me just say that we had a little situation here.


Actually, it wasn't so little. Collusion between the co-owner of Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and the owner of runner-up Pioneerof the Nile to keep Kentucky Oaks winner Rachel Alexandra out of the starting gate for Saturday's Preakness Stakes would have, if successfully orchestrated, created one of the biggest embarrassments this sport has seen in my lifetime.


Apparently, and thankfully, the plot to keep the filly out of the race was aborted on the same day it was hatched. And that says something about the world we live and how cable television and the internet not only have changed how we get our news, but have given the public an opportunity to swiftly react to it, and in some ways alter the course of events.


I was enjoying a quiet Mother's Day brunch Sunday afternoon with my family when I got an urgent message that Ahmed Zayat, Pioneerof the Nile's owner, during a telephone interview on HRTV said Mine That Bird's co-owner Mark Allen called Zayat and asked him to enter an additional horse in the Preakness to block Rachel Alexandra's entry in the race. The filly, newly acquired by Jess Jackson last week and expected to be supplemented to the Preakness at a cost of $100,000, would only get into the starting field if fewer than 14 horses were entered, because early Triple Crown nominees are given preference over supplemental entrants in the Preakness.


Allen said he would enter a maiden in the race, and if Zayat entered a second horse, there was a strong likelihood Rachel Alexandra would not get in. It would also put Derby-winning jockey Calvin Borel back aboard Mine That Bird after he chose to ride the filly.


The Paulick Report linked to Dan Farley's timely dispatch in England's Racing Post that quoted Zayat, who repeated part of the conversation he'd had with Allen. Internet forums (Thoroughbred Champions, Pace Advantage, among others) and blogs lit up with comments about “cowardice,” “unsportsmanlike conduct,” and actions that were “terribly unflattering to the sport,” and would take “the racing industry's massive dysfunction to brand new levels.”


The late Paul Mellon, who for me defined the kind of sportsmen who helped make this game so wonderful, was, I'm certain, spinning madly in his grave over how racing has degenerated and deteriorated.


Officials of the Maryland Jockey Club must have had visions of angry, pitchfork wielding mobs of racing fans descending upon Pimlico Saturday in search of the two would-be evil-doers, Zayat and Allen. One of those officials called Zayat to explain to him that his actions weren't being very well received and that it might not be such a bad idea to reconsider.


NBC Sports, which pays a handsome sum to televise the Preakness and has been promoting the hell out of the anticipated matchup between Mine That Bird and Rachel Alexandra, might have been a little upset as well if the filly was somehow excluded.


Before sunset, a flurry of online articles was published by Bloodhorse.com, Sports Illustrated, New York Times and others, quoting both Zayat and Allen with abandoning their ill-conceived plan and waving white flags of surrender–but not before humiliating themselves and embarrassing the sport.


The whole news cycle was over in about six hours. I'm convinced the internet reporting and commentaries, along with the public outrage expressed in online forums, drove the decisions of Zayat and Allen as much as the phone call from a racing official in Maryland may have done.


Twenty years ago, before racing had two cable channels and the internet to provide an explosion of instant information, this Sunday storm might not have ever made into the public spotlight. The late Joe Hirsch, the executive columnist for Daily Racing Form, would have gotten wind of the conspiracy first (Joe always got it first), but by the time the Form had its next press run on Monday afternoon, someone (probably Joe himself) would have smacked some sense into Zayat and Allen.


For those of you who on Sunday were plugged in to HRTV (or TVG, which also did its own reporting on the issue), the Paulick Report or other web sites, this whole unseemly saga would be old news by the time your daily newspaper hit the front door Monday morning, or the weekly trade magazines are delivered later this week.


Times have changed.


One final thought: What is it about fillies and the Preakness that brings out the worst in some people?


Twenty-nine years ago, Angel Cordero Jr. used intimidating, and many of us still believe unsportsmanlike, riding tactics aboard Codex to beat the Kentucky Derby-winning filly Genuine Risk in the 1980 Preakness.


In 1988, the late Woody Stephens hit a low point in his Hall of Fame training career when he had jockey Pat Day employ suicidal tactics in the Preakness aboard Forty Niner against Winning Colors, the front-running filly who defeated Forty Niner in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier. It ruined both of their chances of victory.


Interestingly, in both cases, the Daily Racing Form published front-page editorials criticizing the tactics used against the two fillies, an extremely unusual occurrence by the Form. The 2009 version of Daily Racing Form might well have an editorial printed on the Rachel Alexandra saga in the next day or two, but by then will anyone care?

Copyright © 2009, The Paulick Report

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