When I’ll Have Another bolts from the starting gate at Belmont Park on Saturday in his bid to become Thoroughbred horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown winner, he’ll be toting far more than the 126 pounds attributable to jockey Mario Guttierrez and a few lead pads.
The powerful chestnut colt also will be lugging the hopes of American racing fans and participants in a sport that has seen little go right since Affirmed last swept the spring classics in 1978.
Ever since I’ll Have Another’s gallant victory in the Preakness Stakes, those of us who cherish the sport have been asking the same question we’ve asked ourselves 11 times since Affirmed defeated Alydar in one of the most exciting Belmonts ever: Can a single horse reverse the sport’s slow slide and maybe even end up on the cover of Time magazine, as Secretariat did in 1973, resplendent in his blue-and-white checkered blinkers?
Unfortunately, even if the Doug O’Neill trained colt wins the 144th running of the Belmont, the answer to that question is most assuredly “no.”
Until the sport addresses its biggest underlying problems — most importantly the persistent black cloud surrounding illegal drug use by trainers — it cannot begin to regain the prominence it once enjoyed in the sporting landscape.
That would be a good start, but only a start.
Next up would be to use the hard data that has been collected over the last few years to answer once and for all which racing surface is safest for the horses. If dirt is as safe as synthetic surfaces as long as it’s well maintained, that’s fine; the new national body could take steps to ensure that is done. If it’s not, the regulators should give racetracks a limited time to switch to the safest surface, whatever it may be.
However those chips might fall, racing would have a powerful argument to make against those who say that animal abuse is inherent to its competitions.
Another good step, but another small one.
Before moving on to relatively minor problems, like declining attendance, the new racing body — or let’s get really bold and say it’s a “czar” — could take on a really difficult issue, one that has probably turned off more casual sports fans than anything else: The out-of-kilter breeding industry that encourages early retirement of racing’s stars just as they’re beginning to accomplish great things.
This is a particularly tough one because the system under which stallions are exponentially more valuable in the breeding shed than on the racetrack is raw economics in action. But again, other sports leagues offer some possible models. Just as Major League Baseball has imposed salary caps, the new, all-powerful czar could put limits on stud fees that reward racetrack longevity over a short period of brilliance.
Lest I damage my chances of being appointed racing czar, let me make clear that I’m not all about addressing racing’s negatives.
The nation grieved for those hurt, killed and affected by the Boston Marathon bombings. After one of the suspects was caught on Friday — following a day-long lockdown and manhunt — sports returned to Boston over the weekend.
For starters, I’d remind people who in many cases no longer have daily interactions with horses of the elemental connection between and hominid and equus. As the play and movie “War Horse” has demonstrated, people who can’t tell a stallion from a scallion still relate on a basic level to these amazing animals.
I’d also sponsor a Twitter stream, maybe buy a few Facebook ads and, heck, even commission a TV spot or two to promote the sport’s human stars. For starters, I’d get as much mileage as possible out of jockey Chantal Sutherland, whose Lady Godiva photo in this month’s Vanity Fair photo spread is well worth the price of a lifetime subscription. Of course I’d look beyond her more obvious physical attributes to focus on the fact that, in one of the few sports where women compete head to head with men, she’s deservedly on the verge of stardom due to her on-track accomplishments — unlike, say, Danica Patrick.
While I was at it, I’d reach out to the huge Hispanic market and make hay out of star riders Garrett Gomez, John Velazquez and up-and-comers like Guittierez and Martin Garcia. And while I was at it, I’d highlight the behind-the-scenes stars by calling out the grooms, exercise riders and trainers who keep the show running day after day.
And I’d build marketing campaigns around class-act trainers like Richard Mandella and Graham Motion, who can talk eloquently about what it takes to keep the most fragile of animal athletes happy and eager to compete.
Of course, I’m getting ahead of myself. If I’ll Have Another doesn’t win on Saturday there’s no way that the movers and shakers of racing will either move or shake. They’ll continue to press the inert strategy that has not proven so successful over the last 34 years.
But just in case, my resume is available by request.
Orb is the even-money favorite at Saturday's Preakness, and there's a growing feeling that this 3-year-old bay colt may be special enough to give thoroughbred racing its first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978.