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Hurrah for Hay-Burners

Horse racing nears the finish line.

It gets worse. Last December 2, troubled jockey Chris Antley, who in 1999 rode an appealing overachiever named Charismatic to victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, was found dead in Los Angeles, the victim of drugs and a fall in his house. And two weeks ago, the Illinois Gaming Board rejected plans for a riverboat casino in Rosemont, Illinois, that would have paid 15 percent of its grosses -- an estimated $30 million per year -- to the Illinois horse-racing industry. The board's conclusions? The casino's backers had lied in hearings and had ties to organized crime.

Come May 5, millions of Americans will tune their televisions to the 127th running of the Kentucky Derby. As always, they'll see sleek women in picture hats, boozy Kentucky colonels reeling toward the betting windows and mobs of half-naked college kids writhing in the Churchill Downs infield. After two minutes of furious racing, they'll also see a lush blanket of red roses draped over the withers of a colt who might this time be named Point Given or Millennium Wind, maybe Macho Uno or Street Cry.

But the old magic has gone out of the game. And if racing's foolish bipeds don't watch themselves, they may never win it back. If you're shopping for omens, try this. Alydar, the brilliant colt who finished a close second in each of 1978's thrilling Triple Crown races, died in 1990 under suspicious circumstances at Kentucky's fabled Calumet Farm. Affirmed, the even more talented racehorse who bested Alydar in three magnificent stretch duels to become racing's last Triple Crown winner, had to be destroyed last month. He was 26, and a hoof disease called laminitis was becoming too painful for the old stallion to endure.

May racing itself avoid a fate so cruel.

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