Hurrah for Hay-Burners

Given the exalted circumstances of today's professional athletes and the inadequate appreciation most of them show for their good fortune, it's always nice to find the rare individual who does the job without complaint, keeps his mouth shut and demands no special for the occasional raw carrot.

No thoroughbred racehorse has ever been tried for murder or accused of raping a babysitter. None has trash-talked an opponent, acted out in the end zone or punched a head coach in the face. Not even Secretariat tried to squeeze his owner for more money. And Man O'War never got popped for domestic violence -- despite having scores of wives and siring hundreds of children.

But the stoicism, bravery and beauty of racehorses has gone largely unrecognized for decades. These athletes may have brains the size of walnuts, but their hearts are as big as Mother Teresa's -- a fact that escapes all but a few. Sports fans are too busy listening to Allen Iverson's latest CD or begging for Alex Rodriguez's zillion-dollar autograph to pay much attention to the achievements of mere horseflesh. As American celebrity-worship metastasizes and a glut of trash options eats up entertainment dollars, racetracks falter and the Sport of Kings canters on to the poorhouse. Not two citizens out of a hundred know that Chicago's Arlington Park, one of the world's great racing sites, recently closed its doors for three years -- a crisis that in another time would have been akin to the Cubs dropping out of the National League. Ask the guy on the next bar stool downtown how you get to humble Arapahoe Park, and you'll likely get a blank stare. Everyone in the solar system knows the Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl, but here's 13-1 if you can name the Eclipse Awards Horse of the Year. No? He's Tiznow, a late-blooming three-year-old who won four graded stakes in 2000, including the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.

Isn't it fitting, in light of racing's decline, that Tiznow's co-owner, an 83-year-old named Cecilia Straub-Rubens, died three days after her horse's triumph in the Classic?

Now we behold early February, a time when the surviving students of the breed -- cigar-chomping geezers and assorted lunatics, mostly -- start taking an interest in the prep races leading to the Kentucky Derby, the one race most Americans heed. On February 17 they'll run the Fountain of Youth in Florida, followed by the Florida Derby on March 10. Southern California's Santa Anita will host the San Rafael (March 3), the San Felipe (March 17) and the Santa Anita Derby (April 7). New York's Gotham Stakes (March 18) or Wood Memorial (April 14) may produce the next Derby winner, as might two preps in the cradle of racing, Kentucky's Blue Grass Stakes (April 14) and the Lexington (April 21).

But don't expect the results to lead SportsCenter on ESPN or decorate page one of the sports section. After all, there will be monster-truck rodeos and badminton tournaments to cover.

Horse racing's current woes are, of course, not the horses' fault. It's racing's benighted two-legged crowd that deserves the blame, and there's plenty to go around. A few lowlights:

·There has been no Triple Crown winner since 1978. Rampant thoroughbred inbreeding and owners' increasing concern with horses' future stallion values rather than their current racing ability have resulted in a dearth of brilliant, durable colts with the stuff to win the Derby, the Preakness or the Belmont Stakes. Since the great Affirmed achieved that 23 years ago, seven horses have won the first two legs of the series, then failed the grueling mile-and-a-half "Test of the Champion" at New York's Belmont Park. Will there ever be another Triple Crown winner to join the ranks of Citation, Secretariat and Seattle Slew? Perhaps not -- and absent such a star, public interest in horse racing will likely get no lift. The Breeders' Cup, an eight-race, $20 million "Super Bowl" contested on a single Saturday each fall, has remained a more or less private celebration for obsessives already in the fold.

·The organizers are disorganized. Long divided between the rich, who sip champagne in the turf club, and the railbirds, who slurp beer in the cheap seats, horse racing has never found a way to attract new fans -- which is to say, new bettors. The National Thoroughbred Racing Association, founded in 1998, was supposed to promote the sport with a cooperative advertising program and powerful marketing promotions. But the NTRA's much-maligned "Go Baby Go!" ad campaign alienated older customers and failed to bring in a younger, hipper crowd. Twenty racetracks in Arizona, Texas, New York and other states have dropped out of the organization, citing scant returns for exorbitant dues. Last November, racing magnate Frank Stronach, whose Magna Entertainment controls eight tracks, including giants like Santa Anita and Florida's Gulfstream Park, also defected. A desperate deal wooed racing's most powerful man back, but the trouble continues. Last week, Louisiana Downs and Hastings Park in Vancouver, British Columbia, became the latest tracks to quit the NTRA.

· The sport's image is tarnished. Never mind that animal-rights activists abhor horse racing in any form, let alone the spectacle of jockeys whipping their mounts at the eighth pole. Longtime players, always a disconsolate lot, grumble that the "takeout" -- the percentage racetracks get from money bet to cover their expenses -- remains too high. Some operators have cut their take. At the same time, the nation's "off-track" betting parlors (Colorado has half a dozen) are often poorly run, dimly lit dumps barely fit for human habitation. Racing officials have done too little to eliminate racehorse doping, and even the use of legal race-day drugs like the painkiller Butazoladine and the anti-bleeding medication Lasix has generally resulted in smaller race fields and, sometimes, unsound horses going to the post.

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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