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The Vanishing Horse

On the eve of this year's Kentucky Derby, everybody in horse racing--from the poorest groom out in the stable to the sleekest zillionaire up in the turf club--is worried sick about the future. Racing fans are getting longer in the tooth as track attendance and revenues continue to decline. Competition for the U.S. entertainment dollar grows ever keener as rivals as diverse as NBA basketball and casino gambling woo horseplayers away. Tracks are closing their doors.

Desperate for a heroic stretch run, warring thoroughbred interests have finally thrown together an alliance to promote and market the sport. For the moment, though, racing has no choice but to crow about its glorious past.

Down in Louisville this spring, the marketeers are selling two memories--Citation and Secretariat--because there's not much else left to sell. Even at that, the hucksters are getting some blank looks. Sanitation? Your secretary ate where?

A decade ago, any reasonably well-informed American with a heartbeat would have known the names Citation and Secretariat and their accomplishments, the leading roles these equine stars played in the history of a culture. In 1998, not one adult in ten can tell you that the Preakness follows the Derby or that Silver Charm won at Churchill Downs last year or that the greatest racing performance of this century, probably the greatest of all time, occurred on June 9, 1973--25 years ago--when Secretariat demolished his rivals in the Belmont Stakes, breaking the world record for twelve furlongs by almost two full seconds. That day, the big red colt became the first Triple Crown winner since...well, since Citation did it 25 years before that, an even half-century ago, in 1948. That's what they're crowing about in Louisville.

In case anyone's still interested, 1998 also marks the twentieth anniversary of the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed. His eyeball-to-eyeball duels with another great three-year-old called Alydar remain some of the most thrilling moments in the history of the sport.

Okay. Quick now, and no cheating. Name three horses running in the 124th edition of the Kentucky Derby this Saturday afternoon.

Did you say Favorite Trick? How about Cape Town? Indian Charlie? If so, congratulations. Editors at Time and Newsweek no longer turn racehorses into coverboys as they did with Secretariat in 1973, and most sports fans can no longer distinguish the ass end of a horse from the front, much less figure out if the poor guy's going to like running a mile and a sixteenth in the slop.

By the way, if you came up with Chilito or Hanuman Highway in our little quiz, feel free to throw this newspaper in the trash right now and put your face back where it belongs--inside the folds of the Daily Racing Form.

As for everybody else, before we get to the matter of this year's Derby, let us remember for a moment a man named Chick Anderson. On June 9, 1973, as Secretariat lengthened his lead through the sun-splashed arc of Belmont Park's sweeping turn for home from (what?) fifteen lengths, to (unbelievable!) twenty lengths, to (impossible!) twenty-four lengths, track announcer Anderson momentarily found himself at a loss for words. At last, he uttered something as memorable to racing fans as Lou Gehrig's retirement speech or the radio call on Bobby Thomson's "Shot Heard 'Round the World."

"He is moving like a tremendous machine!" the astonished Anderson said as Big Red thundered through the stretch and won the race by an otherworldly 31 lengths, under rider Ron Turcotte. I know grown men, some of them with cigar stubs clenched in their teeth, who burst into tears the day Chick Anderson said those words. Most of them still mist over every time they see the replay. They are hard men, but they know greatness when they see it.

Unfortunately, horse racing has lost its magnetism for many. Secretariat is dead. Cigar has retired. Bill Shoemaker's in a wheelchair. There was no Triple Crown winner again last year, because Silver Charm lost to Touch Gold at the Belmont. They've torn down Aksarben Race Track in Omaha, and just last year, Chicago's glamorous Arlington Park went out of business. For the first time in decades, the horses won't be running this summer at Santa Fe Downs. Aqueduct needs a paint job.

Here in Denver, a city that boasts five major-league sports franchises, horse racing hangs on by a thread out at brave little Arapahoe Park, which exists mainly as the instrument by which satellite betting from more prosperous racetracks in other states is legitimized by the state legislature.

This year Arapahoe's threadbare, 38-day racing meet won't even begin until June 13--after the Triple Crown races have all been run--and the horseflesh will once more hail from the lower rungs. Racing secretary Bill Powers tells us the track will host four modest stakes races worth $25,000 each and twelve other stakes for $15,000 or more. By the end of the weekends-only meet, he acknowledges, some of the cheap claiming horses that fill the bulk of Arapahoe's cards will be so worn out that he will be hard-pressed to fill race fields.

"I wish I knew some new ways to get people to come out," he says. "This is a nice track. Weather is good, the horsemen and the fans like it. But..."

On Derby Day, all of America mixes a mint julep, puts on a picture hat and tosses a ten-spot through the betting window. But the other 364 days of the year look increasingly bleak to racing folk. That's why track officials, horse owners, trainers and the like recently banded together to form the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, which means to sell the sport to a new generation of fans. The NTRA's first commissioner and chief executive officer is Tim Smith, who helped reorganize golf's PGA Tour, developed an initial marketing plan for the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games and was a chief consultant when the chaos of professional tennis was molded into the ATP Tour.

"I've learned an awful lot about racing in the last twelve months," Smith says. "But I'm still an outsider. And that's good. That's the reason I was selected. Thoroughbred racing wants to apply the basics, the lessons of other sports, to this sport. That's why I'm here."

Whether a fresh set of eyes or a new approach can save a dying sport is an open question. But until another Secretariat comes along and starts running in front of some full houses, horse racing could keep finishing out of the money.

You didn't really think we'd dare to ignore the actual race, did you?
For the record: We publicly picked long shot Tejano Run to win the Kentucky Derby in 1995; he finished second, 2 1/4 lengths behind Thunder Gulch. In 1996 we went with longshot Cavonnier, who lost by a nostril to Grindstone. Last year we selected 4-1 shot Silver Charm, who won the race by a head over favored Captain Bodgit.

This year our top pick is not very radical, I'm afraid, but our long shot might provide a thrill or two.

After several hours of study and rumination, we have defied our usual instincts and selected Halory Hunter, who is bound to be one of the favorites, if not the chalk itself, in this year's Derby. As you might know, favorites almost never win the Derby.

Trained by Nick Zito and ridden by California's Corey Nakatani, this son of Jade Hunter and Halory shows stamina enough in his breeding profile to handle the race's classic distance of a mile and a quarter, and he is probably the fastest-improving colt in the field. On March 4 he finished third behind Cape Town and Lil's Lad (now injured) in a key Derby prep race, the Florida Derby; but on April 11, Hunter turned the tables on those two rivals in the Blue Grass. He's training smartly and should be one of the few three-year-olds still motoring in the final furlong of Churchill Downs's long homestretch. Of course, if it rains or he draws a terrible post position (rail or far outside) or runs into bad racing luck, who knows?

Looking for a absolute bomb? A huge long shot? Who isn't? Our choice in that category is Old Trieste, and at first glance, he looks like he has very little going for him. Of the twenty or so three-year-olds in this year's big Derby field, trainer Mike Puype's inexperienced charge is second-to-last in earnings (just $97,220 in four races), and his road to Churchill Downs has been anything but glamorous. After just three starts as a two-year-old, his only race this year resulted in a win in a mid-level allowance race. But unlike some of the name horses (Favorite Trick and Real Quiet, just for a start), this exceptionally handsome colt was born to run a mile and a quarter: His father, A.P. Indy, is a wellspring of racing stamina, and his granddad, Vigors, adds even more sturdiness to his pedigree. Meanwhile, the females in Trieste's family provide plenty of speed. He's unproven. He hasn't prepped with the big boys. But with some luck, he could return an enormous price with Robbie Albarado in the irons.

So, move like a tremendous machine in the direction of the nearest parimutuel window. Buy a little thrill to go with your mint julep.