Flatter: Churchill fuels hope, skepticism and, yes, cynicism

Flatter: Churchill fuels hope, skepticism and, yes, cynicism
Photo: Kentucky Derby Museum - edited screenshot

Without enjoying it or endorsing it, I appreciate cynicism. I have to. I am too often steeped in it.

“Scratch any cynic,” the late George Carlin said, “and you will find a disappointed idealist.”

Racing is full of cynics. We are reminded of that with every dour challenge the sport faces. Cheating dopers. High takeout. Small fields. And unfortunately, lately, the mortality of our finest athletes.

So it has gone this spring at Churchill Downs the way it did four years ago at Santa Anita and seven years before that at Aqueduct. If, as we are told ad nauseum by television’s cliché meisters that sports’ two sweetest words are “game 7,” the two worst may be “vanned off.”

We saw that phrase again Thursday night, but fortunately this time it was not code for a 13th horse death at Churchill. Prodigious Bay, a 6-year-old horse owned by Oaklawn president Louis Cella, had just finished last in a claiming race. Those two chilling words showed up on the Equibase chart.

“Out of precaution,” trainer Ron Moquett posted on Twitter a couple hours later. “Believe to be a stone bruise. Walked well at barn while cooling out.”

Whew, indeed.

It is a collective breath that is being held with each race at Churchill these days. All the while, well-intended stakeholders are trying to figure out why 12 horses from Wild On Ice to Kimberley Dream have died in the past 36 days.

This, unfortunately or otherwise, is where calls to action and champions of advocacy run headlong into skepticism and, yes, cynicism.

Take what Churchill Downs did Thursday morning as part of its response. Trainers were called to a meeting to hear about new restrictions to try and keep unfit horses out of races.

“My initial reaction is it was a lot of optics more than anything,” said trainer Dale Romans, who was at the meeting. “I honestly believe that we’re a statistical anomaly, that we’ve had a bunch of horses get hurt. With that being said, I’m glad Churchill is driving this bus.”

Romans endorsed Churchill’s three-pronged attack Thursday. No more money for anyone finishing worse than fifth. Horses may not race more than four times in any eight weeks. If they lose by more than 12 lengths in five consecutive starts, they will need a vet’s note to start again.

When I asked Romans on my podcast this week if these moves struck the right chord, he said, “There can never be an overreaction of trying to keep horses safe, so there is a proper reaction, and they’re going to do the things they think can help and what they think is best.”

Was it enough?

The elimination of what amounted to pin money took away an incentive to show up for races with unsound horses. The restriction against racing too frequently would not have applied to any of the 12 horses who have died this spring. Ordering uncompetitive horses out of races already was in Kentucky stewards’ power, and it looked like a made-to-order retort to the death of Kimberley Dream. She was the mare who came into her fateful, final race having lost her last five by 19, 32 1/2, 14 1/2, 31 and 33 lengths.

“Horsemen wholeheartedly support efforts to improve safety for our horses,” Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association president Rick Hiles said in a written statement Thursday. “We also recognize that many factors play a role in these fatalities. Among these factors is the inability to use therapeutic medications, which has only served to limit horsemen’s ability to improve the health and soundness of our horses.”

That gets to the heart of the collective HBPAs’ arguments against new medication regulations from the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority. Rather than parse good drugs from bad, they say, HISA has imposed rules that turn microscopic traces of potentially beneficial doses into a game of gotcha.

This is the part of the script where the cynics usually make their walk-ons.

Not for nothing, but it is worth pointing out that the safety measures imposed by Churchill Downs did not address why Wild On Ice had to be put down after he got hurt training for the Kentucky Derby. Or why Parents Pride and Chasing Artie dropped dead on Saffie Joseph Jr. Or tangentially, why the euthanizing of Bosque Redondo on May 13 was not divulged for two weeks.

A fair response from Churchill is that it is working on these things. That these problems will not be solved overnight. That there are still investigations going on.

Later Thursday, HISA announced it would be collecting blood and hair samples from the horses who have died, provided they were registered with HISA.

These are signs of progress. Indications that, yes, they are on it. But sometimes the cynicism that questions whether there is walk to go with all this talk is a timely message to keep everyone honest.

At least two trainers and another racing insider who did not want their names dragged into this discussion said Churchill is breezily deflecting blame.

After bringing in an expert from the University of Kentucky, track management said last week “measurements from retesting do not raise any concerns and that none of the data is inconsistent with prior measurements from Churchill Downs or other tracks.”

In other words, don’t blame the track. Yet questions about the condition of the dirt and turf persist.

There has been a photo making the rounds of an exercise rider holding a rock the size of a tennis ball in her hand. Since the twin spires could be seen in the background, the impression was the rock came from the dirt track at Churchill. Cynicism cuts two ways, though. Who knows where that rock really came from? And no one ever would alter a photo, right?

But taking the photo and other rhetoric at face value is not unreasonable. HISA put out a news release late Thursday saying Dennis Moore, the former Santa Anita track superintendent who has become Mr. Fix-It for troubled racecourses, began his own review of Churchill this week. That earlier pronouncement about their condition, then, will not be the last word.

All the while the so-called mainstream media collectively sit like Dalmatians waiting for an alarm to go off at Churchill. And in the Triple Crown. It would seem the last thing the sport needs now is to have all three classics marred by an undercard tragedy. Belmont Park, by the way, has had three racetrack deaths since last weekend.


“A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.”

So let me counter Mencken by doubling down on what Romans said about the recent spike at Churchill being an anomaly. And how Aqueduct and Santa Anita answered their crises with pro-active rules, much like Churchill’s on Thursday, to keep unfit horses off the track. The Los Angeles Times points out Southern California racetrack deaths are down 55 percent since Santa Anita’s annus horribilis.

At some point, hopefully starting now, Churchill will have a run of good fortune without any equine casualties. Santa Anita did during its fall meet in 2020. It pitched a perfect game, not that that interested the if-it-bleeds-it-leads crowd running L.A.’s TV newsrooms.

When asked about that, Romans took the opportunity to accentuate an important positive that merits attention.

“You should be out there championing the fact of what we’re doing,” he said. “There’s a whole nuther thing going on with StrideSAFE where we’re starting to put electronic monitors on (horses). ... Every horse that runs at Churchill Downs carries that monitor. Every horses that breezes in my barn carries that monitor. It measures 2,400 motions a second. It can tell us ahead of time a horse that’s heading down a bad path.”

Romans said the technology flagged one of his horses who turned out to have a hairline fracture that could have been fatal with one more trip to the track. Life saved.

But he also knows no system is perfect and that horses are mortal. Rio Moon, one of the 12 who died last month at Churchill, was one of his.

Responding as he and everyone associated with the sport must to those who do not live it and breathe it every day, Romans said, “People don’t understand the number of deaths we (prevent) as a horse-racing industry. Horses are very fragile types of animals. They have a poor digestive system. They have very small legs they live on. They can die from pneumonia, heart attacks. (People) don’t see all the things we stopped the deaths of.

“All horses across the board have catastrophic injuries whether they’re in a field, whether a jumping discipline, whether a show discipline. But we owe it to the horse to make it as low a level as possible. I honestly feel like the industry does everything it can to protect the horse.”

Romans’s declaration flies in the face of cynicism. Whether that is good, bad or otherwise lies with the beholder. Hunting as I must for some trenchant quote to stitch all these thoughts together, I found this from Dorothy Day, who lived to find a happy place somewhere between the outposts of capitalism and socialism.

“No one,” she said, “has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.”

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