Flatter: One step forward for racing and two steps back

Flatter: One step forward for racing and two steps back
Photo: National Thoroughbred Racing Association

Palm Beach, Fla.

Sometimes racing gets it right.

Stop right there. That might halt the Twittersphere faster than you can say Elon Musk.

Seriously. The game put on its best bib and tucker Thursday night. Yes, I know. Bib and Tucker would make a good name for racehorse.

The 52nd Eclipse Awards came and went in a snappy program that clocked in at one hour and 42 minutes. It took longer than that to make the rush-hour drive from Gulfstream Park to The Breakers Palm Beach, the resort so posh that they ran out of stars to grade it.

Flightline had his moment. Twice, actually, since he was horse of the year and the champion older dirt male. That second one really needs a name that sounds less like an aggressive vacuum cleaner. The video clip of the horse himself nuzzling a trophy in the hands of National Thoroughbred Racing Association boss Tom Rooney made for a happy ending.

Even having violinist Steffen Zeichner play off the more verbose of the winners turned into a fun, running gag. As someone behind the scenes put it, “You have to get control early, like a referee calling fouls in a college basketball game.” Watching Mike Repole in his showdowns with Zeichner actually made the audience hope he would keep going, just to see who would win the duel.

With Britney Eurton, Scott Hazelton and Maggie Wolfendale-Morley and the newly proclaimed “voice of God” Caton Bredar, they have the hosting thing figured out now. Rather than playing 1-on-500, use a team to keep the game moving.

I do not know how much it cost to take over a big chunk of one of the most expensive resorts in the country, so an NTRA bean counter will have to decide if moving the Eclipse Awards away from racetracks was a good idea. For one night, though, it really felt like more than just the Thoroughbred prom.

But yes, sometimes racing gets it wrong. Like last weekend at Tampa Bay Downs.

That was where exercise rider Daniel Quintero, 19, a native of Venezuela, was killed in a gruesome training accident. A spokesperson for the Hillsborough County sheriff’s department said Quintero was dead when first responders got to him around 7 a.m. local time Saturday.

Around 1 p.m. that day, racing went ahead as scheduled.

Seriously? My first thought was what in the hell were they doing? Even thinking about carrying on with races in the wake of a young man’s death was ill-advised at best. And brazen at its worst.

A track executive said there never was any thought about cancelling races, which also meant there never was any thought about doing the right thing.

It was only 19 days earlier when Damar Hamlin had his cardiac seizure in Cincinnati. Nineteen days since coaches and players overrode the NFL and did the right thing by cancelling the rest of the Bills-Bengals game. If a man fighting for his life was reason enough to call off a game, the death of a young exercise rider on a different playing field should have been a clarion call to cancel nine disposable races.

Since the late Don Ohlmeyer declared the answer to all your questions is money, then let’s presume that was why they went forward last weekend at Tampa Bay Downs. There were $196,000 in purses in those nine races Saturday – and no stakes. The total handle from all sources betting on that card was $3,183,163. The numbers were not insignificant.

OK. So why not simply reschedule the date? If that can be done when there is difficult weather, why not in a literal case of life and death?

Someone who knows first-hand about these issues from doing administrative work for racetracks and in the trenches on the backside suggested to me that Daniel Quintero was not a very experienced rider. That maybe he should not have been licensed. That the industry should police these sorts of things more carefully. That it was critical to take preventive steps to keep this from happening again.

Fair points all. But arriving at that solution has a complicated trajectory. Just ask everyone arguing over the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority.

What happened Saturday was simple. A young man died at a sports venue. Activity should have been shut down for the day. The whole day. No questions asked. Just as a young man nearly died on another playing field early this month. And it was shut down. No questions asked.

It not only was a matter of common sense. It was a matter of common decency.

Finally, there was quite a game of gotcha being played with the Kentucky Derby. David Grening from Daily Racing Form was the first to say lookie here at what someone found in the fine print of the Triple Crown nomination form. Somewhere in all that legalese that looked like a rental-car application was a new, a-ha sentence about eligibility for the Derby.

“Horses under the care of any suspended trainer or affiliates may be transferred to a non-suspended trainer and become eligible for earning points on a forward-looking basis so long as the transfer is complete by Feb. 28, 2023.”

Translation: How dare Bob Baffert do a pick and roll around our rules last year and transfer two horses to a former assistant only a month before America’s sacred race?

Translation of the translation: Don’t show up Churchill Downs.

The terms of Baffert’s two-year suspension for the disputed drug test that cost Medina Spirit his Derby victory were pretty simple when they were laid out in the spring of 2021. Churchill told Baffert to stay away, and he has.

Apparently, that was not good enough. The horses and their owners must be penalized, too.

What is that old saying about moving the goal posts? To take the football analogy a step further, this would be like declaring in the middle of the college season that having just one foot inbounds was no good anymore. Effective immediately it has to be two feet. And only for players from the SEC who had received NIL money. And only since June.

Baffert will have his day in court Thursday in Kentucky, so we shall see soon enough whether men and/or women wearing dark robes and working for taxpayers believe Churchill Downs was inbounds legally.

I read this week how we have ticked under 100 days until Kentucky Derby 2023. It also has been 636 days since Medina Spirit crossed the finish line first in Kentucky Derby 2021.

Yes, 636 days.

Where is that violinist Steffen Zeichner when we really need him?

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