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HORSE RACING

Horse racing must avoid pulling up lame

October 24, 2008|BILL DWYRE

Today's beginning of the two-day Breeders' Cup extravaganza at Santa Anita is the first day of the rest of horse racing's life. But understand, this is a sport that goes through this four times a year now, every year.

It didn't used to be that way. In its heyday, racing had little to prove to anybody. Famous horses raced other famous horses and huge crowds showed up. There were occasional Triple Crowns to celebrate. The masses loved it, patronized it.

Then the masses started to age and the more hip sports that didn't dawdle 20 minutes between the next action spoke better to the new generation. The love of game horses was replaced by the love of Game Boys.

Horse racing didn't change, maybe couldn't. It moved at a 1970s pace, clung to the 1970s visions of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed battling Alydar.

With the likes of mixed martial arts and NBA slam-dunk contests slicing into its piece of the sports entertainment pie, horse racing galloped along nicely on the strength of its graceful athletes and the tiny warriors who rode them. The erosion was quiet.

But then Barbaro broke down in the 2006 Preakness, and the eight-month saga of trying to keep a severely injured Kentucky Derby winner alive, a saga that ended as most in horse racing knew it would, called unprecedented attention to the sport. The good news was that compassionate, heartfelt decisions were made on behalf of Barbaro. The bad news was the public started paying attention again, but for negative reasons.

Why had this happened? What was wrong with this sport?

When Barbaro's tragedy was followed by fatal breakdowns of George Washington in the 2007 Breeders' Cup and the filly Eight Belles in this year's Kentucky Derby, the sport started to be viewed like your old Uncle Joe, who keeps slipping on the ice.

Now, the extended fan base that mostly watches four racing moments of each year -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders' Cup -- cringes a little while it waits for Uncle Joe to slip again.

This imagery is reversible, and racing is trying.

The site of this weekend's event, which offers a total of $25.5 million in purses for the top finishers in 14 races, is a beautiful Santa Anita Park, tucked up against the mountains and a virtual postcard of palm trees, sculptured shrubs and brightly colored flowers.

Better yet, they will do this again next year, same time, same place, same California sunshine. The defects of '08, if any, can be resolved in '09.

Racing is tired of hearing about Barbaro and the ensuing breakdowns, tired of getting the public interested and then delivering bad news. A good two days here, meaning safe races that are also great races, would be healing.

It is tired of hearing about the apparent results of in-breeding for speed that may hasten breakdowns. The powerful Jockey Club has plans to fight that.

It is tired of hearing about steroid abuse, and so Richard Shapiro and the California Horse Racing Board have used this Breeders' Cup to draw a line in the sand. No steroids allowed here. They say they've been testing to that end since mid-summer.

Still, this remains a sport of contrasts and contradictions.

The talk in racing administrative circles is always about the greater good. But the reality, among the horsemen who provide the product, is that it is every man for himself and always will be.

Shapiro and his board mandated synthetic turf after multiple breakdowns at Southern California tracks the last few years, and this will be the first Breeders' Cup run on a synthetic. That brought more European horses to the Breeders' Cup than before, because synthetics are closer to European turf, and gave this event the true feel of a world championship.

But if you sit around Clockers' Corner at Santa Anita for a couple of mornings, you'll quickly find out that at least half the veteran horsemen here hate it and expect it to vanish, like Hula Hoops. Trainer Bob Baffert, one of the sport's stars, was so conflicted about synthetic tracks that he threatened to pull much of his operation out of Santa Anita and then changed his mind.

The drug issues that have always torn at the sport continue to do so. Three top trainers, Steve Asmussen, Todd Pletcher and Rick Dutrow Jr., each of whom have horses entered in the Breeders' Cup -- Asmussen with Curlin -- have all spent time in racing's penalty box for drug violations with their horses. Each has denied guilt.

Others, such as Intangaroo trainer Gary Sherlock, are adamant against any use of drugs. Sherlock spoke proudly about how he handled his star's sprained ankle.

"You know how I treated that?" he asked, rhetorically. "I iced it down, just like you would with any athlete. And she healed fine. Lots of these guys would have pumped her full of drugs right away."

Even the projected main show, Curlin versus Big Brown in the $5-million Classic, fell apart last week when Big Brown was injured in a training accident.

It was supposed to be a showdown, a great promotional peg. Now it is Curlin against the world, less catchy and less compelling.

They keep referring to this as a world championship event, and have set ticket prices accordingly. Yet ABC will depart its telecast halfway through Saturday, giving way to brother network ESPN, so it can carry regional college football action, meaning the UCLA-Cal game here. Would ABC depart the World Series in the fifth inning, or the Super Bowl at halftime?

All that being said, this is a chance for the sport to move past its recent painful memories, to dim the memory of the breakdowns, of Big Brown being pulled up in a Triple Crown quest, with nary an explanation to this day.

Horse racing is ready for its close-up. Again.

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bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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