by Barry Weisbord
Last Thursday, world traveler/trainer extrordinaire Mike de Kock got me thinking. While walking his Kentucky Derby-bound Mubtaahij toward his morning gallop at Churchill Downs, he turned to me and said, “I knew this was big, but I really had no idea how big.” He was right.
We have become very gun shy, we devotees of Thoroughbred racing in America. Our industry media is constantly finding fault with what we do; some deserved, some not. The non-industry media rarely pays attention to us, and lately, when they do, it hurts. Two congressmen have introduced a bill that would economically destroy us because they feel they should. Animal-rights groups would like to see us be a trivia question. Our position in the worldwide Thoroughbred industry has never been weaker (again, some deserved due to our permissive use of raceday medication and lack of meaningful penalties and enforcement), but much of the turning-up of the collective noses is not merited. A few days in Louisville reminded me of that.
Mike de Kock was right. Derby week in Louisville is unique and world-class. The morning we spoke saw thousands of fans turn out to watch horses gallop. The barn area was packed with the participants’ entourages, national and international media and industry members, and hundreds of just plain fans, many with kids cutting school to take their own picture of a Derby starter, or get an autograph from one of the top trainers and jockeys.
Forget the 300,000 who attended the races Friday and Saturday; what about the 40,000 who were there Thursday to see two allowance races and soak in some pre-Derby atmosphere? They made up a larger crowd than almost any Group I race in Europe. In fact, in a week of nearly unprecedented sports activity–NBA and NHL playoffs, MLB, NFL draft, and the fight of the century–racing was not only visible but really held its own. The Derby TV overnight was the highest since 1992 (how many events can say that?) and attendance and betting broke all records. Back in New Jersey today, it felt like everyone I encountered wanted to talk about the Derby. I felt proud to be in the American horse business.
American racing’s big events aren’t broken. In fact, they are world-class. Do we have some problems that we need to address? Of course we do. But Mike deKock is right. Derby week, the walkover, “My Old Kentucky Home” are among the best spectacles any sport has to offer. But, by no means are we a one-trick pony.
If Mike de Kock went on to Baltimore, he’d enjoy eating crabs and the Preakness runners saddling in front of the packed stands. Belmont Day will feature the best card of racing not called “the Breeders’ Cup” anywhere in America.
Saratoga means the painting of the Travers canoe and “The best is yet to come’ at Keeneland’s Breeders’ Cup this fall. They’re all incredibly special.
We have plenty to be proud of.