By Bill Finley
It's time to turn the page from what was a horrendous year. Thank goodness. The year 2021 is upon us and, for horse racing, it figures to be an important and eventful 12 months. These are the stories we will be talking about and writing about in 2021:
Will Handle Be On The Rise?
Perhaps the most positive story to come out of 2020 has been the handle figures. With the pandemic causing a sizeable reduction when it comes to the amount of races that were run, betting figured to have declined steeply this year. Instead, entering December, it was off just 1.48% for the year. The number of total races run was down by 24.52%.
This could mean that handle will show a significant bump in 2021. The theory is that racing picked up some new customers during the months where it was the only sporting event going and that is why the handle numbers for 2020 didn't fall off a cliff. With what should be a fairly normal racing schedule in 2021 and with racing perhaps having grown its customer base, this could be a year where the sport takes a needed step forward.
Then again, the 2020 figures could be nothing more than a matter of the pie being sliced differently. Was this simply a case of the same people betting virtually the same amount of money, but having fewer overall races to wager on?
It's anyone's guess, but there should be a concrete answer to that question in 2021.
What Will Be The Impact Of The New Lasix Rules?
Starting Jan. 1, Lasix will not be permitted in most stakes races at several of the sport's top tracks. The ban will include all three Triple Crown races and most of the prep races for the GI Kentucky Derby. This comes after the same tracks banned Lasix in 2-year-old races this year.
The 2-year-old ban didn't have much of an impact as trainers adjusted and learned to do without the anti-bleeding medication. There didn't seem to be any major incidents. Most likely, the story will be much the same when it comes to the 2021 stakes races as the sport discovers it can get by just fine without Lasix.
What's Next When It Comes To The Doping Indictments?
Since the bombshell story broke in March that Jorge Navarro, Jason Servis and 25 others had been indicted for their alleged involvement in the doping of horses, there haven't been many additional developments. That should change in 2021.
By year's end, it's likely that the case will reach a conclusion, with the possibility that both trainers enter into a plea deal. If that happens, both could be sentenced some time in 2021.
We should also know whether or not there will be additional indictments. It appears that some of the individuals who were indicted could be talking, perhaps naming more names. We'll find out in 2021.
What Will We Learn About The Horseracing Integrity And Safety Act?
Signed into law by President Trump Sunday, the Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act must go into effect by July 1, 2022. But it will still be an important story to follow in the year ahead. This should be the year where many questions begin to get answered, among them how much will it cost and how will it be paid for? Horseplayers are dreading the thought of having to pay for this through a higher takeout and owners don't want to have to pay some sort of fee every time they start a horse, Both, unfortunately, are possibilities.
This will also be the year when the members of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority Board will be named.
Will Arlington Park Survive?
Churchill Downs, the owners of Arlington Park, has only committed to one more year of racing, which means 2021 could be it for one of the sport's most beautiful tracks. There should be a place in the sport for a showcase track in a huge metropolitan area, but it doesn't appear that there are many options on the horizon that would save Arlington. Let's hope that there will be a reprieve for Arlington.
How Good Is Charlatan?
It's not too early to jump on the Charlatan (Speightstown) bandwagon. Limited to just three races before being sidelined by an ankle injury, he looked like a horse with unlimited potential after crossing the wire first in the GI Arkansas Derby, a race he eventually lost due to a medication violation. He looks even better after his blowout win over a stellar field in the GI Runhappy Malibu S. Saturday at Santa Anita. The early favorite for 2021 Horse of the Year, Charlatan could have the kind of year that Ghostzapper had in 2004. Don't expect a busy campaign, but he could dominate every time he shows up while posting ridiculously fast numbers.
What Will Be The Effect Of New Jersey's Whip Ban?
Whip reform has been a slow process, but it will take a huge leap forward in 2021 when the whip will be banned in New Jersey racing. The only exception will be situations where it is needed for safety reasons. All eyes will be on Monmouth Park when it opens in the spring with an experiment that could change the debate when it comes to the future of the whip in racing. What happens in New Jersey could influence what direction California will take.
When Will Fans Be Allowed Back In The Stands?
Fans weren't allowed to attend the Triple Crown races in 2020 or the Breeders' Cup. The stands were empty at Saratoga and at Del Mar. That won't change Jan. 1, but it appears likely that, with the rollout of the coronavirus vaccine, there will be a return to normalcy in 2021. That may not happen in time for the Kentucky Derby, but could it happen for, say, opening day of Saratoga? Nothing would be more welcome.
Can Godolphin Win Its First Kentucky Derby?
There aren't many important races left in the world that Sheikh Mohammed has not won, but a victory in the Kentucky Derby has eluded one of the sport's most powerful stables. Godolphin has sent out 10 starters in the Derby without a winner. Its best showing was a fourth-place finish by Frosted (Tapit) in 2015.
That very well could change in 2021. Essential Quality (Tapit), the GI TVG Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner who will soon be named 2019's Champion 2-Year-Old Male, is a horse without any apparent flaws. He has the ability, the right breeding and the right trainer in Brad Cox. He will have to deal with whatever Bob Baffert brings to Churchill Downs, but Essential Quality very well could be the one to get Godolphin into the Derby winner's circle.