By Chris McGrath
Red Smith put it well; of course he did. So well, in fact, that he said it all over again. In 1975, writing one of the pieces that won a Pulitzer Prize the following year, Smith declared that Kentucky Derby week was “the only one in 52 when the instrument of Satan known as horse racing becomes a showpiece of the American sports scene.” Four years later, back at the same point in the cycle, he wrote that little old ladies in Wisconsin would this week be glad to learn that Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster are Thoroughbred racehorses–though there were “vast and sinless areas in this country where they and their like are regarded as instruments of Satan for the rest of the year.” In both pieces, he then quoted Johnny Rotz recalling his Illinois boyhood: “The only time the Decatur paper mentioned racing was to tell who won the Derby and how much money Eddie Arcaro had.”
This kind of thing, to be clear, is a precious prerogative of the fourth estate. We generally feel safe in assuming that nobody out there can be paying undue attention to our hasty scribblings. (Most of the time, candidly, we're banking on it.) And maybe Smith, in 1979, was facing one of those deadlines that loom with a disproportionate burden upon the first syllable. If so, he did well then to refine his theme in a characteristically picturesque formula: come Derby week, “sinless newspapers that wouldn't mention a horse any other time unless he kicked the mayor to death are suddenly full of information about steeds that will run and the people they will run for at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday of May.”
On the day we honor one of sport's great chroniclers, in the GII Red Smith S. at Aqueduct, we should perhaps be keeping this yearly pass from Main Street in mind. Because it is now clearly open season, when it comes to inflicting the benefit of our wisdom on the hapless owners of Corniche (Quality Road), along with others in the same barn now embarking on a GI Kentucky Derby trail that remains blocked, at a crossing up ahead, by a stranded locomotive.
For the time being, there's no sign of any engineers to get the thing moving again; just a bunch of lawyers prodding each other in the chest about who's to blame. And actually, unless I've missed something, none of the ongoing litigation concerns Bob Baffert's prohibition from the home of the Derby anyway. So something has to give–just not, please, the single week of the year when we get the indulgence of “sinless” America. Because if we're not careful, we're going to find ourselves shoving 20 “instruments of Satan” into the Derby starting gate.
Now while Baffert may be accustomed to the feeling, for the guys who spent $1.5 million on Corniche this is a once-in-a-lifetime shot at the two-minute Grail that essentially drives the spending of billions on bloodstock every year. Similarly, for the many owners of Messier (Empire Maker), winner of the GIII Bob Hope S. at Del Mar last Sunday. And it is dreadfully unfair to turn their situation into some kind of test of loyalty, or character.
It's certainly no help to urge that there are plenty of other fish in the sea. With all the considerable respect due to its author, the notion that there is the faintest equivalence between this dilemma and Spend a Buck missing the Preakness, because he could earn more elsewhere, is still making my head hurt days after it appeared in these pages.
No two ways about it: if one of the 20,000-odd Thoroughbreds foaled in North America in 2019 combines eligibility and health to claim one of those 20 gates on May 7, 2022, then that's exactly what has to happen. It's atrocious that anyone, typically having spent a fortune enduring countless malicious torments by the racing gods, should finally see that Derby sunbeam break from the clouds, and light on their horse, only to be told that this is just a theatrical device for the measurement of their decency.
In those terms, anyhow, it's a lose-lose scenario. Half the chorus pronounces that a decent person would already have moved his horse from a barn that has, if only by inattention rather than calculation, tainted the reputation of our community among “sinless” Americans. The other half, meanwhile, suggests that a decent fellow would sit out the Derby and stand by their man.
That being so, perhaps the real test of decency faces Baffert himself. He has to fight his corner, naturally. He clearly feels besieged and aggrieved. But however marginal his culpability, he has to accept some responsibility for putting his patrons in such an invidious position. If he truly has the interests of the sport at heart, as he often protests, then there's a way he might win round a lot of sceptics.
He could say: “You know, I really feel that I don't deserve this kind of treatment, relative to the charges against me. You saw how my horses ran at the Breeders' Cup, where I couldn't even break wind in private. But I do understand that I've exasperated a lot of people, especially after telling the world at Keeneland only a year ago that I was henceforth going to run the tightest ship in the game. And I have clearly exhausted the patience of some who are in a position to make that tell.
“As a result, anyhow, I have trapped valued clients and friends in a horrible corner. It simply isn't right for anyone to feel like they should even think about passing on the Derby because they feel sorry for someone who has already won it seven times. Okay, maybe six times. We'll see. But I am going to get these horses on the trail as best I can and, if nothing relieves the stalemate by the time we get to those 100-40-20 trials, then I am going to insist, really insist, that they be transferred to a trainer who can bank those points.
“I know a lot can go wrong with all these horses in the meantime, so I am going to use all my skill to keep them in the game. But then they are going on loan to Todd or whoever. Because that is the only way I can serve the shared interests of these horses; my friends who own them; and the sport I love. Someday I'll be back at Churchill. In the meantime, this is one way I can show that I can see the bigger picture; that I will deserve to be welcomed back.”
For the guys who own Corniche, after all, it's hardly as though we're talking about Clement L. Hirsch and Warren Stute, whose 48-year relationship we celebrated earlier this week. And nor is this just about the silks that happen to get paired with that blanket of roses. Think, for instance, what it would mean to Sam-Son Farm for Messier to win the Derby for a family cultivated there through five generations.
To a degree, moreover, we all have a stake in what happens next. Hopefully Baffert noticed the latest manoeuvres of those zealots who really do think of us as “instruments of Satan”, now trying to sever slots payments to the New York industry. Meanwhile we, too, manipulate opportunities of political or legal process–against each other. Some people are harnessing ideological lobbies to defend their constitutional right to pump pharmaceuticals into horses. Others, still more barefaced, dare to apply for Illinois wagering rights as reward for a commitment to local horse racing that feels rather elusive in the bulldozing of those beautiful stands at Arlington.
We all have a responsibility toward the future viability of our sport. Remember, we have a lot of enemies out there. Most are vexingly wrong-headed, but that doesn't mean they won't get a hearing in the social media age. So we had better make sure we reach Louisville next spring ready to correct any misapprehensions that might have flourished during the 51 weeks since Medina Spirit (Protonico) gave his contentious sample. Because they would doubtless be gripped, in Decatur, to read that one (or several) of the most talented colts in the crop is barred from the Derby, and why.
In this particular saga, then, we can't afford for both sides simply to keep entrenching their positions, waiting for the lawyers to lean on their spades. Because that's not going to happen any time soon. And a messy situation, meanwhile, could become Messier yet.