This Side Up: Not Yet a Lost Cause

The former Hollywood Park | Horsephotos

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As one of few institutions of American sport to rival its fastest two minutes, the Super Bowl will reopen some painful old wounds among our community. For while many in the Bluegrass presumably feel some allegiance to their nearest NFL team, they owe a deeper loyalty to the very acres on which the game will be contested–to the memories interred below.

Nostalgia for Hollywood Park will be especially piquant now that Arlington Park is in the sickening throes of a similar demise. It's no longer just John Henry, winner of two Arlington Millions and three Hollywood Invitational Handicaps, that unites these two storied venues. In both cases, it's hard to refute the narrative that football has long superseded horseracing in popular culture; that our own sport is like a faded, black-and-white movie, with a script that embarrassingly preserves outdated attitudes, treasured only by an obstinate minority of aficionados soon to be finally inundated by the inexorable tides of the digital age.

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Well, I don't know about that. It wasn't so long ago that everyone was prophesying the demolition of cinemas, outflanked by the domestic miracles of VHS, DVD and streaming. Same with bookshops, which have salvaged a viable market among people who actually feel relieved to drag their eyes from the tyranny of a small screen. But both cinema and publishing first had to be goaded from their complacency. Books were being churned out contemptuously, already halfway to garbage, so cheap was the paper and binding; they had to be made into beautiful objects that you would enjoy handling and possessing. Cinema, similarly, realized that it had to feel like an event, a spectacle, a proper indulgence.

None of us who know the timeless enchantment of the Thoroughbred will ever despair of its ability to captivate new generations of fans; to maintain a glamor once so easily conflated with that of the silver screen, as when founding shareholders of Hollywood Park included the Warner brothers, Walt Disney, Sam Goldwyn, Bing Crosby and Ronald Colman.

But everything depends on our proving equal to the stewardship of these noble animals. And it would be a blithe kind of fellow who congratulated us that we have no need, unlike cinema and publishing when they were in a corner, to raise our game.

As it is, we see a lot of cynics shoehorning high-sounding principles of equity and freedom into the service of their own interests, even when those appear quite blatantly opposed to those of the racehorse and the industry it sustains. Such grubby opportunism is hardly unique to our own walk of life, of course, but you would like to think that even the most self-absorbed and short-sighted members of our community can see how dangerously the stakes have been raised.

Sarah Andrew

Not that these alone need to see the bigger picture. Every time we lose a Hollywood Park, an Arlington, we can't blame only those whose conduct is disfiguring our standing in Main Street. The rest of us need to meet a crisis on this scale with commensurate flair and enterprise. God knows there's no shortage of people in this game with exceptional financial resources and, you know what, maybe some might even owe their wealth to more than hard work and a little luck. Maybe some of them are actually pretty smart, too. In which case, it seems inexcusable if enough of them can't get together and head off the next storied track closure. Just imagine the virtuous circle within their not-for-profit compass: low takeouts stimulating handle, handle stimulating prizemoney and facilities, in turn stimulating field sizes, further stimulating handle.

Coming from a little country like England, I am unqualified to say (though I might guess) why some American horsemen should prefer an existential crisis to fester under the sacrosanct purview of states, rather than tolerate the kind of national solution it plainly requires. As it is, however, that mosaic of fractured interests might well create an opportunity for exactly the kind of dynamism we might sooner hope to see applied to the repair of a dysfunctional system.

Say the current impasse between Bob Baffert and Churchill stays just as it is. Say his attorneys can't prise open the door to the Derby; and Baffert isn't big-hearted enough to absolve his patrons of an invidious sense that their fidelity is being tested in public; and those patrons, for their part, overlook that they are themselves only custodians of a dream for many others, from the breeder to the farrier, who will only ever get one shot at the Derby.

Well, if that remains the case, then what would you expect to be going through the head of any bold racetrack impresario out there right now? He or she will be musing over a first Saturday in May bereft of Messier (Empire Maker), Newgrange (Violence), potentially Corniche (Quality Road), and a whole bunch of other talents being developed by the most powerful barn in the country, maybe Blackadder (Quality Road) if he wins the El Camino Real Derby on Saturday; and not forgetting the fillies, like Adare Manor (Uncle Mo) and Eda (Munnings). How about lining up that lot for a million bucks over 10 furlongs, sometime at the beginning of May? You'd get eyeballs, and you might very well find yourself with a horse that outvotes the Derby winner at the Eclipse Awards this time next year.

Now there's a notion that might concentrate a few minds. And it would certainly conform with the spirit of the age–which is to say, it would bring together two different entities by offering the same answer to the question: “Screw everyone else, how do I gain most?”

Classic Causeway on debut last summer | Sarah Andrew

If that were to happen, then the GIII Sam F. Davis S. will doubtless come to seem so much shadowboxing. I hope not, because it would be wonderful to see Classic Causeway (Giant's Causeway) emulate White Abarrio (Race Day) in boosting the form of the GII Kentucky Jockey Club S.

This is one of only three colts eked from the final coverings of the great Giant's Causeway before his death in the spring of 2018, and I'm glad to see Brian Lynch laying down such business-like works over six and seven furlongs at Palm Meadows. I'm not sure what the masters of the past might say about modern trainers getting horses fit 48 seconds at a time, but I do know that Lynch will be playing to the genetic strengths of this particular colt.

After Giant Game bombed out in the GIII Holy Bull S., the onus is on Classic Causeway to carve a fitting memorial to their sire, who recently brought up a posthumous landmark with his 100th graded stakes winner. Classic Causeway did have the raw class to dash clear on debut at Saratoga last summer, but as a son of a Thunder Gulch mare he's entitled to the improvement he needs, with maturity and distance, to claw back the McPeek pair who had too much “foot” for him last fall.

Certainly a breakout performance from Classic Causeway would feel like a wholesome development in this whole Derby nightmare, as an evocation of old school principles among horses and horsemen alike. Because it's not just the rebels who have a cause. Don't forget that Mariah's Storm (Rahy), the dam of Giant's Causeway, won four graded stakes round Arlington; and his sire's mother Terlingua (Secretariat) won her first three starts all at Hollywood Park. Everything we do, every single thing we do, is built on the work of those who went before us; and everything we do, accordingly, should be undertaken with a view to handing on their legacy in the best possible shape.

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