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Sport of Kings Fades to Oblivion After Troubling Triple Crown Campaign

The Triple Crown season is over, signaling an end to any semblance of interest in horse racing until the Breeders’ Cup in November. Three different horses won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. With little buzz surrounding any of them, the industry once known as the Sport of Kings is ready to fade back into oblivion for a few months until the next horse dies or another Hall of Fame trainer is suspended.

The Ugly

Horse Racing predictions are among the toughest ones to make, but here’s an easy one: The sport will cease to exist unless the competitors stop dying on the biggest stages. Twelve horses perished at Churchill Downs leading up to the Kentucky Derby, which thankfully went off without a hitch. Another, trained by Bob Baffert, broke down during a race on the Preakness undercard and was euthanized. Two more died at Belmont prior to its showcase event.

Sport of Kings Fades to Oblivion After Troubling Triple Crown Campaign
A Statue of Triple crown winner Secretariat with Jockey/Al Bello/Getty Images/AFP

The issue first gained prominence at Santa Anita in 2019, when 42 horses died at the so-called Great Race Place. Tracks have been resurfaced, meets have been moved to other venues, but no one can figure out why this keeps happening. Some say that horses are bred for speed and not enough for stamina. Has anyone considered that perhaps drugs are the biggest factor?

Baffert was suspended from Churchill Downs for two years after Medina Spirit’s victory in the 2021 was stripped because of an illegal medication. Medina Spirit died of a heart attack while training some seven months after the Derby. Todd Pletcher, the reigning and eight-time Eclipse Award winning trainer, is facing a suspension from a positive test involving 2-year-old champion Forte in 2022. This issue recently came to light some nine months after the violation.

Nine months? Where is the transparency? Forte was scratched on the morning of the Kentucky Derby as the favorite because of a foot injury. Conspiracy theorists wonder whether Forte would have failed a drug test if he ran, but either way, it was another bad look for the sport.

Reports have also surfaced that three of Pletcher’s horses at Gulfstream Park tested positive for illegal medications this season. Baffert and Pletcher are two of the sport’s biggest faces. Another trainer of note – Chad Brown – has avoided the drug scene, but he showed up in court after he was charged with choking a woman. Dark moments occur in every sport, but this one cannot take too many more gut punches.

The Bad

Horse Racing news is rarely good these days, and there’s no quick fix. Every other sport that comes to mind has a commissioner, or a ruling body that presides over everything. Horse racing has no such animal. The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority was created in Congress in 2020. According to its website, its goal is to oversee national, uniform integrity and safety rules for Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. This is a start, but will it increase the confidence in those betting online or heading to the racebook to spend their hard-earned money?

The Triple Crown is broken. The days are long gone when trainers wouldn’t think twice about running their horses three times in five weeks. Spacing these races apart would keep the stars from falling. Rich Strike, the impossible longshot winner of the 2022 Kentucky Derby, did not race in the Preakness. This year’s second jewel of the Triple Crown featured only one Derby runner — the winner, Mage. Traditionalists scoff at any talk about spacing the races out, but the time has come to do everything possible to keep the equine stars on the track. If the Preakness were run four or five weeks after the Derby, there would be much more return business.

The Good

Churchill Downs has instituted performance-based policies to reduce the number of times a horse can race, and to keep non-competitive horses off the track. These are good ideas. This doesn’t solve the drug problem, but it will help avoid more potential breakdowns.

Jena Antonucci became the first female trainer to win a Triple Crown race when Arcangelo scored an upset victory in the Belmont. Antonucci offered a great message after the race, one that everyone in the sport should embrace.

When we were walking out, I said there is not a table made for you,” Antonucci told the media. “You make the table. You put great people around you, you work hard. Work your tail off. It will come if you do it the right way. Do it the right way.

Another positive story is Cody’s Wish, who won the Metropolitan Handicap on the Belmont undercard in impressive fashion and is the country’s top miler. He is named after Cody Dorman, who has a rare disorder called Wolf-Hirschhorn and first met the horse — unnamed at the time – through the Make A Wish Foundation. These are the stories that attract non-racing fans.

The show must go on, but where’s the buzz? The elite horses in the 3-year-old division will largely rest until the big races this summer at Monmouth and Saratoga. That goes for the older horses – whether they compete on dirt or turf – as well. Nothing much will happen until the Saratoga meet begins on July 13 with most of the big races run in August.

A commissioner seems out of the question, so here’s hoping each jurisdiction looks at the big picture and does some deep cleaning of its own house. That could not only save the sport, but allow time to figure out how it can survive in a must-have-it-now world that has much more to offer than when the Sport of Kings – along with baseball and boxing – ran the show.

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