Justify, an unraced colt just four months ago became the 13th Triple Crown winner last Saturday. There are no words to sum up his magnificence both in talent and physique. He is the rarest of athletes – able to deliver on his promise and potential each time he’s competed.
The only tarnish on his royal sheen came from his human connections, who didn’t break any rules or violate any ethical standards, but certainly did discuss and execute plans to ensure their most prized possession completed a Triple Crown sweep in the 150th Belmont Stakes by controlling competition from withheld entries to a secret service like run from a stable mate. As Justify showed such plans were unnecessary producing just another of a long line of stories about how racing can be gamed, even at the highest levels.
Bob Baffert is the most prolific Triple Crown trainer of all time. He has 15 wins in the challenging series with two champs – the drought breaker American Pharoah along with Justify. His Hall of Fame status is without question and history may proclaim him the greatest trainer of all time. He is the sports more recognizable human.
WinStar Farm has modernized Thoroughbred breeding, racing, and partnerships and will likely earn another Eclipse Award and quite possibly a breeding deal just south of $100 million for their latest star. Their drive and talents have produced unequivocal greatness beyond the reach of most who ply in horse racing, most just trying to break even or get a coveted Graded Stakes winner in the breeding or racing lines.
All this being said, the “Test of the Champion” that is the Belmont Stakes also provided equal billing to the perceived and quite real sideshow that is Thoroughbred racing. For those watching and wagering daily at tracks in between the coasts, far from any million-dollar purses, as well as those that dabble in a few big race cards each year, the same belief probably holds – the fix is in. I do not mean that the Belmont was fixed as Justify would likely win that race if it was run a hundred times. It’s the perception that the race wasn’t completely on the up and up and that’s a problem.
The cliché of racing is in the truism that something funny is bound to happen and rarely are racetrack patrons disappointed. Florent Geroux with his bucking, bronco-a-roo run from the gate, blowing through the left-turn only arrows along the clubhouse turn before rectifying his course while becoming Justify’s wingman down the backside, provided the cynic’s fodder this time.
Please hold your “sh_t happens” or apologist views for rider and trainer; there was nothing unintentional about Geroux’s ride on Restoring Hope. Now you know why a NYRA-based rider didn’t get the assignment. He’d be flogged in the silks room.
Yes, it was Thoroughbred horse racing legal. Technically, no foul was made or claimed. No fines or suspensions are forthcoming. Unfortunately, this misses the larger point that bettors tire of – handicapping the human conditions more so than the equine athletes that the odds are attached to – what jockey will ease up before the wire, the trainer that improves his horses 10 lengths off a claim and yes, uncoupled entries that can wreak havoc for all, as anyone who bet on Restoring Hope could tell you. The other Baffert horse was done after 6 furlongs and his lead blocking routine.
Never mind that Baffert had potential Triple Crown race candidates like Ax Man and Solomini sitting in his barn or running somewhere else while WinStar, in a savvy business move, kept a topnotch Belmont contender, Audible, in trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn. The casual observer may ask, “Where are the rules for competition, race riding and such?”
Well, their answer is they are there, but how and when they are applied is left to varied and inconsistent jurisdictions across the country with no general oversight in sight anywhere. Horse racing as a national sport does not exist, even though most large horse racing operations take most of their betting handle from handicappers in 38 states that allow online gambling. (Just $16 million of the $137 million bet on Belmont’s 13-race card this year came from on-track patrons.)
Unlike the NBA, NASCAR, heck even the WWE, there is no one, centralized horse racing body to apply rules, regulations, and accountability consistently and fairly. The Breeders’ Cup has done much to unify drug testing and violations on the two biggest days of racing, but what about the other 363?
Really, isn’t it time for a Thoroughbred Commissioner’s Office to present a safe, clean and transparent product for the gambling public? In every major sport such offices create and share reams of data for free, create injury reports well in advance of games and conduct extensive drug testing with meaningful suspensions to uphold their sport’s integrity. Contrast this with horse racing where inside information is the norm and handicappers have to learn how to read the tote board for “betting” stables, guess why a former stakes horse shows up in a claiming race and wait in vain for the reason why a jockey on a front-running style horse decided to take back to last.
On its biggest day Thoroughbred racing showed the world a special horse running away with history, but sadly sunk to routine lows that rob bettors and fans of a sport worthy of its following. One that will continue to constrict and choke on itself with large stables reducing competition, unsavory insiders that taint the game and capricious entities that only further divide Thoroughbred racing into factions that may reduce the once noble sport to just pictures in books.
Photo of Justify courtesy of Adam Coglianese/NYRA