Feeling the Chill - by Evan I. Hammonds

Cold lies the heart of Thoroughbred racing following Eight Belles’ untimely end after Kentucky Derby 134. The dark side of the toughest game in town showed itself once again on the national stage, this time in the nation’s biggest race.

Even prior to her tragic ending as the shadows began to lengthen May 3, there seemed to be a chilly vibe to this year’s Run for the Roses in Louisville. And by chill, we don’t mean a hip coolness desired by either Churchill Downs or NBC.

Two of the better story lines to this year’s Derby were both veteran performers. The tale of 70-year-old Bennie Stutts Jr. bringing Smooth Air—his first horse to the Derby—was a gem, as was the return of the New Orleans saints—Louie Roussel III and Ronnie Lamarque, back 20 years after taking two-thirds of the Triple Crown with Risen Star. While both delivered the goods to the media, sharing with us their great stories, they are closer to hip-replacement surgery than to playing to a targeted younger audience.

The weather was a major factor to the week, as on the Tuesday before the Derby, the temperature was a bone-chilling 38 degrees as a crowd gathered on the backstretch. Standing on a wooden stand by the main gap, IEAH Stables’ principals Michael Iavarone and Richard Schiavo took in the scene at the Downs for the first time as owners. They watched as Court Vision, the colt they co-own with WinStar Farm, galloped past, Iavarone in a borrowed coat, Schiavo trying to keep warm in a windbreaker.

While Schiavo told us, “we came here unprepared for the cold,” they did come prepared for the Derby with the right horse, Big Brown, who was in Barn 22, cordoned off behind a roll of yellow police tape.

The downpour midway through the race program on Oaks day—which was expected to come at midnight—threw a wet blanket on the six-figure crowd, most of whom had dispersed by the time Proud Spell ran off with the main prize. Leaving the friendly confines following the Oaks saw traffic that could be considered normal for a Friday afternoon. The wet conditions the next morning kept the usual call to the post to the infield until much later in the afternoon. Throughout the main facility, it seemed to take a long time for the crowd to get caught up in the Derby mood.

However, it may have been much more than the weather that kept a few people from visiting the Twin Spires or the Derby city last weekend. A downturn in many sectors of the nation’s economy—call it what you will—and unprecedented fuel prices taking a chunk out of people’s discretionary income may be to blame. More than a few people noted area hotel rooms weren’t as scarce as before and local restaurants seemed a little more accessible than in years past.

Away from Churchill Downs, many online players were forced to sit chilly with their advance deposit wagering accounts, which didn’t help matters either. The fans are finding it tough to play…and perhaps tougher to watch.

With Barbaro’s breakdown in the 2006 Preakness Stakes (gr. I), followed by his eight-month agonizing struggle for life, and George Washington’s tragic demise in the middle of the stretch at Monmouth Park at last fall’s Breeders’ Cup, racing faces thousands of disenfranchised fans and stares down yet another “code red” in the public relations department. The fact the organization PETA is joining in the fray is cause for major concern.

The Cold War of synthetic surfaces versus dirt tracks continues to rage. Last year’s Derby exacta of Street Sense and Hard Spun was filled out by horses that had made their previous start on Polytrack. This year was a reversal of 180 degrees, as the superfecta was void of a horse that had ever even started on a synthetic track.

One last chilling thought on the Derby is the closest a colt could get to this year’s winner at the finish was 8 1⁄4  lengths. About 48 hours after the Run for the Roses, none of them was likely to head to Baltimore to take him on again in the May 17 Preakness.

Could an undefeated Triple Crown winner help break the ice?

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