x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

American horse racing's Triple Crown under threat

The future of American horse racing's venerable Triple Crown is as shaky as an unbroken filly.

Blame, right, denied Zenyatta, left, from winning her 20th race in as many starts in the Breeders' Cup Classic in Kentucky in November. However, Zenyatta is still favourite to be named Horse of the Year. Andy Lyons / AFP
Blame, right, denied Zenyatta, left, from winning her 20th race in as many starts in the Breeders' Cup Classic in Kentucky in November. However, Zenyatta is still favourite to be named Horse of the Year. Andy Lyons / AFP

Voters for the US-centric Eclipse Awards have weighed the merits of three terrific equine athletes to be the 2010 Horse of the Year, which will be announced on Monday. (More on that in a minute.)

The lively debate on which is most worthy offers a welcome distraction from a worrisome thoroughbred issue involving another trio.

The venerable Triple Crown is in trouble.

The "big three" of American racing - the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes - have taken recent hits on all sides. The series appears safe for this year. Their future, at least as currently constituted, is as shaky as an unbroken filly.

The crown's middle leg - the Preakness - nearly collapsed last month when Maryland's racing commission rejected a proposed calendar for 2011. Without a lifeline, Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, site of the race since 1873, and nearby Laurel would be closed.

The governor brokered a deal by which the state would contribute up to US$4 million (Dh14.69m) in slot machine revenue that had been targeted for track improvements and another $1.7m from horse owners and breeders.

Alas, the quick fix is temporary. Other than on Preakness days, Maryland horseplayers avoid live racing cards at tracks as if they were the dentist's office. Potentially new revenue streams are choked off by slot machines that cha-ching at tracks in surrounding states but not at Maryland's.

Last summer's Belmont was in jeopardy for a while when the New York Racing Association (NYRA) warned it might shut Belmont Park because of concerns over fulfilling payroll obligations.

The association was banking on a financial injection from the addition of a casino at the Aqueduct track, but the state legislature denied permission.

A week later, it agreed to loan NYRA $25m, assuring that the oldest Triple Crown event, dating back to 1867, would live to see another year.

The Kentucky Derby? Surely no other sports institution is more entrenched, less untouchable. Right?

They have run for the roses in Louisville since 1875. The race is the shiniest jewel in the Triple Crown, which was first recognised in the early 1900s. It lures crowds of 150,000 on a decent day.

If it is not, as billed, The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports, the Derby is certainly in the leading half-hour.

Even the industry in the nation's horse capital has been battered. When racing dates at stately Churchill Downs dwindled and horsemen moved their stock across state lines, brows were furrowed over the fiscal stability of the Derby.

Desperate, Churchill Downs tried to replenish the coffers with a three-day pop music festival called HullabaLOU. It was a HullabaBUST. There will not be a second. Horsemen in the UAE and European locales might be less inclined to ship their stars across the ocean.

New York's Off-Track Betting, the country's largest such operation, has received last rites after declaring bankruptcy. Hollywood Park's days are numbered; the revered southern California track, speculated for closing, ominously cancelled the last day's card after two races when jockeys deemed the course dangerous.

"The average age of our on-track customer [in California] is deceased," David Israel, the vice-chairman of the California Horse Racing Board, famously said.

The level of racing's popularity is reflected in wagering, and the total handle at US tracks dipped for the fourth consecutive year, this time a precipitous 7.3 per cent.

Racing's appeal is - or should be - irresistible with personalities such as Zenyatta. The Horse of the Year finalist swept her first 19 races, even beating the upper-crust boys in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic. Her running style oozed drama. She would invariably play caboose around the track, then start picking off horses, one by one, until the last one moved to her rear-view mirror before the wire.

Five-for-five last year, with one more challenge left in the tank, Zenyatta was sent to take on the colts again in the classic.

Her trademark charge down the stretch toward 20-for-20 sent volts of electricity through viewers like few sports events can. She came up a head short to Blame, the four-year-old who was an anonymous bystander during the Triple Crown season but is Zenyatta's chief competition for Horse of the Year.

Blame was nearly Zenyatta-ish perfect in 2010: four wins, one runner-up in five starts. Who could blame any voters for topping their ballots with Blame?

The third horse is Goldikova, who deserves better but is likely to finish a distant third because her superb work was done in Europe. Not all, though: the mare out-galloped the guys in the Breeders' Cup Mile, the same as she did the two previous years.

Zenyatta will trot off with the trophy because some voters will regard it as a lifetime achievement award. So then should Goldikova's unprecedented three consecutive wins in the same cup race. She would get my vote.

The bottom line, it makes no difference who wins among this threesome. It is another racing trio that we should agonise over.