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Archive for Monday, May 18, 2009

Filly gives her sport a new star

May 18, 2009

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— Horse racing finally caught a break on Saturday, and for once it wasn’t an ankle.

A sport that has been victimized by bad fortune and nearly ruined itself with bad business had one of its fine moments in the sun at Pimlico Race Course, even as the Preakness Stakes was run amid a light pattering of raindrops.

This is a game that creates beautiful shooting stars for the public to follow and then snatches them away just as quickly as they arrive. They either can’t keep winning or they are greedily hustled off to the breeding shed or they die before your eyes.

Perhaps Rachel Alexandra will be accorded a longer stroll down the runway. She is pretty as a Paris model and wears the saddle elegantly as she strides toward her office gate, her mane braided just so, her dark, shining coat not emphasizing the fact that she is, well, a big girl. Brown is the new black.

And then she kicks their tails all the way around the track.

On Saturday, after a 3-year-old season of dominating the filly races, she took on the boys and America found its star again.

Now the question, of course, is: How will horse racing mess it up this time? Or will the sport finally regain some of the traction with the public that has been lost while spinning its wheels in the slop for seasons?

Just in the last several years, the casual sports fans have been turned away by the heart-rending breakdown of Barbaro in the Preakness and, last year, the ill-fated run by the filly Eight Belles at the Kentucky Derby.

Rather than breeding for soundness, which was more prevalent in the past, thoroughbreds are now bred almost exclusively for speed. This leads to a lot of inbreeding and to the early retirement of the fastest ones when they begin to suffer minor injuries.

The really good ones are too valuable to keep on the track, so they disappear. Or they suffer tragedy before the brief supernova of their careers can open across the sky.

But racing is afraid to let go of what small hold it still has on the past, back when horse racing led the nation in sports attendance, back before online poker and simulcasting and back when great horses would stick around for big races when they were 4 and 5 and 6 years old and gain the same followings as ballplayers.

Criticizing any industry for not adapting to changing times, and for drifting into bankruptcy and doubt, is difficult from the glass house of newspapering, but it takes one to know one.

Horse racing has to find a way to make it financially attractive for owners to keep the stars on the track. It has to either spread out the Triple Crown races or make the series for sturdier 4-year-olds rather than these brittle teenagers being sent out now.

It would be nice if fans didn’t feel they needed a degree in quantum mechanics as they sort through the speed figs, surface variants, fractions and terse comments of the past performances. For most, it’s easier to push the button on a slot machine, just as it is easier to click on a Web site rather than thumb through the newspaper. Either way, without change, we’re talking about industries that leave ink on your hands and all of it is red.

That isn’t how it seemed on Saturday, though, not with that powerful girl keeping the chasing colts at bay.

For that moment, it was all magical again. Please, this time, more than just a moment if you can.

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