“War and Peace” in 2019: The Russian Novel that is Horse Racing

With the conclusion of the first half of the year in horse racing, the need for a centralized authority in the sport is more apparent than ever.

Updated: June 13, 2019 • 12:20 PM ET

Horse racing may be at a crossroads in its extensive history.

I truly sympathize with “Anna Karenina” (yes, I’ve read it, and not because Oprah said so). What an unbelievable mess!

It reminds me of the hash I made in that predictions piece back in December concerning the forthcoming year. I had no clue what was slated for 2019 — No one did, so at least I can take solace in that.

Nevertheless, here we are. Horse racing’s first part of the year, which centers on the Triple Crown season, is in the books, with asterisks of course.

I feel like I just read a half-dozen Russian novels in an afternoon.

We had supposed intrigue at Santa Anita, mistaken identity at Churchill, the personification of individuality in the Preakness, the impact of immigration policies on the backstretch and a pretender with the prefix “Sir,” who emerged at Belmont as a czar.

Anton Chekov couldn’t have written this stuff any better.

As I see it, one of the figurative points that emerged this spring concerned the question of authority. Who should be vested with it? Who should wield it? And in the end, how can a decentralized horse racing system in America continue to exist?

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The debate over horse health and humans’ fiduciary responsibility to them took center stage once again. Yet, cultural norms and the role of the press changed the conversation for good.

Amid the rising death toll at Santa Anita and calls for the track to shut down, several voices seemed to suggest that any discussion was good for the sport and its future. I’m not so sure and would qualify that assertion just a smidge. Any discussion is good for the sport and its future, and here is the caveat: if it leads somewhere that makes sense and falls in line with international standards.

This first half of 2019 has publicly exposed deep fissures and a series of paradoxes in American racing. We are strong on equine science, but not always across state lines. Old tropes remain, i.e. sectors of the business still believe horses run more than they did in the old days, which isn’t true. Others insist that Lasix is not the answer, but they cannot agree on how to move away from it.

Strangely, stewards are professional, but they can be fortresses marooned on the frontier, adhering to their own altars. Finally, we have these venerable entities, like the Jockey Club of America, that are wedded to the idea that federal legislation is the answer to codification in the sport.

Probably most telling is the conundrum that track handles were up for the most part, especially on Triple Crown race days. So much for bettors being swayed by animal rights groups and thus turned off by track fatalities.

Hence, we might conclude that racing in the United States continues to have much promise, but that’s specious reasoning considering where we’ve just been. What we need to continue to hope for is the creation of a centralized authority that could govern from near and far.

Think what Rodman Wanamaker did in 1916, when he hosted a consortium of interested parties that forged what became known as the Professional Golfers’ Association of America (PGA).

Until we come together as a sport, divided we will be.

As the second half of the year begins, we have much to celebrate and look forward to. The NYRA has invested in a new turf Triple Crown series for males and females. Saratoga, Del Mar and eventually Kentucky Downs will bring us some wonderful fields. The year will end in early November at Santa Anita, where the controversy started, when the Breeders’ Cup returns to the “Great Race Place.”

To return to the Russian novel metaphor, maybe all we can expect from horse racing in 2019 is more finger-pointing, blame-dispensing, long-winded sermons and high-minded directionless souls. Still, we will hopefully encounter more of what the mercurial Gary West proposed when he called for a match race of sorts between the Derby provocateurs. It was very Charles Howard from Seabiscuit fame, with some Don King and Raskolnikov from “Crime and Punishment” sprinkled in.

The point is, there’s a power grab available in horse racing. Who will fill that void? A Czar, an oligarchy, or perhaps the people themselves?

I’m not sure.

What I do know is that I’m now full of practiced apathy on this subject, but still keeping a few doses of adrenaline on my bedside table.

If what is to come is anything remotely similar to the first half of the year, count on a bevy of opinions, cat calls for an end to morally reprehensible behavior and in the end, enough themes to fill a host of Russian novels.

Eat your heart out Tolstoy.

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