The Wisdom of Oz: A Horse Racing Allegory

Likening the current state of horse racing to L. Frank Baum’s timeless children’s book “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.”

Updated: July 29, 2019 • 2:15 PM ET

L. Frank Baum's "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" can be likened to many facets of sport.

Today, the state of horse racing is allegorically connected to L. Frank Baum’s classic tale, “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.” It’s a landscape that is brilliant on the surface, full of diverse and fascinating characters. However, if we drill down a bit and look hard enough, there’s negligence, mismanagement and nothing short of a decentralized state.

Running through our Oz is, of course, the Triple Crown trail. Like the ‘Yellow Brick Road,’ it’s bright, shiny and seems to link the country behind the sport. After Belmont, however, we become lost and lose interest. The state seems minor, even irrelevant to a larger audience.

Certainly, local ovals are well-attended on major race days — but on a regular basis for the most part, patrons are like Baum’s munchkins (no jockey jokes here, mind you!) — well-meaning, but cogs in a larger mysterious wheel. Problems arise stealthily as take outs fluctuate, odds change after the gates open and officials shave pennies off winnings called breakage, like licks from a lollipop.

Thus, bettors feel diminutive and underserved. Track leadership is like that munchkin mayor, unsure of the future now that the Wicked Witch of the East is dead.

Speaking of those that fly on brooms or cast spells, they remind me of our super trainers. Regionally, they control the East and West. None can rival their power; and when they invade a meet, look out for those purses!

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They get the best stock for their barns, the best jockeys and service the best owners. They aren’t all evil or maniacal, but some have come under scrutiny for their practices. They can be both a hindrance and a help to the sport, because they’re magical at what they do. Conversely, won’t their power grow so much that smaller barns will be unable to compete against them at the highest levels?

What a spell they have on us.

At the center of Oz, we find a hapless ruler. We have all kinds of wizards in the land of horse racing — take your pick. One example is Wizard Frank Stronach, who owns signature tracks like Santa Anita and Gulfstream Parks, just to name a few. Immediately, that places himself in a powerful set of positions. Despite this, he’s strangely measured with his PR (that odd speech he gave at a hotel after the Santa Anita debacle comes to mind). We don’t really know how much influence he truly possesses.

Cloaked in secrecy, we have venal organizations like Equibase and Twin Spires that control vast amounts of information. They manipulate data-driven platforms that are an Emerald City of capital. Unwilling to put principles above profit, they are costing us by turning potential citizens for the sport into migrants for others.

And finally, what about that oligarchy of stewards who congregate at any given race track in America? Talk about people behind curtains who adhere to their own rules! When those inquiry signs are flashing, who knows what will come next? What we don’t have is a national system of judging races, and that makes these wizards corruptible and contemptible. What will Kentucky Derby 2020 hold?

Despite some of these troubles in our land, we know from Baum’s tale that there were those who were bulwarks against tyranny. Where is our Scarecrow, our Tin Man, our Lion, and for that matter, Dorothy?

Animal rights groups members seem well-positioned to serve as the Scarecrow. They have little when it comes to brains, and most of their arguments for why this sport should end are straw men. I’ve seen very little evidence that they have a viable replacement for horse racing. I will admit though that they have taken advantage of events this past year at Santa Anita by fanning the flames in the fields.

I find the handicapping community to be like the Tin Man; strong in convictions, but possessing little in the heart department. The Andy Serlings and TVG hosts of the world sell and sell their arguments, but they don’t realize how much their opinions impact the tote boards. Some oil might loosen them up to publish their records too; let us all see how hard you folks really work.

If there was a Cowardly Lion, I would think an appropriate one would be the Jockey Club of America. They pretend to serve as a guardian of all things related to horse racing but in fact, they are toothless when it comes to power. They are all roar and no bite with their white papers and flawed statistics. The only solution they have is to ask Congress for help? Cowardly indeed.

Lastly, I think the girl from Kansas is best represented in our horses. They are the only part of this land that seems pure and good. Like Dorothy, they are honest and forthright. They would run their hearts out for us, and do. If only, we could understand their needs better, and build a national system that would codify their treatment on issues like Lasix. Perhaps, like the girl in the shoes, they do just want to go home.

This story of horse racing is like the land of Oz. Off the yellow brick road, you will find a quagmire of regional practices; witches in the East and West, humble scarecrows and heartless tin men, and an Emerald City where a Wizard is ensconced in his own web of lies and deceit.

If only we had a tornado right about now. And maybe, a little dog too.

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