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12/31/2004 ... Author Steve Byk looks at the past year -- and finds that the more things change, the more they stay the same. The players might change -- but the issues are much the same as they were half a century ago... But if history repeats, that's not necessarily a bad thing!

Horse racing's year that was, always is...
By Steve Byk

The end of the calendar year is traditionally a good time for reflection. And when it comes to horse racing, a review of the past should ideally focus on the convivial revelry of thrilling afternoons with friends and cohorts at everyone's favorite venue. But as the collective equine community nears its simultaneous birthday on January 1, a glance at the headlines would lead racing fans to fear for the sports' ongoing viability:

You would think when recalling these stories and examining the root of the issues behind them, that the future of thoroughbred racing at this hour virtually hangs by a thread. Except that there’s just one thing... Those headlines are from 1947.

That's right, 1947... Fifty seven years ago the racing industry was wrestling with five of the same problems that dominated the pages of racing's leading journals and web sites the past several months.

In January of that year, grooms and exercise riders at Hialeah struck for three weeks complaining of working conditions and lack of benefits. This past September, a majority of the jockey colony at Churchill Downs "walked" in a dispute over added injury compensation beyond the limited $100,000 provided by the host track.

In the Chesapeake State, 1947 found the Maryland Jockey Club embroiled in controversy over the relocation or renovation of Pimlico. As of mid-December, nearly six decades later, the storied MJC (Magna Jockey Club these days) was shielding itself from criticism of its torpid renovation of Laurel Park and the lack of a coherent plan for desperate Old Hilltop.

February of 1947 saw Judge Dooley of the Thoroughbred Racing Associations announce a 16 point "Code of Standards" designed to guarantee the highest level of conduct possible in member association’s management of their respective racing operations. This fall, venerable Dogwood Stables pater familias Cot Campbell called on the thoroughbred breeding community to grow some ethics and live by them.

On January 31, 1947, the New York state legislature debated a highly controversial bill designed to legalize bookmakers and "off track" wagering. At this month's comprehensive industry symposium at University of Arizona, the increased concern over off-shore wagering and specter of Euro-style betting exchanges were topics of anxious debate.

Finally from 1947, Marshall Cassidy voiced the intention of the New York Associations, which he headed in the pre-NYRA era, to improve the state's management of its meets and racing facilities. Long a football and piggy bank for Empire State politicos, racing in New York obviously hasn't changed much in half a century. (After all, add a mustache to Eliot Spitzer and you've got yourself a new-fangled Tom Dewey.)

The myriad challenges that dominate racings’ off track existence just don't seem to change much from year to year, or decade to decade. In 1947, attendance and handle were down on the major circuits, and the industry was concerned about the long term trends attached to those key elements of the game's success. Where have we heard that before? The fact is that the game promptly went on a three decade tear through the 50's, 60's and 70's that resulted in unprecedented success and popularity.

Are we on the verge of a similar run of adulation for thoroughbred racing? Why shouldn't we be? Horse racing remains the most accessible major sport in America. With the three leading American team sports and NASCAR progressively pricing their products out of the reach of its core fans, a day at the track continues to be the greatest bargain for a family in sports entertainment.

General admission to the Belmont Stakes is still just $2. When one of the biggest single events of the racing year can be attended by a family of five for $10, you're starting out on the right foot. Many of the 120,000 that thronged the grand palace on Hempstead Ave. in hopes of a Smarty Jones Triple Crown, had likely never visited a real racetrack before. Despite the outcome, it looked to me like everyone had a great time and that many would be happy to visit and spend an afternoon like that again.

The Smarty Jones story demonstrates that all the headlines about racing aren’t negative, just as they weren't in 1947. This year featured the further triumphs of Azeri, whose career upon retirement recalls the exploits of Gallorette. The thrills provided by Ghostzapper in wins over Roses in May and St. Liam bring to mind Armed, the 1947 Horse of the Year whose season was highlighted by epic battles over With Pleasure and in a famed match race with Assault.

The calendar year has come to a close with brilliant performances from undefeated juvenile colt Declan’s Moon and filly Sweet Catomine fresh in the minds of race fans. This pair conjures images from 57 years ago when Calumet’s Citation and Bewitch combined for 15 wins in 17 starts as two year olds before meeting in the Belmont Futurity where the soon to be Triple Crown winner bested his female stablemate.

When it comes to recalling the past year, or any year for that matter, what’s remembered first and longest are the moments in racing which become indelible. The Chapman’s and the special feelings provided by Smarty Jones; Billy Koch’s Little Red Feather Stable crew as Singletary stole the Breeders Cup Mile; Bobby Frankel burying his BC Classic demons with Ghostzapper and Mary Lou Whitney drenched from the Travers downpour minutes after her Birdstone delivered victory.

An examination of the last 12 months, or as we see perhaps any 12 months, demonstrates that thoroughbred racing seems likely to continue its off-track fighting forever. But when it comes to the equine competition that provides the greatest unscripted drama in sport, it never seems to lose its luster or appeal. And that is the game’s indefatigable formula for ongoing success.

Steve Byk is a part-time writer covering horse-racing. His work has appeared recently on Bloodhorse.com.


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