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Churchill DownsChurchill Downs
(Photo : Athens)

“The only way you could actually see the race live over here
was on the Internet.”

Bill OppenheimBill Oppenheim
Daily News
Let’s begin with Orb, only the fourth Grade 1/Grade 2-winning colt in 10 crops by the amazing Malibu Moon. You bet he’s amazing, he started out at the Pons Brothers’ Country Life Farm in Maryland for a $3,000 fee, as a 3-year-old in the year 2000 (and what a great job they did with him, by the way), and look where he is now. As you might imagine, he’s now the number two sire in North America, with only G1 Dubai World Cup winner Animal Kingdom’s sire, Leroidesanimaux, ahead of him. The gap was $1.9-million yesterday, but with 166 runners this year, compared to 49 for “Leroi”, this is only going to have one outcome. Right now Malibu Moon is a big favourite to become North America’s Leading Sire this year. He must have always shown them a lot as a racing prospect. He was bred by Spendthrift’s now-owner B. Wayne Hughes way before he acquired (and restored) Spendthrift, and made his debut for trainer Mel Stute over 4 1/2 furlongs at Hollywood Park in April as a 2-year-old, finishing second. He then won at five furlongs in :57 2/5 seconds in May.

But a slab fracture ended his career, and the Pons boys rolled the dice and bought half. Good call. Malibu Moon moved to Castleton Lyons in 2004, then over to Spendthrift in 2008. He’s been in the top six on the North American General Sire List the last three years (third in 2010), and all this with a 14-to-3 filly bias among his Grade 1 and Grade 2 winners (combined) through the end of 2012. It may be America’s greatest race, and the best horse did win, I’m pretty sure of that. He figured to get the trip, he handled the conditions, and won with a Beyer 104, which is at least respectable (Animal Kingdom 103, I’ll Have Another 101, before his Preakness 109), but there were some unsatisfactory aspects to the race.

First, it was run in the slop after persistent rain most of the day in Louisville, and several major contenders, including previously unbeaten Verrazano (14th) and Goldencents (17th), might just have hated the going. Second, Palace Malice more or less ran off with Mike Smith in first-time blinkers, setting a suicidal pace (45:1/5, 1:09:4/5). Everything chasing him backed up as well, setting up the race for closers. Of the first five finishers, only Normandy Invasion was closer than 15th after the first half-mile. Third, and this is really unsatisfactory, from my point of view, Churchill’s infamous hard-bargain negotiating stance meant they priced the feed so high the European racing channels couldn’t justify buying it, so the only way you could actually see the race live over here was on the Internet, and that was only because I borrowed a friend’s TwinSpires account. From reading Michael Bronzino’s letter in the TDN Monday, there were problems in Florida watching Churchill races live, too. Yeah, I get it that Churchill Downs are hard negotiators; and yeah, I get it they’re a public company and slaves only to the almighty dollar. But what I don’t get is why breeders aren’t up in arms. Churchill Downs is not their friend.

When racing was on the ropes in the early 1980s the breeders, led by John Gaines, created the Breeders’ Cup as a vehicle whereby breeders could contribute to the revival of racing, and it worked. Now it’s the breeders who are on the ropes, and don’t let anybody tell you different. North American breeders desperately need to recapture European markets, not just to sell their horses, but to generate investment to become competitive again for top stallion prospects worldwide, which presently they are not. Australia and Japan, please note, are standing the two Kentucky Derby winners before Orb, who will, presumably, stay in America, but only because the owners can afford to keep him.

Yet, prospective customers for America’s breeders cannot even watch America’s so-called greatest race in Europe, because the racetrack company really doesn’t care if it’s free to watch there, or not, just like they don’t care, as the new points system guarantees, that horses trained in Europe are virtually shut out, unless they win the UAE Derby in Dubai. How are prospective buyers going to get excited about American racing, not to mention owners who might actually have horses racing there, like jockey Ryan Moore was when he came back and told Channel 4’s Emma Spencer at Newmarket on Sunday that it was about the greatest buzz he’s ever had as a rider - when they can’t even see the race live? I know nostalgia won’t buy you a ham sandwich, and, honestly, the last thing I think of myself as is a whiner, but I’ll guarantee you one thing, there’s no way this would have happened when Warner Jones, Jr was running the show. Churchill Downs used to work in tandem with Kentucky breeders. Now, they couldn’t care less.

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