If ever there were a reason for racing patrons to come, the summer-long 150th anniversary celebration of “America’s Oldest Sports Arena” should have been it. But it wasn’t. Not only did attendance decline almost 4% from last year, but the daily average attendance is down over 25% from the high set in 2003 (21,679 against 29,147). What’s more, the ’13 average is the lowest in the last 10 years. In a post-meet column for The Saratogian (9/7/13), sportswriter and apologist Mike Veitch worries for Saratoga’s future, arguing that NYRA greed (more days, more races) threatens to “kill the goose that laid the golden egg.”

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Others are more inclined to blame the weather (isn’t it always the weather?) or, more often, the economy. But as I’m fairly certain that this economy is better than the 2009-2011 editions, that explanation rings hollow. I’d like to offer one of my own by paraphrasing a Clinton ’92 campaign slogan: It’s the product, stupid. Now seems a good time to re-post something I recently wrote for our Facebook page:

Horseracing is in trouble. Although much of that is due to gambling competition and the growing reluctance of state governments to continue subsidizing the industry (racinos), an emerging public sensibility also plays a part. Because of this, advocates must not squander this unique moment in time. By persistently exposing the horseracing wrongs – doping, breaking, slaughtering, et al. – a planet devoid of “The Sport of Kings” can be achieved. Imagine that.

This point in animal-exploitation history reminds me of President Lincoln’s famous telegram to General Grant towards the war’s end: “Gen. Sheridan says ‘If the thing is pressed I think that Lee will surrender.’ Let the thing be pressed.” Indeed, let the thing be pressed.

“A full gate of nine young, conditioned trotters are lining up….” And so began the track announcer’s call of Saturday’s 1st race at NY’s Tioga Downs. In a couple short minutes, one of those finely-tuned horses would “collapse and die” after finishing 3rd, the victim, as the Gaming Commission puts it, of a “probable sudden cardiac event.” A young “athlete” suffering a fatal heart attack, one assumes, is cause for a serious inquiry. But I am quite certain nothing of the sort is coming, for “Volare TZB” was just another anonymous, easily-replaced Standardbred toiling away on some nondescript American track.

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When six-year-old Irish Thoroughbred St Nicholas Abbey, one of the most celebrated racehorses on the planet, broke his pastern while training in July, the prognosis was bleak. But not to fear, if a horse is valuable enough – and with huge stud fees on the horizon, he is – extraordinary measures are undertaken. Extraordinary measures here are defined as 20 screws, 2 plates, a steel pin, and a bone graft.

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Coolmore Stud, the world’s largest Thoroughbred breeder and St Nicholas Abbey’s latest guardian, released this video on the procedure. But don’t be fooled by the manipulative background music, to Coolmore, this horse is but a potential revenue stream, a simple asset. And should the repair fail, boardroom tears, if any, will be shed for money lost, not because another beautiful, sensitive creature has perished. Like Barbaro before him, and in contrast to the thousands of plebeian Thoroughbreds who break and die on tracks each year, St Nicholas Abbey is being forced to endure an extended suffering. And all so that a new set of men can profit on his head (or semen, in this case).

St Nicholas Abbey’s “misfortune,” of course, has inspired a groundswell of racing-fan support. Saving a racehorse, this racehorse, is a feel-good tale. But I cannot help but wonder why these same well-wishers fall silent when horseracing sends its refuse – by the tens of thousands annually – to be strung up and slashed. Whatever the explanation, however, the horseplayer should know this: No amount of love and sympathy for the rare St Nicholas Abbey can wash the slaughterhouse blood from your hands.

This from California’s Del Mar on August 24th:

“Shortly after the third race was run the Stewards received notification from Safety Steward Luis Jauregui that when he was pulling up in front of the Receiving Barn he noticed an individual from the Doug O’Neill barn, which is situated across from the Receiving Barn, enter the stall of a horse with a detention sign on the door and administer a product into its mouth. He confronted the person, who turned out to be the foreman, and confiscated the tube, which had the brand name CB2A and contained amino acids, which are illegal to give on race day. The horse turned out to be Cinco de Mario, which was scheduled to run in the fifth race. Mr. O’Neill was informed of the situation and told that the horse would have to be scratched.”

The supplement, commonly used to boost energy, is permitted “until 24 hours of the post time.” O’Neill’s foreman gave it to the three-year-old gelding less than an hour before his race. This, of course, is not the first time “Dougie’s” been mentioned here. O’Neill’s response? (Paulick Report, 9/1/13) “It was a human error. My foreman was supposed to give it to Handsome Mike, who was running the next day.” Hmm. Remember, the horse’s stall was adorned with a “detention” sign.

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Either O’Neill is lying and intended to cheat or he runs a grossly incompetent ship. Given his track record, probably the former. While an amino acid supplement is certainly not the worst they do to horses, it is raceday illegal for a reason. O’Neill awaits his hearing.

With Saratoga 2013 at an end, the summary is (mostly) bad with some good. First, the obvious: Eight beautiful, sentient creatures were sacrificed so that men could gamble and chase pots of gold…

7/18…Black Rhino
8/11…Charmed Hour
8/17…Heading to Toga
8/25…Sarava’s Dancer and Kris Royal
8/26…Ricochet Court
8/28…Ocean Breeze
8/30…Saginaw

But on a more positive note, the Daily Racing Form reports that both measures of handle are off from a year ago – all-sources .2%, ontrack 1.9%. Better still, “despite running a record number of races and getting mostly stellar weather for seven weeks,” attendance fell 3.75%.

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Horseracing finds itself in precarious times. While the likes of Saratoga, Churchill Downs, and Santa Anita are surely with us for a while, the more pedestrian venues, with neither storied pasts nor media minions to recommend them, are unquestionably vulnerable. Indeed, if not for the corporate welfare euphemistically referred to as state/track “cooperation” (racinos), much of harness racing, and likely a good number of claiming tracks too, would be dead or dying by now. If the Saratoga numbers are not simply a one-year aberration, but rather the beginning of a trend, take-notice concern will quickly turn to handwringing.