Marc Daniels: For Love Of Horse Racing


147th Kentucky Derby

Horse racing has always, and will always, have a special place in my heart. It's not so much the wagering aspect of the sport, it's about the time I spent with my dad at the track. He taught me how to study the racing form, learn about the role of a jockey and how to analyze a race. It's an art and most horse racing fans never perfect the art. But some of the best memories I have is spending days at Gulfstream Park in south Florida sitting with dad and just....being with him,

Over the years, I learned a thing or two about the sport and got fairly good at analyzing those races. I specialized in the annual class of two year old horses and their road to the Kentucky Derby. By the time they turned three on New Year's Day, I could tell you the top 20 horses who had a shot at winning the Run for the Roses that first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs.

I've been fortunate to attend a couple of Kentucky Derby's and it should be anyone's bucket list of events to attend. So when I heard the news that this year's Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a banned substance I was sickened. The news would bring the wrong attention to this beautiful sport and only add to the long list of embarrassing moments in recent years. And the fact that Bob Baffert, the sport's most successful trainer, is at the center of this controversy is both not shocking and sad.

I used to love Bob Baffert. He didn't look the part of a horse trainer. His blond hair and Hollywood looks made Baffert look more like a movie director than a trainer who rises at 4am to train horses. My fandom of Baffert only grew larger when two of my favorite horses won the Kentucky Derby.

In 1997, I followed Silver Charm's path to the Derby and was my pick by early February. In a 13 horse field, a small number for the Derby, the gray colt won and it was a year after Baffert lost the 96' race by a nose with a horse called Cavonnier. Silver Charm won the Preakness but fell just short of winning the Triple Crown when it finished second at the Belmont Stakes.

One year later, Baffert did it again with another horse I loved. Real Quiet roared to victory in the 98' Kentucky Derby and Baffert's fame skyrocketed. But just like the previous year, Baffert lost the Triple Crown by a nose when Real Quiet lost to Victory Gallop at the Belmont.

After winning another Derby in 2002 with War Emblem, Baffert would wait until 2015 before American Pharaoh brought him back to the winner's circle at Churchill for the Derby. American Pharaoh went on to win the Triple Crown and the Breeder's Cup Classic and became the first horse to win the sport's Grand Slam- all three Triple Crown races and the Breeder's Cup Classic.

But Baffert has come under fire in recent years. He has had five horses test positive for banned substances in just over a year and the story is the same. It's not his fault. He claims he is innocent. He points fingers at others and his latest excuse is that he has no idea how Medina Spirit failed a test.

Maybe Bob is being set up. Maybe someone sabotaged a test. He will have a chance to prove that. For now, Churchill Downs has banned Baffert and the industry has come under fire with its biggest name being labeled a cheater.

Owners, breeders and trainers have long sought any edge to win.Some call it cheating or others say it's just the business of horse racing.I won't try to explain about lasix- a substance that was common in the sport- that is being phased out. But like sprinters, power hitting outfielders and weightlifters, those who get caught using banned stuff face the scrutiny they have earned.

Baffert has dodged harsh criticism from the casual fan who only watches the sport for the Derby and the two other Triple Crown races. But to many inside the industry have turned on Baffert and believe his recent penalties for horses testing positive have not been harsh enough.

Top owners still send their best horses to Baffert because he gets results and results eventually lead to huge breeding fees. 

Horse racing got a huge boost during the pandemic. As people sat home thirsting for anything related to sports, several tracks stayed opened and online wagering soared. It brought new money to the sport and new fans. As sports gambling expands at a rapid pace in the country, horse racing has found the expansion of the industry as an opportunity to grow a sport that has struggled to find new and younger fans.

Now this story has tarnished the sport again. I don't think Baffert has a path out of this incident and my guess is the horse will be stripped of its Derby win and purse money will be returned. The Preakness has a huge decision to make this week. Does it let Medina Spirit run which would put the race into a huge spotlight and likely deliver a big viewing audience? Or do they ban the horse from running and create more attention to this embarrassing moment?

For years, I felt the horse racing industry didn't want to clean up its sport. But in the last two years, I applaud industry leaders who have made some big decisions to try and clean up the sport and make racing more safe for horses. Oversight has been lacking but that is changing. The Horseracing and Integrity and Safety Act takes effect July 1, 2022. This will provide an oversight board to look out for the best interests of the sport.

Baffert will not be banned from the sport. He is too big to kick out. He may face a severe suspension and hefty fine, but he will still get some of the best horses whose owners dream of winning the Derby and a Triple Crown. But the latest embarrassing moment is a wakeup call for the sport. Let's see how leaders choose to lead.

The last time my dad and I went to Gulfstream Park was in late January of 2019. The final race we bet that day was not filled with Kentucky Derby hopefuls. It was a low level claiming race- which is a race of horses that are not very good. Bob Baffert didn't have any horses in that race. Without even reading the Racing Form or seeking a tip, my dad wanted to bet $10 to win on a horse he liked. I asked my dad what he liked about that horse. He said he had a hunch and he liked the jockey. Dad was right. The horse won by four lengths and it was the last ticket he ever cashed at a horse track. 

Here's hoping horse racing does the right thing and continues to clean up its beautiful sport. I am just not sure it can be done, but like a low level claiming race featuring a bunch of average horses, you need some hope and luck.

Final thought: The highest price ever paid for a horse was $70M for Fusaichi Pegasus. The 2000 Kentucky Derby winner was bought for $4M as a yearling.

Photo Credit: Getty Images


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