By Richard Rosenblatt
There’s more than just Kentucky Derby preps and the Big ‘Cap going on in horse racing these days.
The latest news from Dubai? Due to safety concerns regarding the coronavirus, no spectators will be allowed at the three tracks conducting prep races on March 7-8, for the races later in the month on $35 million Dubai World Cup day.
Also Friday, a second big-name, New York-based trainer, Gary Contessa, announced he was retiring after 35 years in the business due in part to stricter federal and state rules regarding employee pay, the rising costs of running a stable, and his wife’s health.
Yes, the industry is still focused on racing safety, with so many new alliances being formed in the best interests of addressing way too many horse deaths over the past 1 ½ years, especially at Santa Anita Park.
And, although the road to the Derby should draw the attention of many racing fans over the next few days, here’s a look at some of the events that took place off the racetrack over the past few months.
A day or so after champions Maximum Security and Midnight Bisou ran 1-2 in the $20 million Saudi Cup on Feb. 29, the owners of both said they would not send their horses to the $12 million Dubai World Cup as originally planned.
Among the other U.S-based horses who ran in the Saudi Cup and remain possible for the Dubai World Cup are Tacitus, Mucho Gusto and McKinzie.
Contessa’s retirement comes on the heels of Kiaran McLaughlin’s decision to end his training career and resume a former career as a jockey agent. He’s retiring after more than 25 years (10 in Dubai for Sheikh Mohammed before returning to the U.S. to run his own stable) and will represent Luis Saez, one of the rising stars in the jockey world.
McLaughlin, who just a month or so ago left the New York Racing Association circuit to train in Florida and Kentucky due to rising costs and stricter rules in paying employees, takes over Saez’s book for the retiring Richard DePass at the end of March.
“This was a very tough and emotional decision for me and my family, but I am excited for this next step and to represent such a great jockey and even better person in Luis Saez,’’ McLaughlin said in a statement on Thursday night. “I have big shoes to fill as his agent retires.
“I love horse racing and just because my training career may have ended, that passion will never change. I’m thrilled for this opportunity! Racing is truly one big family and I am happy to continue to be a part of this family just in a different capacity moving forward.”
Tom Morley, a New York-based trainer, commented on his Twitter feed: “As a NY trainer married to a NY broadcaster trying to raise a young family in NY, it makes my heart bleed that we have lost two titans of our training ranks in NY due to impossibilities of doing business here. It’s an absolute tragedy and many more will follow.’’
There’s also been a flow of jockeys out of Santa Anita, with Joe Talamo, Martin Garcia and Tyler Baze now at Oaklawn Park along with the news that longtime Santa Anita fixture Rafael Bejarano will be moving his tack to Keeneland.
A pair of Hall of Fame riders also made news, with HOFer John Velazquez hiring Ron Anderson as his new agent, replacing longtime friend and mentor, HOFer Angel Cordero, Jr.
And, of course, the shuffling of racing executives continues, most recently with the announced “resignation” (read: firing) of Tim Ritvo as Chief Operating Officer of The Stronach Group. TSG owns Santa Anita, where a rash of horse deaths last year had more than a few politicians and animal activist groups calling for the end of horse racing altogether.
This change came about five months after Craig Fravel left his job as President and Chief Executive Officer of the Breeders’ Cup to join TSG as Chief Executive, Racing Operations.
And just over a month ago, NYRA lost track announcer Larry Collmus, the race-caller for the Breeders’ Cup and the Triple Crown races on NBC, who left when the sides could not agree on a contract extension.
The only certainty this year – for the time being, at least – is that Hall of Famer, five-time Derby and two-time Triple Crown winning trainer Bob Baffert will have a runner to in the Kentucky Derby. Entering the weekend, he has no less than six contenders – Authentic, Thousand Words, Eight Rings, Charlatin, Nadal and Azul Court.
What does it all mean? Certainly, horse racing has drawn criticism for being resistant to change, but as has been noted numerous times, you can’t have progress without change. What’s been happening in 2020 may yet auger well for the future as those who have been in the sport for so long try to make ends meet, and those new to the sport try to fit in and create a business model that works not only for the industry, but for the public and the gamblers who keep the “Sport of Kings” going.