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Despite thrilling Derby, horse racing is in trouble

Tue., May 5, 2009

I am sitting in front of my desktop computer – damn the technology! – staring at a blank screen. I work for a dying industry and today I am struggling to write about a dying industry.

I speak, of course, of newspapers and horse racing.

Perhaps some of you watched the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, where 153,563 fans – the single largest gathering of rich white people outside of Easter Sunday dinner at the Kennedy compound in Hyannisport – watched the unthinkable Mine That Bird win ridden by the implausible Calvin Borel, who then gave a joyous interview to NBC’s sublime Donna Brothers before taking a delirious victory lap around Churchill Downs.

That ends the feel-good portion of this column.

Two days before the Kentucky Derby, Hollywood Park – one of the biggest racetracks in the nation, a three-time host of the Breeders’ Cup – canceled its racing card because it didn’t have enough horses. This would be akin to Moonlite Bunny Ranch closing its doors because it didn’t have enough hookers.

Ah, the news is not good on any racing front of late:

• Hollywood Park was purchased by land developers; the track likely will close in favor of a real estate project.

• Santa Anita, the host of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, is owned by Magna Entertainment, which has filed for bankruptcy.

• Pimlico, longtime home of the Preakness and also owned by Magna, has been teetering.

• Del Mar, the short summer meet of Southern California jet setters, has cut its racing schedule from six days a week to five.

• Thoroughbred races in the U.S. totaled 50,119 in 2008, the fewest in nearly 40 years.

• “Mister Ed” reruns, once a Nick At Nite staple, have not aired on the cable network since 1993.

Frankly, the only industry not getting a federal bailout in worse shape than horse racing is newspapers.

(I have written about horse racing’s dire health before; like Amtrak and the U.S. Postal Service, time and technology have passed it by. Alas, being a lifelong newspaperman, I was too ink-stained to see the same fate for my own people. Now, four of my favorite things in life – riding trains, betting horses, writing letters and reading newspapers – appear threatened. Next thing you know, they’ll take away my transistor radio and PBR in a can.)

(Incidentally, I realize many of you are reading this column online. I implore you: Shut down your computer right now, put on some pants and go buy a newspaper. Heck, buy two – USA Today doesn’t count – then send me the receipt and I’ll refund 25 percent of your purchase. With any luck, I’ll be broke within a year but newspapers will be saved.)

So tell me, what horse doesn’t want to run at Hollywood Park?

Great weather, picturesque infield, easy airport access.

In fact, I have never found a horse that has said a bad word about Hollywood Park, other than Giacomo, who once got caught in traffic on the 405 and vowed to never set hoof in L.A. again.

Heck, horses love being stabled in the Hollywood area – there’s always a chance you can catch the eye of an equine casting director and wind up with a bit part in something like “Seabiscuit” or “Brokeback Mountain.”

How do you run out of horses, anyway? Los Angeles is a town filled with horses’ asses, so you figure there’s got to be a bunch of stallions and mares running around somewhere.

Even in nearby Las Vegas – which is in the middle of the desert – you can find pony rides next to slot machines. Several casinos there have something called Sigma Derby, in which small, mechanical horses race under a glass dome while patrons plunk down quarters on the top two finishers. Now that’s technology done right – post time is every 60 seconds, and there are always five horses at the starting gate.

It’s that simple. And the next time I write about horse racing, I’m using a manual typewriter.

Ask The Slouch

Q. Did you even bother taking in the Bulls-Celtics series, or were you just glued to your own voice on poker reruns? (Patrick Cole; Indianapolis)

A. I watched it and I’ll tell you this: Even if I had witnessed my own childbirth, it would not have been as spectacular as witnessing the Bulls-Celtics series.

Q. Do you think Todd McShay, with another year of experience, will move ahead of Mel Kiper Jr. in the 2010 ESPN pre-draft special? (Mike Mihalov; Pittsburgh)

A. Many TV insiders tell me that, at this point, the only thing that can hold back Todd McShay is Todd McShay.

Q. Last week, Alex Rodriguez kept saying, “I’m not going there.” Where isn’t he going? (Ryan West; Pleasanton, Calif.)

A. To a little place just south of the big city we like to call The Truth Will Set You Free.

Q. Do you think the NFL draft should continue, or should NFL teams go with an all-volunteer force? (Paul Smolarcik; Washington, D.C.)

A. Pay the man, Shirley.

Norman Chad is a syndicated columnist. You can enter his $1.25 Ask The Slouch Cash Giveaway. Just e-mail and, if your question is used, you win $1.25 in cash!


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