08/31/2010 5:49PM

Catch This


I was all set to make assistant starter Kyle Lopez the employee of the Del Mar meet for the way he rushed to the stricken Rockstar Ben on the turf course a few weeks ago and kept him from struggling to his feet – one of which no longer worked – while emergency personnel arrived to administer the coup de grace. Had the 3-year-old gelding been allowed to wander, the sight would have been medieval, offering front page grist for those still surprised to find out that horse racing is a blood sport. There was no way to sugar-coat the ending, but at least Lopez did his above-and-beyond the call of duty part to help make Rockstar Ben’s final moments a little less awful.

Then came a Sunday afternoon when the 2-year-old filly May Day Rose dumped Martin Pedroza on the backstretch and headed in the general direction of the Pacific Ocean. Once alerted to the action by Trevor Denman, the large crowd got involved, oohing and ahhing at the sight of the riderless animal turning into the stretch, footloose and fancy free. Suddenly, for those who took the trouble to glance down the track, the only thing standing between May Day Rose and any number of potential disasters was a lone man in a red vest and black helmet sitting atop a chestnut pony.

Jesus Camacho, outrider by trade, among other jobs, turned his 11-year-old Thoroughbred Max in the direction of the finish line and began to clock the progress of May Day Rose as she approached. the crowd noise was rising and her eyes were wide as the reins flapped and she began to veer toward the outside fence. Camacho and Max picked up the pace, matching the speed of the filly while slowly closing the distance between them. Then Camacho reached out and grabbed her bridle, still at speed, and to the roar of a thoroughly entertained grandstand.

“I was a little nervous,” Camacho confessed later. “There was a lot of public. Two-year-olds they sometimes put on the brakes and then go again. She did that a little, and I almost missed her. She jumped to the outside and then to the inside in front of my pony. But I held on.”

Boy did he, and having saved the day Camacho and Max turned May Day Rose over to her handlers near the grandstand tunnel then jogged back up the stretch to take their position in the mile and a quarter chute, for the race that was now ready to begin. As they did, fans errupted in another round of cheers, prompting Camacho to wave in acknowledgment. Max had no particular reaction.

In the big picture, these are small heroics – the gestures of Lopez and Camacho – requiring a level of confidence that comes only with the practiced skills of a lifetime handling horses. Either man could have been injured, but they weren’t, this time. What they did prevented bad situations from getting worse, something the sport can’t do without.

All of this leached into my reading of a recent story from Associated Press, posted on SI.com and hooked to the focus on Arlington Park because of the Arlington Million, Beverly D and Secretariat Stakes. In the piece. Arlington Park president Roy Arnold was quoted as saying that his track is only "marginally profitable'' and that, if revenues decline, "it's just simply not realistic to believe that shareholders would continue to support expending resources in Illinois with no prospect of a return.''

Thank you, Mr. Arnold, for speaking aloud the terrible truth regarding the unsustainable nature of corporate racetrack ownership. Arlington Park is owned by Churchill Downs Inc., better known by its Twitter-friendly CDI, and as such must hew to the dividend expectations of a publicly held company. It is not known, within the calculations of CDI’s numbers, how “marginally profitable” is defined. But never mind that. The fact that the track is profitable at all should be sung from the rooftops, placing Arlington in select company among the nation’s tracks.

It is the “marginally” part that is impacted almost entirely by the burdensome reality of shareholder expectations – represented by shareholders who may or may not give a rat’s patoot about the overall health of the horse racing business, or of the industries and occupations that rely upon horse racing for their existence, or, heaven forbid, the people who make a marginally profitable living providing skills and services to the operation of the sport.

The AP story concluded with this, from Arnold, in response to the “what if” of shortened race meets, if there were no solution to the corporately defined problems created by marginal profits:

“That means that if you're a racing official, if you're an outrider, if you're a gate crew person, if you're a food and beverage person, if you're a mutual clerk and you work at racetracks, there's no longer year-round employment,'' Arnold said. "So now you're looking at 30 days here or 30 days there or 60 days, maybe, and you get into this issue where can you continue to attract and retain talent? I think the answer is no.”

Welcome to the present and the future, if corporate ownership of racetracks continues unchecked and unchallenged. As for Camacho and Kyle – thanks for the effort. See you at the rodeo.