08/31/2010 5:49PM

Catch This

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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.

binky mcfadden More than 1 year ago
Few individuals can endure the risks or costs of racetrack ownership. Corporate ownership is probably a necessity but ownership of multiple racetracks should be eliminated. On the other hand, racetracks, unlike baseball and football which prohibit corporate ownership, are not franchises and do not participate in a league agreement that permits collective negotiations for tv and other rights. Attempts to organize racing interests in the past have failed. Survival of the industry will require that we keep trying.
Rob Madison More than 1 year ago
When I had heard the comments about AP being "marginally profitable", immediately I thought of the word "greed". It's bad enough that the state of Illinois plays games with Arlington getting slots, then you add the corporatia factor, and I'm not surprised that we see and hear comments like Roy Arnold's. It could be worse though; AP could be owned by Magna.
ejs More than 1 year ago
A crowd of questions: 1) Has anyone at the DRF thought about providing a response section to the columnists? If such a section existed I would have made these inquiries there, but.... 2) Unless the California tracks start charging higher signal rates, how exactly is the higher takeouts being charged to out of state bettors going to go towards purses? It seems to me more will go to increased rebates, than ends up with the California horsemen. 3) And lastly, can you explain the economics of exchange betting; specifically how such wagers are expected to contribute to the financial health of the industry? It seems that such a system would discourage people from going to the track to make parimutuel bets.
Bill Tomasic More than 1 year ago
Marginally profitable. Now if thats not a mouthful ,I don't know what is. Let's see, the shareholders of General Motors would love to hear those words, I think the shareholders of anything named Magna would feel the same. To be able to do much of anything these days and end up Marginally profitable would be a cause for super pizza party and the like. To have put on a super show like the Arlington Million and bringing pleasure to the horse racing set and ending up Marginally Profitable is to be admired. Even Marge Everett would be proud of them. Now thats a Maginally mouthful.
Karen More than 1 year ago
I watched the reality show that had the president of Churchill Downs working incognito on their tracks. He is a prime example of corporate America. He wasn't aware of the working conditions of those his business depends on. He didn't know the back end of a horse from the front. The board looked at him like he was insane when he told them what he was going to do. And you are right about the shareholders. I doubt very much that more than a few of them are horse racing fans. And what did that episode do other than be a publicity stunt? Judging by the comments above, there has not been an increase in concern for the employees. Contrast that to Oaklawn Park in Arkansas. That's a family owned track and it is evident that the owners love the game, the horses, the working people and most important, their customers. While MDI or Magna or whatever they are calling themselves now has offered a multimillion dollar bonus for horses who win the Preakness, it comes with a condition that they profit by - the horses have to prep in races at their tracks. Oaklawn Park's ownership offered the bonus during the Apple Blossom that slo had a condition. While that condition wasn't met, the red carpet was still rolled out and by all accounts, a good time was had by all.
Dale Hargrave More than 1 year ago
My hat is off not only to the assistant starter and outrider you highlighted, but to all of them. As one who often watches a race from the rail it is hard not appreciate what they do. What baffles and angers me are those spectators who think it highly amusing to see a runaway horse. They laugh and cheer the horse on, seemingly oblivious to the danger that horse poses to itself and other persons and equines on the track. Outriders and assistant starters are among the unsung heroes of the sport (I would add grooms to that list as well).