12/14/2009 2:44PM

The Deciders


Everyone's got a year-end list. I've got a year-end list, one I've decided to call "Best Decisions of 2009." Hopefully, that is self-explanatory. Here's 10 of them, because that's as far as I can count without taking off an Ugg boot:

Free Joel -- I applaud any board of stewards that scrutinizes every ride for its level of craft and honesty of purpose, This year, the cases of Jeremy Rose, Jordan Springer and Joel Rosario displayed a heightened sensitivity to the perception of race-riding by various segments of the public. In the case of Rose, who was cited for whipping a horse in the eye, his three-month suspension (reduced from six) by Delaware officials was a blatant bone thrown to animal rights extremists, who would have jockeys riding head down over the saddle. Springer's 10-day ban by Del Mar stewards for an excessively chilly, losing performance on a horse arguably best was torched by an angry crowd of horseplayers at the palace gates. But when Joel Rosario was formally accused of stiffing a horse at Del Mar, it took two hearings for the stewards to decide the case was without merit. This was a good decision, and not because Rosario has proven to be a raw talent of exciting possibilities. It's because there wasn't any proof, and this is an accusation that serious needs proving.

2003-06-03-inside-dutrow Dutrow Power -- Okay, so they're not the Smothers Brothers, and we don't know which one their father liked best. But having been through the last few year's worth of headlines from the reformed drug user and hipshooter Rick Dutrow, who breached the heights of the game with Saint Liam and Big Brown, it is now time for Anthony Dutrow to shine. The decision of owner Rick Porter (Hard Spun, Eight Belles) to supply Tony with serious ammunition is great news, but the media will be sorely disappointed. Tony's a low-key, self-effacing family man who prefers to let his horses do the talking. You can't make him say a bad thing about his controversial brother, and about the only dark marks on his record are a few video late fees.

Magna Cum Lousy -- Blame it on the economy, the dynamics of the business, the phases of the moon. Doesn't matter. The decision of Magna Entertainment to enter Chapter 11 may wreak temporary havoc on its holdings, but in the long run the game will be much better off. If ever there was a business that does not lend itself to the pressures of satisfying modern corporate appetites, it's horse racing. Magna engulfed and devoured a number of regional tracks that might have been able to make it on their own just fine. We'll never know. And bravo to the private racetrack ownerships who said no when Frank Stronach came around flashing his wad. When things get better, they deserve a last laugh.

Jess Say No -- Whatever his reason, Jess Jackson proved to be a master politician by withdrawing Rachel Alexandra from Breeders' Cup consideration before anyone even asked. He let his filly run up a huge delegate lead in the early primaries and now probably will coast home to a Horse of the Year title, despite Zenyatta's grand finale in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

0717-strikethetiger-ward-200x300 Wesley Ho! -- British racing was treated to the unlikely sight of a Yakima Yankee in King Arthur's court when Wesley Ward and his giddy band of game patrons descended upon Royal Ascot in all their rented clothing splendor to win two races in the face of Europe's finest horseflesh. Whether or not World Ward I will lead to more American invasions remains to be seen. There must be any number of stables plotting heavily as we speak. Fair warning, though. We'll be welcome only until the novelty wears off and the British revert to their WWII slogan regarding American soldiers on their soil: "Over-paid, over-sexed and over here."

Free Fridays -- Okay, so Monday racing didn't work. But Free Fridays at Santa Anita was a hit, even in tough times, and represented a tiny step toward the day when the gates to the races can be torn down and fans welcomed straight off the street, without touching their wallets until they hit the windows, or the concessions. Do racetrack operators understand how baffling "admission price" is to a patron who also plays casinos? Granted, it's a different kind of show, and the horses must be seen to be believed. Still, there are some business models that need to suffer a quiet death.

Fair Game -- One that should survive, however, is the fundamental idea that in horse racing the point is to pick a winner, or at least pick a horse or horses with the intent that they place as high as possible. Betfair turns that philosophy on its head and, in its propositional offerings, encourages players to profit directly from poor performance. In the broadest sense, the pari-mutuel system already does this. A winner always profits from someone else's loss. But the reward is still directly in the win, and in that the sport retains at least a shred of dignity. These are desperate times, though, when the opportunists swoop in, sensing weakness in resolve. For now, American racing has decided to keep Betfair at arm's length. Anyway, the last thing horsemen and racetracks need is another predatory middleman peeling away their share of the betting dollar.

3's a Crowd -- Although their work is of questionable merit, the American Graded Stakes Committee inadvertantly furthered the cause of racing's recovery with the long-awaited decision to christen the Sunland Park Derby as a 3 on a scale of 1-to-3. Fine, we've all got to start somewhere. In case no one has noticed, it is the smaller, privately held regional racetracks--among them Sunland Park, Emerald Downs, Tampa Bay Downs and Oaklawn Park--that are going to keep the game afloat while corporate manatees like Magna and CDI continue to drag at the grassroots health of the business. Sunland Park...welcome to the fraternity. Now don't let your local customers down.

Classical Gas -- When the people who called the shots for Zenyatta decided to run their mare in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the season suddenly had the potential of a glorious end to match the excitement of the spring. The decision was not made lightly. These are folks who do not live through their horses--they recognize the sacrifice their horses are asked to make--and their lives would have been no better or worse had they gone another way. The fact that Zenyatta came through with an unforgettable performance was a rare reward equivalent to the chance taken. Sometimes it works that way.

Bobby's Song -- He liked dogs more than horses and horses a lot more than people, but in the end Bobby Frankel's decision to keep private the progression of his illness and its inevitable destination was a gift of class and compassion to the sport that gave him so much. Horse racing isn't pro golf, or politics, so it's never going to supply much grist for the tabloid ghouls. Bobby's battle could have played broadly, Instead Frankel allowed himself to be turned into a ghost, while still among us, quietly plucking the strings of a stable that continued to hum with the passion of his training philosophies. It should be no surprise that top assistant and now main man Humberto Ascanio has rattled off a series of good wins in the wake of Frankel's death. That was, after all, part of the bequest.