10/21/2010 2:38PM

A 17-hand distraction from the real world


Now that the game has reached the two-week countdown to the glittering spectacle known as the Breeders’ Cup, it is time to pretend, at least for a fortnight, that all is well in Thoroughbred horse racing world.

There will be plenty of psychological aids. A 24-hour Zenyatta watch is keeping track of her every blink and twitch, subjecting the big mare to a scrutiny unprecedented in her three long and fully accessible seasons at the track. A crew from “60 Minutes” was at the barn the other day, which of course means she must be the real thing.

Andy Rooney: “There’s a horse named Zenyatta out in California – I didn’t know horses were called anything but Trigger or Ed, but never mind – and they’re saying she’s one of the greatest who ever lived. Well, how can that be? I never heard of her. And she was nowhere to be seen in the Secretariat movie. But then neither was Riva Ridge, so who do we see about that?”

Zenyatta is serving her purpose as the bright, shiny “Hey, look over here!” object of distraction in an otherwise troubled landscape. It would be great if the toughest question to be answered were the great Gio Ponti Breeders’ Cup debate – whether to try and finish second to Goldikova in the Mile or second to Zenyatta in the Classic – but it’s not.

Right there in Zenyatta’s backyard, the desperate state of available horse inventory was underlined this week when Hollywood Park failed to fill its entries for Saturday’s card at Wednesday’s normal entry time. Twenty-four hours later, the Saturday races were finally drawn. But if anyone thinks this is the last time something like this will happen, they have not been paying attention to such basic numbers as declining foal crops and ownership applications.

Just this week, the Jockey Club published statistics that should sober up any racing commission or racetrack operator bent on business as usual over the next few years. Most notably, the number of mares bred in Florida was down 24 percent. In California the decline was 14 percent. Even in bedrock Kentucky, the number of mares bred fell 9 percent compared with the previous year. And the last time anyone checked, mares are where little racehorses come from.

In Kentucky, bless their racing commission, jockeys must once again go to court for the right to encourage mainstream business to advertise on jockey apparel. You would think this would have been resolved a long time ago, especially in a state where the name of Kentucky’s most famous sporting event is officially known as the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.

What minimal amounts of sponsorship and endorsement opportunities exist are squandered by such an obstructionist policy, which was especially transparent in its intentions coming on the threshold of the Breeders’ Cup. The precedent was set some years ago that racing commissions could dictate such terms – based loosely on concerns for owners’ rights and image of racing – but such an approach seems counter-productive as the sport struggles to cling to any degree of relevance. With such snags of access, serious advertisers will never stick a toe in horse racing.

At the same time, the free-enterprising owners and trainers who race at Turfway Park in Kentucky are finding out what it’s like to be members of a union being asked for contract concessions. Turfway management is asking horsemen to take a cut in purse money – times being what they are – so that management can shore up some of the leaks caused by parimutuel downturns. Horsemen have been encouraged that the Instant Racing games on the horizon will help boost purses once again, but those days seems distant when compared to the realities of a meet that opens Dec. 2.

Back to the Breeders’ Cup, while Gio Ponti steers toward his destination, the Cup itself took a slap in the face from the racing interests of Sheikh Rashid al Maktoum, son of Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum and the owner of Richard’s Kid. Fresh from victories in the Pacific Class and the Goodwood, Richard’s Kid figured to be a player in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and he was working in that direction. But now he is gone, whisked away to Dubai, were he is supposed to race this winter. His absence opens a spot in the Classic lineup, but at the same time inflicts damage on the overall quality of the field.

Whether or not a racing movie succeeds should not make or break the sport. Still, there were many who have been hanging on the numbers posted by “Secretariat” since its release at the beginning of the month as if the very pulse of the business beat within its numbers.

So here they are, with perspective, and welcome to the reality of the American viewing audience. Based on box office, twice as many people have seen “Jackass 3-D” than have seen “Secretariat.” Case closed. There is consolation, though, that at least “J3D” did not get this, from Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, who wrote that “Secretariat” is “a pleasurable, seductive fantasy partly because, as we have known from the start of cinema, the sight of a running horse is a beautiful thing.”

Well, yeah.