07/14/2010 6:32PM

Much to-do about a song and pants


TUCSON, Ariz. – It is ironic, with the world aflame and racing being singed by the fire, that leaders of the game recently have concerned themselves not with issues of substance, but with trivia.

In Kentucky, time and energy have again been spent on the issue of advertising on jockeys’ pants.

In New York, the lofty New York Racing Association found its fans furious over the change in a song for the Belmont stakes.

The Kentucky issue, using the term loosely, is asinine – or perhaps it should be spelled assinine – that some of the best minds in racing having involved themselves in this seven-year old circus.

The full Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, following a deep committee study, recently spent valuable time kicking around a discussion of rules and regulations that would require disclosure in writing of all aspects of sponsorship deals on pants, what the forms for permission should say, and what the relationship should be between owners and trainers and jocks on this weighty issue. Also discussed was the idea of requiring jockeys to disclose how much they are being paid for the commercials, and where the money would wind up.

It should wind up in the pockets of their pants, of course. They are the ones putting their lives at risk, every time they respond to “Riders up.”

The argument goes back to the 2003 Kentucky Derby, when riders tested the rules and were fined for wearing commercials. A year later a U.S. district judge, John G. Heyburn, presumably ended the matter when he ruled that advertising, even on a jockey’s pants, was protected under constitutional mandates of free speech, and the state should keep its nose out of it.

But here it was again this year, when Calvin Borel carried a ram on his pants – a Dodge Ram. Auto racing’s Dario Franchitti, meanwhile, celebrating his second Indianapolis 500 victory, had a huge target on the front of his jumpsuit, for Target Stores, and other commercials on both sleeves.

A great racing mind like that possessed by a good friend, attorney Ned Bonnie, joined in the recent squabbling. Ned chaired the committee that considered the matter, and said he had learned to live with sponsors’ names on pants, but he didn’t want horse racing to wind up like Nascar, with names planted all over pants and silks as well. Racing should live so long, and fervently wish it could generate that kind of commercial interest in its participants.

All of this deep discussion, incidentally, over the thighs of jockeys, but no comment about a real degradation and diminution of the holiest of holies. How about “The Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum Brands,” now carried as if by ritual by trade journals and others in coverage? I suppose we’re lucky at that. It could have been, “Yum Yum, the Derby.”

In New York, a bad idea brought bad results.

Someone in the hierarchy decided to do away with Frank Sinatra and “New York, New York” as the Belmont’s answer to the Derby’s “My Old Kentucky Home.”

Belmont opted instead for “Empire State of Mind,” popularized by Jay Z but sung, badly, by a 16-year-old girl that one newspaper identified as “Jasmine Something.” A Cleveland columnist suggested it might have been a ploy trying to get LeBron James, a friend of Jay Z’s, to switch to the Knicks.

If so, it failed miserably, on all counts. The folks who actually go to the Belmont, and many who don’t, spoke up, loudly. One wrote, “The singer was inaudible. Were there any lyrics? If so, I didn’t hear them. And the topper, ABC cut to commercial in the middle of this painful exercise. Nobody ever went to commercial in the middle of “New York, New York.”

Another wrote, “What a disaster!”

Still another said, “If they keep that song I am going to boycott in my wagering.”

Finally, one fan wrote, “The song was bloody awful. There was no tune to speak of, no melody, and the singer was apparently off key. Bring back Ol’ Blue Eyes.”

The marketing director for NYRA, Neema Ghazi, defended the choice before the unanimous chorus of boos, saying, “The change is being made because Jay-Z’s ‘Empire State of Mind’ has become a quintessential 21st century theme song for New York City.”

Let’s hope Charles Hayward and Hal Handel of NYRA say “No” to Neema and listen to those loyal and lusty citizens who recognized and had learned to revere the tradition and propriety of Sinatra’s annual thriller, or even the earlier “Sidewalks of New York.” Quaint or quintessential, those fans are Belmont believers, and they have spoken their minds.