Horse racing industry needs a super horse

When Triple Crown-winning jockey Steve Cauthen bought his 300-acre horse farm in Verona, Ky., 36 years ago, he did so as an investment.

As the nation’s leading rider in 1977, the then 17-year-old was on top of the horse racing world; winner of 487 races while becoming the first jockey in history to win $6 million in purse money. He was given the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey and named Sports Illustrated’s Sports-man of the Year.

Horse racing’s popularity, too, was reaching new heights following Triple Crown wins by Secretariat (1973) and Seattle Slew (1977), breaking the near 30-year drought of Triple Crown winners the sport had endured since the mighty Citation’s romp in the 1948 Belmont under Hall of Fame rider Eddie Arcaro.

Buying the farm was a sound investment, it seemed.

In 1978, the Kid, as he had become known, would join his hero, Arcaro, etching his name in the annals of racing legend aboard Affirmed, scoring the sport’s third Triple Crown of the decade in a wire-to-wire, breathtaking win by a nose over archrival Alydar.

And then, as if it were galloping out of the turn alongside him, the Triple Crown disappeared, taking the crowds, the hype, the handle and the sport of horse racing with it.

So now what?

The sport needs a Triple Crown winner, a super horse to serve as a catalyst. As defined by Merriam-Webster, a catalyst is “an agent that provokes or speeds significant change or action.”

This year’s Triple Crown series will be May 3 (Kentucky Derby), May 17 (Preakness Stakes) and June 7 (Belmont Stakes).

Locally, the last horse to run at Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie that participated in the Triple Crown series was Game On Dude. On May 8, 2010, he won the Lone Star Derby (Grade 3) by 4 1/2 lengths then finished fourth in the Belmont Stakes on June 5.

Lone Star Park begins its thoroughbred season Thursday.

Over the past 30-plus years, crowds have dwindled and interest has essentially been reduced to the Triple Crown events and the Breeders’ Cup in the fall. With gambling revenue down more than 30 percent over the past decade, tracks now produce increasingly smaller fields with purses so insignificant it would require a horse to win a race every month just to cover its own expenses.

The industry lost an opportunity to jump on the television bandwagon decades ago because it feared that free broadcasts would steal away their on-track audience.

“It was definitely a mistake,” said Cauthen, now 53 and running a modest thoroughbred breeding operation from his farm. “It really hurt the industry because it limited some of the easy access for people to learn about the game.”

In the process, the industry let a new generation of fans pass it by. By the time horse racing realized its mistake and tried to recover with TVG in 1999 and HRTV in 2003, it was too late. Today, the Kentucky Derby is the sport’s lone relevant television event.

“Somehow horse racing has got to get in touch with this generation and get them to come out to the track,” said Norm Hitzges, radio host with KTCK The Ticket and veteran handicapper. “I went to the track with my dad growing up. I get the feeling that the generation after me, that wasn’t a connection that got made.”

Cauthen agreed.

“Unfortunately, now they are mixed up with the other 1,200 channels that there are,” said Cauthen. “It’s not easy to recover from something you missed out on for so long. Horse racing kind of missed that boat. You can’t suddenly become the NFL after all those years.”

Also, the industry lost its sense of order. In a sport where rules and regulations dictate when and where racing occurs, the industry remains fractured, leaving individual states to mandate their own set of rules governing the sport.

“There’s no question that over the years the tracks have at times been their own worst enemy,” Hitzges said. “They have not combined to cooperate the way they should have to promote the sport. We have examples locally of it with Texas and Louisiana sitting right next to each other and yet they let schedules overlap.”

Bart Lang, Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie’s director of racing, pointed to the difficulties the horsemen face in deciding where to run their horses.

“It would definitely make things easier if we all operated under a standard set of rules,” said Lang, grandson of legendary Pimlico general manager Chick Lang. “There’s a lot of interstate travel with horses nowadays, more so than ever before and, when you have a varied set of rules, it’s tough on the horsemen. It would be nice if there was a central office that could combine everybody’s interest and make it more uniform.”

For a decade now, tracks across the country have propped up their business with slot machines and post-race concerts.

The real catalyst, it seems, might be the very thing the sport was built on: great horses.

“Jockeys and trainers are well known because they are around longer, but the real stars of the sport are the horses. You need a superstar to come along,” Cauthen said. “Take Zenyatta, for instance. She was a great attraction, a great draw for the game. You just need as many of those as you can get. Exciting horses, interesting horses, horses with stories behind them. It’s what makes the game interesting.”

It’s been more than 36 years since Cauthen and Affirmed outdueled Alydar in the Belmont. We’ve heard all the excuses for the long drought: breeding for speed rather than stamina, quicker retirements, the excessive use of performance-enhancing drugs, the need to extend the layoff time between the three races and on and on.

But one must not forget the 25-year lull the sport endured before the three Triple Crown wins in the 1970s. Horse racing has been here before, and out of that situation came the greatest decade of racing in the sport.

“Every time a horse has a chance to do it, everybody gets excited,” Cauthen said. “I remember when I’ll Have Another had his chance a few years ago, people were talking in the grocery store. People that didn’t even watch racing. When a horse looks like he has a chance to win the Triple Crown, a chance to become a special horse, the average guy starts to take an interest.”

A Triple Crown winner would not be a cure-all for the industry.

But that is not the role of the catalyst.

It simply provides the spark for change to occur.

“When I was on Affirmed’s back, he knew who I was and we had a deep connection,” Cauthen recalled. “I went down and saw him toward the end of his life. Every sport needs heroes and great horses are the biggest part of the sport.”

Jared Christopher, 817-390-7383

Twitter: @JaredLChris

First leg

A look at some of the early 2014 Kentucky Derby contenders:

Horse Trainer Jockey
Wicked Strong James A. Jerkins Rajiv Maragh
Vicar’s In Trouble Mike Maker Rosie Napravnik
California Chrome Art Sherman Victor Espinosa
Tapiture Steve Asmussen Ricardo Santana
Cairo Prince Kieran McLaughlin Luis Saez
Ring Weekend H. Graham Motion Daniel Centeno
Wildcat Red Jose Garoffalo Luis Saez
Hoppertunity Bob Baffert Mike Smith
Intense Holiday Todd Pletcher Mike Smith
Constitution Todd Pletcher Javier Castellano
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