As I wait for my thoughts to coalesce after a dispiriting Preakness, here are some scattered notes and emotions:
-Horse racing is an unfair sport. In no other sport does so much rest on the luck of the draw. It matters what post you get, it matters what part of the track is fast, it matters who's to your left and who's to your right, and it matters who else is in the field. The bottom line, exiting the Preakness, is that Orb wasn't the horse we wanted him to be -- the great ones have the power to overcome adversity. At the same time, however, it's hard to ignore how certain immutable circumstances -- his post, the slowness of the inner-track, the meandering pace of the field -- affected him, and all of our hopes.
-Ironically, had there been better horses in the field, Orb might have won. In the days leading up to the Preakness, commentators salivated over the fact that a lot of Orb's biggest potential challengers were dropping out -- Normandy Invasion, Revolutionary, Overanalyze, Golden Soul. But the fact of the matter is that the inclusion of these horses might have helped Orb -- better horses in the field might have spread it out, as different colts made their moves, giving Orb some room to run. As it stood, the group was such a bunch of plodders that they were content running in a slow, tight pack from beginning to end.
-What the heck happened to Goldencents? If a time traveler told me one week ago that the Preakness would be run in fractions of 23.94/48.60/1:13.26, and that Orb wouldn't win, I would've assumed that Goldencents had won by seven lengths. Yet even though the race set up perfectly for him, he completely pooped out -- unable to keep up with the previously unremarkable Oxbow. The writing was on the wall throughout the week with the Doug O'Neill camp, as the trainer changed strategies with his workout routine four days before the race. But still, this was a surprising result for a horse who so many expected to be capable.
-Racing still has very big, very definable, and very fixable problems. William C. Rhoden, of the New York Times, wrote a couple of columns this week that were absolutely terrific. The latest, titled "A Sport Less in Need of a Strong Runner Than a Strong Voice," could not be put any better. A national commissioner is absolutely essential for the sport, and is one of several commonsense measures that could legitimately help a sport whose problems are more constructed than inherent. Other key reforms: transparency, accountability, and viable plans for horses after racing.
-The laws of probability are still on our side. The 2000s, though lacking in Triple Crown champions, still produced a number of remarkable horses: Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex, Big Brown, Barbaro, Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, Curlin. The 2010s, by comparison, have yet to measure up. If you believe in things tending to average out, then we're in for some good ones. Of course, the laws of probability also tell us that one year has no direct effect on the next. The disappointment of Orb has no lasting power. We have every reason to believe in next year, as ever.
"How much longer can this go on?" a writer asked me standing on the rail of Pimlico's press box.
"The sport or the track?"
"I meant both."
There are fewer than one hundred people outside today for the races at Pimlico Race Course. Those inside, slightly greater in number, represent two sides of the human species, separated by an ocean of circumstance: patrons of a luncheon, pink napkins and poor view of the track; beneath them, those with nothing to lose and losing it anyway.
They have congregated two days in advance of the one day that keeps Pimlico Race Course alive, and they have not been joined by many. The horses are poor, as are the men with the flat caps who smell like smoke in the clubhouse, for whom live racing and simulcasts are identical.
The announcer speaks to no one, the horses run for no one, and the barns sit sadly in their indifference near the shattered windows on Pimlico Road. The houses lining the track give faith to no one, lying next to the burned out and the condemned, the old hopes and the damned.
There is no glory to be found here.
Post position doesn't matter -- that was the consensus for the 138th Preakness -- at least until Orb drew post position one, and everyone decided that that was terrible. What luck! A one in nine shot at the only result that would cause any drama, and now we have it, a horse race narrative in advance of the horse race, a perfect story of suspense and suspended celebration.
Drama is the one thing this Preakness, to this point, was lacking: Orb has been declared the even-money favorite -- likely to rise to the stages of negative investment by the time the field goes off -- and the media has in large part already moved on to wide-eyed dreaming about the possibilities of a Triple Crown. Two weeks ago, the Derby field generally regarded as undistinguished, the idea of a Triple Crown was light-years from anybody's mind. But Orb won going away, and his trainer represents the best racing has to offer, and thus we have allowed ourselves to hope.
So, what of the post positions, and the thoughts of the connections going into the race?
"It's not what we wanted, but it's not going to win or break us," Jennifer Patterson, Orb's exercise rider, told me regarding his draw. "There's only eight other horses in the race. It's not the end of the world. We're going to be fine with it."
Patterson actually thought that drawing the speed horses 2 and 3 might help.
"If there's speed on the outside of us, they will go, and he can do his thing and kind of stay back. And then obviously we can get around the outside like he wants to do."
At the Goldencents camp, which was roused into a manufactured applause by trainer Doug O'Neill two beats too late, jockey Kevin Krigger thought for a while before answering my question about whether his horse was underrated at 8-1 odds.
"I don't even know what to say about the odds, to be honest, you know, but we know what we got and we're coming into this to try to get his best effort out of him. Unfortunately we didn't get his best effort in the Derby."
Goldencents finished the Derby a disappointing 17th after wasting his energy tracking the early speed two horses to his right. He's in an identical situation here, with Titletown Five, the sprinter, going off one gate to his outside.
"We're ready to win," Krigger said. "We are."
As for Chip McGaughey, the bright-eyed son of Orb's legendary trainer, the excitement of the week was unabated.
"He's using words that normally he doesn't ever use when referring to his horses," he said of his father.
"Dad's always been a trainer and it's great to see him on this stage."
Finally, I spoke with D. Wayne Lukas, the elder statesman of the room at 77.
"I think we're better than most people think," he said.
And I walked a bit in the jazz and the women and the cards with the names of the horses and I stepped out onto the dirt.
The latest drug overage of thoroughbred horse trainer Rudy Rodriguez shines a grim light on a nagging reality of his sport: in theory, for the sake of the sport's ethics, the scales of risk must be tipped overwhelmingly in favor of horses' safety; in practice, they often are not.
Rodriguez was caught Friday with a fourth overage of the drug Banamine -- a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory -- in slightly over a year. Rodriguez previously had a violation so high that, instead of resorting to the trainer's usual defense of contaminated feed or an erring veterinarian, he contended that it was sabotage.
There is a fundamental question at the heart of horse racing: is it right for humans to possess such control over horses when their influence can so often be destructive? The redemption of the sport, expressed as the love of the horse, requires an inordinate abundance of caution. Yet this caution that is so obvious as an organizing principle of the enterprise is flaunted regularly, not just by shameful trainers but by an enabling coterie of indifferent journalists, passive insiders, and equivocating leaders.
Heading into the Derby, Rodriguez's record was so troubling that he was called before the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to explain why he should have a license -- a good question made even better by his 2007 suspension in relation to his role as an assistant to since-disgraced trainer Richard Dutrow. He was eventually granted his license under the condition that his horse, Vyjack, undergo 24-hour video surveillance.
What is striking is not the medication overage in particular. Banamine is permitted in horses as long as levels remain below a certain level on race day. The problem is how many people are willing to give trainers like Rodriguez the benefit of the doubt.
"I just think it would be a shame if Rudy didn't get to have his name on the program and walk over with his horse," testified Dale Romans, who won last year's Eclipse Award as the nation's most outstanding trainer, at Rodriguez's hearing, later adding, "I don’t think the commission should have singled Rudy out. It’s ridiculous.”
“It just breaks my heart that he has to go through this," said Michael Dubb, a member of the New York Racing Association's board of directors. "You shouldn’t be singled out because you work hard.”
Racing journalists wrote "against-the-odds" pieces about Rodriguez as the Derby approached, glossing over the absolutely preposterous claim of perennial sabotage in order to focus on bubblegum narratives of how Rodriguez "won’t let the scrutiny interfere with his first Derby experience." Other pieces glorified the trainer's work ethic and downplayed the severity of the violation.
These accounts have the sport's risk calculus backwards. Horses are in humans' control, and thus the preponderance of scrutiny must always face those vying for that authority. The burden of proof should lie squarely on Rodriguez, to protect horse instead of horseman, because mistakes in the other direction are so much more costly. Those defending Rodriguez exhibit a fundamental misunderstanding of who should be protected.
Indeed, there are worse drugs in racing than Banamine. But all painkillers -- in a sport where masked pain can lead unfit horses to doomed races -- must be treated with skepticism. The problem with horse racing lies not with painkillers per se, but in their abuse, and this is where the sport's watchdogs have been asleep.
Every weekend, we share timely nonfiction from publications large and (mostly) small. This Sunday, the focus is on Russia, with three excellent stories covering the strange, tragic, and overlooked.
Peter Pomerantsev on the creative eccentricities of Vladislav Surkov, the rotten Kremlin puppetmaster; a 2003 story from The eXile about an overflowing orphanage; a diplomatic cable, published in The Guardian, detailing the showmanship and political subtexts of a Dagestani wedding.
"In his spare time Surkov writes essays on conceptual art and lyrics for rock groups. He’s an aficionado of gangsta rap: there’s a picture of Tupac on his desk, next to the picture of Putin. And he is the alleged author of a bestselling novel, Almost Zero. ‘Alleged’ because the novel was published (in 2009) under the pseudonym Natan Dubovitsky – Surkov’s wife is called Natalya Dubovitskaya. Officially Surkov is the author of the preface, where he denies being the author of the novel, then makes a point of contradicting himself: ‘The author of this novel is an unoriginal Hamlet-obsessed hack’; later, ‘this is the best book I have ever read.’ In interviews he has come close to admitting to being the author while always pulling back from a complete confession. Whether or not he actually wrote every word of it he has gone out of his way to associate himself with it."
"The Solnyshko is actually a priyut, which means that it functions as a stopgap to inject kids into the ridiculously overcrowded and dilapidated Russian orphanage system. Priyuts are a relatively new measure, born in the 90s. But even after their advent, the system is so strained by the influx of abandoned children in recent years that kids often have to spend several months living in the children’s ward of a hospital before space in a priyut frees up. The system remains a complete mess, stranded somewhere between dated Soviet and more progressive methods. It has no cohesive ideology and barely enough funding to survive, let alone consider undertaking serious reform. What awaits a kid caught in the system depends on the management of the individual home."
"1. (C) Weddings are elaborate in Dagestan, the largest autonomy in the North Caucasus. On August 22 we attended a wedding in Makhachkala, Dagestan's capital: Duma member and Dagestan Oil Company chief Gadzhi Makhachev's son married a classmate. The lavish display and heavy drinking concealed the deadly serious North Caucasus politics of land, ethnicity, clan, and alliance. The guest list spanned the Caucasus power structure -- guest starring Chechen leader Ramzan Kadyrov -- and underlined just how personal the region's politics can be."
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