Faint Impressions, Broadly Speaking

The flies are outside, so you sit inside. The woman offers you a beer and you scrape the sides of your mind where the realities and imaginations of your day philander.

The dream from the train comes first.

"I don't believe in this," says a man.

"Don't believe in what?" his companion replies.

"I just don't think I believe in this."

Some silence ensues as the man tries to figure out his friend. 

"Look at how many shit places it takes to make one good place," he says, looking out over the expanse beneath the Long Island Rail Road.

"I still don't think I understand," his friend concedes.

"And then even in the good place half the places are shit."

"You're talking about New York?"

Then, as a man falsely stumbles into the cafe, before correcting himself, the image of the golden ager with a hat and a cane in the elevator at the track.

"I've been coming here since 1927." 

Really? I asked, not quite understanding how that could be true.

"Yes!" he said somewhat chucklingly, and winked as the door closed.

He'd told you a minute earlier, when you two were a pair, "This used to be a great track, when it had people."

The track outside at Belmont Park bore no trace of this sadness. But this is just the kind of thing you think about when you see what happens to horses. So many are born who will later be killed. Here is the game: thousands, hoping for few, and then none. Horses are bought by rich men who will pay hundreds of thousands for the Derby but not a penny after, when the ones that lose are as worthless as the dirt they run on. Then they fall through the ranks, and the shape they wind up in is of no interest to the creator who has already moved on.

I could only feel like crying.

Jamie Berk

This is part of a series, Dispatches from the Triple Crown. Read the initial feature, "Whispers in the Shade of Roses," hereFor additional columns and vignettes, click here

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Hope Wiped Out, Hope Springs Eternal

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.

Jamie Berk

This is part of a series, Dispatches from the Triple Crown. Read the initial feature, "Whispers in the Shade of Roses," hereFor additional columns and vignettes, click here

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A Day at Pimlico

"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.

Jamie Berk

This is part of a series, Dispatches from the Triple Crown. Read the initial feature, "Whispers in the Shade of Roses," hereFor additional columns and vignettes, click here

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The Preakness Draw

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. 

Jamie Berk

This is part of a series, Dispatches from the Triple Crown. Read the initial feature, "Whispers in the Shade of Roses," hereFor additional columns and vignettes, click here

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Another Drug Violation in Racing, Another Shrug

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.

Jamie Berk

This is part of a series, Dispatches from the Triple Crown. Read the initial feature, "Whispers in the Shade of Roses," hereFor additional columns and vignettes, click here

Follow us on Twitter | Facebook | Subscribe by e-mail