Another Derby stresses need to save troubled sport of kings

May 03, 1993|By Edwin Pope | Edwin Pope,Miami Herald

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Where is thoroughbred racing going?

No place fast, even after this riotous Kentucky Derby.

It drew the biggest crowd in six years and set a Derby-Day betting record of more than $15 million.

But then I wonder how it's going to be 25 years from now, when we have no Paul Mellons or Mack Millers to set our lungs afire in the blaze of stretch-running color, winning with Sea Hero at $27.80 for $2.

Racing's most interesting people are aging, and the barbarians are at the gates.

Mellon is 85, Miller 71. Charlie Whittingham was 73 when he trained Ferdinand to victory in 1986. Frances Genter, the owner of '90 winner Unbridled, was 92 that year. Cal Partee was 82 when his Lil E. Tee won last year.

Tracks have run into more and more trouble in such diverse spots as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minn., Philadelphia, Atlantic City, N.J., Birmingham, Ala., and Omaha, Neb.

Lotteries take a huge swipe at racing. Casino gambling could wipe out the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, and wherever else it pokes its greedy nose. And here comes riverboat gambling.

I have large problems rating these forms of gambling on the same level as thoroughbred racing, which is supervised about as strictly as it is possible to supervise any human activity.

I also found myself irritated by yesterday morning's headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal: "Old men and the Sea Hero."

Will somebody please tell them we don't call people "old" any more, any more than we use degrading ethnic terms once so common?

But then Mellon shot out of Louisville on a private plane without even taking time to talk to reporters dying to know how it felt to win a Derby after all those years of philanthropy and contributions to the art world.

That was not helpful at a time when racing is trying to buck every tide at once.

Simulcasting -- televising events from one facility to another where people can handicap and bet in comfortable surroundings -- might be one answer.

We had better find more. Killing horse racing will put hundreds of thousands more people out of work. And tear away another piece of some of sports' -- and America's -- brightest fabric.

You kill racing, you are not just taking jobs from a few trainers and jockeys. You are talking about battalions of employees of race tracks and breeding and feeding and all sorts of other care-taking operations.

Now just try to convince politicians, whose answer to most of this is to throw up their hands. Or, as in a bribery case that just unfolded here with the conviction of a former Kentucky House speaker, to hold out the hand -- palm up.

Horse racing has to find its own answers. The point is, it is worth saving. Watching a single Derby, even one as mediocre as Sea Hero's, should bring that home to everybody.

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