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Tuesday, June 5, 2012

One Winner Won't Change Racing's Luck

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This Saturday thoroughbred racing might celebrate the 12th winner of the Triple Crown, and the first in 34 years. But even if I'll Have Another runs to glory in the Belmont Stakes, it will have little effect on the decades-long decline of the sport's popularity.

Only one of the Observers has experience at winning—but mostly losing—money based on totally uninformed hunches about equines. His latest trip to the track was a reminder that the "Sport of Kings" has lost a lot of ground with the masses.


Frank
: I know you prefer racing with mechanical horsepower, but are you intrigued by the possibility of a Triple Crown winner?

Artie
: Oh yeah, if only because it hasn't been done since 1978. But I sure wouldn't watch the Belmont Stakes otherwise.

Frank
: I've enjoyed going to the races since I was 18, and the track I've gone to the most is Belmont Park, close to where I grew up on Long Island. It's where I first had the thrill of cashing a winning ticket and then strutting around like I knew what I was doing.

Artie
: Something like what I'll experience when that elusive Powerball ticket puts me on Easy Street. But I've never been to a track.

Frank
: My first time at Belmont I was with a St. John's Prep classmate who claimed to have his own bookie. He finished the day almost 200 bucks ahead.

Artie
: And that was when gas was, like, 32 cents a gallon and cigarettes were maybe 29 cents a pack. Oh, the spending power!

Frank
: I settled for one winner, worth $9.20 on a $2 bet.

Artie
: Do you remember the nag's name?

Frank
: Absolutely; you never forget your first. It was a filly dubbed Winsome Lea.

Artie
: You don't hear many names like that anymore. Sounds like a Victorian poem. Jeez, it must be harder than hell to come up with thoroughbred names these days. They can't have duplicates, ain'a?

Frank
: Right, and there are lots of other rules, including the limit of 18 characters "including spaces and punctuation." I'll Have Another comes in at 17.

Artie
: Sounds almost as tough as devising passwords for the various sites a guy's guy might choose to visit on the InterWeb.

Frank
: I think I'll Have Another will look a little, um, pedestrian if it joins the Triple Crown names that include War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation, Secretariat and Affirmed.

Artie
: Well, it'd be nice to see it happen, especially after all those near-misses.

Frank
: Seven times in the last 15 years a horse has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness but come up short in the Belmont. It's the only major American race that goes a mile and a half—one lap at Belmont Park, the longest track in the country.

Artie
: And your home turf, so to speak.

Frank
: Not that I ever was a denizen, but I really used to enjoy just walking around the place. Beautiful track and infield, nice paddock area to watch the saddling and jockey arrivals, nice grounds and picnic areas behind the grandstand.

Artie
: Did you say "used to enjoy"?

Frank
: Yeah. Thoroughbred racing has fallen on hard times indeed. Two weeks ago I went to Belmont on a gray Thursday afternoon. As I wandered around I tried to visualize upward of 100,000 people there for the Triple Crown attempt. It wasn't easy; the official attendance on my day was 2,026, and the day before it was 1,950.

Artie
: Wow, there may have been more horses than people.

Frank
: Not quite, but except for weekends, it's been pretty much that way for years. I took some photos of the huge, empty grandstand and the long stretches of vacant space on the rail. And it seems like half the folks who are there never get near the horses; they're in front of TV monitors watching races from other tracks, which of course they're betting on.

Artie
: Why not just find the neighborhood off-track betting place?

Frank
: Exactly what's happening, I suppose. Besides, there are so many casinos around now, with so many games to play, why schlep out to the track? Which is why lots of tracks are trying to convert into all-purpose gambling joints. And racing is limited to maybe four days a week.

Artie
: Even if I'll Have Another wins, I reckon that won't change.

Frank
: Nah. And racing has other problems. There are major issues involving how much thoroughbreds are drugged, legally and illegally, and how often they're breaking down in races. I'll Have Another's trainer, Doug O'Neill, has been fined or suspended more than a dozen times for drug-related violations.

Artie
: But not with this horse, I assume.

Frank
: Correct. O'Neill is an engaging guy and I'll Have Another is a "little horse that could" story that people love, but a Triple Crown wouldn't restore racing's allure.

One-Third to Where?

The Observers were on hand Sunday for the Brewers' 6-5 loss to Pittsburgh, which brought the team to the one-third mark of the season with a 24-30 record, five games worse than last year.

Frank: You could say the Brewers wrung all they could out of their patchwork lineup. Five of the opening-day starters weren't on the field because of injuries great and small.

Artie
: I know why the game wasn't a sellout. Thousands of fans must have heard about the lineup and figured the game had to be in Nashville. How about that starting infield? Taylor Green came in hitting .222, Cody Ransom .167 as a Brewer, Rickie Weeks .168 and Brooks Conrad oh-thirty-four. That's like a cumulative .148!

Frank
: All but Ransom got a hit and an RBI, anyway, and Conrad homered for the second straight game. So did third-string catcher Martin Maldonado and Nyjer Morgan, who had needed 139 plate appearances to drive in his first run, a major-league record to start a season.

Artie
: But Weeks, after four times on base Saturday night and a solid hit his first time up Sunday, went back to striking out. With two Ks Sunday, he hit the one-third point with 67 in 182 at-bats. In fact, the whole team is whiffing way too much!

Frank
: Losing two of three to the Pirates erased any momentum from the four-game sweep in Los Angeles. And it left the Brewers' record in series at 5-12-1.

Artie
: The L.A. games proved that pitching will have to carry the Crew. With Alex Gonzalez and Mat Gamel out for the season, Jonathan Lucroy out for several weeks and Braun and Aramis Ramirez nursing tender legs, the offense is spotty at best.

Frank
: In L.A. the Brewers starters—Shaun Marcum, Mike Fiers, Yovani Gallardo and Zack Greinke, in that order—had a 2.08 ERA. And Marcum pitched great again Saturday night.

Artie
: That's what can see you through a lot of rough times. Just look at the low-offense Giants of the last few years. And the Pirates, who left town at 27-26. They're dead-last in the National League in runs, batting average and on-base percentage, but they're near the top in ERA and WHIP.

Frank
: The Brewers, meanwhile, are near the top in runs and homers but near the bottom in ERA and WHIP.

Artie
: The pitching concerns me for the future, considering that both Greinke and Marcum are free agents after this season. Who the hell are they going to find to replace them if they don't re-sign? They don't really have a lot of prospects at Triple-A, although Tyler Thornburg is shining at Double-A Huntsville.

Frank
: Right now Wily Peralta, ostensibly their top pitching prospect at Nashville, is struggling badly. That's why Fiers is up here instead.

Artie
: There's still time to turn things around. But there are tough-looking series against Toronto, the White Sox, Cincinnati and Arizona to close out the month.

Frank
: So they better make hay in the next two weeks against the Cubs, Padres, Royals and Twins.

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