A case for match races

Sunday's "Battle of the Exes" at Del Mar was, yes, a gimmick, hokey and a horrible race to bet on with one horse 3-5 and the other even-money. It was also a lot of fun. Sorry, purists, but I found it to be a lot more entertaining than anything else that happened in horse racing over the weekend.

And it wasn't just the storyline.

Former lovebirds Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland battled it out on the racetrack with the male jockey admitting he would be humiliated had he lost to his old girlfriend. Smith, riding like it was the Kentucky Derby, won and pumped his first in celebration as his maiden claimer crossed the wire in front of Sutherland's maiden claimer.

But Smith and Sutherland ride against each other every day, and no one cares. It took the match race aspect to turn their fractured relationship into an entertaining spectacle. That's because match races are great theater. And this one got me thinking: why can't racing feature a lot more match races, and not just gimmicks but ones that pit top-class horses?

Match races have given horse racing some of its greatest and most memorable moments. There was Man o'War vs. Sir Barton, Nashua vs. Swaps and Seabiscuit vs. War Admiral in perhaps the greatest match race ever. Harness racing had Bret Hanover vs. Cardigan Bay. The "Pace of the Century" attracted 45,000 to Yonkers Raceway.

There's nothing more compelling than two great horses going after one another, the outcome proving who's the better of the two.

There's nothing more compelling than two great horses going after one another, the outcome proving who's the better of the two.

Joker Face and Parable, the two maiden claimers that met in the Battle of the Exes, are hardly the stuff of champions. But even pitting those two slowpokes provided the type of intrigue and excitement you never see in a normal race.

Would Smith gun for the lead? (He did). How would Sutherland respond? (She asked her horse for everything in an effort to press Smith's mount). Would the two match strides in the stretch? (Not really. Joker Face was too good). There were some chess match elements to the race.

(The Del Mar racing office did a good job finding two horses rather close in ability. But shouldn't Sutherland been assigned a filly? … just to make things all that more interesting).

If matching two maiden claimers could do this, what about two star horses squaring off? How much fun would a Blind Luck vs. Havre de Grace match race be? Or top 3-year-old colt Shackleford vs. top 3-year-old filly It's Tricky? What if they were ever able to get Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta not just in a race together but in a match race? Why not race 3-year-old filly pacing sensation See You At Peelers head-to-head against one of the top male pacers?

Any one of these events would provide the type of compelling elements that are very hard to find these days in racing, even in some of the sport's biggest races. A match race is a showdown, a rivalry. They're Ali/Frazier, Red Sox/Yankees, Michigan/Ohio State, the sort of thing that grabs the attention of the media and public unlike anything else.

In horse racing, we don't root for our favorite team or horse but for the 4. Twenty-eight minutes or so later, we root for the 6. That's the primary aspect that separates racing from mainstream sports. Too many of our contests lack any kind of excitement and the outcome matters only for betting purposes.

There hasn't been a significant match race in 36 years, since Ruffian and Foolish Pleasure at Belmont Park in 1975. The Ruffian tragedy soured just about everyone on match races and turned conventional wisdom upside down. Because of what happened to the filly it became accepted that they are too dangerous.

Are they? It's hard to say, but it seems to be reaching to paint match races with such a broad brush because of one tragedy. Unfortunately, horses break down all the time, in all kinds of races, with big fields and small fields, on all surfaces at all distances.

Racing could use some more excitement. It could use some high-profile match races.

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Make a bet on the 5th race at the Meadowlands Saturday night.

All the money that normally goes from the betting toward purses and the track's profits for that race will instead be donated to Larry Lederman. Lederman, the announcer at Freehold and one of the most well-liked individuals in harness and thoroughbred racing, is being treated for a malignant brain tumor and the costs of his medical treatment are staggering. Lederman, who is no longer manning the microphone at Freehold while trying to get better, will call the race. Hats off to Meadowlands management and the Standardbred Breeders and Owners Association of New Jersey for giving up their cut for a good cause.

Bill Finley is an award-winning racing writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today and Sports Illustrated. Contact him at wnfinley@aol.com.