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Reasons to be cheerful

It seems that all we write about and all we talk about anymore is the bad stuff. Gloom, doom, more gloom, more doom. OK, so maybe the sport of horse racing is going through a brutally tough, immensely difficult time, but personally, I need a break from this before my head explodes. I'm taking the week off, at least when it comes to being a purveyor of doom and this column.

This week's theme: Don't worry, be happy … or nine reasons to feel good about horse racing, still the greatest game there is.

1. Monmouth Park: The 50-day, $50 million meet has been wildly successful. Total, all-sources handle has risen about 118 percent as horseplayers have responded enthusiastically to the great racing and big fields that have made Monmouth the best betting game out there. Even attendance is way up (by 44.5 percent), which never happens anymore.

As racetracks everywhere are searching for solutions to the myriad problems, Monmouth is providing the answer. Now all the rest have to do is follow the blueprint. If enough tracks convert to short meets with big fields and rich purses, the sport will be considerably better off.

2. Saratoga is upon us. OK, so maybe they shouldn't have expanded the meet, but Saratoga will still be Saratoga, which means terrific racing in an atmosphere unparalleled in the sport. It's one of the few places left where a day at the track remains a special experience. If nothing else, it will allow New York racing to forget about its problems, more or less, over the next six weeks.

3. The recently concluded Fasig-Tipton July select yearling sale wasn't a disaster. The average price per yearling sold was down just 2 percent. It looks like the market has finally stabilized, and most breeders no longer need consider jumping off a bridge somewhere.

4. Keep your fingers crossed: This year's Breeders' Cup Classic might just be the race of the young century. If they stay healthy and in form, Zenyatta and Quality Road likely will face off in the Classic at Churchill Downs in a battle of the sexes that likely will decide Horse of the Year. If Rachel Alexandra continues to head in the right direction, she might even factor into the Horse of the Year equation and make her presence felt in the Breeders' Cup. What a race this might be.

5. HBO has produced some of the best programming in the history of television, and now the cable network is throwing its weight and talents behind a horse racing show called "Luck." With Dustin Hoffman and Nick Nolte in starring roles and horse owner David Milch one of the brains behind the project, it promises to be terrific. Can such a thing create new racing fans? That's debatable, but how cool will it be to have a hot TV show on HBO that is about the racetrack and racetrack characters?

6. Ellis Park remains the little track that can: Like Monmouth, it has gone with a less-is-more approach, a 27-day meet that offers just three days of racing a week, much of it conducted over the grass course. Don't count this place out. It's owned by a smart guy (Ron Geary) who cares about the game, is willing to fight the good fight, and wants to make Ellis as fan-friendly as a racetrack can get. Case in point: There is no admission fee to get in, a policy all racetracks should adopt.

7. The Kentucky Derby and Oaks have never been more popular, a factor that, in and of itself, gives this sport life. The public bet $10.6 million on the Oaks card, for a 20 percent increase over 2009 figures. Derby day betting was up 4.3 percent, with $162 million going through the windows. The success of the Oaks and Derby cards was what allowed Churchill to raise purses by 10 percent.

8. The sport has finally turned a corner in how it regards people who abuse their animals. Many tracks have put in rules that lead to the ban of anyone caught sending a horse to slaughter. And Woodbine sent a strong message when it banned owner Bruno Schickedanz and his trainer after they violated track rules and worked out 13-year-old Wake at Noon, a former Canadian Horse of the Year. It was a callous effort to squeeze every last nickel out of a horse that had been very good to them, and it cost the horse his life.

It should be noted that not everyone is taking this matter as seriously as they should. Since the ban went into place, Schickedanz has started horses at Fort Erie, Mountaineer, Presque Isle and Thistledown. Shame on those tracks.

9. Del Mar opens Wednesday. Much like Saratoga, Del Mar is as much an event as it is a day at the racetrack. Opening day at Del Mar is a huge deal in the San Diego area. Last year, 44,907 turned out on a Wednesday to welcome racing back to the beautiful seaside track. It just goes to show you that, when presented right, horse racing is still something that can pull in big numbers.

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.