This has been an outstanding year for horse racing. The sport hit a rare and heartening trifecta: It made progress in safety, uniformity and even popularity.
California had its fewest medication violations in 40 years, with four positives from 11,900 samples, or .034 percent. Louisiana and Florida accepted the model rules; the Association of Racing Commissioners International increased its efforts to encourage state regulators everywhere to adopt the National Uniform Medication Program. And of course, there was American Pharoah.
The year began slowly, though. At first, the numbers were ominous enough to shake even a Pollyannaish sensibility. In March, handle at American racetracks declined nearly 12 percent from March 2014, and handle for the first quarter of the year had tumbled, down more than 5 percent, according to Equibase.
But with an exciting Triple Crown, an emerging superstar and improved weather, everything began to turn in the spring. Handle jumped 4.8 percent in May, for example. And the momentum rolled itself into a tidal wave in October, when handle increased 17.71 percent over the same month in 2014, according to Equibase. Granted, Breeders' Cup Saturday took place on the last day of October this year and the first day of November in 2014; but, still, handle for the entire season to that point was up 2.4 percent. And so there's a reasonable expectation that despite a horrendous start to 2015 the handle could end up slightly ahead of last year's.
Most important, though, is the trajectory. It's upward and positive. Finally. And there are several reasons to think the positive trajectory will continue through 2016. This isn't meant to suggest that horse racing will ever return to the prominent place it once occupied in the culture or that it can recover its popularity of the 1960s, or even the 1980s. It won't. Nor is this meant to imply that the sport has solved its many problems. It hasn't. But it's addressing its problems, it's moving in the right direction, and so many factors encourage an optimistic view of 2016. Here, in no particular order, are 10 of them.
The Triple Crown
Millennials never had seen a horse sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, and so they could have been forgiven for thinking that the Triple Crown was a chimera or a Golden Fleece and that all of it was some sort of mythological scam created by the networks and existing only in the febrile imaginations of the media. But then American Pharoah showed the millennials and convinced even the most skeptical fans that for a great horse a sweep of the Triple Crown is indeed possible. On the most conspicuous of stages, he reminded everybody that the sport can make greatness vivid. And isn't that what every fan wants to see?
Although the Triple Crown was already wildly popular, American Pharoah injected it with great pitch and moment. He made it real again, and as a result the Triple Crown never has been more alluring or significant. A burnished Triple Crown -- that's certainly a cause of optimism.
And so is the search for the players that will perform on that most conspicuous of stages. That's where 2016 begins.
The 2016 group of older horses has the potential to be the best in many years. They might even be good enough and the division contentious enough to divert the spotlight, if only momentarily, from the Triple Crown chase. Although American Pharoah has been retired, the horses that chased him from Kentucky to New York are set to return as 4-year-olds -- Dortmund, Keen Ice, Firing Line and Frosted. Dortmund, in fact, won the recent Native Diver Stakes.
Effinex, the Breeders' Cup Classic runner-up who won the Clark Handicap, has joined the division leaders for 2016. Tonalist, the winner most recently of the Cigar Mile, returns, too, along with California Chrome, who won two-thirds of the 2014 Triple Crown. And has anybody forgotten the spectacular talent of Shared Belief? Until the Pharoah romped in the Breeders' Cup Classic, many people would have argued that Shared Belief was the most talented horse to race in North America in 2015. Winner of the Santa Anita Handicap by more than four lengths but unraced since being injured in April in the Charles Town Classic, he's training at Golden Gate Fields for his return. And then there's the freakishly fast Runhappy, the Breeders' Cup Sprint winner who'll attempt to stretch his speed around two turns. How good could he be? That's an icebreaker for 2016.
Women in racing
Ever wonder why football has become the most popular sport in America? In answering that question, many will trot out parity, television, fantasy leagues, etc. But those are just some of the manifestations and consequences of popularity. The underlying cause of football's popularity is that more than any other sport it reflects American culture. Both the sport and the culture celebrate violence and specialization; both are time-obsessed and subsume individuality into a collective. But in one regard, and probably better than any other sport, horse racing reflects modern America. Horse racing is the most egalitarian of sports. Participation at the highest level isn't just for the rich or the white or the big or the tall. Most of all, it's not just for men.
Women have been prominent in the sport for decades now, and their continued rise is a cause for optimism. Emma-Jayne Wilson, Forest Boyce and Rosemary Homeister have secured their reputations as top riders. Linda Rice, Josie Carroll, Michelle Nevin, Kathleen O'Connell, Carla Gaines and Michelle Nihei have become prominent trainers. They're all in the foreground of a movement that's transforming the sport in ways that could be essential to a vigorous future. Michelle Payne recently became the first woman to ride the winner in the Melbourne Cup. Who will be the first woman to ride the winner in the Kentucky Derby? Will she be Taylor Rice, or Jacqueline Davis, or Carol Cedeno, or Sophie Doyle, or Kaylia Albright or Ashley Broussard? Or maybe Chantal Sutherland coming out of retirement? And who will be the first woman to train a Kentucky Derby winner? Impossible to say, but this much is certain: It'll be a great day for the sport.
A Breeders' Cup on the move
After three years at Santa Anita, the Breeders' Cup Championships this year went to Keeneland for the first time, and by almost any measure -- that is, any measure except weather -- it was a success. In 2016, the event will go back to Santa Anita and then in 2017 to Del Mar. Churchill Downs reportedly will bid on the 2018 Breeders' Cup. Gulfstream Park also has been mentioned as a possible future site. And how much longer can the sport accept New York's being out of the rotation? Belmont Park is long overdue for a Breeders' Cup.
The Breeders' Cup remains one of horse racing's most powerful marketing tools. The sport enjoyed some of its best and healthiest years when the event was moving from one racetrack to another. When the Breeders' Cup came to town it was like a circus welcomed by a throng of the curious and the loyal. Its arrival was a reason to celebrate. To anchor the event at one racetrack, or even in one part of the country, isn't just unwise, but it's also unfair to those racing elsewhere. And so a Breeders' Cup that's on the move again is another reason for optimism.
Leaving PETA behind
Finally, after 19 months, the New York State Gaming Commission last week issued its report and released its findings regarding the allegations made by PETA against trainer Steve Asmussen and, implicitly, against the entire sport. As one pundit pointed out, the Warren Commission needed only 10 months to investigate the assassination of President Kennedy. And so, as you'd expect after such a lengthy process, to justify its time and expenses and, well, itself, the NYSGC had to come up with something. It fined Asmussen $10,000 for giving horses thyrozine, a hormone, within 48 hours of racing. (Asmussen said he thought he was in compliance, and apparently a veterinarian did, too.) But of more importance, while echoing the earlier findings of the Kentucky Racing Commission, the NYSGC said the serious allegations first put forth in the infamous PETA video were "unfounded." That must mean the New York Times' assertion that the video showed "widespread abuse" of horses at the racetrack was untrue, too.
Several questions remain: How did the Times know about the existence of the video even before Asmussen? Who targeted Asmussen for this undercover operation? Most of all, because to any intelligent person, especially somebody with knowledge of racing and horses, the video was clearly an extremely edited piece of propaganda and the allegations were transparently false, why didn't the horsemen's and the sport's most prominent organizations respond immediately? Were they too stupid, too scared or too something else? To some, the answers to those questions might be important. But to the sport, it's most important to move beyond the PETA allegations, which have been even more pernicious than ridiculous.
Putting Lasix aside
Isn't it time for the sport to put the Lasix controversy aside, too? A Daily Racing Form poll indicated that bettors and fans generally don't care about Lasix. It's a non-issue, except, of course, to a group of breeders, some of whom are among the wealthiest and most powerful people in the sport, who believe that by eliminating Lasix they can make their horses more attractive to European and Asian buyers. That's what the Barr-Tonko bill is really all about. But most horsemen are too concerned about the horses in their barn and most bettors too focused on finding the next winner to worry about foreign buyers. By using their influence to foment a specious issue and create a controversy, the breeders have only damaged the sport in the eyes of most casual observers.
But a compromise is within easy reach. Weight Lasix. Assign horses that race on Lasix more weight to carry than those that don't. That might at least check the divisive bickering and give the scientists and veterinarians time to find better ways to curb pulmonary hemorrhaging. But the squabbling must end if the sport is to move forward. Was the DRF poll a prelude to setting aside the Lasix issue? Maybe. Just the possibility is a reason for optimism.
Moving closer to universal rules
Everyone agrees that the sport needs universal rules, or the same rules in all jurisdictions. Most of all, it needs uniformity in medication rules, policies, penalties and procedures. Imagine how confusing diverse rules would be in, say, football. Holding could be a 15-yard penalty there and a 10-yard penalty here; this formation might be permitted here, but banned there. That's how it has been in horse racing for, well, forever.
But today the sport is closer to national uniformity on medication rules than it ever has been. And that's certainly a reason for optimism.
California Chrome, Shared Belief, Firing Line, Itsaknockout, Far From Over and Calculator are all stakes winners, and they're all preparing to come back from injury in 2016, if not earlier, which is no small reason for optimism. And then there's Lady Eli.
After she won the Belmont Oaks in July, Lady Eli was the most exciting and intriguing filly in the country. For close followers of the game, she put the bubbles in the champagne. Unbeaten in six races, she had won five stakes in dominant fashion. And just when it looked like nobody could outrun her down the lane, laminitis did. But she has recovered and is set to resume training in Florida for her 2016 campaign.
The resurgence of Maryland racing
Maryland racing, which has been languishing in the doldrums for many years, suddenly seems resurgent, with handle expected to be up about $60 million this year. Most astonishing of all, horsemen, racetracks, civic leaders and even lawmakers appear to be united in their efforts to restore Maryland racing to prominence. With business improving and cooperation flourishing and imaginative approaches getting aired -- well, there's reason for optimism.
At a recent Town Hall meeting at Laurel Park, Tim Ritvo, the chief operating officer for The Stronach Group, outlined plans for the racetrack's future. The Stronach Group has invested $20 million in improvements, and more are coming. A Breeders' Cup could even be in Laurel's future.
With American Pharoah retired, who's the one horse racing in America today who's guaranteed a place in the sport's Hall of Fame? Beholder, of course. She's the only horse ever to win a Grade 1 race at 2, 3, 4 and 5. The champion 2-year-old filly of 2012, she was the champion 3-year-old filly the following season. And this year, having romped in the Pacific Classic while facing some of the best males on the West Coast, she'll certainly be the champion older female. Beholder, of course, was expected to take on American Pharoah in the Classic, but her travel anxieties caught up with her, and she had to remain in the barn.
But next year she won't have to travel. The Breeders' Cup will come to her. With that long-term goal in mind, she remains in training. And so in 2016 she could become the first horse to win a Grade 1 race at 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6, as well as a four-time champion, and maybe even the first horse to win three Breeders' Cup races. The opportunity to see such a rare and great racehorse is a cause for optimism indeed.