Cleaning Out the Ole’ Muck Pit: Today’s Edition Of Horseshoes Up & Horseshoes Down

Every so often, we will be addressing a few things: comments, decisions, people, whatever that – for one reason or another – should be tossed into the literary “muck pit.”

It is in the spirit of cleanliness, recycling, and protecting the environment that we offer this service of “addressing the muck” – free of charge. After all, someone has to do it, right?

And, it didn’t take long for us to find a few pounds of, well, manure.

Here is a look at our Tenth Edition, with “Horseshoes Up” and “Horseshoes Down”:

4 Horseshoes Up: Ellis Park, Saratoga Casino & Hospitality & KY Racing Commission

It was great to see Ellis Park — the tiny, country fair-like racing venue along the grand Ohio River in Henderson, KY. — conduct such an outstanding day of racing on Sunday. With the immense financial assistance and influx of purse money made available from the operation of Historical Racing at Kentucky Downs; the undying pledge of allegiance from the Kentucky Horsemen’s Benevolent & Protective Association; and the influx of money made available by the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund, Ellis Park was able to host four Stakes races and a nice supporting card that most tracks its’ size could never dream of conducting.

In fact, there are much larger venues all over the country that didn’t come close to showcasing the kind of Thoroughbred racing — and, most importantly, purses — that Ellis Park was able to put on and put up this past Sunday.

Just for the sake of argument (and you know how we love a good argument), let’s take a closer examination of Sunday’s racing…

At Ellis Park, the Pea Patch carded nine races. The total amount of purse money made available — including more than $100,000 from the KTDF — was $586,200. That was an average of $65,133 per race.

At Gulfstream Park, in beautiful South Florida, the track that Frank Stronach built, and rebuilt, and rebuilt supported $354,000 in purses — spread over 12 races — on Sunday. The average was less than $30,000 per race. That is less than half of what Ellis Park averaged per race. Less than half.

At Laurel Park, another Stronach stronghold, the total purses available were $231,000 over nine races. That amounts to about $25,000 per race.

At Monmouth Park, the lynchpin of the New Jersey racing scene, the total purse allotment was $324,375 — spread over 10 races that were carded on the day. That was an average of less than $33,000 per race. Again, about half of what Ellis Park had on the plate.

If that doesn’t catch your attention, imagine this…

Two racing venues that did manage to offer a bit more purse money on Sunday than itsy, bitsy Ellis Park were Woodbine Race Course in Canada, and the grand Del Mar Race Course in Southern California. Two of the premier race meets in the world.

Woodbine, with two Stakes events on the card, had $649,700 in purse money allotted (including a lucrative incentive plan), while Del Mar offered $703,000. And, Del Mar had two Stakes events run, as well.

That’s truly amazing, really. Just a year ago, while I was watching TVG one afternoon, I heard the off-hand remarks of on-air commentator Matt Carothers pronounce — proudly, in fact — that he didn’t even know “where in the hell Ellis Park is located.” And, that he hoped he never had to go there.

That’s a hell of an admission, especially by a person who is supposed to make his living in the Thoroughbred racing industry. But the fact is that Ellis Park was on the map this past Sunday. And, anybody with any sense, knew exactly where it is located, and was proud to be there.

Yet, before we leave the subject, let’s give credit to where much credit is definitely due.

If not for Saratoga Casino & Hospitality Group, which recently bought out Ron Geary and acquired 100% ownership of the Ellis Park track, and the Kentucky Racing Commission acting promptly, wisely, efficiently and advisably to approve the transfer of the racing license last month, none of this may have been possible, probable, or even likely.

Let’s just say that a few short weeks and days ago, Ellis Park was in a state of emergency. In fact, the track’s operations were in jeopardy of sinking right into the Ohio River — which the track borders and neighbors.

But in stepped the leadership team at Saratoga Casino & Hospitality to buy out the track. They immediately ensured the highly professional staff would be retained. And, they immediately restored credibility to the current meet. Full accountability. Full disclosure. Full cooperation.

At the same time, in stepped the Kentucky Racing Commission, led by Chairman Frank Kling and Executive Director Marc Guilfoil (who just so happens to be the best in the land at his occupation). Quickly and decisively, the Commission approved the sale of the track; the transfer of the license; and a smooth and orderly transition of both assets and liabilities. Seamless.

As a result of both of those actions, Ellis Park survived another potential heartache.

And, as a result…

The show went on Sunday. And, what a show it was.

4 Horseshoes Down: Growing Weary of Geary

I’m a bit tired of hearing about how Ron Geary is a Kentucky racing hero, who saved Ellis Park.

Fact is…

Ellis Park survived.

Ron Geary didn’t.

3 Horseshoes Up: Saratoga Race Course

Saratoga, the Thoroughbred racetrack, is an amazing venue. A historic structure with as many racing memories floating around the old place as there are horses in the barn area, and fans jammed into the grandstand. A place you can park your car in the neighbors back yard, and walk leisurely to the track. A place you can rent a beautifully-decorated home and walk leisurely to the track. A place you can still throw out a picnic blanket and enjoy a day at the races in summer style. A place you can watch some of the best Thoroughbreds in the world compete. A place you can watch some of the best dressed people in the world compete.

The band and the drinks are hot and cold at Siro’s.

The tomatoes and the corn are fresh at the Wishing Well.

The old golf course on the edge of town was meant to be played with wooden clubs. As in wooden shafted clubs. Not just PowerBuilts.

And, the lake is as cool and refreshing as the summer air is hot and stifling.

Without a doubt, it is a place to visit on your bucket list.

As in every summer.

3 Horseshoes Down: Saratoga Race Course

On Saturday, Saratoga Race Course — in conjunction with the New York Racing Association stewards — got away with what could have been one of the worst decisions, and potential disasters in modern horse racing history. With a national television crew on hand to air the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes, Saratoga racing officials delayed, debated, balked, hesitated, deliberated, and, ultimately, decided to do nothing but keep the field of 8 talented runners — and all of their respective handlers — in the scenic, beautiful and tree lined paddock for nearly 45 minutes while a horrific rain and lightning storm surged through the area and right over the top of the historic racetrack.

While most people ran for whatever cover they could find — including a haven underneath the wooden grandstand — the horses and their connections were left to stand, roam, circle, and get pelted with rain, wind and leaf debris for nearly an hour. Most of the horses were in full tact as a horrific lightning storm splashed the sky above.

What would have happened if that lightning decided to strike a tree in the paddock?

What would have happened if that lightning had hit the saddling stalls?

What would have happened if horses and humans were injured?

Simply put, it was not a risk worth taking.

Yet, it was taken.

One could debate that by the time the horses did reach the muddy, sloppy racetrack — after an hour in the paddock, saddling area — that some could have been compromised and their respective chances of winning were all but eliminated. Washed out and away, in fact.

But that truly doesn’t matter. What does matter is that some forethought should go into situations like these — at all racing venues. Contingency plans should be created and discussed. A safety net for safety — first and foremost — should be developed for both human and equine participants. And, if need be, horses should be temporarily moved and housed in safe environments until weather conditions improve to a level where all are safe to either return to race then, or at another time.

Saratoga got away with it. No horse or person was hurt, as far as we know. But was the risk worth it?

I contend that it was not. I contend that the race should have been postponed. I contend that the horses could have come back a day or a week later and run without the potential of any harm or downside.

My Twitter friend and excellent trainer, Mark Hennig, wrote me on Saturday. On Twitter, he argued that top class horses gear themselves up to such a degree that by the time they make it to the paddock and are tacked up for the race, that it would be a disservice to them to be unsaddled and forced to wait for another day.

He wrote: “In my opinion, when you lead a horse to that point, after all the preparation, it’s unfair to the horse to not let them run. That claimer horse wants to compete and it ultimately showed.”

I get that. I respect that. After all, Mark Hennig has been around a lot more great racehorses than I have, or probably ever will be. I value his opinion. He is a good trainer and a better man.

But even trainer Richard Violette, who conditions the Whitney winner Diversify, had concerns on Saturday. He was quoted by Tim Wilkins from the “Times Union” as saying:

“It was irritating,” said Rick Violette, the trainer of Diversify, who is the third New York-bred to win the Whitney. “I thought it was unfair for the horses to be under tack for an hour, but you can’t control the weather. The poor horses … to be there for that long a time, you never know how they are going to preform.”

True. But it could have been so much worse. Rick Violette and the connections of Diversify may have caught lightning in a bottle on Saturday. But thank God that lightning didn’t catch anyone in the paddock…Thank God. And, that’s a bet that racing officials and stewards should not make in the future.

Two Horseshoes Up: Derby City Gaming Gets Approval for More Instant Racing Machines

At the same meeting where the Kentucky Racing Commission approved the sell of Ellis Park, and the transfer of the racing license to Saratoga Casino & Hospitality, the Commission also approved for an expansion on the number of Historical Racing machines that will be offered at the soon-to-be-opened Derby City Gaming operation owned by Churchill Downs in Louisville.

Without a doubt, Historical Racing has been a boom for Kentucky racing. The new games have attracted new people to the racetrack. And, the money wagered on these games have pumped millions into assisting racetrack operations and into elevating purse accounts at every one of Kentucky’s major racing venues.

The newly constructed Derby City Gaming operation — scheduled to open in just a few weeks at the current site where Churchill Downs has a Thoroughbred training facility and the former Louisville Downs harness track location — is sure to add to that scenario.

The new facility is beautifully designed. The new facility will be properly marketed and promoted. The new facility is sure to attract new fans to the gaming operation. And, the new facility should provide additional revenue to one of the world’s most prestigious Thoroughbred racing operations and additional purse money to help support one of the game’s most renown meets.

Win. Win. Win.

Thanks to the Kentucky Racing Commission.

Two Horseshoes Down: Still Waiting on a Hearing for Those Racetrack Licenses in Corbin & Oak Grove

About a year ago, Keeneland Race Course and Churchill Downs formed a dynamic duo collaboration, and applied to own and operate racetrack operations in two rural Kentucky communities.

One, would be a new quarter horse and standardbred operation to be located in, or around, Corbin, in Southeast Kentucky. The other would be a new quarter horse and/or standardbred operation in Oak Grove in Southwest Kentucky. Both of the new racetracks would apply for the ability to also own and operate Historical Racing machines to help fund purses and operations at both newly proposed locations.

Unfortunately, to date, the Kentucky Racing Commission has not acted on either application. Unfortunate, indeed.

If acted upon and approved, new construction jobs could be immediately added in two areas of the Commonwealth where jobs are at a premium. If acted upon and approved, new racing venues that could and would attract new racing fans to a sport that is desperately trying to reach and develop more enthusiasts. If acted upon and approved, there would be more live racing opportunities for two breeds of horses that are desperately looking for new opportunities, new venues, and new racetrack operations that can showcase their respective breeds. And, if acted upon and approved, both of these new locations are sure to create new purse money that can be utilized for these new live racing dates and breeds, but could also supplement the purse accounts at two of the most recognized, and historic racing institutions in the entire world.

Appears to be another win situation. Win for Keeneland. Win for Churchill Downs. Win for Standardbreds and Quarter Horses. Win for two communities. Win for new jobs, new investment, new economics. And, win for new purse money. Win. Win. Win. Win.

Perhaps the Kentucky Racing Commission is waiting on Judge Thomas Wingate to issue his ruling in a case questioning the legality of the Historical Racing machine operations that was brought by the Family Foundation and is now sitting in Franklin Circuit Court.


But that ruling was thought to be forthcoming back in the Spring. Now, it is late summer. And, is there any end in sight?

Maybe there should be an end to the slight, instead, and hold a hearing on the merits of the two applications. If the members of the Commission feel like the two iconic racetracks have made a convincing argument on why and how they should and could operate two new racetracks in the Commonwealth, then issue the licenses. Let the construction begin. If not, then, perhaps, someone else can make an application to do something similar. It’s time to act. It’s time to move on.

One Horsehoe Up: It’s Arlington Million Week 

It’s Arlington Million week at beautiful Arlington Park near Chicago. Back in the early 1980s, owner Richard Duchossois created one of the most amazing and newest racing innovations. He would build a state-of-the-art turf course and cater to a world-wide audience by creating the first — as in ever — Million Dollar Horse Race.

As fate would have it, the organizers could not have designed or imagined a more thrilling or exciting inaugural running. In 1981, the great John Henry — who had been discarded on at least three previous occasions as nothing more than a rogue horse — proved once again that he was a magnificent grass runner. One of the best of all time, in fact.

Nearing the finish line of the 11/4-mile endurance test, the great John Henry lunged with one great stride to nip The Bart in one of the most legendary and memorable finishes of an American Thoroughbred horse race. The finish was so close, in fact, that the on-site television monitors flashed up an “official result” with The Bart listed as the winner.

Moments later, when the photo finish was finally determined, it was John Henry declared the Official “Official” Winner.

The unofficial result of the “Arlington Million,” though, was that America soon fell in love with grass racing. And, one by one, more and more American racetracks started to build turf tracks into their respective configurations, and more and more grass races were being written and run.

This week, the Arlington Million will return to one of the most beautiful racing venues in the entire world. The new and improved Arlington Park was built after the old one was nearly burned to the ground — just 25 days before the Arlington Million — in 1985.

I don’t know who the horse to beat this year is, just yet. I don’t know if any horse can ever duplicate John Henry’s amazing first win, or his subsequent win in the Million in 1984 that enabled him to become the one and only two-time winner of the great race. But it figures to be a world class field, full of runners from around the globe. And, it figures to be another grand event worth getting excited for and about.

One Horseshoe Down: Justify Is Still Retired

Still can’t get over the fact that this year’s Triple Crown winner, Justify, has been retired from racing and now resides over at WinStar Farm in Woodford County. Man, it would have been nice to see him run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Man, it would have been nice to see him run, at least one more time. And, man, wouldn’t it have been fun to watch him run on the grass in the Arlington Million?

After all, he is by Scat Daddy…

Just saying…















The horse broke well today,” Gaffalione said. “I had the horse inside, Dunph, going to the lead and then (Gun It) showed a little bit of speed. When I saw they were intent on going I just tried to get him back and got him to relax. He came back to me nicely and settled well down the backside. Got a little keen going into the far turn and wanted to move a little early. But I didn’t want to take too much away from him so I tried to sit as long as I could. He was waiting on horses down the lane but I kept him at task and there was plenty of horse there.”

“Mark (Casse, the trainer) and his team have done a great job,” Gaffalione said. “They’ve had a ton of confidence in this horse the whole way. It’s just an honor to be able to ride the horse. He’s just so professional, trains great and he’s a pleasure to be around.”

Tyler Gaffalione, Rode of War of Will to victory in the G2 Risen Star Stakes at the Fair Grounds
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

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