The Muck Pit: A Place Where Things Get Cleaned Up, or Where Things Get Cleaned Out

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.”

I am sure that nearly everyone who will be visiting this site and reading this article fully understands what a “muck pit” is and why they are necessary at the racetrack. If you don’t, you probably are very close to being one of the persons that need to be tossed into the proverbial “muck pit.” But, in the spirit of clean fun, here is why I think we need our own “muck pit:”

In short, the industry creates a lot of crap. Tons of it comes from the beautiful horses that occupy the backside. Some, though, comes from statements, comments, decisions, opinions and people, and not from the hundreds of horses.

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 our first list.

Tirico Replaces Hammond for NBC’s Derby Coverage

This Derby Season got off to a rocky start when the National Broadcasting Network announced that it would be shifting the Hall of Fame voice of Tom Hammond from his normal ranking position on the set and replacing him as the network host on this year’s Derby coverage with Mike Tirico.

Nothing against Tirico. I’m sure he is a good chap, and will work hard enough to learn more about the Thoroughbred racing and breeding industry in order to do a good job on the coverage.

But NBC, apparently, decided it was time to move on from Tom — a legend, whose smooth and comfortable voice only equaled his knowledge and passion for a sport and industry that he grew up to love and cherish. From his days as a sports anchor at WLEX-TV in Lexington, to his days and nights as the voice of the grand Keeneland Sales Pavilion, to his days of hanging out in the press box just to watch a $10,000 claimer with as much interest as he viewed a Grade I winner, Tom Hammond has become the iconic face and voice of Thoroughbred racing.

On many occasions, long after the day’s races were completed, Tom and I would stand in the Keeneland press box and look out over the green fields of home at a vista that doesn’t come along often and is cherished even less. No words were really exchanged much and none were needed. The calm freshness of Spring in the air and the anticipation of Derby to come was enough to both excite and calm.

Tom Hammond understood that. He felt that. And, he could easily communicate that to the world, which most only comes to view the Derby as casual fans. Tom has a talent to communicate; to cheer; to create; to celebrate the glory of the racehorse. Like nobody else before and like nobody will to come. An icon.

Tom Hammond is as young a 72-year-old as you could ever find. His passion for this game lives as strong in his heart and his voice as it did when he was a young man embarking on a career in broadcast journalism.

Don’t know all the details, as nobody is really saying much. But if Tom didn’t ask for this change, then NBC is asking for this criticism.

This decision isn’t bullcrap…it is certainly horsecrap. And, the decision certainly goes into the Muck Pit.

Quit Whining, PETA

Some zealot from PETA wrote another Op-Ed piece that, for some reason, The Lexington Herald-Leader found reason and space to print. My thought is that the Herald-Leader is so desperate for readership that it will print about anything these days to either incite a riot or try to create more site clicks. But lost in all this silliness are three simple facts:

  • Thoroughbred racehorses are competitive animals that LOVE to race. From birth to death, they buck, squeal, gyrate and race – in the field and on the track. It is their nature. It is their breeding. It is THEIR game and sport and we are just lucky enough to watch and smile.
  • Thoroughbred racehorses are, for the vast majority of the time on this earth, the most cared-for, the most groomed and loved, the most well-treated animals to ever walk, jog, gallop or run. Period.

Thoroughbred racehorses are treated better today than any other time of recorded history. The industry has invested millions in equine veterinary medicines and practices; in aftercare facilities and retirement care opportunities; in adoption and alternative career options other than racing.

PETA, jump right in. And, enjoy the Muck Pit. I would prefer you go head first.

 

Henryk de Kwiatkowski Saved Calumet

On April 29, my good friend and former colleague at The Lexington Herald-Leader, John Clay wrote a column on the resurgence of Calumet Farm – who could have three horses entered to run in this week’s Kentucky Derby. All preparing for the Derby are Sunland Derby winner Hence (trained by Steve Asmussen), Louisiana Derby runner-up Patch (trained by Todd Pletcher), and Louisiana Derby fourth-place finisher Sonneteer (trained by Keith Desormeaux).

It is the perfect setting for a good story. Calumet was one of the most famous and storied farms and owners for generations. The white fences were the frame of the beautiful Bluegrass picture.

As a kid, I visited the farm on many occasions. I saw Alydar win the 1978 Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland coming from way back early and sweeping to an impressive win of 10 or so lengths. And, after the race, I saw jockey Jorge Velasquez guide the great Alydar over to the Clubhouse rail for a visit with Calumet’s aging owners, Mr. and Mrs. Gene Markey. It was then that Alydar seemingly “bowed” to his lovely owners, in tribute to them and what they had accomplished.

It wasn’t much longer, it seemed, that I visited Calumet Farm and sat in a hard, wooden chair and witnessed one of the saddest moments in Kentucky racing history. It was ugly watching people pour over tea cups, and silverware, horse blankets and feed buckets at the Calumet bankruptcy auction. They sold everything that could be sold. I still have the brochure from that horrid day. It is a reminder that I hope no other industry giant will ever have to endure such a fate.

But it was then that Henryk de Kwiatkowski out-bid Issam Fares and purchased the iconic farm for a bargain price of $17 million.

Clay’s story was a great read until I hit this pothole in the road. Clay wrote:

“Though he kept the land from falling into the hands of real estate developers, de Kwiatkowski was not much of a presence in the racing industry. The farm did not have a single entry in the Kentucky Derby from 1993 until it was sold again in 2012.”

If Clay’s point was that Calumet had “not much of a presence in the racing industry” during the time that de Kwiatkowski owned it, then he would have an arguable position. Yet, to be fair, he only owned the farm for 20 years. There are many legendary farms that have endured ruts much longer than that time period.

But if you read the statement that de Kwiatkowski was “not much of a presence in the racing industry,” you may have some issues. Just because you don’t win a Pulitzer Prize, or National Sportswriter of the Year, doesn’t mean you aren’t “much of a presence in the” writing industry.

In his time of racing Thoroughbreds, before he purchased Calumet, de Kwiatkowski won the Belmont Stakes twice – with Conquistador Cielo and Stephan’s Odyssey. At retirement, Conquistador Cielo was syndicated for a world-record price.
Additionally, de Kwiatkowski bought and raced Danzig, before retiring him after three races due to injuries and soreness.
Danzig went on to become a breeding icon. Also, de Kwiatkowski had a beautiful race mare by the name of De La Rose. Throughout their racing association, de Kwiatkowski’s trainer, Woody Stephens, always raved about his owner’s passion and love for quality horses.

Let’s give Clay the benefit of the doubt and say he was writing about the former and not the latter. Still, all in all, it is not fair to say or write that de Kwiatkowski’s only contribution was saving Calumet from land developers and painting the fences white – again.

It is fair to say and write that de Kwiatkowski was a great horseman (a champion polo player, none the less), owner and breeder with great influence in both the breed and the land he loved so much. He helped restore the land known as Calumet, the legend of the farm’s historic name, and the credibility of its racing operations.

If not for de Kwiatkowski, one could argue there would be no Calumet Farm today. And, that’s no MUCK.

Until next time,
Gene McLean / Muck Pit Maintenance

It’s a bummer running second again in this race but we’ll get it one year. The winner ran a good race; we were just second best.”

Brendan Walsh, Trainer of HONORABLE DUTY (runner-up)
  • 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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