Horse Racing Needs Big Brown vs. Curlin More Than Ever

Burton DeWitt@bsd987Senior Analyst IAugust 20, 2008

Some things disappear. Vanish. Just go away.

Sure, there are reasons, explanations, scapegoats, but the simple fact is that things disappear.

Unfortunately, down that same path more things might disappear.

After Ruffian broke down on the far turn at Belmont in her match race against Foolish Pleasure, only one match race of any kind and zero of any significance were run over the next 13 years. Ruffian's match race was not even the most prestigious of the previous 18 months!

Yet the sour taste it left in everyone's mouth, as it should, was enough to prevent organizers and the public from demanding another match race. Many people have gone as far as to attribute that breakdown to the rapid decline in wagering and attendance in the following decade, an attribution that is definitely partially accurate.

Why would anyone want to risk witnessing something that barbaric again?

"It is almost getting back to the my horse can beat your horse level,'' said Howard Bass of Thoroughbred Racing Communications Inc. in an interview with the New York Times in 1988. ''I think people are thinking twice."

People are still thinking twice today.

None more so than IEAH Stables, owner of dual-classic winner Big Brown.

Over the past month, there has been a back-and-forth exchange of words and challenges between the connections of Big Brown and those of Curlin, the reigning American horse of the year.

First, Big Brown's trainer Rick Dutrow claimed that his horse was "way better than Curlin."

Second, Jess Jackson, majority owner of Curlin, tried to lure Big Brown to an August 30 race as Saratoga.

Third, Michael Iavarone, co-President of IEAH Stables, rebuked the offer, and challenged Curlin to come race him in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, a race in which Curlin's connections have already stated they were not looking towards.

Whether or not Big Brown is avoiding Curlin does not matter; what does matter is that these two refuse to negotiate a race for the two.

Horse racing needs Big Brown and Curlin to go head-to-head as much as horse racing needed Curlin not to retire after his three-year old year.

We need it for the sake of our sport.

So far this year, Bay Meadows in California and The Woodlands in Kansas have shut down, harboring nearly a century of racing between them; Santa Anita, Gulfstream, Churchill Downs, Belmont, Del Mar, and Saratoga have all witnessed major declines in wagering, some upward of 10 percent; and a horse has died during the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby, the first time such a fatality has ever occurred.

The way things have been going, you could hardly call this a bad year compared to the others. This year is one made putt away from being par for the course.

But for every problem, there has been some fix.

A new track is currently under construction in northern California to replace Bay Meadows. Additionally, thoroughbred racing returned to the Detroit-area for the first time since 1998 with the opening of Pinnacle Race Course.

The increase in gas prices has made travel to tracks more expensive, therefore leaving less money to wager. Although industry-wide numbers will not be available until the end of the year, the general consensus is that attendance is down slightly while wagering is down multi-fold. Lower gas prices obviously leave more money to wager with.

The death of Eight Belles has led to swooping changes throughout both the sport and the industry. California has recently enacted no-tolerance steroids policies and Kentucky is on the verge of doing the same. The Breeders' Cup has also stated that it will not award purse money to any track in 2009 that allows anabolic steroids to be used.

But nobody has really noticed these changes.

Why? Because outside of the three Triple Crown races, nobody notices horse racing.

It's just as ignored now as it was 20 years ago; it's just as ignored as everyone has wanted it to be since Ruffian broke down in 1975.

Horse racing needs a champion to get everyone back interested.

It needs another Secretariat or Seattle Slew or Affirmed, a Triple Crown winner. That we cannot artificially make.

It needs another Kelso or Forego or John Henry, a gelding that draws everyone's imaginations by winning every year for half a decade. That can happen, but we need a bit of luck. We need a gelding like Funny Cide, but he needs to maintain his brilliance after his Triple Crown season.

It needs another Ruffian. No, not in that we need a horse to be a fallen hero; we have Barbaro and Eight Belles. We need a horse to come through and become a champion, challenge the reigning champion, and give us one heck of a match race.

If horse racing wants to become anything more than second-tier; if horse racing wants to even pretend to be mainstream, it needs Curlin and Big Brown to go head-to-head. Not just in some race with 12 other horses, but in a match race.

Jess Jackson cares about the sport; why else would he have brought Curlin back this year against conventional wisdom and financial sense? Heck, there are rumors that he might run again in 2009, although Jackson does admit that such odds are "pretty slim."

If Iavarone truly cared about the sport, he would talk with Jackson about a match race. If he truly cared about anything more than money.

I am sure some track would be willing to put down $1 million for a Big Brown vs. Curlin race. I'm sure a track would be willing to put down more. But even still, even if it were put at every condition that Iavarone could possibly ask for, I doubt he would do it.

When money is taken into the picture, why would Iavarone risk letting his horse become the next Ruffian? Why would Iavarone risk putting his horse in a race that, if he breaks down, could be the nail in the coffin for the entire sport?

Horse racing needs Iavarone and Jackson to come together and draw up a match race, even if the future of the sport is on the line. Without such a race, all we have is more of this long, drawn-out death ritual that has been going on since 1975.

Please, for the sake of our sport, come together. We need you to more than ever.

Take the risk even if financial wisdom says otherwise; the rewards of a success are endless.

We've let match races vanish, but to keep the rest of the sport from doing the same, we need to bring them back. At least just this once. We will all pray that neither Big Brown nor Curlin becomes the next Ruffian.

For a sport that survives on betting, almost everyone associated prefers to play it safe.

Bet show, not win. There is not much of a payoff, but there is enough to continue the illusion of getting by for at least a little longer.


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