Battle of the Exes: Del Mar Match Race Irresponsible to Sport and Tradition

Burton DeWitt@bsd987Senior Analyst IAugust 5, 2011

I want to be happy about Del Mar's “Battle of the Exes” match race; I really do. I want to be happy that creativity has wrestled itself into race marketing and tracks are trying to find new ways to draw in race fans. 

I really want to be happy. 

I really want to be happy that Chantal Sutherland and Mike Smith will ride a pair of maidens around the seaside oval in front of 30,000 or so cheering spectators on an otherwise dull Sunday afternoon. 

But there's really not much I can be excited about. 

In fact, to the contrary, there's a lot I'm flat-out insulted about. 

For starters, a maiden race? A race where 50 percent of the horses in it will finally become a winner? A race where one-half of the competitors will receive a statistically important classification, a classification that most horses never receive?

That is irresponsible both to the tradition of horse racing and to the industry itself. 

Which isn't to say none of these horses are good enough to ever win a race. 

Joker Face was second in his last start as the odds-on favorite in a $30,000 maiden claiming at Hollywood Park. 

In his first start five months ago at Santa Anita, he was beaten a nose in a maiden special weight. Cloud Man, who beat him, has won or placed in each race since then, including a convincing 2 1/4-length triumph in an allowance optional claimer at Del Mar. 

Parable hasn't shown as much, although he did run second, beaten a head, in a claiming race against winners in January. No one will be shocked if he ever broke his maiden. 

And the also-eligible, Tapfortexas, has placed in his last two races, although only last-place finisher Link Suances has run back well out of Tapfortexas' runner-up two starts back. He could be a life-long maiden. 

Still, all three horses could break their maidens one day and no one would raise an eyebrow. 

But make them earn it against a full field. 

Zippy Chippy, who gained fame and followers over his infamous 100-race losing streak, never broke his maiden, although he finished in-the-money 18 times. Yet no one created a race, or at least a race against thoroughbreds, just to improve the chances that he won. The smallest field he ever faced was five horses, and for the most part he faced full fields of eight or more. 

You have to earn your first victory. 

Moreover, creating a match race among maidens messes with breeding statistics. The percentage of runners who win is a very important statistic for sires, and either A.P. Indy, It's No Joke or Tapit is going to increase his percentage via a publicity stunt. 

That's irresponsible to the industry. 

But more importantly, it's irresponsible to the great tradition of match races. 

When Seabiscuit took on War Admiral at Pimlico, it was to decide the best horse in the land. 

When Boston took on Fashion in front of 70,000 on Long Island, New York, it was to decide the best horse in the land. 

When Ruffian took on Foolish Pleasure in one of horse racing's darkest moments, it was to decide the best horse in the land. 

Even lesser match races, like Black Taz and Ruby for mule supremacy, were to settle some score. 

We've had match races to determine which is the better breed: thoroughbred or quarter horse. 

We've seen match races at defunct Centennial Park in Colorado and Ak-Sar-Ben in Nebraska to figure out the best horse on the circuit. 

We've witnessed some truly memorable moments. 

And of course, Del Mar isn't the first track to do a gimmick like this. Heck, this isn't the first time Del Mar has even done a gimmick match race at all. 

In 2003, Del Mar matched Patrick Valenzuela against Julie Krone in a Battle-of-the-Sexes match race. That was pretty darn bad and it irked me then. 

But this is worse. 

To create a match race solely because two jockeys used to be engaged, publicly engaged, national-television-audience-engaged, is a kick in the groin to the great history of match races. 

At least in the Valenzuela-Krone battle, you could claim you were trying to see which was the better sex. 

But to create a match race to see who the better ex is? To create a match race to settle a score that was settled long ago?

To create a match race that will break half of the competitors' maidens for nothing but the exposure boost it's going to generate is a slap in the face to the great history of match races in this country. It's a sucker-punch to the great tradition of match races where the turf meets the surf. 

What Del Mar is staging is sickening, and every true race fan around the country should see it for what it is. The great tradition of match racing in this country—the great tradition of match racing at Del Mar—is being tarnished to let either Mike Smith or Chantal Sutherland get one final metaphorical punch in in their relationship. 

That's not what a match race is supposed to be. 

A match race is supposed to answer the question of is my horse better than your horse? That's it. Even if you take the liberal view and extend it to jockeys, it has to be to settle some score. 

But a match race just because a couple of jockeys used to be engaged? A match race for a gimmick? That's an insult to the great history of horse racing. There's no real score to settle here. 

That's just not something any true race fan should get behind. 

And considering it was through a match race 73 years ago, a match race where Seabiscuit defeated Ligarati, that Del Mar established itself as one of the top tracks in the country, I cannot believe it's something that anyone at Del Mar got behind.

I cannot believe the track would offer a product that is this irresponsible. 

I just can't.