Hype, but no hero; to inspire public, racing must spotlight horses

I'll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez worked to overtake Bodemeister in the stretch before pulling ahead late to win the 138th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville.
I'll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez worked to overtake Bodemeister in the stretch before pulling ahead late to win the 138th Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs in Louisville. Herald-Leader

Now that the track has been re-harrowed and thousands of plastic cups policed from the infield, perhaps we can reflect for a moment on what happened at Churchill Downs Saturday.

For one, Thoroughbred racing was dealt another blow — not necessarily a staggering blow, but a bruising one. An event designed for excitement and exuberance delivered only lingering questions and disappointment. What has happened to Thoroughbred racing? Where are the equine heroes of yesteryear? Where is Secretariat? Where is the classic Affirmed-Alydar rivalry?

Let's take nothing away from the courageous Derby winner, his connections or his band of loyal supporters. The problem lies with all those trainers, touts and scribes whose hype of other entries created such false expectations.

As we watched from the Twin Spires or on television, we knew a thrilling battle was in the cards. We knew that any one of five or six horses had a good chance to win. The problem: I'll Have Another wasn't among them.

You see, for all the visual and thrilling beauty of that last furlong, as I'll Have Another valiantly overtook Bodemeister, the aura of the Kentucky Derby was once again tainted. Simply put: The wrong horse won.

It seems to me that Thoroughbred racing has a credibility problem. We don't seem to get what we come for anymore. It doesn't matter whom you listen to: those who train, those who analyze races, those who promote the sport. They all get it wrong.

For almost a decade, the Kentucky Derby has served up one disappointment after another, as favorite after favorite has failed to live up to the advance billing of the industry and sports media. Every time a horse (or horses) of the hour fails to rise to the occasion, the public loses a little more interest in the event.

Sure, those with their noses buried in the Racing Form love a long-shot winner, but Main Street America does not. And it's the broad general public, the ones who tune in on the first Saturday in May, who hold the future of the sport in their hands, not the dwindling number of enthusiasts who frequent OTB shops.

Main Street America wants heroes, of both the two-legged and the four-legged variety. And heroes become heroes because you can count on them. It's been years since we've had a 3-year-old winner we could count on. So the general public continues to lose interest in Thoroughbred racing.

Perhaps, just perhaps, I'll Have Another will end up forcing this commentator to eat some serious crow. Perhaps the Santa Anita Derby and Kentucky Derby winner just needs a better publicist. Indeed, if he manages to run down Bodemeister in the Preakness, and then goes on to outdistance Urban Rags in the Belmont, I'll applaud as loudly as anyone.

But I wouldn't bet any money on it. Even worse, the casual racing fan won't bet any money on it. In a sense, the bloom is already off the rose for this year's Triple Crown campaign.

So what can be done? For starters, Churchill Downs must bite the bullet and restrict the number of Derby entries to a manageable size. A dozen would be good, 16 at the very most. Only with a smaller field will we be able to watch a competitive horse race instead of an equine scrum.

Also, it wouldn't hurt to close entries to the race at least a month, maybe six weeks, in advance, establishing a field of 20 or so horses that the public can get to know more intimately.

And, more needs to be done to make this race all about the real heroes, the four-footed ones, not the two-footed wannabes whose antics and prognoses and idiosyncrasies do more to sully the sport than to promote it.

And finally, whatever happened to match races? What say we limit the Preakness to Hansen, Bodemeister and Trinniberg? And wouldn't a Belmont with only I'll Have Another, Dullahan, Union Rags and Gemologist be a treat?

Then we'd know for sure who was the better horse. Then we might finally get our four-legged hero.