The loss of baseball in 2022 could be racing’s gain

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Fenway_Park_2013
If baseball stadiums like Fenway Park are empty this summer because of a labor stoppage, is horse racing prepared to fill the void? (Ron Flatter photo)

Louisville, Ky.

A random thought has wandered in and out of my conscience for the last few weeks. I should have written it down when it first crossed my mind late this summer. But I did not.

Finally, I remembered it and uttered it in the office this week. One colleague had the same a-ha moment I did. Another scoffed at it. So with this small sample suggesting acceptance of the idea is a coin flip at best, here goes.

With Major League Baseball wading into its ninth labor stoppage – and its first in 27 years – has whatever passes for the establishment of horse racing considered the possibility that this sport might be the only game in town next summer?

Barring a crippling outbreak of what Joe Buck facetiously referred to as “COVID-30,” basketball season will end by June 19 and hockey season by June 30. Wimbledon runs from June 27 to July 10. The Pro Football Hall of Fame Game will not happen until Aug. 4. That presumably leaves about a month when horse racing might be the only name sport available for bettors. Since preseason football is not an everyday proposition, Thoroughbreds could have some staying power next summer.

Not even the FIFA World Cup will come to the rescue. In their infinite wisdom, the lords of soccer saw fit to push next year’s tournament to late in the year. I hear Qatar is lovely in the fall. The Premier League will be finished well before next summer. So will La Liga and Ligue 1 and Serie A. The Champions League will be done and dusted May 28 in St. Petersburg. That would be in Russia, not near Tampa Bay Downs.

If there really is no baseball next summer, ... well, let’s hold that thought for just a moment. That could be a significant “if.” Remember my scoffing colleague? I have a bet with him that the major-league regular season still will be on hold at the end of the Kentucky Derby prep season. That would be with the running of the Lexington Stakes on April 16, some 17 days after what is supposed to be baseball’s opening day.

My point is MLB’s current hierarchy does not have a long memory. Of the 30 current franchise owners, 23 came on board after the strike that wiped out the 1994 World Series. So did every member of the Major League Baseball Players Association. “This will be different” might be the mantra, but old guys like me know the current lockout and immovable negotiation stances too easily translate into canceled games.

Which brings us back to horse racing. The summer of ’22 could have the familiar feeling of the spring of ’21. That was when sports bettors who did have baseball or basketball or hockey and who did not resort to Russian table tennis and English darts and Korean baseball found themselves learning the idiosyncrasies every Monday and Tuesday of Fonner Park and Will Rogers Downs.

Saratoga and Del Mar will be naturals to attract some bigger bucks, but how about tracks like Parx Racing and Indiana Grand and even the small circuits at Assiniboia Downs and Finger Lakes? With added notice, perhaps they can make deals that allow them to shift racing dates, attract more handle and, in exchange, keep more of the takeout that normally flows like a waterfall to advance-deposit wagering platforms.

But let’s say those deals cannot get done. A big advantage that tracks might have next summer that they did not enjoy last year theoretically be the opening of the gates to spectators who were banned early in the pandemic. Tracks would have a fighting chance to make money on a rush of new betting dollars, because they already keep a greater percentage of the hold on in-person wagers, not to mention admission, food, drink, programs and parking.

Given all the notice that exists with baseball’s troubles, racing’s collective hierarchy has a golden opportunity to map out plans in the event ballparks are still locked down. It does not even have to happen cooperatively. What stops someone at, say, Canterbury Park from reaching out to make a better deal with Minnesota racing authorities and even ADWs? If the track could guarantee added dates while the Twins don’t play, wouldn’t that be in all of racing’s best interests?

Too bad Congress didn’t think of this when it wrote the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act.

Racing notes and opinions

Tread lightly on Friday night’s running of the Remington Springboard Mile in Oklahoma. The big reason is the mixed use of Lasix. Five of the 2-year-olds entered in this 10-4-2-1 points prep for the Kentucky Derby will be on it, including one for the first time. Four will not. For those who have the “L” in their past performances, they will not be eligible for the Derby qualifying points. There is no “L” in morning-line favorite Make It Big (7-2), trainer Saffie Joseph Jr.’s Neolithic colt who is 2-for-2 without the medication. Last time out he won the Oct. 30 Juvenile Sprint for Florida-breds at Gulfstream Park. With José Ortiz flying in for the ride, Make It Big figures to chase the pace that may be established by a pair of prospects from Steve Asmussen’s stable. Classic Moment (4-1), who gets Lasix for the first time, was never more than a half-length off the lead breaking his maiden last month at Churchill Downs. Concept (5-1), who has raced on Lasix four times, won in gate-to-wire fashion going six furlongs at Remington nearly three months ago, but he gave up the lead going seven furlongs over the same track in October. With all that early speed in the race, Bye Bye Bobby (4-1) is worthy of attention. Also staying on the race-day medication, he is a deep closer who was a winning debutant in a 2-year-old stakes last month at Zia Park in New Mexico. Todd Fincher trained Señor Buscador to victory in this race last year, so he would be looking for repeat with Bye Bye Bobby. It says here he will get it. There is a 30 percent chance of thunderstorms for the Springboard, which is posted for Friday at 11:28 p.m. EST.

Fearless (8-5) breaking from an outside post and Mighty Heart (9-5) from the rail figure to get most of the handle for Saturday’s 3:59 p.m. EST running of the Grade 3 Harlan’s Holiday for open company going 8½ furlongs Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Coming out of Todd Pletcher’s barn, Fearless has raced four times at Gulfstream with three wins and a second. Luis Sáez is expected to have the 5-year-old Ghostzapper gelding coming from off the pace late in the race. Fearless has, however, failed as the favorite in his last two starts. Trainer Josie Carroll has John Velázquez riding Mighty Heart, who won the Grade 2 Autumn Stakes last month at Woodbine. The frontrunning, 4-year-old Dramedy colt is the only millionaire in the race with his last two wins coming on synthetic surfaces. Those two will be in my admittedly chalky exacta box with the deep-closing South Bend (4-1), Bill Mott’s 4-year-old by Algorithms who finished last in the COVID Kentucky Derby of 2020. His speed ratings have steadily improved this fall to the point he won a better than average allowance race Nov. 13 at Churchill Downs. The worry here is his last two wins were on Lasix, which is not allowed in the Harlan’s Holiday.

If it is on the turf at Gulfstream, then Chad Brown must have the favorite. There he is with the 4-year-old gelding L’Imperator (5-2) leading the 12 entrants plus one also-eligible for Saturday’s 1⅛-mile, Grade 2 Fort Lauderdale Stakes. Formerly trained in France by Didier Guillemin, the 4-year-old Holy Roman Emperor gelding is 5-for-5 in allowance company both in Europe and America. In stakes races he is 0-for-4. It is noteworthy that his three scores in France were on soft to heavy courses, especially since there is 40-50 percent chance of showers Saturday in south Florida. Brown also has Analyze It (4-1) as the second choice on the morning line. The 6-year-old Point Of Entry entire was an even-money winner last out in an Oct. 8 Belmont Park turf allowance. My eyes and many of my dollars are turning to Breaking The Rules (10-1), a Shug McGaughey 6-year-old by War Front who has finished in the money 3 of 4 times at Gulfstream. He also had a well-regarded workout at Payson Park on Monday. I will put Breaking The Rules into exotics with L’Imperator and Analyze It. The Fort Lauderdale is scheduled for Saturday at 4:32 p.m. EST.

Add Fort Lauderdale: Remember King Guillermo? Trainer Juan Carlos Ávila brings him back to the turf for the first time in two years. Between injuries and disappointing performances, he never has duplicated his 49-1 upset in the 2020 Tampa Bay Derby. He began 2021 with last-place finishes in the San Pasqual and the Big ’Cap at Santa Anita. After 5½ months on the bench, he came back to finish a fading fifth in a mile handicap Oct. 23 at Gulfstream. King Guillermo is 30-1 on the morning line for the Fort Lauderdale.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features Eclipse Award-winning writer John Scheinman, who discusses his new book Bal Harbour Blues. Celebrity interviewer Brad Blanks talks about what happens when red carpets and horse racing come together. South Point’s Chris Andrews handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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