Commentary

Racing's identity crisis

Updated: May 11, 2009, 3:47 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

Sport or business? Business or sport?

Racetrack marketers never have been able to figure it out. And it's quite obvious after the comedy of public relations errors Sunday that the horsemen competing can't make the division either.

The owners of Mine That Bird and Pioneerof The Nile hatched a short-lived plan that considered adding entries to Saturday's Preakness, in hopes of taking advantage of a loophole that would keep star filly Rachel Alexandra out of the starting gate. Since she was not nominated to the Triple Crown, the rules stipulate she can not get into the field if a capacity field of 14 nominees enters.

It was a plan that made perfect business sense and was rooted in complete compliance with the rulebook. So why did Ahmed Zayat and Mark Allen back down? The consensus answer from both camps, after about 12 hours of intense internet and racing-media fury, is that it was in the best interest of the game, and the sporting thing to do.

So if sportsmanship and the "best thing for the game" drive the bus, why then is Calvin Borel riding Rachel Alexandra and not Mine That Bird? Borel has no commitment whatsoever to Rachel's new owner, Jess Jackson, nor new trainer Steve Asmussen. Neither guy has Borel on his speed dial when looking for a rider. All that Mine That Bird's owners and trainer did was give the journeyman rider a rocket to launch himself into further Kentucky Derby lore. There's only one Derby; I don't care how big you think the Kentucky Oaks is to win, or how good the filly is who won it. If loyalty counts for anything, you stick with the Derby winner.

What Borel did was make a business decision, pure and simple. He feels Rachel Alexandra is the best horse with the best chance to earn more purse money, and he inked a deal to ride her throughout the rest of 2009. Had he not been given a guarantee beyond one race, that business decision might not have looked as attractive. And the day Rachel Alexandra actually signs the checks to her rider will be the day that a rider answers to a horse. Borel's commitment is to the humans, just as any rider. Jockeys take off losing horses on a daily basis that are wonderful animals to ride and partner with; not every relationship is Casey's Shadow.

I'm not here to say either side is wrong. I don't begrudge Calvin Borel an ounce. The point is that the flimsy identity between sport and business has made horse racing a tough sell to anyone looking in objectively. All sports have hit this crossroads, but the ones who can look themselves in the eye and just say what they are move on more successfully.

Major team "sports" and its athletes have made the clean cut to business in the past decade or two, and its fan base now understands where to place their hearts vs. minds. No fan watching the Boston Celtics expects the nucleus of the club to be around more than 2-3 years in this business world. Fans don't up and hate a player for changing teams via free agency and making a better living for their families. NASCAR drivers jump teams all the time. Even on the collegiate level, many universities have made it publicly clear by how much they pay their football and basketball coaches just what winning means to them and that they're not delusional about being bastions of academia.

So why can't horse racing and its participants just say what it is: Horse racing is big business; it's not a sport. And that's not an evil word or transition to make. Most sports these days are played by kids on playgrounds under the age of 14. By the time they hit high school, it's hard to even look at some athletic departments and what goes on, and conclude that things are purely on the sporting level.

Horsemen should not be afraid to say it's all about business, and we in the media and racing fans should not be cynical and na´ve enough to think that dreams of "sport" should influence decisions. Allen and Zayat, or anyone else, still have every right and business motive to stuff the entry box Wednesday and keep Rachel Alexandra out of the Preakness. It's not their fault the original owners of Rachel Alexandra did not pay to nominate the filly at any point in the process, and that her new owners must shell out $100,000 in late supplemental fees on the hope that she gets in the race.

Certainly the appearance of Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness makes for better theater and a better race. But it's not going to save horse racing, and the filly not drawing into the race wouldn't be a nail in the industry's coffin either. Oaks and Derby winners have met before on huge national television stages, and both times in recent history, neither even won. The 1999 Belmont Stakes and 1988 Breeders' Cup Distaff were memorable races to fans of the game, but those match-ups (Charismatic vs. Silverbulletday, losing to Lemon Drop Kid; and Winning Colors vs. Goodbye Halo, losing to Personal Ensign) obviously didn't send the racing industry into a meteoric popularity rise. Look where we're at today. Lest we forget, the filly Rags to Riches winning the 2007 Belmont just four Triple Crown races ago did not do much to stem the downward business trends of the game.

The idea that you have to let Rachel Alexandra race Saturday for the good of the game has no historical credence or long-term business benefit. But it certainly would be cool to see. Sure, we might see a bump in television ratings Saturday with her in the race, but ratings also were up for the Derby. Any up-tick in viewers also could be economically driven, as more people stay home to watch than open their wallets for an expensive day out.

Horse racing's future success or failure is based far more on its ability to function as a well-run business than as to which horses show up in the starting gate. I'd love to see Rachel in the starting gate Saturday as a fan of the game and see what she can do against the big boys. But I'm not going to bemoan anyone with a vested business interest in horse racing for doing what they think is best for their bottom line.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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