Not In Our Stars

By Larry Levin
The recent retirement of Afleet Alex has produced the usual frustration when a rising star leaves for the breeding shed. As was the case with Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex's last race was the Belmont Stakes (gr. I). The Triple Crown series, which used to showcase future talent, has become more of a swan song.

For some, the latest retirement is proof that racing's problem is the lack of stars. But, as Ecclesiastes noted, there is nothing new under the sun. A back issue of The Blood-Horse discussed a recent article in Sports Illustrated, which lamented, "Sport, like show biz, needs stars, and racing doesn't have them." What is intriguing about this observation is not the content, which is repeated regularly in the industry as a great truth, but the timing. This particular item appeared in the June 10, 1967, issue, which had Damascus winning the Belmont on the cover. The immediately preceding week contained write-ups on Buckpasser's victory in the Metropolitan Mile, which was his 15th consecutive victory, and Dr. Fager's first-place finish in the Jersey Derby, from which he was disqualified.

That anyone could perceive a lack of stars when these three horses were at the top of their game seems odd. Also noteworthy is the 1967 view that Thoroughbred racing was declining. Buckpasser had just won the Met Mile before 67,775 at Aqueduct, which hosted the race while Belmont was closed for reconstruction. To put that in perspective, the 2005 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Belmont had a crowd of 54,289, which The Blood-Horse called "solid attendance."

The history of the Met Mile presents an interesting baseline to examine the trends in the industry and the "lack of stars" argument. The Met Mile is a well-established race which has possibly grown in importance, especially to breeders, since it's held at an intermediate distance which many believe reflects the future success of stallion prospects.

Take the Met Mile in 10-year increments. In 1965, 73,375 went to Aqueduct to see favored Gun Bow win. In 1975, the race had a true star in defending Horse of the Year Forego, although only 47,167 witnessed him losing to Gold and Myrrh. The crowd dropped to 31,043 in 1985 for Forzando II's victory. That was nearly double the 15,959 in 1995 who saw You and I win.

That brings us to 2005, when the Met Mile had as good a marquee horse as possible--Ghostzapper, the defending Horse of the Year, coming off an undefeated season. Ghostzapper won impressively before only 15,066.

Looking at the long-term trend, it's hard to see the positive effect of stars like Forego and Ghostzapper. The period from 1972 to 1980 is a case in point. Over nine consecutive years, the Horse of the Year was Secretariat (twice), Forego (three times), Seattle Slew, Affirmed (twice), and Spectacular Bid. Despite having an incredible group of headliners, Thoroughbred racing declined during this time.

As much as some would like to believe that the industry is only a star away from renewed popularity, there is little evidence to support that view. There will never be sufficient stars in the view of track management. Dr. Fager, Buckpasser, and Damascus were not held to be enough in 1967. Plus, the focus on stars, which the sport can't create at will, distracts from day-to-day business issues that need to be addressed.

When results are disappointing, management looks for reasons. The paucity of outstanding runners is always available as an explanation for declining numbers. It's somewhat reminiscent of Bill Veeck's line when he was running Suffolk Downs, that poor attendance could be blamed on the weather as follows--if the weather was bad, it kept people from coming, and if it was good, it was too nice to go to the track.

Thoroughbred racing needs candidly to address its problems. As Cassius said in Julius Caesar in a different context, "The not in our stars. But in ourselves..." When the sport is fortunate enough to have great horses, we can enjoy them. But if the business can't succeed on a daily basis running routine races while we wait for the next Seabiscuit, it's time for some serious introspection on where the industry is going and why.