Being cursed with a viral strain of cautious optimism, I was angling for a nice, soft re-entry into the world of racing commentary this week for BloodHorse Daily, my new home away from home. Maybe open with a couple of jazzy race recaps (how about that Maxfield!), stir in a grizzled old groom, then land with a little hand-wringing over a controversy of no particular weight, like whether or not Richard Mandella will run Omaha Beach in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1), or the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1), or just take him home to Pasadena and let him trash the patio furniture.
No such luck. Wading anywhere into the racing game of 2019, there is only the deep end, and the deeper end. And just because all golden roads lead now to the Breeders' Cup Championships at Santa Anita Park does not mean they aren't strewn with potholes and rusty nails.
Consider, for instance, the national racing coverage during the last two weekends by NBC of the major events coming from Santa Anita, which has been ground zero for anti-racing protests. As a bitter prelude to the action, on-air reporters have been obliged to offer CliffsNotes versions of the equine fatalities from earlier this year, deliver the body count since then, and list the reforms enacted by California tracks in an effort to both stanch the bleeding and mollify public opinion.
Unsuspecting viewers being subjected to such grim details as part of an entertainment experience have a right to be flummoxed. "Thirty-plus horses have died here this year," goes the story line. "Five vets inspect them every day. And now, let's see who Edzo likes in the Rodeo Drive."
Thankfully, even the most disturbing message can be made palatable with the right delivery system. Nick Luck, his Oxbridge pedigree oozing from every pore, has been that main messenger for NBC when it comes to the hard facts of the 2019 season, and he will fill that role—along with new NBC recruit Tim Layden—as the Breeders' Cup unfolds the first two days of November.
"I think there's a difference between responsible journalism and scandal mongering," Luck said Monday, reached on his way home to England for a brief visit. "On the other hand, it's not up to us to make excuses for racing, because we do have the responsibility for dealing with animals who can't speak for themselves."
Luck's history of watching National Hunt runners tumble and twirl over hurdles and fences gives him a realistic perspective on the tribulations of American racing this year. In addition to his broadcasting of both flats and jumps, Luck sits on the Race Committee of Aintree Racecourse, home of the cherished but grueling Grand National Steeplechase, which has been reformed over the years in response to animal welfare protests.
"Racing will get its share of national attention in Great Britain when, for instance, a high-profile jockey is involved in a court case, or a race like the Grand National suffers fatalities," Luck said. "But they are isolated incidents. I can't remember a period of sustained scrutiny on an institutional level like America is experiencing now."
Whether perception has become reality or reality confirms perception is pointless. Horse racing's image has been corrupted over the past eight months, and that corruption has been amplified by a media megaphone fed by the mixed message delivered by horse racing itself. Little wonder that an internationalist like Luck bristles at the gap between what he hears and what he knows.
"What I find frustrating is that when I go back to Europe, there is the perception of racing in America being conducted on an uneven playing field, completely overrun with medication," Luck said. "There's no doubt in my mind that American racing is significantly cleaner now than when I started coming here 12, 15 years ago. And I don't think inherently there are poorer ethical standards among horsemen in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world. It's a disservice to suggest that there is."
For better or worse—OK, mostly worse—there will be only one story line at the Breeders' Cup this year, and it won't be about Got Stormy, Sistercharlie, Bricks and Mortar, Omaha Beach, Covfefe, Mitole , McKinzie, or Midnight Bisou. It will be about a sport without a unified national voice, stumbling from big event to big event wrapped in a patchwork quilt of medication regulations and penalties, and holding its collective breath for two days of intensively policed competition.
But when the flags drop, it will be the exhortation of Anthony Quinn's ruthless colonel to his warriors from the 1966 film "Lost Command" that echoes loudest of all:
"There's only one rule," bellowed Quinn, waving a grimy finger. "Don't die!"