Even an environment as insular as horseracing can disclose momentous trends in the world beyond.
On the face of it, the launch yesterday of the Kentucky Derby Challenge, to be run for the first time at Kempton on March 18, aspired to dismantle only relatively trivial boundaries, but it was also instructive of an America that can turn so anxiously — whether in hope or despair — to its new president.
The American sport echoes every extreme of the moment. Its breeding industry is petrified by recession. On the track its conscience remains profoundly troubled by the graphic misfortunes that shocked admirers of successive champions in Barbaro, George Washington and Eight Belles. At the same time there are signs that the crisis is being addressed with the same sense of adventure that has long defined national mythology.
Last year, the Breeders’ Cup was staged on one of the new, synthetic surfaces that many view as imperative after the grotesque accident that befell Eight Belles after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby.
The hosts’ reward, of course, was to be unceremoniously over-run by European raiders. Vested interests would seem to guarantee Churchill Downs itself will be in no hurry to dig up the dirt track, but the presence in London of its vice-president, Tom Aronson, testified to an increasing dread of complacency.
For the winner of the Kempton race will not only be guaranteed a starting berth in the 135th Kentucky Derby — an incentive that will only be properly treasured by those who know how excruciating, to Americans, is the abyss dividing the 20th horse in the ballot from the 21st.
Asked how American trainers had greeted the innovation, Aronson admitted: “I can’t say they routinely loved the idea. However, the way it has been embraced is very, very positive.”
Aronson acknowledged that fundamental differences persist between the two racing cultures, notably over the welfare hazards of racing on drugs and dirt respectively. Yet while there remains no imminent prospect of Churchill Downs introducing a synthetic surface, nor are they deaf to the debate. “Churchill Downs also owns Arlington Park and invested $11 million replacing the dirt track there,” said Aronson.
“That was a first move in truly understanding these new surfaces. Can I foresee a time, in the future, when the Kentucky Derby is run on a synthetic track? There is no immediate consideration of that, but there is an ongoing consideration of the entire issue. I believe we have engaged in a new world, where there are three legitimate surfaces; dirt, synthetic and turf and that can only be for the good of the horses.”
For the time being, of course, the paradox persists that the Kempton winner will have established credentials of only marginal relevance to the Kentucky Derby — racing right handed, on a different surface.