by Frank Vespe
The news that Shared Belief would make his next start in the Grade 2, $1.5 million Charles Town Classic caused disbelief in some quarters. Why ship across the country to run on a bullring track?
The question more or less answers itself. Why ship halfway around the world to run in the desert in Dubai? Why, for that matter, ship anywhere?
Because the money’s good, the timing is right, the conditions suit.
More to the point, Shared Belief’s predicted presence in West Virginia underlines a little remarked upon trend that’s making now a pretty exciting time to be a mid-Atlantic racing fan.
It’s no great surprise to see top horses in the Preakness, Haskell, or Delaware Handicap. Those are rich races with flashy pedigrees.
But just a few years ago, the idea that, within the space of 11 months, two Breeders’ Cup winners-to-be would run at Parx, another would run at Penn National, and the horse that might be better than all of them would compete at Charles Town… well, even suggesting that probably would have gotten you a conversation with a pipe-smoking gent in a white coat.
And, yet, that’s exactly what’s happened.
Bobby’s Kitten, winner of the Penn Mile at Penn National; Untapable (Grade 1 Cotillion at Parx Racing); and Bayern (Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic) all parlayed mid-year mid-Atlantic triumphs into Breeders’ Cup glory a few months later.
And now comes Shared Belief, the favorite in that same Breeders’ Cup Classic whose chances were severely compromised in the race’s very first jumps, his only defeat in 11 starts to date. And he follows a line of top runners to make the trek to West Virginia, Game On Dude, who ran first or second in three Charles Town Classics, most prominent among them.
Of course, the big names don’t always win the big races. Game On Dude lost to 26-1 Imperative in last year’s Charles Town Classic; and Bayern’s Pennsylvania Derby win came at the expense of a much bigger name, that of Kentucky Derby-Preakness winner California Chrome.
Still, win or lose, the presence of these top horses is enough to draw the fans, and the bettors. Sources tell us that hotel rooms are in mighty short supply in and around Charles Town for Classic weekend. And all five runnings of the Classic are among the track’s best-ever days of handle.
The lesson is a simple one: if you pay, they will come. And if they do, so will the fans, and the wagering dollars.
Of course, identifying the lesson and putting it into practice are two different things. While it’s easy to see that big purses draw big-name horses, there’s more to racing than big races. A racing economy depends on more than a day or two of quality racing; horsemen need plentiful opportunities to race, and breeders need tracks where their stock can run. That’s why horsemen love year-round racing.
But at the same time, racing as a sport and as a viable economic entity needs more than the long grind of claiming and allowance races. It needs reasons for people to pay attention.
One can argue — not unfairly, either — that mid-Atlantic racing too often falls on the wrong side of that balance: too many days that don’t matter, and too few that do.
But that’s an argument for a different day.
For today, the good news is that good horses can come from — and show up at — any racetrack. Even, in the right circumstances, a humble track near you.