31 October 2004

With tight but cambered turns and a small capacity, the Breeders’ Cup venue has a charm all of its own

Brough Scott in Dallas

This week we will all try and understand the Americans as election fever grips their nation. It will not be easy. Neither, despite a big, big Texan welcome, was it for our racing fans yesterday when the Breeders’ Cup races were run at Lone Star Park near Dallas.

For never since America started this Breeders’ Cup jamboree on that sunny Californian day at Hollywood Park, Los Angeles, in November 1984, has so large an operation been placed on so small a venue. For the last five years Breeders’ Cup day has averaged over 50,000 fans and $14 million (£7.6 million) bet on the track. Lone Star Park, started just seven years ago, is normally pushed to take more than 8,000 fans and $2 million at the betting windows. Bringing the Breeders’ Cup here might seem a risk little short of madness but remember this is Texas.

Besides a certain George Walker Bush, Texas is home for some of the biggest hitters in the thoroughbred breeding industry. It is also not, as yet, host to slot machines which at present suck $1 billion a year out of Texan pockets into the takings of Louisiana Downs and Delta Downs across the border. Sure there was plenty of glory as the likes of Richard Mandella and Jerry Bailey, and D Wayne Lukas and John Velasquez, pitched the top horses around the tight but cambered turns constructed only eight years ago in the flat, featureless semi-suburbia of Grand Prairie. But this is business.

“Without slots, Texas’s other two tracks [in Houston and San Antonio] will die,” said Eugene Joyce, Lone Star’s assistant manager, on Friday. “We can survive but we will never be able to give the prize money to attract top horses unless we capitalise on our unique potential. In the rest of the country 75 per cent of the racegoers are 55 and over, here 75 per cent are 55 and younger. There are some 10 million people in the Fort Worth and Dallas areas. Properly harnessed we would be offering purses of $50,000 for ordinary races [five times their current norm]. We would be a match for Santa Anita.”

Joyce is too diplomatic to outline the element of bible belt conservatism which still looks disapprovingly at gambling, preferring to emphasise the style with which Lone Star and its supporters have embraced the Breeders’ Cup challenge. The stabling blocks and actual track routine are state of the art. The grandstand may have a strange, south-western stucco look from the outside, but it gives immaculate service to customers from moneyed top to raucous bottom. The week has seen everything from jockeys’ autograph-signing sessions (for a full hour before the three-race series won by Bailey from Kieren Fallon and Frankie Dettori on Thursday) to a superb cowboy party in Fort Worth featuring both a real bull-riding competition and the incomparable Willie Nelson in concert.

There is also, of course, a brutal financial equation for Texas. That they do not have, or dare to institute, state income tax and revenue from slot machines at the racetrack is a turning down of voluntary taxation. But if Lone Star really want to change the negative image of racing they should focus on the man and the cause which was highlighted on Thursday. Steve Cauthen, whose father was a Texan, was back in town.

The greatest ambassador America or racing ever had was over from his farm in Kentucky as part of the Race Track Chaplaincy of America awards to the “Heroes of the Backstretch”. These included outriders and morning jocks who had risked their necks catching runaway horses and broken sulkie; a guy from Fairmount Park, Illinois, who had rescued two small kids from a burning mobile home; and two ambulance men who stood in front of an unconscious jockey as a blinkered, riderless horse ran blindly at them.

To listen to Cauthen tell their stories, to see him pull photos of his wife and three daughters unselfconsciously from his wallet, was to rejoice that fame need not always corrupt. The only jockey ever to be Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of The Year (in 1979 after Affirmed’s Triple Crown), he conquered all our hearts and English Classics until the weight beat him in 1988, stepped out of the limelight but not away from the belief that racing could still be a force for good.

He and the chaplaincy are important to try and finally overturn the defeat suffered by Eugene Joyce’s father, Joe, more than 20 years ago. Joyce senior, a distinguished corporate lawyer who has had running both Arlington Park and Madison Square Garden among his laurels, was in the Texas State Legislature to plead the case for a racetrack with betting. Joe was his normal fluent self and was well into the closing question-and-answer session when the hurricane hit.

A tall figure dressed like some latter day black-suited Abraham Lincoln, complete with stetson, frock-coat and black string tie, rose at the end of the table. As he did, so the TV lights lifted in anticipation. When all the cameras were rolling the senator delivered one of the most awesome put-downs in the history of human concourse. “Young man,” he intoned mightily, “I have heard how you want to bring your doctrine of filth into this fair state and do you know what I am going to do? Before I go to bed I shall get on my knees and pray for the redemption of your black soul.”

Twenty years on Joyce Junior and the Breeders’ Cup might still be a furlong or too short of deliverance.

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