Beychok: Talking Fair Grounds and picking the Preakness

You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink. In the case of Churchill Downs, Inc., the thirst for profits and a secure license was enough motivation for them to share a drink from the well of profits CDI makes on the historic Fair Grounds. And that’s a good thing — finally.

A little background first.

When Churchill Downs, Inc. bought the Fair Grounds from local owners 10 years ago, there was much jubilation. Not because local owners didn’t do a great job — they did. Now, the Fair Grounds would be backed with the financial wherewithal to become an even better racetrack. The promise of new investment in track facilities quickly turned into a huge sucking sound from CDI siphoning off the profits from slots and sending them back to the home base in Kentucky.

Television sets became outdated. The video screen stopped working. The once lush and safe turf course turned into a bog at the mere mention of a rainy forecast. And perhaps the biggest sign that parent company CDI wasn’t paying attention to the Fair Grounds — they stopped paying $50 a day for a bugler in a town known for jazz and music.

Back in Kentucky, Churchill Downs was building a $9 million “mansion” for high rollers and spending $12 million on a new video screen while fans at the Fair Grounds had to make do with low definition TV’s in a crowded grandstand.

So, the legislators in the area introduced legislation to get CDI’s attention and get some of those profits re-invested back into the Fair Grounds to fix the turf course, lure big-name horses and stables back to town, to repair the infield video screen and to get a bugler back.

Their legislation would have mandated investment at a 10 percent rate of profits.

CDI didn’t like to be told what to do, and when the Louisiana Racing Commission piled on by granting only a one year license extension when the norm is a 10-year license to race and operate, CDI got the message and came to the table to talk — with their checkbook this time.

CDI officials agreed to make good on their decade-old promise to invest in the track, meaning a full renovation of the turf course, a new video screen, marketing money directed to horse racing fans, backstretch improvements and hopefully, the hiring of bugler to put a little music back into the Fair Grounds.

The importance of this agreement goes far beyond the cosmetic improvements. The Fair Grounds was — and still is — facing a serious credibility crisis among owners and trainers who have sent their stables to the Fair Grounds in the past. The track needs horses to fill fields to increase betting to keep purses high enough to attract the owners. It is a chain of events that has been broken recently, and while the agreement will go a long way to repair this economic chain of sustainability, there is more work to be done repairing relationships and selling the beauty, allure, and safety of the Fair Grounds to out of town owners and trainers.

I know that Tim Bryant, the president of the Fair Grounds, gained a lot of respect for the way he handled the issues during the tumultuous months following the season, and I know he will work just as hard to gain the confidence of those big name owners and stables to the Fair Grounds next season.

Because without the race horses there is no Fair Grounds — even with a good bugler.

Picking the Preakness

Our Kentucky Derby picks were not quite spot on. We picked five horses, and four of them ran in the top 5. Unfortunately none of those five was the winner. Still, not a bad result as our second-place pick did run second at 40-1. Not too shabby.

The second jewel of the Triple Crown runs Saturday, and this is by far the most predictable race of the three because it is a rare occurrence where a horse that did not run in the Kentucky Derby wins the Preakness. The “new shooters” angle sounds good in theory — a fresh horse, didn’t run the grueling mile-and-a-quarter, pointing just to the Preakness makes for a winner, right? Not very much.

In fact, it has happened only three times in the past 20 years, including when superstar Rachel Alexandra won a few years ago.

The new shooters this year are headed up by Social Inclusion — a freaky winner of two races in Florida before running third in the Wood Memorial. He has speed and will be going to the front hoping to outrun his rivals to the finish line.

Kid Cruz is a bargain basement horse having been bought for $50,000 (yes, that is bargain basement) out of one of his races earlier this year. Trained by Linda Rice, he is a stone cold closer. If the speed horses get too frisky up top, he could be the beneficiary.

General A Rod ran in the Derby, so that makes him a contender. He was fast during the early winter but tailed off a bit at Churchill Downs. Not sure what to make of his Derby race, but if he is right, he is fast enough to win.

Ride on Curlin had an awful and eventful trip during the Derby with Calvin Borel. A better trip would have made for a better finish, but he really isn’t as fast as others.

California Chrome got a perfect trip in the Derby and took advantage of it. He is a conundrum. His speed figures are not that fast although a bit faster than his competitors. But, the way he wins in such a facile way belies the figures he earns in winning. Do I believe my eyes or the numbers? I believe my eyes in this case as he has a push-button acceleration that is special, and he wins races in an instant. He won’t get a perfect trip in the Preakness but his athleticism will probably win the day — and the Preakness — albeit at a short price.

Of the others, Dynamic Impact, winner of the Illinois Derby and Bayern, winner of the Derby Trial have a small shot at an upset, but an upset it would be if California Chrome did not prevail in the 2nd leg of the Triple Crown.

Good luck, and may they all come home safely.

Here is how we pick it:

1. California Chrome: most likely winner but not worth a bet at low odds

2. Kid Cruz: will be closing late and is worth a bet for win-place-show

3. Social Inclusion: speed to scare the daylights out of Chrome fans early

4. General A Rod: a better race for him puts him right in the thick of the action