COLUMN: Race fans given a reason to cheer

As uncertain as the future of racing is, you can bet on June 9 we’ll have a houseful of people.

If you happened to be in the neighbourhood of Rock City around 3:21 p.m. last Saturday, you may have heard a lot of anxious shouting followed by a loud cheer.

My wife Mary and I hosted a Preakness Stakes party, and we invited neighbours and friends over to watch the second leg of horse racing’s Triple Crown with hopes that Hastings Racecourse jockey Mario Gutierrez and the incredible thoroughbred I’ll Have Another would once again cross the wire first.

I’ll Have Another didn’t disappoint, and both jockey and horse performed the task in thrilling fashion.

On May 5, Canadian-owned I’ll Have Another came from behind to nip race favourite Bodemeister at the wire in the Kentucky Derby, and he did it again Saturday, reeling in Bodemeister down the stretch to win the Preakness by a head.

I smiled as I looked around our living room just prior to the running of the 137th Preakness Stakes. I’ve been a fan of horse racing all of my life, and it has been difficult to watch the sport go from arguably its height of popularity in the 1970s to barely a fringe sport today.

But Gutierrez — whom Mary and I met at Hastings between the Derby and Preakness (he’s a class act all the way) — and I’ll Have Another have seemed to ignite a renewed passion for horse racing in B.C. Many of the people at our party didn’t know much about horse racing before they arrived, and it was awesome to see the excitement and interest it generated, especially as the two horses battled it out down the stretch in front of more than 100,000 race fans at Pimlico Downs in Baltimore.

On June 9, I’ll Have Another will go for the third jewel in the Triple Crown, the Belmont Stakes. The Belmont is the hardest to win as horses will be asked to run a mile-and-a-half, by far the longest of all three races, and I’ll Have Another will be up against fresh horses bred to run that distance.

There’s a reason why no horse since Affirmed in 1978 has won the Triple Crown — it’s a gruelling five weeks for horses accustomed to racing once every couple of months.

For a horse with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness under its belt, the Belmont is like a battered and bruised NHL hockey team reaching the Stanley Cup final only to find its opponent is rested, healthy and ready to go.

The interest Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another have generated is palpable. Hastings is expecting at least 15,000 people the day of the Belmont, a crowd the track hasn’t seen in years if not decades.

But as horse racing is front and centre on the news in B.C. for its success, at least temporarily, its demise continues in other parts of Canada.

In this space two years ago, I wrote about the closing of Victoria’s Sandown Park and other tracks, and how it was only a matter of time before larger tracks started to close.

In Ontario, the provincial Liberal government has announced it is withdrawing from its partnership with horse racing, a move that has already rung the death knell for several standardbred tracks in that province. Without the partnership, there is not enough money in purses to support horse racing and if the sport dies there, so too will an estimated 60,000 jobs.

It’s an interesting paradox taking place in the horse racing industry in Canada. One part is on life-support with the plug about to be pulled, while here on the West Coast a 25-year-old jockey and his horse are generating unprecedented excitement.

I hope the excitement lasts. To me, the sport of kings has been and always will be the best two minutes in sports, whether it’s a $5,000 claiming race or the Kentucky Derby.

But as uncertain as the future of racing is, you can bet on June 9 we’ll have a houseful of people, glued to the TV set, cheering as Gutierrez and I’ll Have Another turn the last corner and head for home at Belmont Park in their quest to win the Triple Crown.

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