Patch This

Why the Kentucky Derby doesn’t deserve any attention from our industry.

by David Mattia

Well, it’s almost Derby time again, and in spite of the fact that my entire career as a horse trainer and racing journalist has been dedicated to harness racing and only harness racing, each year, as that first Saturday in May approaches, at least one bonehead in my private world away from trotters and pacers, will approach me and ask, “Who do you like in the Derby?” My curt response will be the same one I give every year — “I don’t know and I don’t care.” Does that sound mean? I almost don’t mind if it does.

As I sit here, my mind mixing the poisonous concoctions I’m going to need in order to express my mildly venomous opinions, I imagine that, poor Patch, the proverbially mandatory Kentucky Derby sob-story horse that America has suddenly fallen in love with, is giving me a menacing stare with his good eye. Bless his heart.

I had a one-eyed trotting filly once. She was a good one named Dianalu Hanover, and I remember that stare. No creature on earth can eyeball you better than a one-eyed horse. Even when you stand on their blind side, they’re watching you. And furthermore, who names a horse Patch just because he has one eye? It’s like finding a kitten with no feet and naming him Claude, with the notion that it will be really cute when he slips and slides and tumbles all over the linoleum. Wait, hold on a second. Think of the YouTube revenue. No, no, sorry, scratch that greedy idea. The whole Patch thing is not cute, it’s just more maudlin exploitation, and I think I speak for all the one-eyed horses of the world when I say that.

So, why does the entire world suddenly know all about Patch and his sentimentally cycloptic road to the Derby? I mean, look at me. I’m a guy who breeds morning glory vines for Pete’s sake, yet somehow I know all about this equine pirate in spite of the fact that my head is buried so deeply up in harness racing? Ironically, because my head is buried up in harness racing and not buried up in some other places, I am merrily unencumbered when I write things about harness racing. In other words, I’m not beholden to anyone, and today I am free to write non-glowingly about the nonstop promotion of the Kentucky Derby that comes from within the disloyal harness racing community itself. Enough already!

Okay, so maybe I’m a jerk, but at least I’m an honorable jerk… and a proud standardbred loyalist, too. Naturally, I appreciate the beauty of the thoroughbred horse. I admire their courage, grace and speed, but I can say the same glowing things about cheetahs or giraffes or warthogs if my livelihood depended on them. In my opinion, the Kentucky Derby doesn’t deserve a whole lot of the attention it gets from the “business” of harness racing, and from the horsemen themselves, simply because the thoroughbred industry never reciprocates. Yes, I’m sure someone will find a simulcast-connected reason to debunk me, but if I didn’t know I was 100 per cent right on principle alone — putting aside anything about added revenue at the windows — I would say nothing.

One harness publicist complained, “Some harness horsemen are worse than others when it comes to promoting the runners at Gulfstream or Churchill Downs or wherever. Hey, if you think the runners are so great, you should stay there and get out of harness racing altogether. Then, last night, at Mohegan Sun, I saw a big billboard that proclaimed, ‘SEVEN DAYS TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY.’ I’ve never seen the same kind of signs for the Hambletonian or the Little Brown Jug or the Breeders Crown. How can our events be big like the Kentucky Derby if the harness tracks themselves don’t promote them?”

It must totally suck to work in harness racing publicity. I couldn’t do it without my head exploding, but still I’ve learned to patiently overlook the annual annoyance of being asked for my opinion about a highly touted race dedicated to a breed of horse that has done nothing to enrich my life or my pocket. I wish all of my fellow harness racing peeps felt the same way, but a lot of them don’t. They get swept up in the grand allure of the Derby, and then speak reverently about “the dosage,” when the only other time they use the word “dosage” is when they’re accusing someone of horse doping in their own game. I give these people a very low Beyer Speed Figure — like 50.

Kindly don’t brand my opinions herein as being thorough-phobic. Instead, celebrate me as an out and proud Harno-philic. Why? Because I busted my butt working around, learning about, and laboring over the most beautiful and athletically gifted animal on earth — the North American standarbred. I am not about to betray my beloved breed for a dopey mint julep or a chance to see Bob Baffert flip his lily white locks away from his left eye.

Anyway, I know all about Patch and his missing eye, because the story is all over the news and in my social media. Let’s face it, we live in a thoroughbred world. Heck, I even know that we won’t be seeing Bob Baffert’s breezy forelock this year because, according to USA Today, “he will be watching the Derby from his couch.” See what I mean? A trainer who isn’t even in the freaking race, makes headlines in a major newspaper.

What’s the deal with that? Why has Dan Patch, a colossal horse who attracted millions of fans from hundreds and hundreds of miles around, been replaced by a 50-1 shot named Patch? Why will Patch be a household name for perhaps seven weeks, when very few people have given Dan Patch a sustained thought in over 100 years?

Seriously, have any of you folks out there in Harness Racing Land taken a gander at your social media or the online racetrack promotions in the past few weeks? I mean, it’s the Merry, Merry Month of May, people. There’s this invigorating standardbred springtime blooming up all around us, but all you see are ads and social media postings about Kentucky Derby horses that arise from within the ranks of standardbred racing itself.

Did some of you folks forget about all of those awesome yearlings from Harrisburg and Lexington and everywhere else that we’ve been waiting on since October? These seedlings are sprouting now, and if you don’t pay careful attention you might have missed the beauty of it all whilst favoring the Derby or the Preakness or the Belmont.

To be fair, there are many people in the harness racing world who go out of their way to glorify the young ones in which they’ve invested a lot of time and money and devotion. I know because I interact with them in social media. They know who they are. Then, however, I sometimes stumble upon this alien cadre of harness people who do nothing but glorify the runners. I don’t know, maybe they don’t feel as though they’ve truly made it in the horse racing business unless the horse they’re holding is a thoroughbred.

When harness horsemen promote thoroughbred horses or events in social media, and the harness racetracks clamor for a Derby audience, my mind immediately puts them on trial for giving aid and comfort to the enemy. I know that sounds extreme, but when was the last time you saw a Hambletonian giant get even a mention from any meritorious thoroughbred trainer or celebrated sports analyst? The answer is…NEVER! They don’t help you climb into the bike, so you should not give them a leg up on their horses. This is one of those times when two wrongs make a right.

Listen, folks, when a harness horseman shuts the barn door at night, the only thoroughbred to which he or she owes any allegiance is a horse named Messenger simply because he was the granddaddy of Hambletonian. End of story.