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After a winter of discontent, perhaps the coming of spring has brought with it hope for the horse racing world.

The Kentucky Derby will run for the 145th time at venerable Churchill Downs Saturday afternoon. And with it come all the trappings of a big party that have made it a part of the American sports landscape.

The mint juleps. The hats. The infield. There’ll be more than 150,000 packing the joint. Millions more will be watching at other race tracks across North America and in race books and off-track betting parlors. All of them will be looking to see which three-year-old can run the fastest two minutes of all, give or take a tick or two.

We can all lament the decline in horse racing, how it’s an old man’s sport, how there’s a lack of new blood to sustain the game going forward. That’s been the siren’s song since the 1970s. But racing is still here. And despite the travails that have plagued Santa Anita the past few months, there’s sunlight on the horizon for the sport.

Tracks that have lay dormant for years are springing back to life. Near Prescott, Arizona, the former Yavapai Downs will begin racing May 18 as the rebranded Arizona Downs. They last raced there in 2010 and has been given a $2 million facelift.

“We want to be known as Arizona’s racetrack that benefits horsemen throughout the state,” said racing executive Corey Johnson, who will help run Arizona Downs. “We want a year-round circuit returning to Arizona with the resumption of summer racing so horses and all the jobs they create can stay in the state.

“A stronger circuit helps everyone in the industry: the breeders, horse owners, trainers, jockeys and all the related professions it takes to get a horse to the races.’

In Virginia, a similar metamorphosis is taking place. Remember Colonial Downs, which had an emphasis on turf racing and had two turf courses? The track had closed in 2014. But now, it’s coming back August 8 with a short 15-day meet and plans for 30 days in 2020.

The track recently opened a casino, Rosie’s, and between the two ­entities, more than 800 are expected to be employed at the track, which is located between Richmond and Williamsburg.

These aren’t impulsive moves. Rich people think things through before delving into such endeavors. And while the setups are dramatically different between Arizona Downs and Colonial Downs, there’s one bond they share.

Both believe in the sport of thoroughbred racing. Both want to help grow the game in their respective areas. And in Virginia, where they no doubt are keeping a wary eye on the never-ending soap opera which is Pimlico in nearby Maryland, Colonial Downs could some day fill a void should The Stronach Group decide Pimlico simply isn’t worth saving.

There’s talk of moving the Preakness, the second jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, from Pimlico in Baltimore to Laurel, which underwent more than $20 million in renovations four years ago and is located between Baltimore and Washington D.C. That wouldn’t shock me in the least.

And at Belmont Park, home of the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown, they’re preparing to break ground on a new arena for the NHL’s New York Islanders. Hopefully, there’s money to upgrade the track as well.

So a lot of things are happening in the racing world and a lot of them are good. Yes, the Santa Anita issues need to be addressed long-term so the horses can run and train safely and the horseplayers can get their confidence back to wager on the races in Southern California.

Hopefully, that will happen. I’m still seeing a steady stream of customers showing up at the race book on the days Santa Anita runs and there are lines at the horse betting windows prior to the post times in Arcadia. So maybe the impact hasn’t been as negative to the player in Las Vegas. Of course, that same player has other options with Churchill and Belmont now running and Oaklawn getting ready to wrap up its successful meet on Saturday.

With Monmouth and Arlington set to open soon and Saratoga and Del Mar looming less than three months from now, the menu for horseplayers will expand and we can look forward to a lot of quality racing.

Maybe I remain a cockeyed optimist. Maybe I see things in a less-than-negative prism than I used to. Perhaps I’m not as cynical as I was. But I don’t believe horse racing is dying any more than boxing is supposedly dead.

There’s going to be a world title fight Saturday at T-Mobile Arena after the Derby is run. Canelo Alvarez, the middleweight champion, faces Daniel Jacobs in the main event. Maybe you’ll watch. Maybe you’ll pass. But while some have declared it a dead sport, boxing is thriving around the world. You just have to pay attention.

Same with horse racing. In the U.K., in Japan, in Hong Kong and Australia, racing is doing just fine. Perhaps it’s out of sight, out of mind for the skeptics. But we see the quality come through each November at the Breeders’ Cup. And like the Derby on Saturday, it’s a a couple of days where people who have a casual or no interest in racing on a daily basis, perk up and pay attention.

Can things get better? Sure. Promote the sport better. Don’t gouge your customers. Make the experience of going to the track a pleasurable one. Run the races at the prescribed post times.

Those that try to do it the right way will stay in business. Hopefully, the folks at Arizona Downs and Colonial Downs have been taking copious notes the past few years and will incorporate some of the successful endeavors other tracks have used to get people to turn out.

So it will be on Saturday. It’s going to be busy, particularly here in Las Vegas. The regulars in the race books will begrudgingly share space with the neophytes who don’t know how or who to bet. The ticket writers will be told to have patience while trying to keep the lines moving throughout the day.

The Derby parties, both public and private, will be in full swing. Folks will have T-shirts, hats, glasses, roses and anything else the casinos decide to give away with the placing of a minimum bet, usually $20.

Of course, those T-shirts could wind up costing $200 by the time the day is over, depending on how one’s luck at the windows are.

And when the 20 horses are released from the starting gate and sent away on their 1 1/4-mile journey, everyone will be cheering and screaming, exhorting their horse on, hoping to get to the finish line first.

It’s going to be a heck of a two minutes or so. It always is on the first Saturday in May. 

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About the Author

Steve Carp

Steve Carp is a six-time Nevada Sportswriter of the Year. A 30-year veteran of the Las Vegas sports journalism scene, he covered the Vegas Golden Knights for the Las Vegas Review-Journal from 2015-2018.

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