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Sep 15, 2006

Through The Binoculars


This has not been the best of weeks for our favorite sport.


According to the wire services, the same sheiks who spent $100 million on yearlings this week at Keeneland are being accused in a lawsuit of enslaving tens of thousands (tens of thousands!) of young boys over the last 30 years, and forcing them to work under brutal conditions as camel jockeys.

The lawsuit was filed - on behalf of the children - in Florida on Monday, the same day that the accused sheiks were spending $29.6 for yearlings up the road in Kentucky.

The lawsuit claims that the boys were taken largely from Bangladesh and Pakistan, held at desert camps in the UAE and other Persian Gulf nations, and forced to work in camel racing, a very popular sport in the Gulf area.. The suit claims that the boys were sexually abused, starved, and injected with hormones to prevent their growth.

"Sheikh Mohammed and Sheikh Hamdan," says the lawsuit, "treated their camels better than they treated their slave boys for the simple reason that the camels were far more valuable."

Although the sheiks were very much in public view this week at the Keeneland sales, none of them presumably were asked for comment.

The lawsuit is news, but the story is not. Two years back, the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper did an expose on the practice.

How sad is this story…especially in view that the sheiks at the present time are dominating United States racing?


Couldn't the good people at Woodbine have chosen someone more appropriate than disgraced running back Ricky Williams to headline its draw for Sunday's Woodbine Mile?

After all, Williams is currently banned from the NFL for drug usage. And he didn't exactly set the Canadian Football League on fire this year.

The bottom line is that Woodbine honchos actually believe that Ricky Williams' celebrity will attract more folks to the race, and he's worth the bucks they are paying him.

Personally, I doubt the fact that Ricky Williams headlined the draw will have them storming the stands on Sunday since the same people captivated by Ricky Williams will be spending the day watching NFL football.

Hey, with 13 well-matched horses, the Woodbine Mile is a great betting race.

Then there is - with apologies to Frank and Liza -- New York, New York.

With Saratoga in the rear-view mirror, we find ourselves back looking at cold reality. You could set off a bomb these days at Belmont Park, and no one would know. On Thursday, for example, the announced crowd was 1714, presumably including the help.

But, of even more significance, is NYRA's financial situation.

On Wednesday, NYRA president Hayward told a sparsely-attended press conference in the press box at Belmont that, unless the Stateof New York bails out NYRA, said NYRA will go bankrupt by year's end.

Of course if NYRA goes bankrupt, and its racetracks shut down, nobody will notice until the first Saturday of June.

Moreover, NYRA's cries of poverty are especially untimely because the franchise is up for grabs, and NYRA right now is no better than second choice to the Empire folks.

Obviously, the whole bidding process for a new franchise-holder will be thrown into chaos if indeed NYRA goes broke.

Through it all, NYRA is putting out its best smiley face.

"Come out to Belmont on Oct. 7 for the Jockey Club Gold Cup," says the promos.

That of course is the race in which superstars Bernardini and Invasor will go sheik to sheik.

But New York sports fans may be otherwise occupied that day with the Yanks and the Mets in the playoffs.

On a brighter note, Nick Santagata, one of this corner's favorite jockeys, no doubt will reach two milestones at The Meadowlands, which kicks off its thoroughbred meet on Sept. 29.

Santagata, a Brooklyn boy, needs four winners for 4,000, and three Meadowlands winners for 1,000 at the Big M.

The Meadowlands has been running thoroughbred racing since 1977, and no rider has ridden 1,000 winners there.

"I love riding at The Meadowlands," says Santagata, "and it will mean a lot to me and my family to get to 1,000 there. I've been stuck close to it for a while so I'm anxious to get it as soon as possible."

I started on the racing beat at the New York Post the same year that Santagata broke in as a bugboy at Aqueduct.

One day, I criticized Nick in my "Through the Binoculars" column for blowing a race, and he has never let me forget it. In fact, he still has the clip. Hopefully all is forgiven. Every time he sees me, he says: "There he is. John Piesen. Through the Binoculars."

Growing up in Brooklyn, Nick wanted to become a professional baseball player. But he had to give up the idea when he stopped growing. Instead, he settled for being the best baseball player in the New York jocks' room. He also was and is a world-class bowler,

But, more importantly, I can't think of anyone in racing who has given more to charitable causes than Nick Santagata. He doesn't have that much free time, commuting as he does from Long Island to the New Jersey and Pennsylvania tracks, but he devotes much of that free time to visiting children's hospitals.

I asked him once about that, and he said, "John, don't write anything about it. I don't do it for the publicity."

Here's wishing Nick Santagata reaches those two milestones in short order.

And, speaking of my native Brooklyn, they are running the Brooklyn Handicap on Saturday at Belmont, and it's sad to see how far this once great race has sunk.

In years past, the Brooklyn has been won by Seabiscuit, Kelso, Forego, Whirlaway, Stymie and Tom Fool, and grossed up to $500,000.

Fast forward to 2006.

Only seven were entered in the Brooklyn, only two of them (Funny Cide and Wanderin Boy) are graded stakes-winners. The gross purse is down to $150,000, and, once again, it's no better than a Grade 2.

And the short-priced favorite will be a horse (Good Reward) who has not won a dirt race of any kind since breaking his maiden in September, 2003, at Belmont.

The only reason the race will have any interest at all is because of the presence of Funny Cide.

After Funny Cide turned in a dismal performance two weeks back in the Woodward at Saratoga, I asked principal owner Jack Knowlton his future plans for the '03 Kentucky Derby winner.

"We plan to take him to Delaware Park for the Kelso Handicap at the end of the month," Knowlton told me. "Maybe he'll find a field he can handle."

Instead, Knowlton and trainer Tagg had a change of mind, and are running Funny Cide back in two weeks against a field that the old Funny Cide would demolish.

I guess they are thinking that jockey Migliore was to blame for the Woodward debacle.

After all, Funny Cide gets jockey Velasquez for the Brooklyn.

Personally, Notre Dame-Michigan has more appeal.

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