I can't think of anything in sports stranger than the fact that auto racing is popular while thoroughbred horse racing is dying. The former is ugly, brutal and deadly, while the latter is beautiful and thrilling. The hype that surrounds races like the Preakness, the Belmont and, of course, this Saturday's Kentucky Derby disguises the fact that an ancient and lovely tradition is slowly winding to a close. Attendance at most major American tracks is a fraction of what it was 20 or 30 years ago; in many cases the leading tracks are either threatening to shut down or desperately seeking outside capital to build themselves up.
There is no single reason why this should be so, and hence virtually no way to reverse the process that is destroying horse racing in all of its forms. But if none of the other reasons existed, there's one that could very well do: This Saturday's Derby winner, regardless of who it is, will scarcely be around long enough for the public to identify with. Like most valuable racing horses these days, the winner will almost certainly be taken out of the game while in its prime and put out to stud -- or, if it should become only the third filly in Derby history to win, out to breed. In other words, instead of keeping his or her horse face out there in front of the public to be immortalized, the world's greatest racehorse will be devoting its best years to producing little copies of itself. Racing, like every other sport, needs stars, and to have stars you need familiarity. Stars spark interest and bring people put to the track, cash in hand. But nowadays all but a small percentage of regulars know the names of the top horses.
Horse breeding is as precise a science as cross-pollination. For instance, the 2000 Derby winner, Fusaichi Pegasus, was the son of Mr. Prospector, the nation's leading stallion during the 1990s, and his mom, Angel Fever, came from a line that included Northern Dancer and Hail To Reason. The only way you're going to match that pedigree is to clone it. This kind of system works well for the horses themselves by reducing the possibility of injury -- in what other sports are athletes smart enough to retire in their prime to a life of luxury, sex and grassy meadows? But it doesn't do the sport much good. Imagine where tennis, golf or baseball might be if the Williams sisters, Tiger Woods and Randy Johnson were retired after winning the big one and put out to breed? On second thought, let's use Pedro Martinez for the baseball example. (If Randy Johnson was put out to breed, it might be the end of the line.) Anyway, this breeding thing is why a horse that earns perhaps $2 million or $3 million a year can be sold for sums rumored to be $60 million and up. The irony is that the almost priceless value of the horse creates a syndrome that is helping to destroy the sport itself.
On top of this, racing has two other serious problems that converge in a thing called off-track betting, or "OTB" as racing people often say with a sneer that makes it sound as if they were talking about a hoof and mouth disease. Off track betting, simply, makes it possible for too many people to bet without ever showing up at the track. The ambiance, the atmosphere, the mystique that makes racing what it is is dissipated in its entirety. For one thing, there are no longer crowds at the racetrack. The Garden State Track in Cherry Hill, N.J., which first opened 60 years ago this Friday and has for decades been considered by many to be the finest thoroughbred racetrack in the world, is literally falling apart in the middle of one of the country's richest communities. Frank X. Keegan Jr., horse owner and president of the New Jersey Thoroughbred Horseman's Association, explained, "In its heyday," (which he identifies not with the '20s and '30s, which featured legendary horses like Sea Biscuit and Man O'War, but with the affluent '50s and '60s) "you'd get 12,000 to 15,000 a day here during the week. And you'd get double that on Saturdays. You'd get the regulars -- people who might come four, five or more times during the racing season. Today, you'd get a lot of people betting a lot of money on a lot of races, but fewer and fewer people actually come to the track."
Keegan referred to studies that indicate that racing now draws on about 3 million regular fans and perhaps 5 million that are referred to as "lapsed," as in lapsed Catholics. The lapsed "show up occasionally, maybe for a big race, the way some Catholics show up at Easter Mass. I don't know if we're losing the majority of them to off-track betting or whether they simply haven't got the time anymore."
Time -- people just don't have the time for racing any more. You hear it any time readers, trainers or jockeys talk about racing and its future. The irony of the sport is that its biggest showcase, the Kentucky Derby, the one that attracts 18 million to 20 million viewers to racing, is over in a couple of minutes, but for that race to mean something to the overall industry, it must exist in a milieu where a great many people are willing to spend up to five and six hours a day at one or more of the 25 spring or 25 fall seasonal racing days.
"We call people who only follow racing by tuning in the Derby 'lights,'" says Buddy Di Francesco, a longtime racing fan who, in his words, practically lived at the Garden State Track in the spring and fall back in the '60s. "The Latin Casino, the greatest nightclub in the world, or at least in the East, was right over there," says Di Francesco, pointing south in the direction of what is now a building that houses the Cherry Hill corporate offices of Subaru of America, Inc. "I saw Sinatra, Dean Martin, Bill Cosby. You made a day of it, a weekend of it. You planned your whole season around spending the day at the track and the night at the nightclub. Now, who's got that kind of time? Five, six, maybe seven hours a day. People want to gamble, they hop on a bus to Atlantic City, play the slots for an hour and a half, go hear a singer in a show, hop on a late bus, and get home by midnight. Who's got the time? You gotta be a king to live the lifestyle."
Which is maybe why they called it the sport of kings in the first place.