Horse racing, as a sport, hasn’t been truly popular in the United States since the 1930’s and 1940’s. Back then, jockeys, trainers and the horses themselves were genuine A-list celebrities. If you lived near a track, you went. If you didn’t, families would huddle around radios to listen. Whole towns would shut down early if a particularly important race was being broadcast and everyone had a favorite.
But, like everything in time, the siren call that was “The Sport of Kings” eventually faded and America found a new pastime. After all, horse racing was expensive — not just anyone could participate. Neighborhood kids could easily organize a backyard game of baseball, which probably sounded like a lot more fun than riding up and down the street pretending their rusty old Schwinns were galloping Thoroughbreds.
It was only a matter of time before horse racing began to take a step back to more accessible sports. As 1950’s and 1960’s saw America’s attention drift from racing to boxing, the big ticket, sure-to-draw-a-crowd names slowly changed from War Admiral, Seabiscuit, Whirlaway and Citation to Rocky Marciano, Sugar Ray Robinson, Sonny Liston and Muhammad Ali.
Like racing, boxing was gambler friendly. Unlike racing, pretty much anyone could join a gym and try to be the next great champion. The Kentucky Derby was (and to this day still is) a popular draw, but for the most part America paid less and less attention to the ponies and started focusing on other recreational distractions from everyday life.
Baseball has always been a big crowd pleaser, although one could argue its popularity has waned in the past few years. But ultimately, there’s a reason it’s called “America’s pastime” and with its gigantic payrolls and multi-million dollar stadiums, it seems unlikely to fade anytime soon.
Sports in America aren’t static; there is a fluidity in the way popularity shifts from one to the next. Football in the 1970’s and 1980’s, basketball in the 1990’s … Heck, every four years America goes nuts over the Olympics. Seriously, when else does the luge get national airtime?
The UFC is insanely popular right now, but one would be hard pressed to find a college wrestling match on TV, even during the NCAA finals. College football attendance rivals that of their pro teams in some states and hockey season comes and goes, passing largely unnoticed if you happen to live south of the Mason Dixon line.
Floridians lose their mind about NASCAR while others protest that it’s even a sport and all the while ESPN is broadcasting Spelling Bees? No wonder when a relatively unknown horse with a misspelled name came out of nowhere and swept all three legs of the Triple Crown people stood up and took notice.
The question becomes: does crowning a Triple Crown winner for the first time in 37 years signal the “return” of horse racing to America?
In the 1970’s a similar resurgence of interest in Thoroughbred racing was witnessed as the decade crowned three Triple Crown winners: Secretariat in ‘73, Seattle Slew in ‘77 and Affirmed in ‘78. But ultimately that didn’t help horse racing to climb back on top of America’s favorite sports, largely because the underlying reasons for the sport’s decline were still in place — namely, an inability for the common person to get involved.
Horse racing, for all intents and purposes, will always be considered an elitist activity. But that doesn’t mean what happened at Belmont isn’t a big deal. American Pharoah and jockey Victor Espinoza made history as they crossed under the wire at Belmont Park, joining an elite class that has only been achieved 11 times prior. Such a feat deserves recognition, if only for a little while.