This year marks the 14th consecutive year I’ve headed to Belmont for the Belmont Stakes.
Follow me on Twitter
Coincidentally, it also marks the 14th consecutive year that horse racing is dead. It’s not easy being a fan of a “dead” sport.
Almost the second that I’ll Have Another ran down Bodemeister in the final, thrilling furlong of this year’s Preakness, the calls went up again. Horse racing is dead. Horse racing needs a Triple Crown winner to survive. Horse racing isn’t what it used to be. And so on and so forth.
the most-watchedtelevision program – sports or otherwise – for the whole week.
There is an obvious mountain of evidence that shows that horse racing is not dead. I could point to the record crowd at this year’s Preakness. Or the increasing television ratings for the Kentucky Derby. Or the renewed focus on the sport from the NBC Sports Network, including recapturing the Breeders Cup, after ESPN basically drove that event into the ground.
Wasn’t it just 2 years ago that Zenyatta was a nationalsensation? How long ago was Curlin winning the Dubai World Cup & becoming the richest racehorse in North American history?
Nope, all of this gets forgotten when Belmont rolls along. Now this is not to paint the picture that horse racing is a gloriously thriving sport like the NFL or the NBA. There are problems. Look no further than the New York Racing Association, which has been effectively disbanded for the next 3 years as the state government takes over in the wake of corruption, a takeout fiasco and too many horses breaking down at Aqeuduct. It’s not all wine & roses.
But it’s not in the horrific state you’d think it was in if you read a few mainstream sports columnist, who are bothered to write or discuss horse racing once a year. These are the same people that brought you the “soccer is boring” and “hockey will never succeed” memes, along with the “Indy Car needs Danica Patrick” and “college football needs a playoff” ideas. At some point, the message got lost and all that’s left is what people think they are supposed to think.
If you wanted to point to a time when horse racing was much closer to death, look no further than the early 1990s. With nearly a decade between the Triple Crown tries of Sunday Silence in 1989 and Silver Charm in 1997, the series and, more specifically, the Belmont had fallen off the sports map. Despite the best efforts of Cigar, horse racing was rapidly losing its footing in the mainstream.
But in the past 15 years, there have been 7 Triple Crown tries and I’ll Have Another will make an 8th. The last 4 tries have averaged 100,000 people at Belmont, with Smarty Jones attracting a record 120,000. As someone who was there in 2004, I can tell you unequivocally that the Smarty Jones Belmont was the loudest, most exciting, most thrilling, most disappointing, most amazing and most memorable sport event I’ve ever attended. You haven’t lived until you hear 120,000 people screaming at the top of their lungs at the same time – it will take your breath away.
There is nothing that I can say or write that will sway the non-believers that horse racing is doing just fine, even in spite of itself. There’s a mountain of evidence that say horse racing is at least heading in the right direction, though no doubt work needs to be done on the injury front and the drug testing. But change is happening, slowly, but surely. It’s a sport that is in a better place than it was 15 years – there’s no really denying that.
Alas, the meme continues. Horse racing may not be as popular is it was 35 years ago but what is? With the exception of the NFL, almost nothing is more popular than it was a generation ago thanks to more channels, more modes of communication and that lousy Internet taking up too much of people’s time.
There is nothing, however, that compares with being at the track on a big day. We have become an event-driven society, especially when it comes to sports. We don’t care about tennis, but we have to watch Wimbledon. We may not always talk about golf, but we have to watch the Masters. Auto racing is just cars turning left, but we must watch the Indy 500. Horse racing is the exact same way – and this is not a bad thing. Not when the events have become as big as they have. On June 9, I’ll Have Another is likely to run in front of his 3rd straight 100,000+ crowd. Can any other athlete say that?
And there’s this fun tidbit that has been in my head since Smarty Jones drew more than 120,000 people to Belmont in 2004. In 1978, Affirmed beat Alydar in the climax of their amazing Triple Crown duel. The attendance that day? Just about 65,000 – or half the number that showed up for Smarty.
I don’t know what I’ll Have Another will draw, but it will be more than 65,000. How do I know this? Because in 2000, Commendable drew more than Affirmed. And if you know who Commendable is, you must’ve had a winning ticket on him like I did.
100,000+ people in stands. Millions of people watching at home. Hundreds of millions bet nationwide. Maybe this “horse racing is dead” thing is working out after all.