(Disclaimer: at thirty years of age, it's entirely possible that I don't know what I'm talking about.)
It seems like every year when the Kentucky Derby rolls around, the winner acquires a certain cachet founded upon a brief flash of fame and a slightly-longer flare of potential. "If only this horse can win the Triple Crown", the (insane) thinking of the industry goes, "the tremendous nature of that feat will resurrect America's love of horse racing." This hopelessly self-deluding notion is amplified if that horse also manages to prevail in The Preakness. In such an instance, as happened this year with I'll Have Another, anticipation builds feverishly towards the Belmont because Watching History In The Making is always worthwhile. The hard truth, though, is that there is no bringing the sport of kings back to its formerly prestigious and central role in the cultural landscape. I'll Have Another's scratch from the Triple Crown's final leg was lamented as the death knell of racing's last, best hope, but that moment, if it ever happened, passed us by a good while ago. Horse racing is, in its own parlance, fading down the back stretch.
I watched a few episodes of "Luck" before it was cancelled, and I think the show sums up neatly the reasons for racing's slow descent into irrelevancy. Here we see a world of mobsters and gamblers, horse people and those whose lives depend on them and the animals they train and race. The romantic seediness of horse racing, the booze and bets and attendant trappings, are on full display. The show paints a picture of the glorious, grimy intimacy within which the sport exists. But even in a modern context, the lexicon of the railbirds, trainers, and crooks feels antiquated, like it belongs to halcyon days that are long gone. The problem is that America doesn't really operate that way anymore. We don't care to deal in up-close like we used to, and up-close is what horse racing is really selling. Consider: the Kentucky Derby is a days-long event and spectacle, but on television it takes all of ten or fifteen minutes to get from "My Old Kentucky Home" to the after-race roses and interviews. TV simply fails to convey the heart of the thing. The experience. The slow, all-day julep-fueled build of anticipation; the clank of betting windows closing and, moments later, the whoosh of the gates opening; the churning of hooves in the dirt and the throaty press of the crowd; the feel of a ticket, maybe a winner, clenched in a sweating, white-knuckled hand; the unadulterated beauty and power of one horse shooting the inside rail on the final turn, thundering out ahead under the brassy-blue incandescent Southern sky ... none of that comes close to making it through the TV screen. What we see are a bunch of pretty horsies with funny names hauling ass around the track, and the results, and some ceremony, and that's it.
In other words, horse racing's grandeur and essence is diminished by modern media's distancing effect in a way that no other sport is. Where watching football on a 56-inch hi-def TV may not be the same as being in the stadium, it carries some consequential benefits, like enjoying the event without the hassle of parking and not paying $9.00 for a beer. Conversely, watching a race in the same way misses the point almost completely. Stripped of atmosphere and context, it's something of a dull (not to mention fleetingly brief) business to take in, which is why so few still do with any regularity. Sure, the gamblers will tune in to see whether or not they hit the exacta, but there's nothing substantial or engaging for the average person who can flip the channel at any time to another game or reality show or whatever. TV, for all its beautiful usefulness within the sporting world, is violently reductive to horse racing, and is slowly but inexorably performing a coup de grace on the industry.
Once upon a time, racing was one third of the primary triptych of American sports. Along with boxing (receding into meaninglessness) baseball (holding on for grim life), it dominated not just gamblers' myopic attentions, but the fascination of the country. People huddled around transistor radios on front stoops and in barber shops, breathlessly hanging on the ballgame, the race, or the boxing match. It is a sort of morbid thought exercise deciphering whether that America turning into this one killed (or is in the process of killing) those sports, or if their deaths were/are among the agents that accelerated the transformation. Or perhaps those esteemed modern philosophers The Buggles had it right all along, and video did indeed kill the radio star.
Earlier in the week, one of our teachers came into work and asked me what I thought about the Pacquiao/Bradley fight and the ensuing outcry over the decision. I was forced to confess that I haven't watched a boxing match since Tyson and Holyfield were the sport's biggest luminaries, and that I follow the sweet science in only the most cursory manner these days. I hadn't seen a single punch, and was therefore unable to provide an informed opinion, but I gather it was an outright travesty of the highest order. Like I'll Have Another's failure to run in the Belmont Stakes, the judges' decision on Pacquiao/Bradley has been proclaimed by more than a few people to be the final nail in the sport's coffin. Those people apparently missed boxing's mainstream obituary. It was published when Mike Tyson retired, and it read: it's not enough anymore.
This weekend may have been a confluence of horrible occurrences for horse racing and boxing, but it was akin to the coma patient developing pneumonia; an unfortunate addendum to an already un-salvageable situation. The fact is that we prefer our entertainment more visceral, more exciting, more more-ish now. We demand the type of gleaming edifice and perpetual motion those two sports are ill-equipped to provide. Even at their most dazzling, the pugilist's artistry and the majestic thoroughbred simply don't carry the brutal immediacy and saturation to sustain themselves, and baseball will find itself in a similar boat if it continues to stubbornly resist a very necessary evolution.
Last Saturday night, we didn't witness the demise of anything at all. What we saw were the ashes of romance, spilled out of the urn of America's sporting past, blowing aimlessly in an uncaring wind.