When you grow up in Central Kentucky, you are introduced to 2 sports at a very young age, and one distilled spirit sometime later (but still well before that legal milestone). Basketball, horse racing, and bourbon. Although the bourbon can certainly come in the form of Rebecca Ruth's lip-smacking, ass-expanding recipe for bourbon balls...which one starts eating around the age of 5.
I don't remember my parents ever taking me to the track as a WeeAlly, but then they hardly go now. Keeneland meets for 4 weeks in the spring and 4 weeks in the fall and Churchill Downs opens as soon as Keeneland closes. Although we drive past thoroughbred farms like most people drive past McDonald's (as in, there is one on every block), I didn't actively attend the horse races until my sophomore year in college. But once I started, just like with any wicked addiction, I couldn't stop.
There is a savvy (and somewhat snarky) article on Grantland.com by Charles Pierce that explores the decline of horse racing. His argument is that in a world of Snookies and 20-minute marriages between models and baseball players, there is simply no more room for the sport. Ironically, the fastest 2 minutes in sports can't keep up. The sport is archaic. Even the recent Breeders' Cup, which took place last Saturday at our very own Churchill Downs, was overshadowed by the "Battle Between the Exes"...meaning the over-hyped engagement between 2 well-established jockeys that lasted about 5 minutes. The story of Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland (who is an accomplished jockey in her own right and needs to stop seeking her 15 minutes of fame by mounting anything with less than 4 legs) hijacked most of the Breeders' Cup coverage, with the exception of Amazombie's win in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Amazombie...the horse that the breeder "threw in" with the purchase of another horse.
This is not to say that each nationally covered horse race doesn't have a story, because it does. The 70-year old jockey that finally made it to the big leagues...the horse that no one wanted, who went on to win a major race and make his owners obnoxiously rich...the race that broke a million hearts. There is always a story, but when we create drama around any relationship that didn't work out (whether it's between jockeys or a jockey and an owner or even a horse and an owner), it stoops to the level of reality television and there is certainly no place for that in horse racing. Perhaps that explains the decline in the sport. We, as a country, have become conditioned to a level of entertainment in which horse racing will always fall short. But maybe it's a call to be better than the trash we've been collecting from the airwaves.
I have one single rule when I attend the horse races. No denim. Fancy, floppy hat or not, I refuse to wear denim. It's like dressing for the theater or even for church on Sunday morning. It's a standard that I have set for myself based on the history and expectations of the location. The thoroughbred industry (especially in Kentucky) is trapped in an antiquated period of time. But does that necessarily make it obsolete? Legislators can't figure out a way to pass a law which would allow the installation of slot machines at the tracks. Track officials argue they need the revenue that slot machines bring in to keep the tracks open. Why does it have to be that way? Where are the people who love the sport of horse racing and with what are they replacing that love? I'm not so sure that chasing the wants and whims of the public is the answer for horse racing. My darkest day would be walking into Keeneland, only to find bars with strippers next to slot machines next to a jockey freak show. I would never go back.
I am the first to admit that not everyone loves sports (my husband would rather watch HGTV than Sunday afternoon football. This doesn't make him gay, it simply makes him incredibly handy), but I've established a new goal for myself. I will share my unbridled passion for horse racing with everyone who watches a race with me. When that pack makes the turn from the back stretch and thunders toward the finish line, jockeys hovering over completely extended thoroughbreds, they will be yelling just as loudly as me: Go, Baby, Go!