As a nation, we Americans love big sporting events. Why? In our secular society, they represent a cultural unifier, a shared experience that brings us together—even while we may be rooting against one another.
Exhibit #1: the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Even if you know nothing about college basketball or your alma mater didn’t make the cut, nearly every office worker gets sucked into playing the office pool. Add to that the wall-to-wall coverage of games on CBS—not to mention literally every broadcast moment on the various ESPN networks analyzing every team, every performance, every possible scenario—and it’s easy to see why it’s called “March Madness.”
Admittedly, team sports have an advantage, with their built-in fan base (whether university town, city or entire region) and bountiful marketing opportunities, but sometimes it’s the lesser known or followed sports that garner the nation’s spotlight.
For example, while NASCAR enjoys nearly weekly attention, it’s only once a year that anyone pays attention to Indy cars. And why do we bother? Maybe it’s because the Indianapolis 500 has been run since 1911. Synonymous with Memorial Day weekend, the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” is a historical staple in most American homes. It certainly was in mine, growing up in the 1970s. A.J. Foyt, Al and Bobby Unser, Johnny Rutherford, Mario Andretti, Rick Mears—god knows why I still recall these names since I am not even a casual car racing fan today, but I can still clearly hear Jim McKay and Jackie Stewart reciting those names above the roar of engines whooshing by, lap after lap.
And so we horse racing fans will soon enjoy our moment in the sun—the First Saturday in May, the Run for the Roses, the 135th running of the Kentucky Derby. Okay, technically the Belmont Stakes is older (1867) and will be run for the 141st time this June 6, but it is the Kentucky Derby which has, since 1875, captured the hearts and minds of Americans. Even neophytes to the sport will, while sipping their ghastly version of mint juleps, pick a favorite—based on a name, a color, a hunch or even (gasp!) careful handicapping or the recommendation of a friend—to root on to victory. Perfectly crafted for an attention-deficit society, the race is over in just about two minutes, and once again these gorgeous animals prove exactly what they were bred to do.
Sometime over the past week, I hit the wall in terms of bitterness, frustration and anger when it comes to the idiocy, the hypocrisy, manifested again and again in this sport so, at least for the next eleven days, this will be a “bitch-free” zone. I have my biases, particularly against those distasteful connections that damage racing far more than they think, and their apologists which are no better. Still, why let them become the story? I want this Derby to be about the horses and the good people in horse racing, of whom too little ink is spilt.
When so many other things are wrong and out of control in the world around us, how simple it is to fall in love with a horse—or two.