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By David J. Cohen
Let’s face it. If Big Brown still has four hoofs after a mile and a half he’ll be the first Triple Crown horse since Affirmed in 1978. He is racing against arguably the weakest Belmont field in thirty years. The other “contender” to Big Brown is a Japanese horse with one career race in America. Granted, it was a good victory at Belmont but realistically a Japanese horse is not winning the Belmont Stakes. Dennis of Cork closed for third in the Kentucky Derby and Tale of Ekati came behind him in fourth, and that’s basically the field. D. Wayne Lukas doesn’t have a horse in the race and he specializes in training horses for this leg of the Triple Crown. Bob Baffert doesn’t have a horse either. The horse racing world has put the Triple Crown on a platter and Big Brown is sniffing it. This race is the equivalent of UPS competing against carrier pigeons.
But the talk that a Triple Crown will somehow revive the sport of kings is hogwash. The truth of the matter is horse racing isn’t the same sport it was when Affirmed won the holy trinity of horse races. Affirmed lived in the greatest era of horse racing. In a span of five years Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed all graced the dirt tracks of Churchill, Pimlico, and Belmont. People cared about the sport and were captivated by these horses. The NBA wasn’t nearly as popular as it was today and the NFL wasn’t a media pariah. There was no internet for people to flock to. There was a large audience yearning for something to latch on to and horse racing fit the bill. These horses were the best thing on TV back then.
The big reason critics say horse racing has declined is the recent tragedies of horses like Barbaro and Eight Belles. They say their deaths turned people away from the sport and permanently hurt the sport’s popularity. This is a myth. While it is sad to see a horse like Eight Belles have a race for the ages and then be put down, these aren’t the only incidents in these races. Charismatic nearly won the Triple Crown back in 1999 and broke his left leg at the conclusion of the race. He raced in front of a record crowd in New York and was of Secretariat blood. He was the last horse to truly capture the American spirit that made the 70s the greatest era of horse racing. He was a 31-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby and was a stretch run short of the Triple Crown. This came the year after the legendary battles between Real Quiet and Victory Gallop. In 2000 the public was just as interested in a Triple Crown winner despite what happened to Charismatic. Injuries ultimately don’t turn people away. In 1976 arguably the biggest horse tragedy of all time happened when Ruffian was put down on national television in a head-to-head match that was the Billie Jean King match of horse racing. She is still considered by many horse racing historians as the greatest filly to ever live. This didn’t hurt the sport. It didn’t stop the country from enjoying Affirmed.
There is a very simple reason horse racing can’t rise to what it was in the old days regardless of what Big Brown does Saturday. It is no longer the sport of kings. It doesn’t have the grandeur and prestige it once had. We now have the NBA and the NFL and things like the UFC and the channels of channels of cable and satellite television that compete with horse racing for our interest. Horse racing no longer captures the country like it used to, just like Barrel Jumping is no longer on ABC’s Wide World of Sports.