Yesterday morning, as I sat in front of the TV, DVR remote in hand, to watch the pageantry of Royal Ascot in anticipation of Black Caviar’s expected 22nd victory, I couldn’t help but feel wistful. As TVG first showed us the amazing tradition of Her Majesty’s entourage arriving by horse draw carriages and mounted Royal Guard, followed by coverage of thousands of Australians crowded into Federation Square to watch their beloved “Nellie” carry their national pride half a world away, I couldn’t help but think the odds of that happening in the U.S. today were the same as most of the odds on Black Caviar’s scheduled rivals, 99-1. As giddy as Americans were over Rachel Alexandra, Curlin, and Zenyatta, I don’t recall thousands gathered in public places to cheer them on with the same national pride. It’s been many decades since this nation came to a halt for a horse race with the same fervor the Australians displayed by staying up until one in the morning – for one race, for one horse. While many might cite Secretariat’s Belmont Stakes as the last time we came together as a nation over one horse, I think it is more likely that it was probably back when Citation was regularly the lead story on sports pages and radio broadcasts; and horse racing was held in the same regard as baseball and boxing. Back in the Sixties, I remember the nightly news showing the feature race at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, and the Los Angeles Times always ran Bill Christine’s racing column.
TVG showed us the reaction of the hefty Australian crowd as they watched their heroine on a huge screen in the square. The love for their horse was evident on their faces, and as the nearly catastrophic stretch run heated up, followed by the narrow victory of their best girl, euphoria was on full display. People of all ages, but most appearing to be much younger than our average fan age of 51 years in the U.S., screamed, danced, jumped around ecstatically, and hugged each other with total abandon.
It was a great moment…and I was jealous. These people love horse racing. The Melbourne Cup is practically a national holiday. Why isn’t it like that here?
When discussing the decline of racing fans in this country, one point has been brought up several times. That is, Americans don’t get out much, and those closest to most of our country’s race tracks do not spend their free time outdoors with animals, specifically horses. Few kids finish their day of chores by riding their beloved farm horse for a few quiet moments of contemplation before dinner time. Few kids have the opportunity to build a close relationship with a horse if they live in an urban area. With horses playing such a small part in our lives these days, most of us miss growing up learning to understand the majesty of the horse, particularly the running horse. Since racing coverage is so minimal in America, it takes a lot more work to develop that passion in a child.
Obviously it’s easier if the child grew up in a rural area where horses are a normal part of life, but most kids do not get a pony for their birthday. Being a city kid myself, and my parents not being even close to well off, I did not grow up with a horse in my backyard (except my Breyer models I might have left outside after a day of playing Wild Horses). As it was, other than hanging on to a rental horse once in a while, I didn’t receive my first riding lesson until I was 18. I think I paid something like $6 or $8 a lesson. Lucky for me, though, when I was five and six years old, we lived in an apartment down the street from Santa Anita, in Arcadia, California. My father saw a sign on the street welcoming the public to the morning workouts, and he saw it as a fun way to kill time before I had to be at school. The school, intriguingly enough, was located across the street from the track’s six-furlong chute. So, my father introduced me to real, live, big, majestic horses and my life was forever changed.
As I like to say, “Get ‘em early and you probably have them for life!” Every time I see a parent with a small child at the track, I want to hug them for taking the time to share their interest with their children.
I think most of us come to our deeply favorite sports through our family, as I did. Race horses came first, the Dodgers came second. Both ingrained themselves through my dad taking me to Santa Anita and Chavez Ravine when I hadn’t finished my first decade. But someone I loved and to whom looked up made it special, and so it has remained.
If you have children or grandchildren, find time to take them to your local track. Bring their friends, classmates, or whoever else you can load into the car! Racing is just as exciting at a “bush” track as it is at Churchill Downs. If you’re lucky enough for Churchill Downs to be your local track, take those kids and make sure they get into the Kentucky Derby Museum and explore all it has to offer. Regardless of which track you head for, you may very well ignite the flame in the next generation of fans.