I have found myself, several times over the past week, after Big Brown’s puzzling and disappointing run in the Belmont Stakes, watching on You Tube the 1973 run of Secretariat in the Belmont. There is nothing quite like it in all of sports; the best of all possible performances and the best of all possible times. Horses have only one chance to win the triple crown, and Secretariat’s performance was so dominating, so breathtaking, that it leaves one humbled. As you listen to the call of the race, you hear the track announcer, utterly awestruck, saying that “Secretariat is moving like a tremendous machine” as he starts to pull away. One of the great attractions of sports is that is a great simplifier, with unambiguous criteria for success and failure. One cannot write a perfect work of history, but one can bowl or pitch a perfect game. And Secretariat’s run in the Belmont is the most perfect thing I know in all of sports, perfection condensed to two minutes and twenty-four seconds. When I watch Secretariat cross the finish line, 31 lengths in front of the nearest competitor, in full gallop, it brings tears to my eyes.
So why is horse racing so dull? Why has is it dying? Why have newspapers stopped printing racing results? What has happened to the handicappers that used to dominate the sports pages. When I was lad, one of the first things I ever read were the handicappers in the New York Post. (I know I learned the word “consensus” from a column in which the Post summarized the picks from its five handicappers.) In the early 1950s, Jamaica Race Track (soon to make way for cooperative housing) was the most popular sporting venue in New York City, with 2 million fans, more than any of the city’s three baseball teams. But times have changed. If there are, quite literally, a hundred books about baseball in New York City in the 1950s, there is not a single book on the history of horse racing in New York City.
There are various theories as to the decline of horse racing. Its not a great television sport. It’s a bit like Groundhog’s Day, watching the same thing nine times in a row, with none of the added tension you get from a sporting event unfolding over an extended period of time. The ninth race is just the last race on the card. And bettors, rather than use an iota of intelligence and try to pick winners, would rather go to Las Vegas or some substitute and just plunk their quarters into slot machines. And its no fun watching horses like Barbaro or Eight Belles break down. If they euthanized football players after breaking an ankle there wouldn’t be much of an audience for football either.
My favorite theory of the decline of horse racing is the Tammany connection. Modern horse racing was basically created and controlled by urban political machines—John Morrisey in the 1860s sort of created both horse racing at Saratoga and the form of the NYC Democratic machine that would thrive for the next century. Big Tim Sullivan, Tammany stalwart, built the Jamaica Race Track in 1903Anti-Tammany reformers, such as Fiorello LaGuardia, were furiously opposed to gambling and all its works. And it is no accident, I think, that the decline of horse racing as a major American sport in the 1960s coincides with the breakup of Tammany.
The 1960s is also when municipalities started to spend massive amounts of municipal money to build new sports arenas, for baseball and football. Baseball became a family sport, where fathers and sons learn to bond amid to overpriced hot dogs and beers, and where they revel in the eternal rebirth of the American pastoral. The raffish, somewhat seedy ambience of racetracks, with professional gamblers, swindlers, and corrupt politicians was relegated to a forgotten chapter of the past. Horse racing doesn’t put on airs, or pretend to be something other than it is. No ten part Ken Burns series on horse racing. Jacques Barzun’s over-quoted comment about anyone wanting to know “the heart and mind of America” knowing baseball is better applied to horse racing, a sport with its roots in the 17th century, central to the institution of slavery and the development of 19th century masculine culture in the North. At its best there is nothing as exhilarating in all of sport as watching thoroughbreds galloping down the home stretch. But nowadays the smart money boys in New York City, lousy with filthy lucre, have better things to do with their time then hang out at the $2 window.