LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Horse racing awakens this weekend at Churchill Downs, as it does every year on the first weekend in May. Friday afternoon more than 100,000 people will stuff the track for the running of the Kentucky Oaks for three-year-old fillies and an undercard of races that includes 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra. On Saturday that number will swell to more than 150,000 for the Kentucky Derby.
Television ratings for the Derby customarily pummel the NBA, NHL and major league baseball. The winner of the race will become a household name who will be followed through the Preakness and, should he (or she) win there, on to the Belmont Stakes for a run at the Triple Crown, which has not been won in 32 years. For five weeks horse racing will look and feel like a thriving and popular enterprise, which -- beyond these narrow confines -- it categorically is not.
It's impossible to overstate what a bizarre phenomenon this is. A wildly popular single event (or three, if you include the entire Triple Crown) is contested, while for the rest of the year the sport unfolds in a state somewhere between anonymity and desperation. It is as if 32 NFL teams played to empty stadiums for the entire regular season and then contested the playoffs and the Super Bowl to full houses and spectacular TV numbers. OK, that's an extreme comparison.
Turn it another way: U.S. sports are full of giant, appointment-viewing sporting events. Many of them are the culmination of a regular season that also has a solid (or at least measurable) base. The Super Bowl. The World Series. The NBA Finals. Golf majors. Tennis majors. (Not comparing the Super Bowl to the Australian Open here, except in the broad terms already defined.) The Olympics? It's not possible to compare an event contested every four years to one that takes place annually; the Olympics disappear by definition.
Triple Crown racing rises from complete apathy to saturation. (I can vouch for this on a personal level. Inevitably, when late April arrives, I will have a conversation with somebody that goes like this: "So Tim, what's up next for you?'' To which I respond, "Off to cover the Kentucky Derby.'' Which evokes something like, "Oh yeah, the Derby.'') Horse racing is completely absent from the sports radar, and then suddenly it's a major player, and then, just as abruptly, it's gone again.
This is not only strange, but ominous.
Take a step back. Working the Churchill barns Thursday morning, I talked with a Jeremy Noseda, a 46-year-old Brit who trains Awesome Act, one of the three-year-olds with a genuine chance to win a very wide-open, rainy race on Saturday afternoon. In the mid 1980s, Noseda left his home base in England to spend two years learning the American version of the sport. He caught on as an assistant to trainer John Gosden, who was based in Southern California, and sent good horses around the country to major races. The golden age of racing in the United States (pick a decade: 1930s, 1940s) had long since passed. But it was a good time nevertheless, and the decline now in place was still far off in the future.
Noseda was quick to take a conversation about his career path and turn it into a bittersweet commentary on the state of horse racing in the United States.
"I was lucky enough to find work in California when the racing there was terrific to be around,'' said Noseda. "And there was a sensational quality of horses out there. We would have 30,000 or 40,000 spectators for racing in the middle of the week and 80,000 on the weekend,'' [at the signature California tracks of Del Mar, Hollywood Park and Santa Anita].
Noseda's numbers are innocent exaggerations. Attendance at California tracks had long begun to decline by the mid-80s, but weekday crowds in excess of 20,000 were common and big weekend races in that era often did stress the capacity of mammoth tracks built decades earlier for a different economic model.
But his point is simple and valid: Even as late as those mid-80s, racing was a viable live enterprise. "I remember the first time I went to Belmont Park,'' says Noseda. "I took a horse to run there when I was a young man, and I looked around and I thought to myself, this is an unbelievable place. This is the greatest place in the world.''
Jump ahead. Noseda came over from England and saddled a horse in the 2007 Breeders Cup, which took place at Belmont. He had another horse running one day later, on the Sunday following the Breeders Cup races. Where the hulking Belmont grandstand had been nearly full on Saturday, it was nearly empty on Sunday, a yawning wound spilling blood on an entire sport.
"I want to be careful how I say this,'' said Noseda. "But to be honest, it was genuinely depressing. I've seen the same thing at Santa Anita. They were such exciting places, and now they're relics of what they once were.''
Distance can provide the clearest vision of all. A relative who sees a child not at all between ages eight and 12 will predictably say, "My how you've grown.'' Noseda has spent few days on U.S. racetracks in the last quarter-century, which leaves him with a deep appreciation for the decay that measures the sport. Complex economic issues threaten the sport; the entities that operate Pimlico (home of the Preakness) and Belmont (the Belmont Stakes) are in dire financial straits. The breeding industry is a shell of what it was only a decade ago. The consumption of entertainment has changed dramatically and racing has been left behind.
Racing has repeatedly applied band-aids to these problems, often by stealing from its grand history. There was a press conference Thursday in Louisville to promote the October opening of the movie Secretariat, a Disney production that recalls the remarkable Triple Crown performance of Big Red. The movie was produced by Mark Ciardi and Gordon Grey, who previously did The Rookie, and Miracle. Like Seabiscuit in 2005, Secretariat could bring new eyeballs to racing. (Full disclosure: I was given a part as an extra in the movie, stretching my acting chops to their limit to play a "reporter.'' You can watch the trailer here.)
The movie could remind viewers how great Secretariat was and how sensational the sport can be, both as an athletic event and as a window on the human spirit. The Derby and the Triple Crown do that every year. As a journalist, I relish the chance to come to Louisville, to Baltimore, to New York and to tell the stories surrounding the game. It's a joy to find another Funny Cide, another Smarty Jones, another Mine That Bird.
That brief cycle begins anew on Saturday. The Derby will be grand and spectacular and compelling and there will be a great temptation to paint the scene as a celebratory renewal for racing, like it's been dunked in cleansing waters. Yet the reality feels somehow harsher this time, like a few days of greatness -- whether in the present or culled from the past -- can't keep saving racing. Like Churchill Downs is less a cathedral and more a museum.