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    What Makes Horse Racing Special

    I thought I would share this blog post explaining exactly why horse racing is so special as I reflect on my 30 years of watching the sport.

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    Amalfi Media is excited to announce the launch of The Win Place Show, a podcast devoted to horse racing that features picks and previews of the biggest graded stakes races, race recaps, interviews with prominent figures within the industry, and more. Follow The Win Place Show on the podcast platform of your choice and follow Matthew on Twitter at @failedtomenace.

    Growing up in southeastern Pennsylvania I was, and still am, a fiercely loyal Philadelphia sports fan and I frequently attended games of the Eagles, Sixers, Phillies, and Flyers throughout my childhood. Yet, for all the moments I witnessed on the gridiron, the hardwood, the field, or the rink, the most vivid sports memory of my youth was the first time I went to a horse race. I was 12-year-old when my dad took me to Penn National Race Course and I still remember the smell of the horses, the dirt, and the cigar smoke, not to mention the feel of the racing form and the ink that was so thick it seemed to ooze from each of the pages.  My dad taught me how to read a racing form and I used my allowance money for $2 show bets that he would place for me since I could not legally wager. Winning bets was thrilling, but what captivated me that day and every day since was watching the elegance of thoroughbreds racing down the homestretch and the jockeys who did their best to harness the raw power of God’s greatest creation.  

    There was a time when horse racing was one of the most important sports in North America and held a prominent place in the culture. The hit Broadway musical Guys and Dolls opens with a song about three guys trying to pick a winner at the racetrack. The 1970s, which is considered by many to be the Golden Age of horse racing, featured three Triple Crown winners in Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed (1978), and saw each of them become celebrities. Even horses such as Sham and Alydar who came up just short against those great superhorses still held a place in the popular consciousness. However, a prolonged Triple Crown drought, the rise of other sports on television, and the intermittent television coverage of horse racing led to it becoming a niche sport that few people paid attention to beyond two minutes in the beginning of May when they would obligatorily tune in to watch the Kentucky Derby. Of course, the sport is so much more than the run for the Triple Crown, but it’s centrality in the culture may have contributed to the waning of its overall popularity since the casual fan was never introduced to turf racing, sprint racing, or any races by fillies and mares.

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    There are still times when the glory of horse racing shines through, such as the heroic run that Rachel Alexandra made in the 2009 Preakness when she beat the boys and became the first filly to win the race in 85 years. A few months later she beat the boys again at the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga and I still get chills listening to Tom Durkin’s call as she crosses the finish line when he claims, “She did it! She is indeed Rachel Alexandra…The Great!” And that’s the thing about horse racing, at its purest form it can move you to tears in a way that no other sport can. I dare you to go to YouTube and watch Secretariat’s 36-length victory at the Belmont, or Rachel Alexandra’s races against the boys, or the duels between Affirmed and Alydar, or the glorious domination of undefeated Frankel and not feel something different than when you see Patrick Mahomes throw a touchdown or Fernando Tatis hit a home run.

    However, it’s also important to acknowledge that in recent years horse racing has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. For many casual fans, one of the most recognizable faces in the sport is that of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert whose snow-white hair and blue-tinted glasses are ever-present at the Kentucky Derby, a race he has won seven times. However, his win this year, Medina Spirit, will likely be stripped of its title because the horse had two positive tests for banned substances. It’s not the first time Baffert has run afoul of the rules when it comes to pharmaceutical enhancement of his horses and his repeated doping penalties have finally led to Churchill Downs suspending him from entering horses at the track for two years. Baffert is hardly the only violator as trainers Jorge Navarro and Jason Servis were arrested recently on charges of “misbranding conspiracy” as part of a multi-state raid that targeted doping and deaths of multiple racehorses. And, just last week jockey Tomas Mejia received a 10-year suspension for using an electronic buzzer on a horse during his races at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.  

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    While all this news is atrocious, it hardly sets horseracing apart from any of the other major North American sports. The National Football League let players bludgeon themselves for decades until CTE findings and a rash of suicides of former players forced them to change. Meanwhile, Major League Baseball was perfectly fine letting their players use steroids in the 1990s as home run totals and their television ratings soared. Even Mixed Martial Arts, the fastest growing sport in the country, is plagued by dozens of domestic abuse charges by their stars that seem to always be swept under the rug. None of those examples are meant to excuse the sinister behavior of those who have tainted horseracing, but to shed light on the fact that in any sport where billions of dollars are at stake, the weakness of men will always be prevalent.

    At the end of the day, my love of horse racing has nothing to do with the people in the industry. Speaking about the great superhorse Secretariat, horse racing historian Bill Nack once said, “The chief problem in his life was that he was handled by people. If he had been handled by someone other than flawed human beings, he would have been undefeated.” I first heard Nack’s quote over twenty years ago, but it stayed with me and has been a constant reminder that the sport is only flawed because it is part of the human condition. What makes horse racing so exceptional is that every so often there are moments where a horse transcends the flaws of their mortal connections, and you get a glimpse of perfection. It’s at those moments you realize that a glimpse of perfection is all we can handle because anything more would overwhelm our senses. Horseracing captures our imagination, not because it shows us what we can do, but because it shows us the raw power and elegance of nature and creation.

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    For the last thirty years, I’ve been watching that raw power and elegance on display at tracks from New York to Pennsylvania to Florida to Texas and plenty of spots in between. Do yourself a favor and head out to your local track, take your family, and maybe you’ll win a few bucks if you take my handicapping advice, but in my experience, the most important part of going to the track is that being around horses refreshes your soul and puts us in our proper place as stewards of a sport that nature perfected centuries ago.

    Get all of Matthew’s horse racing coverage by following him on Twitter at @failedtomenace, by subscribing to Amalfi Media’s YouTube channel, and by following his new podcast, The Win Place Show, premiering on Tuesday, September 21 on the podcast platform of your choice.

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