Horse racing used to be as important and as celebrated as every other sport. By 1890, America’s people were regularly flocking to the country's 314 racetracks. Horse racing served as one of America’s favorite pastimes.
The sport flourished. Horse racing was a celebration of fashion, gambling, and a love for the animals who had helped build the United States. The popular racehorses served as inspiration and role models. News in the sport regularly adorned the front pages of newspapers across the country and the races were highly anticipated by Americans. Horses like Seabiscuit provided hope to America during the Great Depression. He showed everyone who was struggling that the underdog could rise to the top. Man o’ War was a living representation of strength and provided a distraction during the tough beginning years of Prohibition. Soldiers adored Whirlaway for the $5 million he raised in war bonds in 1942. Horse racing was a relief from the daily struggles that life presented. It was a distraction, it was hope, and it was happiness. Families everywhere crowded around radios to listen to the races when they were broadcast. Infields and grandstands were regularly packed full of happy racegoers. The big races were discussed in every cafe and on every street corner. Although the popularity of horse racing declined when most men were overseas fighting in World War II and the women were entering the workforce, the sport quickly resurged in the happy 1970s. Secretariat was a representation of pure power. The love displayed by his connections was contagious. Seattle Slew’s Triple Crown sweep in 1977 gave America’s blue-collar workers a feeling of pride. The duels between Affirmed and Alydar in 1978 sparked debates on who was the better horse.
Every single person could find something that represented them in horse racing. Some found motivation in the tales of the underdog becoming a sensation - like Seabiscuit and Assault. Others saw themselves in the grooms and hot walkers who received little acknowledgement but were the backbone of the sport. Those who had big dreams and small wallets found hope in owners like Karen and Mickey Taylor, the flight attendant and lumberman who purchased future Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew for $17,500. Women fighting for their rights in the 70s found power and inspiration in sensational fillies and mares like Ruffian. It is unfortunate that horse racing has again fallen from the public’s eye. A Harris poll found that horse racing is now America’s 13th favorite sport and less than 1% of people call it their favorite sport. While it is easy to feel like horse racing community is still big because of social media, it is in fact a shrinking community. If you were to stop someone on the street and ask them who won that year’s Met Mile, they will have no clue what you are talking about. The once beloved sport of horse racing is fading. The majority of Americans no longer find solace in watching a Thoroughbred run. The strong bond between the American people and the Thoroughbred racehorse has began to break. Racetracks are closing down and people are losing jobs. The American people are turning their back on the sport that helped them get through their toughest times. Even worse, the press is feasting on every tragedy they can find in the sport. This, however, does not mean that the sport cannot recover. Despite the current grim outlook, recent Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify are helping to get the sport back into the mainstream media. New racing fans are being made through the stories told by horse racing’s photographers, writers, artists, and filmmakers. Reform started by some tracks and groups has started to give the sport a better look to the animal activist community. The popularity of horse racing has risen and fell time after time. If the horse racing community stands strong through every tragedy and every setback, the sport will prevail. The community must make the public see that inspiration can still be found in horse racing. Barbaro inspired toughness and fight. Justify proved that curses can be broken. Lady Eli showed the world that down does not mean out. Abel Tasman demonstrated that it is possible to prevail through a tough start to life.
If horse racing stands tough, people will again love horse racing. Families and friends will gather around their TVs every First Saturday in May. They will flock to the tracks every weekend in hopes of feeling that rush of picking a winner. The fashion lovers will put on their best dress and favorite hats in hopes of standing out in the large crowds of the sport’s biggest races. Photos of the year’s greatest horses will be plastered on magazine covers and the front pages of every newspaper. The longshots will be cheered on by every person who too had felt like an underdog. Children will feel wonder when they look up at the Thoroughbreds towering above them. Horse racing can again become America’s sport.
Watch historical footage of 30,000 people at Narraganset Park. This track closed in 1978.
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