Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Play It Again...

I think the days of sport and its' hero's being bigger than life are over. Maybe this is because the human condition, which generally speaking is flawed and limited, has already reached its limits. Perhaps that is why so many of today's stars have turned to chemical enhancement to reach new heights of achievement. Although I guess 'chemically enhanced achievement' may be an oxymoron. Maybe it is because somewhere along the line money supplanted achievement as the yardstick by which success was measured. In baseball the free agent market began in the mid-seventies but it took the better part of a decade for it to really permeate the sport. Right about that time is when I lost interest in the sport. The numbers were bigger than the players could possibly be. At that point the game lost it's allure for me. Somehow players being bigger than the game ruined it for me. I have not been a fan since.

What, you might be saying, has this to do with horseracing? I'm glad you ask. I think there is a parallel between baseball at that point in time and horseracing now. What I think baseball lost then and horseracing is in danger of losing now is it's tradition. In baseball the game was moved off the grass, the balls were juiced, the fences moved in, the number of teams were expanded (diluting the talent), the pitching mound was lowered, the plate no longer belonged to the pitcher, a player with a hangnail was put on the disabled list (okay maybe not but you get my point).

The same is happening in racing today. The sport is moving to another surface, shorter races are making up more and more of a card, horses are becoming less versatile, surfaces are tinkered with to create faster times, and the number of tracks and races are too many to put on a good show everywhere. And that's just on the track. What about off the track? At Saratoga pretty soon all you'll need to get into the clubhouse is a toga! What's wrong with the tradition of a collar and pants? Has style and social propriety been completely lost? A fan can no longer get into the training track to watch the workouts (for years now!) Don't even think about the backside! The chasm between the fan and the game keeps getting wider. But I think the most damaging element is that the connection with the past is allowed to fade away. The most prominent element between races year to year is a number 136, 137, ... The industry doesn't even try to educate it's fans about its' rich and illustrious past. But unlike other sports racing's hero's are bigger than life and remain as compelling as ever.

To use baseball as a comparison again, the games' greatness and allure was encoded in my friends and I while growing up because we inherited the history of the game. We all knew all the records, who held them, when they played, what team they played for, their position and we committed to memory year to year statistics of dozens and dozens of players. As I look back now this is what made the game live for me and, I think, many of the friends I grew up with. We had inherited the lore of the game so we were somehow part of it. Most of the players we spoke of we never even saw, but we 'knew' them as though we had seen them play every game. For baseball I think that is lost now, too many changes and money has ruined it in too many ways.

For racing I don't believe that the lore is or has ever been (since I've been a fan) at the forefront of the game but somehow it lingers in the air at every great old track in America. You can still really feel it, sense it somehow. But it seems as though the caretakers of the sport want to exorcise those good ghosts from every clubhouse, barn and paddock. I truly felt the magic when I first became a fan, so much so, that I completely rearranged my life to go search out it's origins from within the sport. When I went to work at the backside at Belmont I went to the barn I thought I could best inherit that lore and somehow it could live through me. I felt obliged to do that if I wanted to train horses. Life doesn't always work out perfectly but I do know that the magic of the sport is still alive. I also know that like anything else it can be destroyed. I know, I sense it as I did that magic, that the first knell of the death bell has rung and we better act before it strikes twelve. Find solutions and compromise that are equitable to all. Keep it simple, keep it traditional and keep it about racing. I heard recently about a divorcing couple that had accumulated a lot of wealth and many properties. Through the course of a bitter divorce they couldn't agree on anything and let all their properties fall into foreclosures and now neither have anything. It made me think of the racing industry.

I had started this entry with a very simple thought and believed it may be my shortest entry yet! I read Steve Haskin's article Decompression Chamber, about the 1968 Suburban Handicap between Dr. Fager and Damascus and their campaigns that year. It brought to mind a thought I've had many times before, why don't they show the old races? Sure TVG has a distant replay now and then and I'm sure HRTV has similar segments (but I can't get HRTV!), but that is a rare occurrence. What better way to educate a fan base while at the same time bestow the great tradition, lore and hero's of racing on the public! The NTRA should have their own channel, they don't seem to do anything other than run interference anyway, this would give them a project. I know I would play hooky to watch those old races! The possibilities are endless. A Kelso Day! or Five! Or replays of the history of a particular race during the week leading up to it. If it was a half hour show you'd need a few weeks to show all the running's of some of the great races like The Suburban! And who wouldn't want to see the running of The New Hampshire Sweepstakes, that Haskin's reminds us of, when Dr. Fager "tried to savage" In Reality while they ran down the backstretch. And don't just show the races offer some history and background so maybe people would understand what a treasure this sport truly is. And maybe, one day, kids will grow up knowing the records and statistics of all the great horses. An education truly worth having! Just play them again and ...

3 comments:

Nick said...

Fantastic post. I've always been fascinated by the history and tradition of the sport as well, and I'd love to see more emphasis on it.

george said...

Nick,Thanks for the comment. Let's hope someone in the industry can see the bigger picture and make it possible for the fans to enjoy the greatest moments the sport has to offer.-George

dana said...

Great post! The parallels are really apt.