Monday, May 18, 2009

The real winner?

The history books will say that Mine That Bird won the 2009 Kentucky Derby and Rachel Alexandra won the 2009 Preakness, but that might not prove to be the real story.

The real winner could be horse racing itself.

This is the first time in a few years that I’ve seen the sports world this excited about horse racing. Mine That Bird’s 50-1 victory put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated and jockey Calvin Borel on The Tonight Show. Rachel Alexandra’s game win was the top story on SportsCenter and has a nation anticipating a rematch in the Belmont.

For all the recent talk about horse racing’s decline—and its many problems that have not gone away—the rumors of its death may be greatly exaggerated.

There was another time when horse racing was on a downward arc. General anti-gambling sentiment hit America around the turn of the 20th century. Many tracks closed. Churchill Downs went bankrupt, and the Kentucky Derby was a relatively minor stakes.

Key to the Derby’s resurrection—and the sport’s in general—were wins by a longshot and a filly.

First there was Donerail’s victory at 91-1 in the 1913 Derby—still the longest shot to win the race. Then there was Regret, who was undefeated when she became the first filly to win the Derby in 1915. These were the first in a series of notable wins in the 1910s and 1920s that brought the Derby back into the national spotlight and helped to make horse racing one of America’s most popular spectator sports.

Other sports have gone through down cycles, too. SI ran an article declaring the NBA dead—the year before Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were drafted. The NHL was off network TV for years, but now it’s on NBC and several cable channels. And, while I don’t really consider it a sport—but it proves my point—professional wrestling was late-night TV filler before the Wrestlemania phenomenon of the 1980s.

Could we be seeing the beginnings of a Thoroughbred renaissance? Can horse racing be the top story on SportsCenter more than twice a year? Will we soon see Calvin Borel stickers next to NASCAR decals on people’s cars?

Stranger things have happened….

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