Forty-five years ago, the late, great Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson delivered “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved” in the pages of Scanlan’s Monthly magazine. Thompson’s savage literary attack, aimed at one prominent nexus where sports and American culture come together, struck its contemporary audience as both outrageous and spot-on. That his piece targeted the Kentucky Derby was most appropriate; back then horse racing still stood tall on the American sports landscape, and everyone paid attention when the horses lined up in the gate on the first Saturday in May.
It hasn’t been quite so long since Affirmed won racing’s last Triple Crown in 1978, but that accomplishment also seems like something from another time. Now, with American Pharoah poised to become the first horse in decades to match Affirmed’s achievement, one is left not with wild insights about American culture, but with merely a simple question: If American Pharoah wins the Belmont, will anyone really care?
Horse racing hasn’t meant much to this nation for a while now. Back in the day, when equine giants like Seabiscuit and Secretariat galloped the earth, the so-called “sport of kings” held one of the most prominent positions in the American sporting landscape.
…if America’s latest super-horse hopeful pulls it off this weekend, he, his trainers, and his owners will have to be satisfied with their winnings, and making a little horse racing history.
Yet, one wonders why horse racing took such a dive down the ranks of America’s favorite sports. Thoroughbred racing still features many elements that sports fans–and Americans in general–continue to love:
- It is a sport. Most Americans like sports; indeed, we tend to love sports, to an almost unhealthy degree. And horse racing is racing, a type of sport that people continue to enjoy; just look at NASCAR. (I’m comfortable with asserting that NASCAR counts as racing; I’m not so sure about NASCAR fans counting as “people.”)
- It has animals. Americans love animals. I know this, because every other email in my inbox asks me to sign a petition to save some animals from some cruel fate. In fact, I’m surprised I haven’t yet seen an email asking me to sign a petition banning horse racing. (They do whip them, you know.)
- Horse racing features gambling. Indeed, gambling is horse racing’s raison d’etre. And Americans love few things more than gambling. Betting is the foundation for the NFL’s immense popularity; people worship the NCAA Tournament every March in large part because of their participation in bracket pools. And, of course, there’s the recent explosion of big business, cash prize fantasy sports leagues. (Although–say it with me, children–fantasy sports is NOT gambling. Oh, no, not that. Never that.)
- Finally, thoroughbred racing’s highlight events–particularly the Kentucky Derby–feature at least some measure of spectacle, and at this late, “bread and circuses” stage of the empire’s decline, Americans do reliably love empty spectacles.
It’s that last point that probably explains why horse racing has taken its nosedive down the ranks of American sports. Simply put, the thoroughbreds themselves don’t provide nearly enough spectacle to hold the attention of the American public beyond two minutes at a time on Spring afternoons.
These days, our favorite sports bring ready-made carnival aspects with them, mostly through a parade of brutal steroid freaks whose excesses litter both the fields where they play and the landscape beyond. Football, of course, providesw an orgy of violence both inside and outside the stadiums. Other sports try to keep up, usually via the occasional drug-bust or gun violation, but few can match the NFL for its participants’ depravity. And it all plays out within the context of seasons that last for months and feed the media beast around the clock.
Against such a high level of entertaining diversion, how can horse racing even compete? I mean, really–when was the last time a horse got arrested for domestic violence?
The Derby gamely tries its best, with the overblown hats, the mint julep guzzling crowd, and probably even more outrageous behavior that you can only see if you get up close, the way Thompson and illustrator Ralph Steadman did all those years ago. But that’s about as far as it goes.
Oh, sure, you occasionally get a Wes Welker showing up at the Derby dressed like one of the guys from Dumb and Dumber and handing out $100 bills to the crowd while allegedly high on ecstasy, but that stuff is mere child’s play in today’s world; it hardly registers in our modern 24/7 bacchanalia society. (Thompson himself would have just snickered at Welker’s antics; any high that did not involve an ether rag was rank amateur stuff to the Doctor.)
And yeah, Tara Lipinski and Johnny Weir try to bring the freak to NBC’s coverage of the Derby, but really, they’re just so…tame. A couple of figure skating queens reporting on fashion won’t get you more than a few seconds of the nation’s attention these days.
It certainly won’t turn the nation’s eyes to you when you’re at the Belmont. The Belmont Stakes doesn’t seem to go in for pageantry nearly as much as the Derby, or even the Preakness. Their attitude seems to be, “It’s New York–that’s enough for the likes of you.” If American Pharoah does claim that elusive Triple Crown, it’s unlikely this Saturday’s race will get much play across the media landscape, unless a Kardashian (or one of their lowly associates) is on hand to drag Western Civilization down a few more notches. And even if such an event does occur–if a Kardashian collides with Justin Bieber while filming a guest appearance on “The Apprentice” at the track, resulting in a reality TV explosion that leaves a smoking, faux-celebrity crater in the middle of the Belmont infield–it will only draw America’s attention to the race for just that one day…because the next E!-ready outburst will happen some other place a few days later, far from where the thoroughbreds run.
So if America’s latest super-horse hopeful pulls it off this weekend, he, his trainers, and his owners will have to be satisfied with their winnings, and making a little horse racing history. Because it’s unlikely that anyone else will care all that much once the new week dawns the next day.