Under The Bleachers: Chasing History In The Former Sport Of Kings

Above: American Pharoah with Martin Garcia (Photo: Garry Jones/Associated Press)

I grew up with horse racing.

Some of my earliest memories are of going with my family – my mom, dad and older brother – to Fort Erie Racetrack to watch the horses. My maternal grandparents loved the races as well, and they would accompany us whenever they came down from Cornwall as well. As I got older, we added harness racing into the mix and eventually, my brother started announcing races and going to the track and paying attention to horse racing became a bit of an obsession.

Most weekends, I watched races, either on television or in person. I knew all the jockeys, all the trainers, the big races and who the betting favourites would be.

From as early as I can remember, watching the Triple Crown races was always a big deal. There was a pageantry to the three events – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes – and the yearly question of whether one horse would be able to win all three races generated a great deal of excitement, not just in our household, but in the sporting world as well.

No horse has won the Triple Crown in my lifetime. The last horse to accomplish the feat, Affirmed, did so a couple months before I entered this world in 1978.

Since then, 13 horses have entered the Belmont Stakes with a chance to win the Triple Crown and all 13 have come up short. A couple have come close, including Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet a year later, who was edged out by Victory Gallop by just four inches. In recent years, horses like War Emblem (2002), Funny Cide (2003) and Smarty Jones (2004) all entered the Belmont with a shot at the Triple Crown, but none of them were able to win the mile-and-a-half test.

Last year, California Chrome won the Derby and the Preakness before finishing fourth in the Belmont. It feels like the story barely registered in the mainstream sporting press.

Saturday afternoon in Elmont, New York, American Pharoah will look to end the 37 year drought by becoming the first horse since Affirmed to claim the Triple Crown. He’ll face a field of seven rivals, giving him the perhaps the best chance of any horse in recent years. He won the Derby by a length before cruising to a seven-length win in the Preakness on a muddy track at Pimlico, which bodes well for the extended distance on Saturday.

Thoroughbred racing (and horse racing in general) has suffered a massive decline in popularity over the years and it’s to the point where even events like the Triple Crown and Breeders Cup no longer feel like a big deal. As someone that grew up with the dates of those races circled on his calendar, that seems unfathomable, but it’s true.

Horse racing has experienced a drop off in popularity over the last two decades to the point where even the potential of American Pharoah winning the Triple Crown doesn’t seem like that big of a deal.

Last year, when California Chrome was attempting to accomplish the feat, it seemed like people were ready to back the Art Sherman-trained colt as a potential catalyst for renewed interest in the sport, but then he finished fourth, becoming the 13th straight Derby and Preakness winner to faulter over the final leg. Now there seems to be only marginal interest in the Bob Baffert-trained, Victor Espinoza-ridden American Pharoah’s attempt. Even if he does get the job done on Saturday, it won’t spark a renaissance for “The Sport of Kings.”

Thirty years ago, a Triple Crown winner would have been front page news.

Twenty years ago, it would have commanded multiple pages in the sports section.

Ten years ago, it still wouldn’t have earned a page unto itself.

If American Pharoah ends the Triple Crown drought on Saturday at the Belmont, chances are the story will run on an “Other Sports” page alongside other “less important” news from the weekend.

Just like baseball and boxing – the two other sports it used to stand alongside as the biggest in American – horse racing has faded as football and basketball have overtaken them and the ability to gamble on various other sports has become more acceptable and prevalent.

Sadly, there doesn’t seem to be a reversal of fortune on the horizon.

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