Give the Derby a Chance
By Patrick F. Cannon
For the 142nd time, Thoroughbred horses will run this Saturday in the Kentucky Derby at Louisville’s Churchill Downs. Undefeated Nyquist will likely be the deserving favorite. While a good horse, no one yet believes he has the quality of last year’s Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah. I may well place a small bet on him, but my dark horse is Mohaymen, who was soundly beaten by Nyquist in last month’s Florida Derby. I believe the track that day – drying and cuppy – bothered him, so I think you can throw that race out.
But really, I’m not sure who’s going to win, but I do know that the interest in the Derby and horse racing in general is in a gradual decline, and it saddens me. The first Derby I remember was 1948s, when Citation won the Derby and the Triple Crown. He was one of the great horses of the 20th Century and everyone in America knew his name and exploits, for in that year and for many years before and after, more people attended horse races than any other sport, including baseball.
When I started attending the races in 1957, the local newspapers covered racing extensively, not only the major local tracks like Arlington and Washington Parks, but those in other major racing centers like New York, California, Florida and Maryland. The day’s entries were published, as well as the handicapper’s picks and yesterday’s results. They stopped doing this a long time ago. Why?
In 1957, when Chicago was a major center for racing, betting the horses was the only form of legalized gambling. In Illinois, first came the lottery, then the riverboats, and finally land-based casinos. More recently, and dubiously, video poker machines were legalized and began to pop up in local taverns and other venues.
Horse racing has always had its fans, people who admired the sport for itself, who enjoyed the spectacle of animals bred for hundreds of years for one purpose: to run as fast as the can for as long as they can. They are beautiful creatures, who are happy to do their jobs for a steady diet of hay and oats and constant attention from their owners, trainers and grooms. They are never arrested for domestic battery, drug abuse, or murder. And while a cadre of fans still goes to the races for the pure sport, and to make modest bets on the outcome, there are not enough of them to keep the sport healthy.
The real gamblers, and the addicted gamblers, crave faster action. And, it must be said, thoughtless action. Feeding a slot machine hour after hour no longer even requires a strong arm, just a finger to press a button. At the track, there are at least 20 minutes between races, time for the thoughtful bettor to study the past performances of the dozen or so runners in the next race. But too much time for the person who seeks instant highs or (most often) lows.
As a result, only the tracks that have been permitted to add slots or other forms of gambling to the mix are now doing well. New York is a good example, as is Florida and, yes, even Indiana, a former minor league state whose purses are now higher than Arlington Park’s. How’s that for indignity? Like so much in Illinois, Arlington has been left to wither – and will eventually die – because the legislature cannot even pass a budget, much less permit Arlington to add the gambling choices that would permit it to compete nationally for the best horses.
So, why not watch the Derby this Saturday, then think about spending an afternoon or two this summer at Arlington Park, or whatever race track my be near you. Have a leisurely lunch in the Million Room. Wander down to the paddock between races to have a look at the horses being saddled. Enjoy the architecture and landscaping of one of the most beautiful race tracks in the world. By all means, go down to the rail to watch a race or two, so you can see and hear these astonishing animals do what they were bred – and indeed love – to do. And hey, if you’re lucky, you might even win a buck or two.
Copyright 2016, Patrick F. Cannon