As a run-up to this year’s Belmont Stakes and Justify’s attempt to win the Triple Crown let’s spend some time getting to know the rich, intense, wild, quirky secret world of horse racing.
Horse racing has a long history dating back to ancient Greek times as early as 648 BC. Horse racing was part of the Greek Olympics and the Roman Empire had chariot racing as a major industry with many deaths to rider and horse during these races.
In more recent times Rome would hold a race with twenty riderless horses which would race along the Via del Corso in the center of Rome.
Thoroughbred racing became very popular with the aristocracy in Great Britain which earned it the name “Sport of Kings”.
There are four types of racing including flat racing, jump or steeplechase racing, harness racing and endurance racing of up to 100 miles.
Each country and each track has its own character. I was amazed when I went to the track outside of Rome how the favorite snack to eat was olives. The Epsom racecourse in Surrey, England has severe gradients and uphill climbs.
In America, there is a wide variety of superb race tracks with the most beautiful being Saratoga in New York, Del Mar in California and Churchill Downs.
Perhaps the most famous film about racing was the 1937 classic “A Day at the Races” with Maureen O’Sullivan and the Marx Brothers and was filmed at Santa Anita Racetrack in California.
During the depression era racing dominated the American sports world along with boxing. The American sporting landscape had no NBA, no NFL, no Super Bowl and no PGA to distract the sports fan.
Gil Puentes who is a well-known horse owner invited me to spend a day at Belmont racetrack to get a more in-depth view of how things stand nowadays.
We were joined in the Trustee’s Room by Debbie Solimine who once ran the Turf and Field Club and also by Jimmy Ferraro who has trained horses for 41 years.
One of the most notable aspects of my conversation with them was how many stories this “Sport of Kings” offers up. The Trustee Room is this elegant wood-paneled restaurant with famous oil paintings on the walls, a wonderful view of the racetrack below and is the place where you may be rubbing elbows with Burt Bacharach, Woody Allen or even President Clinton.
Gil Puentes told me of the time he had lunch with John Forsthye, Debbie Solomine told me of how charming and sweet Bill Clinton was and Jimmy Ferraro told me of how Mickey Rooney loved to play the horses.
I have my own stories to tell as well. My family has been in the thoroughbred breeding and racing game for three generations.
One day when I was at Saratoga running our best horse, Dr. Carrington, I found myself chatting with Yogi Berra. And a few years later ago I found myself consoling MC Hammer in the Trustees Room after he lost a million dollar bet.
I still remember his all-white leather suit with a gold chain around his neck.
And that, of course, is the appeal and the essence of racing. It brings everyone together in one place.
My cousin said “the race track is the crossroads of the world. It’s just like the United Nations. Every day you see celebrities, politicians, the superrich and the common man all sitting together with one thing in common. They’re love of horse racing.”
Horseracing has a long history with gambling and that aspect of the sport generates about $115 billion per year worldwide.
Gambling is actually the least attractive and least compelling aspect of the game. The charm of the game includes the majestic beauty of the animals, the sound their hooves make as they race by, the roar of the crowd as the horses come thundering down the stretch.
Horse racing is compelling because of the look of the brave jockeys with their colorful silks. A day at the races has a leisurely feel to it as you sit and dine, chat for a bit, attempt to read the racing form, have a quick jaunt to the betting window and then keep your fingers crossed.
You can walk down to the paddock to get some fresh air and listen as the man says “Riders up!”
A waiter that I recognized from years back told me he missed the days when the stands were filled every weekend with 50,000 screaming fans. One may share that worry.
Where are the legends like Secretariat, Seattle Slew or Affirmed? Where have Eddie Arcaro or Willie Shoemaker gone?
Well it’s true that back in the 30’s racing did not have to contend with competition from the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, the PGA or the NHL.
Television and the phrase couch potato didn’t exist. Yes horse racing has seen better days but that does not mean it will disappear. There is simply too much beauty and excitement and social energy in this game for it to stay down too long. It has been with us one thousand years before the birth of Christ.
Three thousand years of pounding hooves and cheering crowds.
Someone once said there is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse so next week I will talk to some jockeys to discover what that secret is.
Just in time to watch Mike Smith whisper into the ear of Justify as they come thundering down the stretch at the Belmont Stakes. If you want to have some fun, get yourself and your family out to the races. And here’s a tip: go down to the paddock, stand by the rail and watch the jockeys and the owners as they walk by.
You just might catch a glimpse of Madonna, Justin Timberlake or Matt Damon behind those sunglasses. After all they’re just like you and me.
They love the excitement of racing, the colors worn by the jocks and the roar of the crowd as Justify comes thundering down the stretch.