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The Trouble With Horse Racing

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Have we, as a nation, lost our bearings? Have we lost all sense of proportion? The jubilation and near-hysterical levels of enthusiasm in response to American Pharoah winning horse racing’s Triple Crown were not only wretchedly excessive, they were nutty.

Yes, people will point out that, until American Pharoah did it last weekend, no horse had won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes, all in the same year, not since 1978, when Affirmed did it. Wonderful.

Except that the moment the race was over, we began hearing nothing but economic news. We instantly began hearing how valuable this horse will be once he is put out to stud. Money. It was all about money. Potential earnings, return on equity, future profits.

Consider: When Miguel Cabrera won the “real” Triple Crown, in 2012 (the one in baseball, the one that requires genuine athletic talent and isn’t joined at the hip to pari-mutuel wagering), it hadn’t been done for 45 years, not since 1967, when Carl Yastrzemski led the league in batting average, homers, and RBI.

Now that’s a real achievement, one done by a human being and not by a horse or trained dog. Nothing against animals, mind you. I’ve watched the Kentucky Derby and I’ve watched the Westminster Dog Show, and have been amused, if not overly worked-up, by both. But those aren’t “sporting events.”

Moreover, after Cabrera won his Triple Crown, you didn’t hear the media get all dollars-and-sense about it. You didn’t hear broadcasters speculate about how much more money Cabrera could expect to earn now that he had accomplished this milestone.

If we want to celebrate something significant being done after a long dry spell, let’s at least hold out for an impressive “human” event, something that doesn’t involve animals. Let’s hold out for something memorable, like seeing the perennially disappointing Chicago Cubs win a World Series, or the Detroit Lions appear in a Super Bowl.

Or wait for the next American citizen to be named World Chess Champion. That formidable feat hasn’t been accomplished since 1975, when Bobby Fischer won the crown. And chess, baseball and football—unlike horse racing—don’t owe their existence to gambling. Unlike horse racing, which would shrivel up and die without the gambling, these games would flourish even with no money being wagered.

And not to get all self-righteous or “socially conscious” here, but speaking of the Kentucky Derby, what do we see when we observe that lavish spectacle? What do we see when we behold this historic horse race held in a nest of the former Confederacy?

We see a vast ocean of white faces. We see money. We see rich white people—wealthy, mint julep-drinking, white men and women, tricked out in their finest antebellum duds, harkening us back to all that was weird and glorious about Plantation Life. And then, just when we think we’ve had enough, they go and sing, “My Old Kentucky Home.”

No one is suggesting we ban horse racing, or curtail it, or boycott it. After all, wagering on horses is as American as apple strudel. And if a network wants to milk a two-and-a-half minute horse race for three hours, that’s their prerogative. They’re the ones paying for the commercial time.

But before people mindlessly gush over a horse race, they should ask themselves why they care. Unless they have money riding on it, what does it matter? And given that Pharoah went off at 3 to 5 odds (meaning you had to risk $50 to win $30), his victory was something of an anti-climax. A 37-year drought or not, he was the prohibitive favorite.

David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book, “Nightshift: 270 Factory Stories,” will be published in June. He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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David Macaray is a playwright and author. His newest book is How To Win Friends and Avoid Sacred Cows.  He can be reached at dmacaray@gmail.com

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