The answers are nothing and nothing. Next year at this time, we’ll probably be all ga-ga again about some horse going for the big prize again. It will be a beast we will not have known existed back in March, but his — or, perhaps, her — name will be on every tongue and lead every sports page. A huge crowd will pack Belmont again, and television ratings will soar.
And, win or lose, at the end of the race, the sport will go back to the fringe it’s occupied for more than a generation.
As far as the general public is concerned, this is horse racing: three races that begin in early May and end in mid-June. It’s an event, a celebration, a rite of spring that’s deeply embedded in the culture. It has a life of its own, powered by habit that’s downloaded into our consciousness at such an early age that it’s part of our mental operating system.
The rest of the year is important to the sliver of the public who are true believers. They can get all cranked up about the Breeders’ Cup, but the rest of us aren’t. The only way more people are ever going to go to the track is if the industry installs more slot machines and gaming tables there, not because some horse won three races for the first time in 30 years and then retired to stud.
Horse racing once was a major sport, but now it’s like gymnastics or table tennis or figure skating — something that has its own fervent band of fervent followers but that is ignored by the general public until the Olympics. Soccer’s like that, too. It has a dedicated fan base and even gets mainstream coverage, but for most Americans, it exists during the World Cup, then fades back into its own niche.
The Triple Crown itself exists more because it always has. It’s like Christmas. Even atheists and agnostics and Buddhists put up trees and exchange gifts, because it’s a fun thing to do. Christianity could disappear tomorrow, and we’d still have Christmas on Dec. 25. That’s the way it is with horse racing and the Triple Crown. Come May, there’s the Kentucky Derby, and why would you want to pass on a day like that? Ladies play dress-up, gentlemen wear straw hats, everybody drinks mint juleps, and tens of thousands of kids guzzle beer and run around the infield with their shirts off. It’s an excuse to engage in a ritual of fun and frolic.
And when a horse wins, the automatic circuits start firing. Can it win the Triple Crown? People who couldn’t even name the three races that comprise it ask the question as if it’s of cosmic significance.
Horse racing the sport — the part that exists out of the public’s consciousness — can get hurt when horses die in public. But the Triple Crown keeps drawing attention and crowds. It would be the same if Big Brown had won the Belmont. Everybody would say it’s a big boost for horse racing, but darned few of the people who tuned in would be running to the track the next weekend for more action. They might tune into the Breeders’ Cup if Big Brown was running, but it wouldn’t mean that much, because the race isn’t part of our cultural circuitry.
Most of the discussion in the aftermath of Oxbow's Preakness victory involved either explaining away why Orb lost or downplaying why Oxbow won. But Oxbow was plenty impressive.
Trainer Shug McGaughey is still thinking Belmont Stakes for his Kentucky Derby winner after Orb galloped a mile Thursday morning at Belmont Park.
Reactions to Big Brown's loss
June 8: Kent Desormeaux, Richard Dutrow, Nick Zito and others talk about the Belmont Stakes.
Triple Crown winners
The horses that have won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in the same year.
Derby Day finery
Fashion statements fill Churchill Downs as race fans display their hats.