Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 2, 2010

A Day Of Spectacle For A Sport In Peril

Every first Saturday in May the center of the sports universe is Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. For the first time in their young lives, three year old thoroughbreds race over a distance of a mile and a quarter. It is a day of pageantry and drama, of sentiment and ladies in big hats. It is also a day on which a sadly fading industry begins its brief annual claim on the public’s attention.

For five weeks each spring the Triple Crown races come into American living rooms and remind us that horse racing was once a big time sport in many parts of the country. But once the eventual winner of the Belmont Stakes crosses the finish line in mid-June, racing will immediately drop from the consciousness of all but the most hard-core fan, with nothing more than a modest reemergence in the fall when the made-for-television Breeder’s Cup races are run.

I drove down to Suffolk Downs in East Boston yesterday. They were having a Derby Party at New England’s only remaining thoroughbred racing facility, so it was a chance to listen to some music, see the big race at Churchill Downs on a jumbotron, and witness the contrast between the tiny sliver of horse racing that is the royalty of the Derby, and the sad reality of the industry day to day.

Live racing starts in two weeks at Suffolk, which this year celebrates its 75th anniversary. As I walked from the parking lot it was clear that management is ready for a new season. The white rail fencing is freshly painted, as are the flagpoles from which flapped colorful ensigns. Inside, the clubhouse and grandstand were equally polished and buffed. Not that many fans seemed to be taking time to notice. All eyes were directed not at fresh coats of paint, but at the dozens, no hundreds of television monitors that are ubiquitous throughout the facility. On every screen is live simulcasting of racing from dozens of tracks across the country. As the horses turned for home at Pimlico, or Tampa Bay, or Arlington, shouts would rise from pockets of fans around Suffolk, urging their distant betting interest on to victory. In its dotage, the Downs has become a huge, hulking, and largely empty off-track betting parlor.

It was not always so. Suffolk Downs is home to the Massachusetts Handicap, in its heyday a graded stakes race that drew major talent from all around the country to East Boston. In the main betting hall beneath the grandstand, banners celebrating the winners of the MassCap hang from the ceiling. There are the flags for Seabiscuit and Triple Crown champion Whirlaway from the 1930’s and ‘40’s; further down hangs the banner celebrating Riva Ridge’s victory in 1973. And there are the two for the back-to-back wins by the great Cigar in 1995 and 1996, in the midst of his remarkable streak of sixteen consecutive triumphs. The ’96 race was run in front of more than 22,000 fans, the largest crowd ever to come through Suffolk Downs’ turnstiles.

But the MassCap has not even been run in four of the last seven years, with the track’s ownership unable to afford the considerable expense of staging a major stakes race. While the fate of this year’s race has not been announced, there is really no doubt about its eventual cancellation.

There are perhaps a couple of thousand people on hand today, wagering hard-earned dollars on distant races and waiting for the Derby. The onset of live racing in two weeks time may double that turnout, but it will do no more than that. Standing at one end of the virtually empty grandstand, big enough to easily fit a couple of football fields, the track’s grand history seems very distant indeed.

It is not just Suffolk Downs that faces a grim and uncertain future, it is the sport itself. The company that owns Pimlico, home to the Preakness, is in bankruptcy. The New York Racing Association spent much of the winter warning that it might not be able to stage the Belmont due to financial woes. Even Churchill Downs has marred the view of its majestic twin spires by installing light stanchions to enable nighttime racing, in the hopes of attracting a younger crowd. Aqueduct, The Big A itself, like so many tracks around the country, will likely remain in business only with the introduction of thousands of slot machines. That is a story line that is being repeated at tracks large and small all across the country. If the Massachusetts legislature eventually approves expanded gambling in the Bay State, it is almost certainly a story line that is part of Suffolk Down’s future.

But for two minutes on the first Saturday in May the uncertainty and doubt are set aside. On a trackside stage in front of the grandstand Joshua Tree, a local U2 tribute band, tells us that “It’s A Beautiful Day.” Perhaps half the crowd has come out in the open air to listen to the music, with the remainder in the clubhouse and in front of the various banks of televisions throughout the facility. Simulcasting from other tracks is suspended as all sets now switch over to the Derby.

Joshua Tree ends their set as the jumbotron, set up a few yards away near the finish line, shows the Churchill Downs bugler calling the horses to the post. With the music over the sound comes up on the broadcast just as the track announcer in Louisville is asking everyone to rise for the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home.” Amazingly, a thousand miles away in East Boston, everyone seated at picnic tables or on benches rises, and all talk ceases. It is as if the local horseplayers know full well that but for the hold that this sad old lament of a song and the race it heralds still have on the American public, the local oval would long since have become a shopping center or office park.

Cheers go up at the song’s conclusion, and again when the screen first shows the starting gate as the horses prepare to load. Then as mighty a roar as a thousand people can make as the gate springs open, and now everyone is shouting for their favorite to come to the front. In the end it is the Cajun jockey Calvin Borel, with another trademark ride hugging the rail, who guides Super Saver to victory. The win is Borel’s third Derby victory in the past four years and the first for trainer Todd Pletcher, who is particularly deserving. An accomplished trainer, Pletcher’s Derby record prior to today was 24 horses sent to the post without a single win.

With the Derby over for another year, some fans head for the parking lot while others return to the betting windows and the televisions. An announcement is made that live simulcasting will resume in fifteen minutes. As I turn to leave I notice two track workers, sweeping up discarded betting slips that litter the ground. Paper tokens of dashed hopes and broken dreams, appropriate symbols for the state of what was once The Sport of Kings.

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