What’s up with horse racing?

The Belmont Stakes is coming up this weekend, why is horse racing so popular in America?

This Saturday at the Belmont Stakes I’ll Have Another will try attempt to become the twelfth horse in history to win the Triple Crown, which consists of the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes. Well, the horse itself won’t really be trying to win it’s third race, he’ll really just be running in a big circle with a bunch of his buddies daydreaming about sugar cubes while his jockey and financial backers try to drug him to victory. Regardless, it’ll only be a few more days until we all can stop pretending to care about a horse race until next year.

For all the hype and primetime commercials there’s one question ESPN producers and talk show hosts seem to always forget to ask, does anyone care? There is something beautiful about watching a horse sprint over the finish line but the sport itself is a stuffy affair that seems to be more about audience members being seen in big hats over the race. When it comes to snooty white people sports horse racing beats the golf pants off the PGA.

There’s an argument that football has become the biggest sport in America because of gambling. While that certainly hasn’t hurt, it’s more likely that audiences gravitate toward the NFL because of its beautiful combination of strategy and violence. Gambling is probably the biggest advertisement of horse racing, but with all the attention on concussions in football and hockey of late it wouldn’t be unreasonable to think some of that concern would spill over into a sport where big dumb animals are regularly pumped full of steroids. In that sense, playing the ponies is more akin to playing fantasy baseball than football.

Last month NPR published an article that brings some of horseracing’s open secrets to light. It’s another indictment of how greed totally trumps common sense and decency when there’s a big paycheck on the line.

On average, 24 horses a week die at racetracks in the United States. Many horses that break down run with injuries masked by injected painkillers…They report that since 2009, more than 6,600 horses have broken down or showed signs of injury. An additional 3,800 horses have tested positive for illegal drugs. That figure underestimates the problem because few horses are tested for substances. At least 3,600 horses have died either racing or training at state-regulated tracks.”

That report, coupled with the cancellation of HBO’s Luck because of the death of three horses during filming, doesn’t seem to have hurt the sports image in the eyes of the public. According to the Nielsen ratings, this year’s Kentucky Derby attracted 14.8 million viewers, good enough for third place out of the last 23 years. That might be because it’s so fun, though. Nobody wants to think about the corruption or animal abuse when they watch the race. Back in 1970, Hunter S. Thompson took that sense of enjoyment and the folks at Grantland were good enough to republish his 1970 essay titled, “The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved.”

It’s the essay Thompson was given the name “Gonzo” for. It’s the story of the first time he and now famous Thompson artist Ralph Steadman met and turned their coverage of the Kentucky Derby into a sloppy, drunken weekend. This clip sums it up best:

“…And unlike most of the others in the press box, we didn’t give a hoot in hell what was happening on the race track. We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.”

Instead of typing up the sports report he was assigned, Thompson invented the style of writing he’d eventually become legendary for. He reported on everything but the race itself, spending the weekend absolutely plastered and describing how all the spectators at the derby were fat inbreeds.

I had picked up a spray can of Mace in a downtown drugstore for $5.98 and suddenly, in the midst of that phone talk, I was struck by the hideous possibilities of using it out at the track. Macing ushers at the narrow gates to the clubhouse inner sanctum, then slipping it quickly inside, firing a huge load of Mace into the governor’s box, just as the race starts. Or Macing helpless drunks in the clubhouse restroom, for their own good…”

Even if it’s not the Super Bowl or even the Masters, maybe there’s something sacred about winning the Triple Crown. Still, something tells me Hunter Thompson probably had it right.

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