Yesterday, over at the home page of the mother ship, SBNation.com, there was a post asking the question as to whether it was appropriate for grown men to wear jerseys at sporting events. (Personally, I've always liked the official jersey and even have a couple in my closet but they haven't seen the light of day in a long, long time...one of them might have the old trident Mariners logo). After reading some of the responses I attempted to think of an analogous situation between adults wearing jerseys at sporting events and something that would occur at the track and I couldn't come up with anything. The only uniforms in horse racing are jockey silks and I can't ever envision the day where there is somebody sitting in his living room in a WinStar Farm replica silk cheering for every WinStar horse in the country. ("Come on, WinStar!!!!")
Attempting to compare the nature of fandom crystallized the idea that following the sport of horse racing is significantly different than following any other sport in America. And while one part of the equation is clearly the gambling aspect of the sport, that really isn't the prime distinction. If you really want to, you can bet on any sporting event in the country...it might not be entirely legal (depending on where you're at), but you can do it. The gambling aspect, however, does drive the rabidness of our fandom and creates capriciousness in our following of certain horses, trainers and jockeys. We can be the biggest Bob Baffert/Garrett Gomez fans on the planet but if we think we can win more money by betting on another trainer/jockey, we'll drop them in a heartbeat. Julien Leparoux is my favorite jockey at the present time, but at the end of the year I probably only bet on a horse that he's riding about 2% of the time...if that.
Beyond the wagering, the thing that separates horse racing from other sports is that the fan doesn't have a single team or entity to direct their passion and support towards on a yearly basis. This lack of a single entity to attach ourselves to is both benefit and a curse of the game.
When we look at popular teams in other sports we find fans that have "lived and died" with their team over years and years (Yankees, Cubs, Red Sox, Bears, Maple Leafs, etc). They stick through their team in the low times in the hopes that, one day, they'll be rewarded with the crowning achievement in the game, a championship. With racing, the truly great horses, the ones that people flock to an follow on a daily, monthly or yearly basis, those animals usually only run for a couple of years until they are sent to the breeding shed. And even if a horse isn't retired early, their career span will probably be a maximum of seven or eight years...and that's only if they are some kind of freak of nature, like Cigar or John Henry. The truth is, the stars of horse racing quickly come and go, making it difficult for fans to identify with them from year to year.
One the positive side, at your local track you've got a new team to cheer for every 35 minutes. If you're simulcasting multiple tracks, you can have a new team every five to ten minutes, making it much easier to get over a devastating defeat. When your NFL team suffers a heartbreaking loss on Sunday, you'll have to wait a week, or even the whole off-season, before you can find redemption. If you suffer a devastating loss in a horse race? Grab the form and jump back on board cause there's nothing that removes the bitter taste of defeat like cashing a ticket in the next race. Sure, a bad day at the track can linger with you for a while, but not in the same way as watching your team get swept out of the ALCS, or losing the Super Bowl. There is always another race right around the corner.
One other significant difference in horse racing from other sports: I don't have to listen to the stars of horse racing shoot their mouths off to the media. Horses don't get busted for drunk driving. They don't beat-up their wives. They don't try to tell me that they've found religion or spout political rhetoric. They don't get caught with underage girls, or fail to pay child support, or get pulled over with an AK-47 in the back of their Hummer. How can you not love a sport where the stars don't have massive, overinflated views of their own self-worth?
(I suppose I shouldn't harp too much on the sex point since by virtue of his win in the Kentucky Derby, Super Saver has ensured himself years and years of guilt-free, no-strings-attached sex...of which the females will be paying him to perform. But I digress.)
When Secretariat was running away from the field in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, he didn't turn around to taunt and showboat to the rest of the field as he neared the finish line. Once the race was over, he walked to the winner circle, got his picture taken, and then went to his stall to eat some hay and oats. Horses just go to the track and do what they love to do every single time out, and that's run.
Even the people within the game that do get to talk to the media (trainers, owners and jockeys) don't normally spout off like we see in other sports. And unlike baseball, football, and all other sports, you don't make money if you fail to perform each and every day. If Bob Baffert's horses go 0-for the year, Bob can't fall back on a big fat five year guaranteed contract that he signed after winning a Derby. Ditto for the jockeys, who have to go out and grind out a living each and every day at the track. If you ain't winning, you ain't livin'.
The sport of horse racing is certainly not without it's problems: drugs, cheating, and nefarious characters have always been a part of the game...but that pretty much puts it on par with the rest of the sporting world. In the end, however, whenever the realities of the general sports world get me down due to inflated egos and prima donna athletes, I find sanctuary in the sport of horse racing.