The first week of February provides a double dose of American sporting traditions. The first, obviously, is the lead-up to this Sunday's Super Bowl, the crown jewel of televised sports events in the country. The Super Bowl isn't just a hugely popular TV event; it's the highest rated program on American TV every single year, and by a wide margin. The week leading up to the Super Bowl is filled with press conferences, interviews, media days, and a wide assortment of talking heads providing their opinion on the "big game".
The second tradition that occurs this week is the annual college football signing day, a day where grown men (and women, but mainly men) religiously follow where legions of 17 and 18-year-old kids will decide to play football over the next four years. During this period, the kids stage press conference and assemblies at their high schools and pick a hat off of a table representing the university of their choice, all to the roar (or groans) of the fans following along at home. The scene plays out relatively the same every year and has only become more popular as time goes on.
I consider myself a pretty big all-around sports fan; I follow baseball, the NFL, college football and basketball, and many other sports on a regular basis. However, over the last ten years, I've found myself tuning out much of the noise surrounding the traditional sports. I suppose it's a sign of age when you become something of a curmudgeon, but regardless, while I still enjoy watching live sporting events, I've grown tired of the pomp and circumstance surrounding many of them. While ten years ago I would watch ESPN's SportsCenter on a daily basis, I now avoid it like the plague. Pre-game shows, post-game shows, athlete interviews... lather, rinse, repeat. How many times can you listen to a sports figure spout the same tired clichés?
The two national events taking center stage this week provided a moment for me to reflect on many of the things that I find appealing about the sport of horse racing. In many ways, horse racing provides an escape from the media crush and the self-promotion that dominates the stars in other sports.
I made note of this on Twitter yesterday, but I feel it bears repeating - one of the things I love about horse racing is that the stars of the sport don't talk. Zenyatta never demanded to be traded, nor did Rachel Alexandra desire a new contract. Curlin didn't promote himself on an hour-long made-for-TV event to announce where he would be "taking his talents", and John Henry never shoved a cameraman down that was trying to interview him on the street. (Uh, well, maybe that's a bad example; old John would take your fingers off if he wasn't in the mood.)
When you look at where horse racing fits into the larger landscape of American sports, it probably hurts the popularity of the sport that fans can't as easily connect to the stars. A great horse might run seven or eight times in a season, which would pencil out to maybe 16 minutes of actual race time. The rest of the time they are in their stall or galloping under the faint morning light, far away from the eyes of the fans. Compare that to stars in other sports that are in the public view almost endlessly throughout the season. I have no doubt that these factors make it more difficult for the casual fan to connect to the sport.
Now, to be fair, horse racing also provides interviews with relevant figures, most notably the trainers and the jockeys, and they certainly can fall into the same cliché trap as those in other sports. But I find there is a big difference between the media crush in the horse racing world compared to that in other sports: the trainers and the jockeys aren't the stars.
There is simplicity in horse racing, and with the horse itself. The animal runs because that's what it is made to do. It runs for us, but it runs just the same. Turn it out into a field, it will run. The jockey falls off as the gate opens, the horse still runs. Whether there are 500 people in the stands or 50,000, they run. Their performance doesn't have to do with contracts, playing time, or how many endorsements are coming their way. Instead, it's the result of talent, condition, desire and heart. Penny Chenery one time described Secretariat's race in the 1973 Belmont Stakes as a moment in time where "he just felt like running; that was the day he felt terrific."
Most horse racing fans will tell you that they are a different type of fan. In many ways, that's very true. While most of us follow other sports outside of horse racing (sometimes religiously), this sport offers many a relief from the things that wear you down with sports like football, baseball, or basketball. For all of horse racing's faults, the sport remains a place where you can escape to the simplicity of extraordinary animals doing what they do best. And that's a good thing.