We’ll all have another, but the sad truth is that will be it. One more win and for the first time since 1978, horse racing will have a Triple Crown winner and then most of us can go back to forgetting about the sport.
This does not diminish the accomplishment of I’ll Have Another. Not by any stretch. There are few phrases that grab the attention of even the most accidental sports fan in the manner of Triple Crown, but horse racing has fallen so far out of the sports mainstream it takes the spectacular to grab the attention of anybody outside of its most ardent fans. Seriously: If you are less than 40 years of age, chances are pretty good that the name Seabiscuit resonates more than Secretariat, let alone Affirmed.
What happened Saturday at Pimlico when the Canadian-owned, American-bred, Mexican-driven horse caught and passed Bodemeister in the final strides to win the Preakness was the rest of us stood up and took notice. In three weeks time, I’ll Have Another gets a shot at the Belmont Stakes, with the opportunity to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Since then, 12 horses have gone on to win the first two legs before failing in the Belmont Stakes, and I’ll Have Another is the first since Big Brown in 2008.
Already, it has been suggested in some quarters that the success of I’ll Have Another could be some kind of tonic for Canada’s horse-racing industry, as if the horse’s success will suddenly make people want to go Woodbine or some other track. That’s doubtful.
No sports have fallen more out of the mainstream sports consciousness than horse racing and boxing, but while boxing’s demise can be traced to lousy governance – multiple organizations and titles started boxing’s downfall long before society started wondering about the moral health costs of the sport – horse racing fell out of the public consciousness not just because it has become anachronistic, but because legalized gambling gave punters more daily options. And that was before the popularity of “props” betting.
Horse racing is the Sport of Kings, yet how many kings do we have these days? It used to be the sport of sportswriters, too – but how many newspapers even have a horse-racing beat any more?
And so race tracks have had to market the hell out of themselves, and, in some cases, resort to B-list gimmickry to get people to come out. The peculiar attraction of slots, a bizarrely cynical form of gaming, has provided a sop, but the fact remains that few sports fans make race tracks a point of destination. You can gamble legally or illegally almost 24/7 without leaving your living room, and the daily narrative provided by professional sports – the crisscross of statistics and personalities – make it a preferred option.
None of that will change because of I’ll Have Another. The back story will be told and celebrated – a horse purchased for $35,000 by J.P. Reddam of Windsor, Ont., ridden by a Mexican-born jockey, Mario Gutierrez, who honed his craft at Vancouver’s Hastings Racecourse, trained by a man widely suspected of and under investigation for drugging horses (who knew “milk shaking” could be a bad thing?) in the person of Doug O’Neill.
It’s a classic underdog tale being spun in a sport of millionaires, and so for that reason it will take some doing to not watch the Belmont Stakes. You don’t need to understand the strategy or lingo or get the intricate relationship of horse to track to experience the thrill of muscle and flesh and speed any more than you need to be an expert to marvel at Usain Bolt, and in these cynical days of performance-enhancing substances there is the added “sausage factor”: the sport tastes good and looks good but we’re not certain we want to know all the ingredients that make it thus.
The truth is that when you cheer for the story, any sense of loss is quickly mitigated. It’s a shame, but that’s about it. I’ll Have Another is a horse we can all get behind, but will he be a transformational figure? Doubtful. For this sport, that horse left the barn a long time ago.