Except maybe at Kentucky Derby time, which was postponed this year, thoroughbred horse racing is passé among most Americans these days. This was true before the pandemic, but the lockdown induces nostalgia for some of the older things. Cocktail lounges with a piano player in the corner instead of a television. Small-town opera companies. Newsrooms with wood floors, ceiling fans, and nonpartisan reporters. Standing along the homestretch rail with fellow travelers rooting your horse across the finish line.
Going to the racetrack -- and playing the ponies -- was an American rite since Colonial days.
In the 1950s, more Americans attended the races than any other sport. As recently as 1982, attendance at the nation's 92 sanctioned thoroughbred tracks topped 56 million people.
Not anymore. Today, there are fewer tracks, fewer horses, and fewer fans.
The competition is bracing: Football is king, and Americans watch most of their sports on television. Sports gambling is becoming legal -- this was always a big part of the draw for horse racing -- and land developers can entice racetrack owners with unheard-of paydays for their sprawling facilities. In California, where I grew up, Bay Meadows is gone, as is legendary Hollywood Park, which was razed in 2014 to make room for a new NFL stadium and casino complex. How much longer can Los Alamitos hold out down in Orange County? What about Pimlico, where during the flu pandemic of 1918, Maryland racing fans donned face masks to see the marvelous Exterminator run?
Other forces are at work, including animal rights activists who've convinced themselves that racing is cruel, notwithstanding the fact that the 30,000 thoroughbreds foaled each year in this country would have no reason to come into existence except for racing. Doping scandals haven't helped. The Washington Post seized on one recent example to call for banning the sport, an editorial so extreme and misguided that I'll save my objections for a separate column. But it wasn't only nanny state scolds who noticed the appalling number of equine deaths in the past year at Santa Anita. It was alarming to horse people, too. Hopefully the problems at that track have been solved. Post time for the first race today is 12:30 p.m., California time. I hope all the horses -- and the riders -- will be safe today, and in the days to come.
Ah, yes, the riders. When racing became deeply embedded in the psyche of this country, more people rode horses themselves or had parents and grandparents back on the farm who did. In today's urbanized America, fewer and fewer people have any kind of horse connection to fall back on, even one that was mostly atavistic.
"Horse people" still live among us, however. Quite simply, these are human beings who are born to ride. They have an intense need to be in the presence of horses. In 1992, Cormac McCarthy described this passion in "All the Pretty Horses." In the following passage, 16-year-old John Grady Cole is riding with his father across open country in Texas.
"The boy who rode on slightly before him sat a horse not only as if he'd been born to it which he was but as if were he begot by malice or mischance into some queer land where horses never were he would have found them anyway. Would have known that there was something missing for the world to be right or he right in it and would have set forth to wander wherever it was needed for as long as it took until he came upon one and he would have known that that was what he sought and it would have been."
And that's your quote of the week.
Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.