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The Belmont Stakes, in which American Pharoah broke the spell of 37 years and won the Triple Crown, was such an historic and otherworldly event that it's taken me a full two weeks to process it.
Speaking with a friend yesterday and others during the past 15 days, my experience is not uncommon. Apparently only those people who are clear-headed enough to hold jobs in which they must write on-demand for deadlines have had the wherewithal to pen reports and observations about the events that unfolded on June 6, 2015 at Belmont Park.
While I'm very close to being able to sit down and tell readers everything that took place that day--in my world, in my head--I'm not there yet.
But the topic about which I am ready to write--once again--is the marketing of horse racing. How not to do it, and yes, to whom and how it should be done.
I'm inspired to write this based on things that I witnessed on Belmont Stakes Day, in-person, and a totally-unscientific (yet revealing) marketing experiment that I conducted that day at Belmont Park.
Based on what I witnessed that day, two things were confirmed for me:
1) The attempt to market horse racing to young people (late teens, and 20-somethings) via electronic devices and video games is the same as trying to ride a horse, facing the tail.
Ass-backward, and just plain wrong.
2) Arrogance of youth and "progress" notwithstanding--just being at a race track does not make one a race fan, any more than a cat having kittens in an oven makes them, biscuits. It's still necessary to teach them why they should be there--and that WHY is and always will be--The Horse...
So it's Preakness Day 2015, and everyone in horse racing who writes or even scribbles with a crayon will spend the day watching-writing-waiting-writing about the horses, the jockeys, the owners, the crowd, the flowers, the hats, the fun.
Proverbial inkwells will dry up if American Pharoah wins the Preakness, and heads his van up 95 to Belmont.
I have nothing to contribute to the coverage of the Preakness, on Preakness Day. I'm not a handicapper--if anything, I'm an anti-capper. (I bet horses based on a vibe, or if the horse has kissed me, etc. Ask me about Adios Nardo sometime. Right, Wren?) ;)
No, the topic of my diatribe today will be none-other than continued misogyny in horse racing. But I promise to narrow it down to this particular day, in this particular place.
Today, kids, we're going to discuss the inappropriateness of bikini contests at the Preakness.
Now is the time to stop reading if you think that I'm just ridiculous to care...
By now, everyone in horse racing knows that Olympics medalist, Alpine skier, Bode Miller has announced his intention to become a Trainer of Thoroughbreds. That's nice.
I've read everything I can about his thoughts on the subject, because I don't want to write this Open Letter to Mr. Miller and come across as being, well, judgmental.
I want to be fair, of course: I understand his passion for the sport. And no one understands his love for horses more than I. But there's a big gap between being a lover of horses and becoming a Trainer. If love for the animals and the sport could make one a Trainer, I'd have had my license 50 years ago.
So, sans any more ado, here are my thoughts, written as a letter to Mr. Miller. (Everyone who's not Bode Miller is invited to read, of course.)...
For 11 years now, I've ranted, cajoled and begged for the world of horse racing to See it This Way, that women must participate fully in the sport in order for it to grow and thrive--both in the United States and elsewhere around the world. (I must note here that this argument applies only to Thoroughbred horse racing, for it appears that in the world of Arabian horse racing--misogyny and gender exclusion is noticeably absent.)
I awoke this morning at 4AM because words were going through my head, as happens too often. The words pummeled my brain and invaded my sleep until finally two hours later, yawning and all watery-eyed, I surrendered, got up and turned on the computer.
I have a story to tell you, and this story must be told in order for the title of this article to make sense. It's a very personal story--one that very few people know. It almost frightens me, the thought of sharing this story with anyone--never mind, with the entire Universe, via Internet. But apparently it's important, or the words wouldn't have assaulted me with the intent of being written down with a specific purpose.
Aware of the fact that you, my readers, are viewing this on the Internet--and therefore, are part of the generations of humans who glean information virtually--I'll keep this as brief as possible. I need to think that you get through the story, in order to understand truly the moral of the tale.
Unfortunately, that means that there's a trade involved: In order to shorten the story to a length that won't drive you away--I'll have to use some words that are unsavory. Not "dirty" or socially unacceptable--but rather words that challenge the Great American Denial of Mortality.
Please read this article to the end. If you skim it, you won't get the full meaning, and you need to understand the message here. Horse racing in general needs to Get It, and we can't Get Something--Anything--if we don't fully understand.
So read on--take your time, work with me here, folks. This story and the moral at the end are worth your time and energy...
The curtain has come down.
The Saratoga race meet is over.
Tom Durkin has left the building.
For all intents and purposes, now it is the Autumn Racing Season, and with it come Belmont, Keeneland, Breeders' Cup, etc.
So today's the first day of going back to Business as Usual. No more sultry Saratoga nights. No more parties, and running into friends I haven't seen in years.
No more gentle amusement every time I hear Lily, the pygmy goat, bleat.
No more gentleness, at all. As the camaraderie of the backstretch and Lily's plaintive requests for attention slip away with the last Summer breezes, we begin to hunker down for Winter.
Autumn is the transition time, that gracious space in-between the blood-boiling heat of Summer's many lusty conquests and the same blood, freezing dead-still in your veins.
Along with the bright orange, red and yellow leaves and the crisp Autumn air comes the b***h-slap of Reality. And today that Reality beat me out of my nostalgia for Saratoga, and headlong into the painful realization that the Suffragist movement hasn't yet made it to American horse racing, for we women get virtually NO vote. And you know it's true...
On Saturday I had the privilege of hanging in the Saratoga (Race Course) backstretch with two friends: a dear grrrlfriend and her horse-loving, 10-year-old daughter. (I'm not giving their names, because they know their names and you don't need to.)
My friend and I sat in our lawn chairs near our picnic table in the hour-or-so before the races, and her little one sat at the table, her back to the track. Her back was toward the track, but in front of her lie the pony stalls and scores of barns. The constant clip-clop of horses walking all around filled the air: outriders on their ponies, horses walking to the paddock. And the neighing and nickering of all of those beautiful, sublime creatures.
And our little friend? She was fiddling with her Mother's iPhone, joyously seeking something. She found it! Happily, she held aloft the phone and showed us: "Look! A picture of a horse!"
I just heard that, when Suffolk Downs starting gate flung open for the first time in 1935--35,000 people were there for Opening Day.
Wow, Suffolk Downs must've had a great Facebook page. No doubt, they tweeted every five minutes. Their webmaster was a genius.
Their--oh, no. Wait. What's that, you say?
Suffolk Downs got 35,000 human beings onto their new racetrack in 1935, when newspapers, radio and word-of-mouth were the only media available to the masses?
How the heck did they do that? How could 35,000 people hear about the opening of a new track without all the modern technologies that lead us by our collective noses in 2014?
(In our 21st Century, geek-culture-centric heads, too many of you wonder: "...sans smartphones, iPads, notebook computers, clouds and 164" TV screens--how did people hear about ANYthing?")
And further--if people did read the newspaper; listen to the radio or hear it from a neighbor--what motivated them to travel by the T (Boston public transit)--by foot--a few cars--to pilgrimage to the new track?
Hay, oats and water for thought...
The sport of horse racing never will grow--doesn't have a snowball's chance in Hell of finding its way back to the glory days of the 1930s--as long as racing organizations and media continue to attempt to win new fans by putting the emphasis on wagering.
The phrase, "horse racing," begins with the word, "horse." This is the only logical place from which to grow a healthy fanbase of lifelong fanatics.
NYRA--the New York Racing Association--is starting a brilliant new program this summer in Saratoga, and it's a concept that will grab young hearts; inspire imagination and grow the sport, from the ground, up...
I've written about the NYRA starting gate crew in the past, including here at Saratoga.com.
I believe that previous missives have been "love letters," so to speak. Gushy and full of admiration for the Cowboys of Horse Racing.
But tonight I'm writing about them--but to you, my readers, specifically.
If you're reading this, you're probably a fan of horse racing. Ergo, chances are pretty great that on June 7th you'll be either a) at Beautiful Belmont Park or b) glued to your TV or computer screen, watching every minute of the action.
But are you catching ALL the action? Might you be at the races or otherwise watching with new fans? Friends who don't know all the people who make racing happen?
Do me a favor. Do yourself a favor--and your new-fan friends a favor--and watch carefully the actions, facial expressions and intense professionalism exhibited by the NYRA Gate Crew. Theirs is never an easy job--and God knows, on Belmont Stakes Day, with the Triple Crown on the line (AGAIN), they'll have challenges that happen no other day of the year.
But the challenges aren't necessarily what you think...
If you read that title and thought that I have a clue about what will happen--well, sorry.
I have no clue.
I've been at Belmont and wept big, sloppy tears when Funny Cide and Smarty Jones lost their bids for the Triple Crown. Like a woman who's loved and lost too many times, I can't afford once again to hang my emotions on a Triple Crown hopeful, then spend three hours after a loss, crying on the paddock patio.
It would be nice if Chrome wins the Triple Crown. It's not necessary, but it would be nice.
Don't expect to see me crying like a little girl during the next three weeks. I won't spend one minute of time nodding and agreeing that I'll lose my mind if he doesn't win. I won't have a psychotic break if Ride on Curlin or another great horse crosses that line first. I'm not emotionally invested, because...it's a horse race. It's not called, "a sure thing," and it shouldn't be. This is about gladiators, duking it out to see who's The Best that day.
All I know--and all you know--is that Chrome will have a bull's-eye on the back of his head. Those other horses will be there to beat him.
Last night a friend suggested that, basically, that it would be nice if "they" let him win.
That's was cute, but it's naive, to think that trainers and owners would fly their horses into Belmont--spend all that money, energy and emotion--just to let California Chrome win. That sacrificing their own careers and the health and careers of their own steeds would be worth it, in order to have a Triple Crown winner.
Question: How valid would be that victory for Chrome and his team? Answer: It would be no victory, at all...