J.N. Campbell: The Sport of Themes...Horse Racing’s Inheritance

The crisis surrounding the Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit, can be explained by examining its broader roots and its implications. J.N. Campbell comments on how inheritance could be the key. Read his argument below ...
The crisis surrounding the Kentucky Derby winner, Medina Spirit, can be explained by examining its broader roots and its implications. J.N. Campbell comments on how inheritance could be the key. Read his argument below ...

When is passion for the Thoroughbred at its apex? Depends on who you ask ... During the past week and a half, that point arrived en masse. During what was supposed to be the march up a veritable equine Everest, the horse racing world in North America found itself in the middle of a quagmire. Medina Spirit was and will continue to be ... at the center. For only the 2nd time in 147 years, a Kentucky Derby Champion’s win is facing extinction for a drug violation. Even though it was a “sanctioned” therapeutic remedy to alleviate pain, it was Bob Baffert’s lack of oversight that sent this story into the media stratosphere.

Blame could be cast widely, but whether the HOF trainer wanted to admit it or not, the onus was partly on him. With the story plastered everywhere by all the major news outlets it felt like, once again, they had caught the racing world unaware. Capitalizing on its own hypocrisy took centerstage. Mainstream sportswriters (i.e. USA Today) who cover the Big Four (NFL/NBA/MLB/NHL), and former Pulitzer Prize-winning pen people (i.e. The New Yorker) got in on the action, as they sprinted down the publication lane, to expose, explain, and uncover. The game was afoot, and none of these journalists were going to miss out on headlines that included the exploitation of a Derby-winning colt.

In May, the Triple Crown Season allegorically feels like Christmas or Easter once the calendar springs forward. This is pervasive when it comes to media coverage and public awareness of its existence, that is. Like Christian ecclesiastical settings, no matter the denomination, in the post-war era there continues to be a slow, agonizing struggle to combat attrition rates—i.e. physical bodies in seats. Likewise, the percentage of Americans that are socially aware that Thoroughbred racing is a year-round occurrence is decidedly declining, seemingly by the minute. Questions as simple as, “When is the next horse race?” makes many think horology—the study and measurement of time—doesn’t apply in this case.

Speculation and some “pieced” quantitative evidence, reminds that culpability ranges somewhere around voter turnout for Presidential elections back in the 80s and 90s—30% . . . quite low. This phenomenon continues to be well-documented; beyond the "Outer Rim," little else matters to the popular imagination. It is the Triple Crown and maybe, the Breeders' Cup? Racing appears to be rather like the architecture of a modern church; with its pews, chairs, and benches filled on “major” days, but every other “regular” Sunday, the interest is represented with a mild yawn. Speaking as both a turfwriter and as an amateur horologist, I marvel on an annual basis over this general lack of cognizance. To put it another way, it is striking that a sport, unlike almost any of the others, runs year-round—unbeknownst to most. I have dreamed of action by the collective who form a cadre passion.

Maybe their infectious love of the animals and competition could address such concerns, but how? With what tactics? How could such an argument be formed or couched in the current climate, which is blustery to say the least?

Contradiction continues to stymie and abound in what is looking more and more like an ancient and decrepit sport. The racetrack, as scholars like Katherine Mooney and Holly Kruse have documented in their work on the 19th and 20th centuries respectively, is full of both the vibrancy of the human spirit and social levelling, along with a vast chasm between those that are the Übermensch (elites) and those that are not—i.e. include ... jockeys, trainers, and all other connections.

The state of “The Sport of Kings” has become “The Sport of Themes.” Swimming against them at times is insurmountable. When it comes to those tropes, most would agree, that no one wants to see or hear about horses dying on or near a racetrack. No bloody noses either, but they don’t like the thought of something as sinister as the preventive Lasix. Likewise, pondering where all the “retired” racehorses go once their days on the track are complete is a double edge. If we could just have more stories like CBS Sunday Morning did last week on organizations like “Old Friends,” the famed equine geriatric community in Kentucky, then all will be well. Again, contradiction is a tough master ...

To my eye, the best means to explain what happened with Medina Spirit at the Derby, and the aftermath, which is still ongoing, is to move from a micro-perspective to a macro one. Why has the sport exposed itself to media exploitation in a situation such as this, you ask? Won’t poor responses by individuals like the befuddled Baffert, further complicate drawing new and younger fans into the fold, when the appearance of rampant cheating is present?

The final problem lies in what the blog-scholar Balaji Srinivasan calls uncovering the power behind “Founding vs. Inheriting.” In a recent post on the site 1729, he explained this juxtaposition with an intriguing set of ideas. Institutions, he said which still had the “founder(s)” present have numerous advantages over those which were run by inheritors—that is people who did not necessarily assist in setting up the original organization. In other words, if you are a part of something from the beginning, you might be in a better position to innovate, and flexible enough to respond to a crisis. Srinivasan uses a variety of examples, but his “Read-Only” one is compelling. Though a factory, he says, might be run by the same management as it was under the founder, something is silently lost, namely first principles. It is like partial bilingualism ... you have the ability to understand a language, but not speak or write it. As time moves forward, the access to say, the written word, is eventually lost. Cultural values are lost and cannot be replicated. An inheritance then can never be created, only repeated.

That is precisely what Thoroughbred racing in North America has allowed to happen. Marching forward, its identity was continually bedfellows with forces that were decidedly inherited. Fits and starts didn’t help along the way, drug scandals are not a new phenomenon, as mainstream articles have pointed out, ad nauseum. It was the demise of key foundations, those that built the racetracks, served on state racing commissions, and bred champions on famous farms ... many of those have long run cold. Their memories and legacies remain though, and they could be of use. Initial principles, the framework laid, can only be of importance if it can morph and change over time. As Srinivasan reminds us, it is about the flow, which could be everything under the sun from understanding manufacturing to replenishing the zeal for words. If the next generation is not using it, they are losing it.

For our uses here, Thoroughbreds are genetically part of the same bloodlines, and this is well-documented. But the humans that are training, owning, and even wagering on them are too. Their pedigreed passions run deep, providing both a blessing and a curse. They are all inheritors of the past, and that is precisely why racing has become all about the Triple Crown in the popular imagination. Marketing, by some, has reigned supreme. There is nothing else. Broadcasts on television, which used to be vernacular (before the 1960s) are seemingly impossible to find, despite the existence of sites like RTN. Paying for streaming has become ubiquitous, but depositing funds to watch horse racing is not even close to being mainstream. NBC and Fox both have their “Teams,” but they pale in comparison to other sports where betting has become the province of online powerhouses like Draft Kings, MGM, and Fan Duel. Revenue handle for racing is reported to be at an all-time high with each Triple Crown event, but where does that cash flow go exactly? It is complex, and local tracks, the very lifeblood of the sport regionally, see little of it.

The question is ... who will innovate, taking on the new role as founder? It certainly will not be someone like Bob Baffert, who already has a stained image as the “face” of racing in the States. What of the coming HISA that promises to clean up the cheaters, and run the bums out? Will that be this sport’s savior? Will its founding principles bring the promise to this decentralized empire that pretends to be an industry? If Thoroughbred racing wants to move beyond the Triple Crown, which is the province that the heirs constructed, and stave off future annihilation at the hands of issues like decoupling, then its “stock” must diversify. All that will be left is a husk, and all the explanations that can be harnessed will not be enough to save what is left. A legacy in name only will be what remains. As turfwriters, the professionals who regularly cover this magnificent sport, we know there is more to offer the public—an expanded vision.

Good governance, the honor of those vanguards that remain, and simplicity like the thrill of watching equine athletes do their thing, remain intact, for now. This can all be a reminder that we don’t just “attend” church on Christmas and Easter, so to speak. There is more on the calendar, our ancestors would remind us! But returning to the centrality of it all, who will inherit the racetrack, now that the founder's principles are either outmoded or long gone? The impatient critics and their scrutiny, assail the barns and betting windows ... time is short ... and so it goes, for “The Sport of Themes.”

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