It's a tired old cliché, of course, how all sports seasons go on too long. Actually, we're rather lucky here, inasmuch as the soccer season in other countries is all but endless. At least the NBA, the erstwhile winter game, comes to a merciful conclusion by July 4. But the one sport that never ends is horse racing. Only nobody outside the thoroughbred industry is much aware of that.
For most Americans, horse racing is like Mother's Day: It's something that suddenly appears in our consciousness in May, then disappears for a year as soon as the roses are cast over the withers of some lucky colt you might -- might -- have heard of in an office pool. Of course, most sports office pools now are for March Madness. The Kentucky Derby has become the Brigadoon of sport.
There is, in fact, nothing sadder -- or eerier -- than a visit to a major track these days. These great linear palaces were built to hold crowds of tens of thousands. Now, sometimes only a few hundred desperate souls rattle around down the great long grandstands. Tongue in cheek, we used to refer to these racetrack regulars as "improvers of the breed."
This past Sunday, a typical race day, a mere 4,000 improvers of the breed bothered to show up at Aqueduct. Four thousand -- in New York. Listen, on a Sunday in New York, 4,000 people will stumble off the street just for some kid's first communion.
Some racetracks still thrive in the United States. But they're not really racetracks. What they are are reconstituted slot-machine emporiums where the lovely cacophony of bells and whistles and cascading coins is interrupted every half hour by the odd sound of horses' hooves. Some people actually even turn away from the slots long enough to watch the horses race. In states such as Delaware and West Virginia, the slots are keeping the horses in business. Pennsylvania voted for two things in November: John Kerry and slot tracks. One will last.
It's all very upside down. Americans still bet on the races. They just can't be bothered to watch them. For example, while those 4,000 people who showed up at Aqueduct Sunday put $770,000 dollars through the betting windows there, about seven times that amount was bet on Aqueduct off-track. Pick up the phone, make a bet. Once legalized gambling spread out of Nevada, gamblers -- impatient by nature -- didn't need to bother to go to a place where you only can get a bet down every half hour. We always hear how our attention span is so much shorter these days. No more so than when it comes to betting. Slot machines are, in many respects, the toy adults never had before.
But horse racing again comes out of hiding this Saturday with the Kentucky Derby. Maybe most Americans don't know a horse from a wildebeest any more and only want to watch cars race, but the Derby still is as joyous a piece of Americana as there is.
This year there's a special interest, too, for baseball fans. George Steinbrenner, the disputatious owner of the New York Yankees, is the owner of the heavy favorite, Bellamy Road. Most assuredly, then, most Americans who hate the Yankees will be rooting for Bellamy Road. This is on the assumption that God would surely not let one man -- perhaps especially Steinbrenner -- win both the Kentucky Derby and the World Series in the same year.