Horses still good for the inside of a man
In December of 2015, the Harris polling company asked 2,252 adults to identify their favorite sport from a list of 20 athletic endeavors. Professional football led the pack with 33 percent support, followed by baseball’s 15 percent, and college football at 10 percent. Horse racing was named by 1 percent of those who responded, along with women’s soccer and men’s tennis.
A Gallup poll asking a similar question at the end of 2017 did not even list horse racing among the choices, although rodeo, track and field, and motocross were offered to the 1,049 adults who responded. Racing, it is presumed, was somewhere in the 5 percent “other” category of sports that received token nods.
The people who run racing habitually resist the implications of such polling numbers, while at the same time they pull out large chunks of hair agonizing over the results. They point to the ongoing popularity of the Kentucky Derby as proof that the sport still has a public pulse, then wonder why the magic works only once a year.
Of course, the Derby is like the Oscars – a single destination event that only nominally represents the industry at large. Well-run regional racetracks continue to struggle, just as well-reviewed independent films flounder at the box office.
(For that matter, two of the best small films of 2018 have horses at the core. “Lean on Pete” collected just $2.2 million in worldwide receipts despite its 92 percent critics’ rating from Rotten Tomatoes, while “The Rider” earned only $3.1 million at the box office and a 97 percent positive rating.)
Comparisons of horse racing to football or basketball are worse than apples to, well, tomatoes. As for polls, this reporter prefers to embrace the results of a question posed by the fine people at Animal Planet more than a decade ago, when the popular cable network received more than 59,000 responses in an attempt to identify the world’s most popular animals. The horse came in fourth. First place went to the tiger, Nature’s bestdressed beast, followed by the dog, and then the dolphin, which means the noble equus caballus polled ahead of the lion, the whale, the elephant, and the chimpanzee. Domestic cats did not make the top 10. Go figure.
Despite the arm’s-length reality of the modern digital age, horses are always a welcome diversion. At a recent film festival, Liam Neeson flavored comments about his role in an upcoming Coen brothers movie with his insistence that the horse who pulled his wagon “… actually remembered me from another Western we made a while back. He whinnied when he saw me. And pawed the ground.”
Russell Crowe followed Neeson’s lead with horse recollections of his own, about his imposing white steed from “Gladiator.” And it is hard to forget the moment provided by Lee Marvin as he accepted his Academy Award for best actor of 1965, for his showy dual role in “Cat Ballou” as a vicious killer and his washed-up drunk of a brother whose staggering horse was also into the sauce.
“There’s too many people to correctly thank for my career,” Marvin said, admiring his trophy. “I think, though, that half of this belongs to a horse someplace out in the valley.”
The more those in the public eye talk kindly about horses, the more people might be inclined to visit them up close and personal inside the racetrack gates. Among the smart things Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella has said is that the closest most modern Americans get to a horse these days is on a merry-go-round. And yet there they were, in that Animal Planet survey, outpolling Dumbo, Simba, and Moby-Dick.
Tigers must be enjoyed in the abstract, or at a very protected distance. Dolphins are approachable, although you’ve got to get wet, and, as companions, dogs speak for themselves.
By contrast, horses are mainly appreciated as an ideal, and often are taken for granted as a passive part of the American landscape. Recent events have rendered certain herds into flesh and blood – the controversial thinning of mustang population in Northern California, the rescue of stranded equine flood victims in the Carolinas – and horse racing must try harder to do the same with its equine athletes.
Now is a good time to try. As the Breeders’ Cup approaches, the event will be fighting for attention in a sea of media obsessed with the national mid-term elections. Horse racing, like every other industry, will have a dog in the hunt.
The sale and transport of horses for slaughter across international borders is still a stain on the U.S. breeding and racing economy. With the passage of the SAFE Act now lingering in a distracted Congress, the slaughter issue would vanish, and U.S. law would be aligned with the overwhelming sentiments of the American public.
“We now have a majority of congress co-sponsoring the bill in the House, though nothing is scheduled to move it,” said animal-protection advocate Chris Heyde, head of Blue Marble Strategy.
“I am encouraging folks to take the bill into consideration as they head to the voting booth this November,” Heyde added. “Does their current House member currently support the bill? If not, vote them out. Does the person running against them support the bill? Not sure? Ask them in any remaining town halls, and let them know this is how you will vote.”