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The Decline of Horse Racing

A report from the Breeders' Cup

Damon Runyon never had these problems. Not at the racetrack, anyway. There were guys, and there were dolls. And if you happened to see a gent, paying all kinds of rent, for a flat that would flatten the Taj Mahal, you and your elaborate backwards syntax could be pretty sure that the guy was doing it for some doll. There was nothing in that to explain a guy and a doll, who were once engaged to each other, and on a reality TV show, no less, both of them astride (as it were) a thousand pounds or more of animal maniac, neck and neck (as it were), pounding (as it were) down the stretch just after nightfall at Churchill Downs.

If you were one of the several people who followed the Animal Planet extravaganza Jockeys, you may recall that Mike Smith and Chantal Sutherland were the show’s great love interests. He was an established star of his sport, and she was a gifted Canadian rider who’d moved to Kentucky. She also was a model, photographed by Annie Leibovitz for a spread in Vogue, and who was named one of People‘s 100 Most Beautiful People back in 2006. (These are also things that the late Mr. Runyon never had to contend with back in his days. Jockeys were jockeys, and models were largely decorative human accessories who occasionally married ballplayers.) Nevertheless, as is the way of things on those reality television shows that do not involve Kate Gosselin or other large predatory fish, Mike and Chantal fell for each other and, soon, they were engaged. The show was canceled. So, later, was the engagement.

So, there they were, midway down the stretch in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday, a Very Special Jockeys Reunion Show. Sutherland had pushed a horse called Game On Dude to its very limits, very nearly wire to wire. Smith had tucked his horse, a 14-1 shot named Drosselmeyer, into the middle of the back for the first mile of the race. He saw an opening and turned his mount loose. Sutherland never saw him as he went by on the winner. “I can’t believe it was Mike Smith,” Sutherland said immediately after the race. She also leapt into the Twitterverse, posting a picture of herself aiming a look at Smith near the finish line that, had she delivered it a while back, might have had enough intensity to carry the television show for another couple of seasons.

Perhaps that’s the modern measure of where thoroughbred racing is in the 21st century. Once, it was rivaled only by baseball and boxing — and, occasionally, college football — at the center of the sporting universe. That’s why Runyon and the rest of them spent so much time at the track. Well, that and gambling. And free whiskey. Now, in a thousand-channel universe, where drunks from Jersey, housewives from Beverly Hills, crazed wives from Atlanta, grotesquely huge families from Arkansas, and man-eating carp from the Congo all get a chance to parade their megalomania on television, horse racing can’t even carry a reality show. Tracks have been dying for decades, all over America. The ones that have survived are trying to stay afloat by turning themselves into bastardized versions of themselves — “racinos,” encouraging the real suckers in by lining the interior of their clubhouses with slot machines. Putting slot machines in a racetrack is very much like opening a wine bar and advertising that you have an All U Can Smoke crack buffet in the lobby.

There are easier ways to gamble these days. There are other sports that are more suited to television and the other forms of instant communication, more conducive to a human attention span reckoned now in milliseconds. Even on a weekend like the one just passed, in which the sport puts everything it has going for it on full display, and at Churchill Downs, one of the few places that even the casual sports fan can recognize, there is still a sense about the sport that it has become unstuck in time, to borrow Billy Pilgrim’s phrase. That it is a door into the past from a present, a present in which history is whatever came in over your BlackBerry 25 seconds ago. That it is drifting further and further away into misty obsolescence, that it exists now somewhere deep in the hours before the dawn of whatever age it is our technology has brought to us. Men — and women — and horses, it seems, are something now that might as well have been painted on the walls of a cave.

The horses are bathed in the chill of the early morning dark. Their steady breath comes in visible exhalations, gray bursts in the lingering night. Mist rises off their flanks as the warm water hits them until, for only the briefest second, the entire huge animal is encompassed by clouds of uprising steam, as if the very spirit within the horse is rising now to await the tardy morning sky.

People are busy around Barn 47, walking purposefully through the darkness that is cut only by the headlights of the occasional feed truck, which winds its way through the narrow lanes between the barns behind the backstretch of the famous racecourse. Horses come out of that darkness unannounced, being walked on their way to a bath, or out for the beginning of their morning exercise, and the horses have an absolute right of way against unwary strangers wandering amid the bustle. Tom Wildey pulls a stranger out of the path of a horse that the stranger never saw.

“Let’s talk here,” Wildey says. “It’s safer.”

Wildey is a Louisianan with more than a little Spanish moss dangling from his accent and more than a little Zydeco in his syntax. (For example, the word “of” occasionally disappears as a preposition. You are warned to “stay out the way” of a horse that’s bearing down on you from behind.) He shoes horses for a living. Today, at Barn 47, he is working with the greatest client of his life. Flat Out is on its way to becoming the betting favorite in that evening’s Classic. (Eventually, the horse will go off at 7-2.) Already, the story of its trainer, 70-year-old Scooter Dickey, has become the feel-good tale of the event. In his 50 years as a trainer, Dickey had never trained a Grade 1 stakes winner until Flat Out came to him in 2008. The problem was that Flat Out was brittle. He banged into a gate at Oaklawn in Arkansas and injured his shoulder. He also was desperately prone to quarter cracks in his feet, small breaks in his hooves that are essentially severe hangnails.

“He’s had them on all four feet,” Wildey says. “For me, that was the intriguing part from the beginning. It was the first time I ever saw a horse with four, one on each hoof.”

Wildey designed special shoes called “z-bars” that were created to keep the pressure off the areas on Flat Out’s hooves that were the most delicate, and the most likely to crack. He also talked Dickey and the horse’s owners into taking Flat Out off the track for a considerable time.

“I said, ‘Scooter, if we could take the time now. If you could stop on him now so he doesn’t have to train. You could just walk him, we could get this thing grown out the hairline,’” Wildey recalls. “There was three previous cracks and then one that had just happened prior to getting to New Orleans for a stakes race. You can put acrylic patches on horses, and that’ll get you through the race, but it doesn’t fix the problem.

“We took the hoof wall away because it was dead and debrided. We unloaded it to a point where it had a chance to grow down solid from the hairline. In doing so, I asked him for some time to do that, and I remember it’ll pay off later. Here we are.”

Flat Out won the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont in New York in October. That qualified him for the Breeders’ Cup, and it was Scooter Dickey’s first Grade 1 stakes win. He is leaning this morning against a railing in Barn 47. Dickey comes from Anthony, a tiny town in southern Kansas, right by the Oklahoma border, the seat of Harper County. He talks softly, and you begin to realize that his career is defined by lost places. In his voice, you can see empty storefronts, abandoned grandstands, places that time rolled past and was gone before anybody in those places noticed it was moving at all. America is uncomfortable with obsolescence, probably because we pretty much invented it here and, in our reckless, heedless momentum, we celebrate more than we ought to.

(A brief historical note about Harper County, Kan.: It is unique in that it was founded twice; the first time, in 1873, as an act of monumental real-estate fraud. “I am not persuaded that Harper County ever had an inhabitant,” said the attorney-general of Kansas at the time. It was formally organized, with actual residents, a few years later.)

“Oh yeah, the mornings are the best,” Dickey says, the glare of the racetrack’s lights across the infield lighting the barn in sharp angles around him. “You get here, and you come and check on your horses, and you make sure they’re all OK. And then the people start arriving. And seeing the people, this is the best.

“I’ve had a lot of special horses. He’s gone up to the top of the list now. He’s just different from other horses. Just like a top athlete, you can tell when they’re different. Just by watching him move. He just does it all right.”

Somebody is out there, walking Flat Out through the dark. Scooter remains in the barn, talking to Tom Wildey about his horse’s so-fragile feet, and waits through the stubborn, clinging night for the dawning of his biggest day.

Flat Out is never in the race. He runs tightly within the pack, close to the rail but not on it. But when jockey Alex Solis asks for it, the speed is not there. He makes up a little ground, but the reality-show drama is a dozen lengths in front of him, and he finishes fifth. Scooter Dickey makes no excuses in the end. His horse got outrun. Horses get outrun. They get outrun on long-dead dirt tracks in Nebraska, and they get outrun on television in front of millions of people. They get outrun when you’re there to meet them afterwards in a windbreaker and a baseball cap, and they get outrun when you’re there, in your ESPN suit, waiting in the barn after they’ve run their best and it wasn’t good enough.

History is deeper than canceled television shows. History is stories within stories that tell stories of their own. It’s obsolescence that’s temporary, if you look at it right. For example, Harper County, where Scooter Dickey was born, was named after Sgt. Marion Harper, a Union cavalryman who was grievously wounded in action near Waldron, Ark. Legend has it that, when they brought Harper into the field hospital, he offered to bet all comers that he would survive with his injuries for a certain number of hours. In essence, he put an over/under number on when he would die, and he took the over. Remarkably, someone took the under. (How this person expected to get paid if he won, if Harper kicked sooner than Harper expected to kick, is, alas, lost to history.) But here’s what Harper did. He lived long enough to collect. Then, he died. In places like Harper County, places that seem to be lost to an accelerated age, there are all kinds of ways you can still go home a winner.

“I’ve already won,” Scooter Dickey had said that morning. “I’m already a winner, no matter what happens today. I’ve been in touch with so many people. Some of them, I didn’t know where they were, or if they were even still alive.” Maybe, if he wins this evening, someone suggests, they’ll throw him a parade in Anthony.

“Wouldn’t be a long parade,” he smiled. “Wouldn’t last too long. Maybe I’d get a plaque on the outside of town or something.”

Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire , is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.


Previously from Charles P. Pierce:
The Beginning of the End for the NCAA
My Memories of The National

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Charles P. Pierce is a staff writer for Grantland and the author of Idiot America. He writes regularly for Esquire, is the lead writer for Esquire.com’s Politics blog, and is a frequent guest on NPR.

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