When my father was a boy in the 1930s, baseball ruled the American sporting landscape. Joe DiMaggio and Bob Feller succeeded Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig as America’s idols.The World Series was the nation’s premier sporting event every year.
However, other sports did make the headlines with horse racing, boxing and college football jockeying for the No. 2 spot. And the Kentucky Derby was the premier race. Even a kid in very urban Brooklyn knew the names of the leading Derby contenders every spring.
From 1930-48, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault and Citation captivated the nation in winning the Derby and then the Preakness and the Belmont to capture racing’s Triple Crown. Everyone knew jockeys Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden and Willie Shoemaker.
The Run For The Roses the first Saturday in May has everything that the more blue-collar Preakness doesn’t have: lovely Southern belles in their fancy hats sipping mint juleps; the history and the instantly recognizable spires of Churchill Downs; and the first true matchup of the top three-year-old horses.
And yet, the magic is gone from the Derby for most sports fans.
Pro football, pro and college basketball, golf, tennis and hockey began to push horse racing down the ladder of American sports in the 1960s, but Derby winners Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed and Spectacular Bid launched a revival of interest in the 1970s.
Nearly 27 million viewers watched Foolish Pleasure win the 1975 Derby. A decade later – even before cable had come to rule television — barely 12 million saw Spend A Buck triumph at Churchill Downs.
Horses with great back stories like Barbaro, Smarty Jones and Alex Afleet created Derby buzz during the past decade, but even last year’s race, whose 23 percent share of viewer was the highest in two decades, was seen by less than half the audience of 1975.
And with ailing favorite Uncle Mo scratched, there’s little buzz about tomorrow’s 137th Run For The Roses even though it includes the perfectly-named Twinspired, ridden by 2005 Derby winner Mike Smith as well as Twice The Appeal, whose jockey, Calvin Borel, has won three of the last four Kentucky Derbys.
How many people know that Mucho Macho Man and Pants on Fire, ridden by the race’s sixth-ever female jockey, Rosie Napravnik, are Derby contenders and not hip-hop hits?
In an era when millions watch people play poker or try to maul each other in mixed martial arts, it’s sad that the biggest horse race in “the sport of kings” usually barely registers on America’s consciousness.
PHOTOS: 137th Kentucky Derby Preview Day
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the former President of the Pro Football Writers of America. A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the 2010 Redskins season, he returned to the station as its blogger in March.