By Nate Tenopir, Sports Editor
On Saturday, I’ll Have Another will be chasing history and seek to claim horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 38 years. NBC bombards us with these facts almost every time there’s another sporting event on that channel.
But for those of us at UNO, the vast majority of whom were born after 1978, why should we care? Horse racing has never generated much interest, let alone relevancy to our generation.
Unfortunately, most of the people we know who take a serious interest in the sport tend to border on being degenerate gamblers.
And I would seriously doubt that more than 10 percent of the people on campus even know how to read a racing form. But this wasn’t always so.
America used to have a love affair with horse racing. That love affair used to be up close and personal in Omaha.
When Aksarben was in its heyday, busloads of people came in from Kansas City, Des Moines, South Dakota and all over the region. Horseracing in Nebraska was a hotbed of entertainment.
In the 1980s the track was in the top 10 in America in terms of attendance.
Ak-sar-ben.com features old press clippings that show a typical three month schedule would produce over $100 million in betting.
But eventually casino gambling became more widespread in the U.S., and tracks were losing money. The receipts got smaller and so did the ability to provide amenities for the whole family and make a trip to the races a family event.
Aksarben and many other tracks were torn down and the love affair suddenly became just a friendship. Without a Triple Crown winner since 1978, that friendship is now barely an acquaintance.
But the looks, the personality and the excitement that caused us to fall in love with horse racing so many years ago hasn’t changed.
When Seabiscuit and War Admiral faced off in 1938, most businesses in America shut down early to allow their employees to listen to the race on the radio. More than 40 million people tuned in to hear the “Match of the Century.”
Seabiscuit’s owner lost his son to a tragic death and his wife left him shortly after. The horse’s trainer and jockey were unemployed and unwanted by anybody in the business.
But at a time of hopelessness known as The Great Depression, Seabiscuit and his team provided the kind of inspiration the nation needed.
Before Secretariat won the Triple Crown in 1973 and became the greatest horse in racing history, his owner had to find a way just to afford to let him run. Penny Chenery, a housewife from Colorado, was thrust into the business due to the death of her mother and the declining health of her father.
But rather than sell the horse to pay the inheritance tax on her father’s farm once he passed away, Chenery believed in Secretariat’s greatness and sold his breeding rights for just over $6 million.
The owners of Afleet Alex, winner of the 2005 Preakness and Belmont Stakes, pledged a portion of their winnings to Alex’s Lemonade Stand. For those of you who don’t remember, Alex’s Lemonade Stand is a childhood cancer charity started by a little girl named Alex Scott who sold lemonade on a corner in her hometown of West Hartford, Conn.
Alone, Alex sold over $2,000 before she died in the summer of 2004. Stories such as these that have always drawn Americans to the race track.
In the early 90s I remember people being up in arms about Secretariat making ESPN’s list of top 100 athletes of the 20th century. But in a day and age when we watch the NBA just to cheer against Lebron or find a common ground with others in our hatred for the New York Yankees, thoroughbreds are a refreshing change of pace to overpaid millionaires that fill the sports world.
And don’t fool yourself, these horses are athletes. I’ve never quite understood the arguments that members of PETA or other animal rights groups make about the harsh treatment of racehorses.
Granted there is a danger for race horses in competition. I’ll never quite understand how our creator gave these beautiful, graceful animals such power on such small, spindly little legs.
But the horses want to run and they want to win.
Seabiscuit started out as a loser because his early owners didn’t want him to win. He became disinterested until trainer Tom Smith, jockey Red Pollard and owner Charles Howard showed him some belief.
Seabiscuit thrived on competition and often had to be held back by Pollard so he could see the horses around him and have the drive to beat them. It’s a very delicate balance picking what class to run your horse in.
Make it too easy and they get lazy; make it too hard and they don’t care. They want to win and they have their own personalities.
I’ll Have Another has a horse travel with him everywhere because they’re what us humans would consider friends. If his stable mate isn’t there next to him, I’ll Have Another just isn’t comfortable.
Sometimes it’s another horse, sometimes it’s a goat or a duck but regardless, they build relationships. More often than not it’s with their riders.
On Saturday the hopes of history and the rising interest of a nation ride, literally, on a jockey who’s a rookie to Triple Crown competition. Mario Gutierrez has spent most of his riding career in Vancouver, British Columbia.
The son of another jockey Gutierrez began riding at age 14 and eventually emigrated to Canada ever since. After the Kentucky Derby Gutierrez said, “I keep telling everybody ever since I met him (I’ll Have Another) I knew he was the one. I knew he was good.”
“All the criticisms, they didn’t believe he could have made it this far. I always…I said it in an interview even if they allow me to pick for the race the whole field, I would have stayed with him 100 percent. No doubt about it.”
Incidentally, the name for I’ll Have Another doesn’t come from ordering another round of adult beverages. His owner J. Paul Reddam named the horse after his wife’s fresh-baked cookies who would always ask him if he wanted more.
What do you know another great story? Tune in Saturday and fall in love all over again.