We should all be rooting for Smarty Jones to take the Triple Crown by winning the Belmont Stakes in a few weeks. First of all, the horse looks like a great, true champion; the way he won the Preakness left everyone agape. Horse racing hadn't seen anything like this since Secretariat ran away so far in the 1973 Belmont, it looked like he was the only horse on the track.
Second, Smarty Jones is a great American Dream story: A rags-to-riches colt, an underdog from a small track, ridden by a small-time, unknown jockey, owned by an elderly man now in a wheelchair, and breathing oxygen through a tube. They're all straight out of a Damon Runyon story -- and, boy, am I dating myself with that reference. But that's the point here: When Damon Runyon was writing these kinds of stories that would lead to "Guys And Dolls," horse racing was just about the biggest sport in America.
That was in the 1940s and '50s. Horse racing was still near the top through the 1960s and even into the '70s, when Secretariat was easily one of the biggest stars in sports. Just 30 years ago, the greatest sports columnists, like Red Smith of the New York Times, Shirley Povich of The Washington Post and Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times, set their writing calendar by three sports: horse racing, boxing and baseball. Starting with spring training in late February, the best columnists followed their baseball teams all the way through the World Series, detouring to cover every big boxing match and every major stakes race from Hialeah in Florida, through Santa Anita in California, to Saratoga in upstate New York. All that other stuff -- the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, the Final Four -- that was just stuff they went to if it was being played in a town near a good track, a title fight or a major league ballpark.
Things change, of course. Boxing is dead now. You can't watch it on TV unless you pay for it. Great young athletes no longer box, they play sports that are more lucrative and safer, like basketball and, yes, football.
Most of all, boxing is dead because society has turned its back on it. Society no longer sees "the sweet science." Now it sees a brutal vestige of an old, unenlightened America. Boxing is a guilty pleasure now, appropriately centered in Las Vegas. It may as well be held on barges outside the three-mile limit.
Baseball is making a comeback of sorts. Attendance is up, and the playoffs and World Series are still widely watched and romanticized by a generation of sons, grown old themselves, who picture their fathers coming home from the war and heading straight for the ballpark. Baseball may still have a nostalgic hold on our hearts, but nobody in his right mind thinks baseball is anywhere close to the NFL in popularity. Some years it seems baseball rests below basketball. The good news for baseball is all the renewed interest in home run records. (The dirty little secret is that steroids and "supplements" have been very, very good for baseball.) Last year's playoffs showed it's even better news when Old School franchises like the Cubs and Red Sox battle the Yankees for dominance.
Horse racing needs Smarty Jones to win the Triple Crown to mount a comeback of its own. No, horse racing will never regain a hoofhold anywhere near the top of sports popularity. Too many things conspired to sink horse racing: You have a sport in which the stars, the horses, aren't available for interviews. Brett Favre is. Shaquille O'Neal is. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is.
Funny Cide isn't. That hurts transmission of the sport. What also hurts is the fact that there are no standings in horse racing; there is no National Horse Racing League. The most popular sports -- football, baseball, basketball -- all have conferences and standings. You can check in any day and know where your favorite team stands relative to all the other teams.
Tennis, golf and NASCAR are trying to piggy-back on our mania for standings by publishing money lists, rankings and points list for things like Ryder Cup and whatever took the place of Winston Cup.
The biggest thing hurting horse racing, though, is that we can now legally bet on all sports. Horse racing has lost its unique appeal to bettors. For a zillion years the only sport you could legally bet in this country was horse racing -- and only on site at the track. Now, thanks to the "sports books" in Nevada and other places, we can bet anything, even horse racing. And from anywhere. So why go to the racetrack? When you do go, you don't see nearly as many swells as when Damon Runyon was writing about Sky Masterson and Nathan Detroit. The bon vivants no longer go to the track to see and be seen. Now you see old men clinging to the rail like barnacles, hoping to win back enough money for a good meal after the last race.
But TV ratings for the Kentucky Derby and Preakness are way up this year, thanks mostly to another rags-to-riches colt, Funny Cide's great run last year, and the national popularity of the movie "Seabiscuit." Those two things made horse racing cool again. Smarty Jones, who is faster, more famous and less controversial than Marion Jones, could make it cooler still. (And Smarty Jones will be able to enjoy his status as a champion with the ladies far more than Funny Cide, who had that unfortunate gelding incident. I love the stories about how Smarty's life has changed since winning these races. His life hasn't changed. Hello, he's a horse. He eats, he runs, he sleeps. It's not like he's reading scripts, going to Scores or buying a vacation home in Scottsdale. Of course, those canoodling episodes with "constant companion" Butterscotch will be a little more public, as paparazzi descend on America's New Fun Couple. They could make us forget about Ben and Jen. And Jen and Marc.)
Horse racing has suffered by not having a Triple Crown winner in 26 years. That's an eternity. You want the greatest prize in your sport to be difficult to attain -- but not impossible. Smarty Jones looks like he's worthy. Red and Shirley would have loved him.