After spending several summers in Saratoga Springs, I discovered I loved thoroughbred horseracing. All my life I’ve been a performing arts spectator. I never watch any sports on television and only attended baseball games when my father needed a companion. The art of performance is what led me to experience the racetrack as live theater.
The racetrack is a stage, the jockeys are the actors, and the men and women that fill the bleachers, the picnic grounds, the Turf Club, and the private boxes are the audience. The racehorse is the star celebrity.
The tickets for admission, like any show, are based on your seating. You can walk through the gates for $3.00, or you can buy a box for $100,000 a year. The collage of human emotions, drama, suspense, and danger, are key components to good theater.
Gambling personifies the Shakespearean twist of the racetrack. High rollers and drugstore cowboys wager to win. Some men walk out with a grocery cart of recycled cans; some walk out with enough money to buy a racehorse. They leave by the same gate, and the next day they come back for more. But why, I ask, is thoroughbred racing not considered an all-around American sport? Why don’t jockeys get athletic respect? These two spheres of lightning truth struck me while I trampled through the mud one rainy August day at Saratoga Racetrack.
I asked around for opinions. The Governor’s bodyguard remarked that it was a good question. He did not think gambling was the reason because people bet on sports all the time. He thought maybe that it was because as kids we don’t learn to race horses, like baseball and football. The public is naïve about jockeys because they have never raced. Another answer I heard was that 200,000 fans fill a ballgame on any given day and that those numbers don’t compare with horseracing.
I’m not a gambler, and I don’t ride very well, but I am a drama whore. I took my notebook to the jocks’ room to ask the jockeys what they thought about this irregularity in sports. Jose Santos had a few minutes to spare.
“Jose, do you feel like America thinks of you as an athlete?”
“We don’t get the respect that we should. I think it’s the gambling. This is the greatest racetrack in America, and there is gambling in every sport, but when you come to the track, you see it right there, and people cannot avoid it. Pound for pound, we are more fit than most athletes.”
I asked Jose what he does aside from riding. He jogs three miles every day and walks for a mile. He reminded me that if he goes down with the horse, his strength is what gets him back up again. Another misconception is that jockeys only ride for 2 minutes. Well, the race is 2 minutes, but they ride every day of the year. They do not take breaks.
“How does the public perceive you?” I asked.
“In Europe, they are treated like movie stars. Over here the jockey is just another person, and in sports, the jockey is low. I wish we had more respect, but we don’t get the publicity.”
This feels like the guts of the truth; our little minds like to align with other like minds. The leaders of the pack go to football and baseball, and the media follows behind.
Jose remarked that the only time he felt real enthusiasm and support was when he won the Triple Crown. Otherwise, they get a little column in the paper with the results. “The Racing Form is 100 pages, and nothing is written about us.”
“What if there was a Jockey Magazine?”
“Well, that would be great. Then the companies would be interested, and we’d get sponsors. When I go out to the park and run, I wear Nikes too.” He chuckled.
“Have they ever approached you for sponsorship?”
“No, I don’t expect they will.”
A few days later I found Jerry Bailey before a race. It was a cinch to get into the jocks’ room in those days. That was before Elliott Spitzer sipped all the fizz out of Saratoga Race Track. These days the Press can’t walk inside the Jocks’ room. Jerry hopped onto a counter and extended his hand.
“How are you?”
“Great Jerry, thank you for meeting me.”
“Jerry, I’m very interested in the lack of sports sponsorship offered jockeys. Why do you think that is?
“Because no one is promoting us. If you don’t do anything to promote us, how does anyone know? They have bobble heads and gimmicks like that, but there isn’t even a Jockey Calendar. Excuse me now; I’ve got to ride a race.”
Of all the risk takers and entrepreneurs in the world, horse racing is the champion in all categories. If I made a decision to understand the business, attend every race, meet every owner, jockey, and trainer, there’s no chance I’d understand anything more, because I do not love the horse the way a jockey does, and you can’t fool the horse!
During the Hall of Fame Induction presentation at Saratoga a few years back, D. Wayne Lucas made a speech that drew a full house of gregarious applause. This is an excerpt:
“You ride a great horse, and the owner wakes up the next day and decides to switch to Bailey. The adversity is unbelievable, it is gut-wrenching, bring you to your knees humbling business, whether you’re a rider, trainer, owner, or breeder. There’s one thing that will keep you going, and that is simply your attitude. Attitude is the most important decision you make every day. Make it early, and make sure you make the right one. You will have a very full and very peaceful life.”
Maybe it’s time for a Jocks Nike, call it the Two Minute Nike.