I used to believe in Santa Claus. The Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy, too.
I'm afraid to say I've carried some of those childhood beliefs and naivete well into my adult life, though I did stop leaving cookies and milk out for Santa on Christmas Eve some years ago.
Some of that naivete emerges when I watch old newsreels of horse racing in the “golden era.” Packed grandstands, full fields, lively competition, star horses running through their 4- and 5-year-old seasons. We were exposed to a lot of those old films during the Hollywood Park nostalgia tour that's taken place over the last few days. They say 13,000 people paid their way in and several thousand others walked through the gates after admission fees were dropped on Hollywood's final day of racing. There was amazement by some at how many fans wanted to say goodbye to an institution that's been around for three-quarters of a century.
But why be amazed? Not that long ago, in 1980, Hollywood Park averaged over 30,000 on-track fans every day of its spring-summer meeting.
Let's take a trip to the other side of the world, Japan, where 124,782 fans turned out for the season-ending Arima Kinen horse race. It's a special event where the fans select the invitees through popular vote.
This year's star attraction was former Japan Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year Orfevre, who twice went to France in an attempt to become the first Japanese winner of the Arc de Triomphe. Two times he came up just short, finishing second to Solemia in 2012 and to the brilliant filly Treve this year.
The 5-year-old son of the Sunday Silence stallion Stay Gold gave the fans a performance for the ages, accelerating with a dynamic burst of speed on the turn for home and drawing away to win by eight lengths.
What happened later that day, though, was just as breathtaking as Orfevre's powerful run. After the final race of the card, with darkness and cool temperatures setting in, an estimated 60,000 fans stood in appreciation as Orfevre was brought back in front of the stands for a special retirement ceremony. He pranced in the spotlight, much like Cigar did in November 1996 when a special retirement ceremony was held for the two-time Horse of the Year and conqueror of the first Dubai World Cup. That moving ceremony was not held at a racetrack but at Madison Square Garden in New York, site of the National Horse Show.
There were tears that day at Madison Square Garden. I have first-hand knowledge. I'm sure there were tears at Nakayama, too.
Imagine, 60,000 people standing quietly, watching a horse walk back and forth in a spotlight, prancing a bit, his neck arched, his sprit still soaring from the day's competition.
Why are so many fans still there? What are they thinking? What is the special connection, the bond, the fans feel with that animal?
Then consider this.
Are those fans really that different than us? If the answer is “no,” then how do we build those special moments, where the collective appreciation and respect for these marvelous creatures is so profound?
It may be naïve of me to say, but this game of ours may live off the gamble and feed off the glamour, but it begins and ends with the horse.
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