Major League Baseball is honoring Jackie Robinson today. Robinson forever changed baseball by breaking the sport’s color barrier in 1947.
In Spencer Fordin’s article on Robinson on www.MLB.com, Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball development, said of contemporary sporting culture: “Back in the ’40s and ’50s, horse racing, boxing and baseball were the biggest sports in America. Only one of them remains prominent today.” Solomon isn’t referring to horse racing.
I read this column today as baseball pays tribute to Robinson, and one day after an exciting day of horse racing that focused on the promising and closely watched 3-year-old set at historic Keeneland Racetrack in Lexington, Ky., and at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark. The enthusiasm shown over the day of racing and the reaction and participation of racing fans across the globe continues to give me hope that horse racing can truly be prominent once again in the contemporary sports scene despite the negativity often thrust against our progress.
Blue Grass day at Keeneland and Arkansas Derby day at Oaklawn Park are about more than providing racing fans a glimpse of what to expect in the Kentucky Derby in three weeks. They are about tradition as much as anything else, a celebration of our grand game. The massive crowds that turned out at both racetracks yesterday helped place the emphasis on all that is good about this sport and the people and horses that make it work. One look at the photo accompanying this article speaks volumes. Captured in the Keeneland photo is a crowd of racing fans lined up to take in an afternoon of quality racing in one of America’s most historic racing cities.
The Blue Grass was named for the famous Bluegrass region of Central Kentucky and held in 1911-14 and 1919-26 at the old Kentucky Association track near downtown Lexington. The first Blue Grass Stakes run at Keeneland took place in 1937and was won by a horse named Fencing.
This year’s renewal of the Blue Grass at Keeneland, even with circus-like antics surrounding last year’s Eclipse champion Hansen, proved successful on many fronts not just to the connections of Blue Grass Stakes winner Dullahan, a popular winner on the program.
Keeneland shattered its single-day attendance and all-sources wagering records on Blue Grass day on Saturday. On-track attendance of 40,617 crushed the previous record of 33,821 set in 2007. The former record for a Toyota Blue Grass Day attendance was 33,727 set in 2010.
“This was a historic day at Keeneland and we are humbled by the depth and the breadth of support shown by our community and our industry,” said Nick Nicholson, President and CEO of Keeneland. “We are fortunate to have the greatest fan base in the world and they came out in droves today to enjoy the high-quality racing. This is proof that Thoroughbred racing showcased at the highest level has a bright future. Plus, it was a thrilling Toyota Blue Grass Stakes. We want to thank everyone who helped make this day special.”
All-sources wagering of $21,647,378.17 broke the former record of $19,246,840 set on Toyota Blue Grass Day, April 14, 2007.
The Arkansas Derby, first run in 1936, has a unique history all its own and has produced its share of American Classic winners, including the likes of Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex and Curlin. Bodemeister’s scintillating score in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby in front of a crowd in excess of 63,000 fans, proved to be one of that race’s finest performances in recent years. His final time for the 1 1/8 miles was 1:48.71, the fastest clocking since Sir Cherokee’s 1:48.39 in 2003. Even more impressive is the fact that it was only Bodemeister’s fourth lifetime start. The talented son of Empire Maker heads to Louisville, Ky., as one of the leading contenders in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
Collectively, we all are getting better at telling our fascinating stories. For horse racing to be competitive and thrive once again, connections must be forged. It’s our responsibility to utilize the plethora of platforms available today to reach sports fans and show them how magnificent and magical the game of horse racing is. We must give them a reason to care. Together, we can return horse racing to the height of its popularity. In creating relationships and furthering connections, countless others will tell racing’s entertaining and memorable story.
In the spirit of Jackie Robinson day, I would like to close out this installment with a nod to African-American jockey Isaac Murphy, who made important contributions to horse racing long before Robinson broke the color barrier in professional baseball. Considered one of the greatest riders of all time, Murphy rode in 11 Kentucky Derbies, winning three times: on Buchanan in 1884, Riley in 1890, and Kingman in 1891. For more on Hall of Fame jockey Isaac Murphy, click here.