The absence of reaction in the mainstream to Curlin's announced retirement late Saturday is typical of not only his career, but those of many of the best horses we have seen in recent years -- none of them 3-year-olds, not one a winner of the Kentucky Derby but all truly talented and champions worthy of eventual induction into the Racing Hall of Fame.
Had he won the Derby in 2007, Curlin would have been propelled toward his breeding career in a flurry of appreciative, saccharine prose. Curlin is an important horse, more so than his place in the general public consciousness would suggest. In this age, Kelso, Forego and John Henry would have gone unnoticed outside the shrinking realm of racing cognoscente, as have Ghostzapper, Tiznow, Skip Away, and Invasor -- all truly memorable champions, great if woefully underappreciated racehorses who have the lack of a Kentucky Derby victory in common. In the mainstream public and media consciousness, the racing year begins and ends on the first Saturday of May and lasts between three and five weeks, depending upon the result of the Preakness.
After a two-year reign as the best horse in the nation -- and in some eyes the world -- during which he was skillfully trained and managed, won the Preakness, two editions of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Woodward Stakes, the Stephen Foster Handicap, the Breeders' Cup Classic and the Dubai World Cup, Curlin's retirement, announced rather bizarrely late on a Saturday night, went almost unnoticed. Not until the last race of his career -- an attempt to win a second Breeders' Cup Classic, this time while facing the uncertainty of a synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park -- was Curlin ever worse than third while amassing over $10.5 million in earnings. His should have been one of the most recognizable names in sport, but was not. There was no mention of his retirement on Sunday morning news programming nor any that would follow later that day.
Ironically, the previous owner of the all-time earnings title, Cigar, is the last older horse to capture the attention of the mainstream media -- doing so by winning 16 consecutive races, a streak that spanned three seasons before it was snapped in the 1996 Pacific Classic at Del Mar -- and ascend to wide acclaim on the mainstream stage.
Cigar broke through the invisible barrier that separates racing from the mainstream, but not until he was well into an undefeated 1995 season that would conclude with a victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic. No late-developing star has followed. During the literary and cinematic reprise of Seabiscuit's career a few years ago, it was noted that during the depths of the Great Depression and with global conflict festering in Europe, the exploits of a racehorse who became a beloved and heroic figure held the nation spellbound. The sport has come a long way downhill in terms of its public presence.
Considering that racing is an industry in which many careers are built upon little more than self-promotional skills, the concept of cooperative promotion has evaded its leaders. It is incomprehensible that a horse with Curlin's relative longevity and cumulative accomplishment -- and before him a decade of truly great champions -- would be widely ignored at the conclusion of his career.
When Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown was injured and retired before the Breeders' Cup last month, many large news organizations chose to not send reporters to Santa Anita. The presence of Curlin, the horse regarded as best in the world, and Zenyatta, a filly that is arguably the best of her sex on the planet, meant nothing. Big Brown, certainly not the best horse to race in 2008, was the only widely recognized name in racing outside the core fan base. This is both unfortunate and unlikely to change without a cooperative, industry-supported effort.
The blame must be shared. The only industry-supported organization that serves as a national media liaison is a two-person staff at the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, the skeleton of what was originally a far more ambitious but ultimately abandoned Thoroughbred Racing Communications. And while every segment of the sport is present in cyberspace, there is no Internet site comparable to those operated by Major League Baseball (MLB.com) or the National Football League (NFL.com). In order to be considered important on the wider stage of sport, it is first necessary to appear important.
It has become obvious that the racing industry must take up the challenge of telling its own story, covering its most important events beyond the Triple Crown and taking an aggressive self-promotional posture. Curlin is not the first superstar thoroughbred to fade from the scene without acclaim appropriate to his accomplishments. Without a new, widely supported and amply funded news dissemination agency he will not be the last.
Paul Moran is a two-time winner of the Media Eclipse Award, and has received various honors from the National Association of Newspaper Editors, Society of Silurians, Long Island Press Club and Long Island Veterinary Medical Association. He has also been given the Red Smith Award for his coverage of the Kentucky Derby. Paul maintains paulmoranattheraces.blogspot.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.