Horse racing possesses one of the greatest attributes of any sport: the ability to replenish itself. Now, if you want to be a pessimist, you can argue that horses coming-and-going are what's wrong with the game. But I prefer to think of the revolving door as one of the game's most alluring details.
It's deflating to see the stars fade away and retire -- some too soon, some not on their own accord. But the winter doldrums for a true racing fan, owner or trainer typically are filled with promise. Right now, everyone has a chance to be special.
Consider that during the past few winters, horses like Big Brown and Curlin were complete unknowns. Big Brown had raced only once going into the winter break of 2007-'08, on the turf at Saratoga no less. The previous year, Curlin was even more of an unknown, and would not make his career debut until Super Bowl weekend.
Barbaro was considered a nice turf prospect this time three winters ago, while Smarty Jones was an unknown Pennsylvania-bred destined to be a sprinter a few calendar flips before him. Who, outside of their locales, had really been introduced to the likes of Michael Matz and John Servis at those times?
When you think about it, racing's tumultuous, current state of mind might actually be best-served by a continuous set of fresh faces. The game is not exactly sporting a golden era right now, so let the public be introduced to the next set of hopefuls.
While marketers might want to boast of their campaigns' greatness, the reality is that most times lightning is caught in a bottle. Turnarounds and fads aren't programmed and planned; they just happen -- and you bless your professional stars when they do. No one draws up a campaign on a storyboard to instantly make millions of people change their entertainment and financial habits.
What could possibly kick-start the horse racing industry likely has not been introduced. It could be technological; it could be legislative; it could be a personality; it might even have four hooves and a tail. No one's for certain. In this sense, when times are bad, change is good. Perhaps you caught a whiff of that on the political campaign trail?
Besides, dynasties are a thing of the past in sports consciousness. Few things in today's society are capable of keeping anyone's attention for more than a few moments, much less a few months or few years. After successful rises and runs for a period of time, everyone can't wait to see sports' heavyweights get beat and wiped out of the headlines. The longer you stay successful, the more resentment you're destined to draw. That's what happens in a 24/7 sports news cycle; it's impossible to stay fresh and fun.
Racing's 2008-'09 winter of discontent has big shoes to fill with all-time earnings leader Curlin and good cop/bad cop lightning rod Big Brown set to prance the pastures of Kentucky. The next crop of horses and storylines may not top that dynamic duo. It's not every season you're introduced to a horse who earns $10.5 million or a horse who crushes the Kentucky Derby from post No. 20. Chances are, the storylines on the track won't measure up.
But, at the same time, the "what's next" for horse racing might be every bit as exciting and effective in righting the game's sinking ship. My hunch is that something on the business end is going to break in 2009, something that gives racing a pulse. What do I base that on? Namely, desperate times and an unbelievable amount of core people associated with the sport who love it to no end -- despite its many faults. This game is filled with fans and hard-working individuals who wouldn't know what to do in any other field, nor want to be a part of anything else. They live and breathe racing, and defend it mightily.
We all recognize that money often gets in the way of true progress, offering a short-term pleasure and short cut to doing what's best for the overall good. But the money has dried up in horse racing for the most part. The $500,000-a-pop stallion like Storm Cat is a thing of the past. Seven-figure yearling sales don't fill the business ledger. Crowds of 20,000 and on-track handles exceeding $5 million daily are nearly impossible to come by.
In this strange case, the lack of cashflow in the racing game might be just what the doctor ordered. You don't see families broken up by squabbling over a $300-in-a-shoebox inheritance. It's the big money that causes folks to fight for their perceived worthy share. Perhaps cooperation is only a few more lost-dollars away.
Thoroughbred racing still has plenty of money in its shoebox, but much less than it used to. The game can't take the easy way out and throw money at its problems. Without that quick-fix, which seldom works anyway, the alternative is to roll up the sleeves and get to work. When everyone was fat and happy, that seemed like an impossible scenario of cooperation. Now it seems like the best way out.
The horses will do their part in sweeping change across the game's landscape. They always do. Now it's up to all of us people earning a living because of those horses to do our part in replenishing the sport.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can E-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.