Romance still burns for racing

In one of the latest movies made about bowling, Woody from "Cheers" donned a prosthetic hand and was outkeggled by a toupee-wearing Bill Murray in the comedic farce "Kingpin." Horse racing, by contrast, soon gets Diane Lane saddling up as Penny Tweedy in the upcoming Disney flick "Secretariat."

Class advantage: ponies.

The truth of the matter is, despite a racing industry that constantly cries about a lack of mainstream attention, there's an awful lot of horse racing everywhere you look.

Zenyatta just made the 2010 O Power List of leading ladies in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine, the only nonhuman to make the grade. Sure, she's no Vera Wang or Julia Roberts, but do those ladies stand 16 hands tall and tip the scales at nearly 1,300 pounds? I think not. Put that in one of your $300 handbags and tote it, Ms. Wang. Giddy up!

Also on newsstands recently, when I opened my copy of Sporting News on Sept. 13 (shh, don't tell the home office), the first inside cover ad was a two-page spread from Dodge, featuring a Ram truck parked on the track at Santa Anita. "Multimillion-dollar athletes don't always travel on private jets," the slick ad boasted. In an issue devoted to the National Football League season preview, this advertisement clearly scored a touchdown for horse racing, thanks to a corporate giant.

Meanwhile, the small screen of HBO soon will be featuring the drama "Luck," created by David Milch and Michael Mann, who were parts of, among other shows, the "NYPD Blue" and "Miami Vice" programs that defined generations. In case you missed it, none other than Dustin Hoffman will star. That's big, even if Hoffman stands only 5-foot-5, an inch taller than jockey-turned-supporting actor Gary Stevens.

Speaking of jockeys, what about the two-season Animal Planet reality series "Jockeys"? While I personally found it a completely pinheaded ordeal (pun intended), the crossover promotion to a cable network not known for sports certainly carries some mainstream water. So did the four seasons (2005-08) of "Wildfire" on the ABC Family network, a fictional drama pointed at teenage girls but set in and around the racetracks of California. My wife even liked that one. Those types of shows were not going for the male-over-60 demographic.

To that age point, my daughter popped in a DVD of "The Princess and the Frog" in the backseat of the family car the other day, and I overheard the cook in the kitchen telling his waitress that he had a better chance of winning the Kentucky Derby than she had of opening her own restaurant. It reminded me that horse racing also has a fabric in our childhood, written in the lines of "Camptown Races" and Dr. Seuss, among many other favorites. While those are old-school references, "The Princess and the Frog" was released in 2009.

Horse racing has done pretty well in the mainstream for a sport on life support, if you ask me. What other sporting venture can claim box office titles like "Seabiscuit," "Dreamer," "Racing Stripes," "First Saturday in May" and "Secretariat" since just 2003? These films came long after the glory years when horse racing, college football and boxing owned the mainstream sporting consciousness.

No matter how silly or serious the plot lines of such movies and TV shows, the mere exposure and acceptance of the horse racing game to the general population is monumental. Not every sports movie needs to be "Casey's Shadow." To be fair, "Kingpin" was brilliantly funny, and no matter how stupid it made bowling look, it made you want to grab a Brunswick and a few friends and head out to the lanes.

Even big-time sports like basketball have had their share of cinematic silliness, like Will Ferrell as Jackie Moon in "Semi-Pro" or Michael Jordan versus Bugs Bunny in that 1996 end-all "Space Jam." Seen any good hockey movies lately? Outside of "Slap Shot" in 1977 and "Youngblood" in 1986, it took about 20 more years for "Miracle" to get the sport back on the ice in the big-screen scheme of things.

On the musical end, George Jones crooned how "The Race Is On" back in 1965, Carly Simon mocked an ex-lover with a trip to Saratoga in her 1972 hit "You're So Vain" and Dan Fogelberg got his "chance of a lifetime, in a lifetime of chance" through his 1981 release of "Run For the Roses." While those aren't exactly contemporary shoutouts from Justin Bieber or Beyonce, you get the point that artists of all genres long have put racing among America's fabric.

And throughout the decades, horse racing continues to hold a romantic spot in the public's mindset, despite its supposed lack of everyday appeal. You simply don't lure Oprah, Disney, Dodge, Dustin Hoffman and Diane Lane in this day and age without having something to sell, folks.

One of two things is going on here: Either horse racing is not nearly as dead as some would like to claim it is, or the bulk of racing's problems come from within its own family/industry. No rational person could look at the phenomenal amount of mainstream exposure this industry has received from afar and offer a legitimate complaint.

Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000 and is the owner of the handicapping-based website Horseplayernow.com. You can e-mail him at Jeremy@Horseplayernow.com.