There is a golden age of television, a golden age of baseball, a golden age for just about everything under the sun, especially in the sporting world. Usually, a golden age is accompanied by grainy black and white news footage and a fast-talking announcer. Think Fox Movietone News.
But for me, the golden age of horseracing took place in living color, in my adult lifetime. It wasn't back in the long ago 1920s when some people swear major league baseball was at its best. Not in the 1940s when boxing was king, Not in the 1950s when the greatest NFL game of all time was played. Not in the 1960s, when Arnie, Gary and Jack comprised golf's big three.
The golden age of racing began in the 1970s when a big red horse named Secretariat carried the sport to glorious new highs during the 1973 Triple Crown. It continued a few years later with Triple Crown triumphs and memorable 4-year-old campaigns by Seattle Slew and Affirmed, and edged into the 1980s with the brilliance of Spectacular Bid and the determination of a blue-collar gelding named John Henry.
It was punctuated by a full house on any given Saturday at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park, where movie stars like Cary Grant and Liz Taylor came to hang out and have fun. The Southern California jockeys rooms were overflowing with Hall of Fame riders: Bill Shoemaker, Laffit Pincay Jr., Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, and Sandy Hawley. Trainer Charlie Whittingham ruled the backstretch, though there was this new kid on the block from the Quarter horse game, D. Wayne Lukas, who was threatening the status quo. The best trainers won between 15% and 20% of the time. There were no "super trainers" winning at clips of 33% or higher like we see today.
Daily Racing Form printed all the official rulings handed down by the stewards back then, and they were dominated by such offenses as smoking in the shedrow or having a loose dog in the stable area. There seemed to be fewer veterinary trucks in the backstretch.
There was no full-card simulcasting when I first started going to the races, so the only show was on-track. We would bring binoculars to watch the races from the jam-packed grandstand (if we were lucky enough to find a seat…otherwise a spot on the track apron would do just fine). The only reason to view a television monitor was to see the replay of a race.
The paddock area and walking ring was the place to be to read the body language of a horse before a rider was put up, because the betting lines were often so long we didn't have the chance to watch the post parade. Wagering menus were more limited: one daily double; win, place or show; a handful of exactas; and a new proposition called the Pick Six.
Many horses, from claimers to stakes performers, ran often enough to have their own following. Stakes races for 4-year-olds and up were just as popular, if not more so, than black-type contests for 2 and 3-year-olds. Younger stars hung around as 4, 5, and 6-year-olds for races like the Santa Anita Handicap, Hollywood Gold Cup, and Century Handicap.
There's no turning back the clock, no putting the Genie back in the bottle. Racing today is different, in nearly every respect.
But I feel fortunate to have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with thousands of others on the apron to watch Affirmed and Sirlad duel for a full mile and quarter in the Hollywood Gold Cup, to watch Spectacular Bid accelerate like a Ferrari down the backstretch at Santa Anita when he won the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, to see John Henry grind out victory after victory on the turf or dirt. He'd have won on Polytrack, Cushion Track, Tapeta Footings or Pro-Ride surfaces, too.
I was lucky enough to see the distinct features of The Shoe and the Pirate, battling countless times down the stretch of a race, Shoemaker with his gifted hands and sixth sense, Pincay with his sheer determination and brute strength. I watched the old master, Charlie Whittingham, bring his horses along slowly but surely. Nearly everyone knew he'd "give" his horses a race because the bigger prize was down the road. But that was part of the mystique of handicapping, one of many factors that went into everyone's process of attempting to pick a winner. Today, I'm afraid, it's more about who is using what.
In my mind, the golden age of racing wasn't that long ago. Part of me still believes we can bring it back.
Ray Paulick is a Lexington, Ky.-based journalist who publishes the Paulick Report. (www.PaulickReport.com). Paulick served as editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse from 1992 to 2007, and over the past 25 years has covered thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales on six continents and more than a dozen countries. He has appeared on numerous television and radio news programs offering his expertise on the industry. Contact Ray at email@example.com.