The Wall Street Journal recently asked six accomplished people to write a short essay on “What Makes You Nostalgic.”  One was Michael Lewis, author of such bestsellers as Moneyball, The Big Short, and The Fifth Risk.  Much of what he said about baseball could very well be said of horse racing:

“There’s money to be made off exploiting other people’s nostalgia. Baseball, unlike other sports, is selling its connection to the past.  I think that’s why baseball is nostalgic.  People naturally associate baseball not just with childhood but with their relationship with their father.  If what you’re selling is continuity and a connection to the childhood experience, then it is scary to make changes.  If you make those changes, you do indeed undermine that feeling of nostalgia.  It’s not irrational for these sorts of institutions to be resistant to change.  The interesting thing is that baseball is so unmodern.  The modern world is all about embracing change and disrupting.  The truth about baseball is if there’s no continuity, it’s kind of boring. It’s slow; it’s not the pace of modern life. Basketball is the pace of modern life.”

Horse racing is slow-moving, if one goes to a racetrack and bets only the live races, as in the days before simulcasting. There are long lapses of time between races, followed at most by a couple of minutes of action.  

Many avid horse racing fans were introduced to the sport when they were way too young to bet, typically by a close relative, and most often by a father.  For them, to use Michael Lewis’ phrase about baseball, racing is “a connection to the childhood experience.” 

Years ago, a beloved father would sometimes take his two teenage boys to Churchill Downs on his half-day off from work. That is how this son, now approaching the final furlongs of life’s run, developed a lasting fascination with an “unmodern” sport. 

Horse racing’s showcase event, the Kentucky Derby, is a throwback to many yesteryear’s ago.  When Churchill Downs hosts “the Run for the Roses,” on the first Saturday every May, as it has been doing since 1875, you can cut the nostalgia with a knife.  Likewise, the annual gathering at Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York has been trading on wistfulness that began with the track’s first meet just weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863.

Simulcasting has disrupted the business side of racing and rendered it much more convenient and decidely faster paced, but racing aficionados occasionally seek out the traditional ambience–the sights and sounds and smells of the real thing–up close and personal. Just like old times with Dad.

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