Some sports can lose much of their luster for long stretches, but continue to regain our attention and awe under the right circumstances. The Olympics leave our consciousness, but every few years Americans are again captivated and become swimming or gymnastics or curling aficianados. Boxing can be deemed dead but is reanimated by a single big prize fight.
Horse racing’s Triple Crown is another such spectacle. Nobody cares about horse racing, in general. OK, not nobody. I’ve seen some folks at the Meadowlands Racetrack who cared quite a bit — but their interest was usually less about the beauty and majesty and more about recouping their turnpike toll and Carvel expenses.
Yet any time an elite horse emerges in the Triple Crown hunt, there seems to be this sense of nostalgic Americana. People get dressed up, wear funny hats, imbibe lots of mixed drinks and pack the stands to essentially watch animals be animals.
For at least a few days, American Pharoah made horse racing matter again. Once deemed the “sport of kings,” horse racing has virtually no impact on the modern sports landscape. Movies like “Seabiscuit” depict a time when everyday people cared about the sport, romanticizing its existence within the zeitgeist. That only exists as memory, but it does occasionally emerge as a reenactment.
As now just the 12th Triple Crown winner in history, American Pharoah was cheered on Saturday in Elmont, New York, by thousands of fans thrilled to be witnessing history. There wasn’t big money to be made betting on the huge favorite, so their enthusiasm was mostly organic. It came from a place that desired greatness.
As Americans, we like greatness. If forced to watch something we don’t know much about, we at least want to be watching the best. That’s how our Olympic fever manifests. Nobody knew who Michael Phelps was until someone said “That guy there might win eight gold medals.” Then he was our best friend. Three months ago, American Pharoah sounded like the name of an Obama-bashing biography. But he ran a few races really really fast, so people began to cheer for his continued success because of how it, in turn, made them feel, which is now as a participant in a historic accomplishment.
Another piece of history was re-written Saturday as Serena Williams won the French Open for her 20th career Grand Slam victory. Her achievements are becoming far rarer than even a Triple Crown champion. Just two women — Margaret Court (24) and Steffi Graf (22) — and no men have won more titles. Williams is 20-4 in Grand Slam finals and is becoming difficult to deny as the greatest woman tennis player of all time.
At the other end of the spectrum, Tiger Woods registered his worst professional golf round Saturday, firing an 85 at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin, Ohio. Once in the all-time pantheon where Williams currently resides, Woods is now more of the Seabiscuit figure. His re-emerging to greatness would be something of an underdog tale, and we sure do love underdog tales.
Saturday featured greatness in all its phases. We were captivated by lightning in a bottle with American Pharoah, somewhat ignored the continued ho-hum dominance of Williams and saw the once-in-a-lifetime phenom reduced to his professional rock bottom. But for as much as we do love greatness, I’ll bet that Woods’ struggles will be the recurring talking point in months to come as we go back to taking Williams for granted and ignoring horse racing until next spring.
That’s a bet slip I’m certain will cash in.
David Simon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.