In the early 20th century, the big four sports were a thing of the future and the big three comprised boxing, baseball and horse racing.
Somewhere along the way, a combination of anti-gambling sentiment and World War II diminished horse racing's popularity until the 1970s, when horses like Secretariat made legends and won the Triple Crown.
Since 1978, when Affirmed won the Triple Crown, no horse has completed the task. Horse racing has not received coverage on ESPN or other sports channels except for the big races. Unless one is at the racetrack, it is easy to forget horse racing is even a sport in America.
And yet nearly 170,000 people attended the Kentucky Derby just over a week ago—an all-time record.
Horse racing is coming back in America.
A baseball game can take anywhere between two and four hours. Most pitches are thrown with no other action than a return throw from a catcher. Baseball has been suffering as Americans have increasingly shorter attention spans.
A horse race lasts two minutes. Throughout the race, a horse can make a move at any point. It requires very little of a person to watch the race—and the TV screens some tracks have throughout make it simple to see which horse is in the lead and which horses are trying to make moves on the final turn.
Anything can happen in horse racing. The 50-1 longshot can come back and win. Heck, Animal Kingdom was a 20-1 shot in the Kentucky Derby.
Horses that start in the back of the pack come from behind to win. The strongest horses often muddle in the middle until the end of the race when they start passing the other hapless horses. Bettors are known to worry if their horse is out in front too early.
America's love of the underdog is reciprocated in horse racing, where not only can the underdog win, but someone will likely get rich off it. That's drama.
American sports fans love to connect with athletes. Despite C.S. Lewis' best efforts, horses make for poor interviews. While America can fall in love with a horse, it won't be for the horse's personality.
Jockeys are starting to take center stage, starting with jockey-in-chief Calvin Borel, who has won three of the last five Kentucky Derbies. Race track chatter among the trying-to-sound-knowledgeable, uninformed people centers around jockeys.
At the Kentucky Derby, quotes from around the racetrack included:
"I really like Borel's horse in this race."
"You know, I've just got a feeling about that eight horse...you know, Borel is riding him."
"You can't put your money against Borel in a Derby!"
People know about Borel, even if they couldn't name the horse he was riding. That connection allows horse racing to be more accessible to the average sports fan.
There are few places left in America where gambling is acceptable practice. Las Vegas, some casinos and the race tracks are the last bastions of an age-old tradition.
Betting makes races more exciting. Having money on a race forces fans to care, even if they don't know anything about the horse beyond its number.
In every race, there is a longshot. It's like the lottery—put down a dollar, win fifty. In every race there is a likely result where people can feel like they are keeping their money safe.
When the horse's appear around the final turn, people start jumping for joy and shouting ever louder, because if their horse appears first out of the cloud of dust, they will be able to proudly return to the betting window and collect their money.
Like gambling, drinking in public has become taboo in some parts of American culture. Not on the race tracks.
At major races, people often begin drinking at 9 a.m.—and anyone who is not holding a beverage is getting the weird looks. Mint Juleps, Black-eyed Susans and Belmont Breezes are plentiful at Triple Crown races and the crowd gets increasingly raucous.
The Preakness saw attendance rise last year with the simple institution of "The Mug Club," where people can pay $20 for all the beer they can drink. After suffering through smaller attendance numbers with the elimination of a BYOB policy, the attendance rose and the practice will continue this year.
A day at the tracks can be one infused with alcohol. Horse racing remains one of the few day drinking traditions left in America.
People love the past. Reliving the Roaring 20s is as simple as putting on an unusual hat.
Horse racing is steeped in history, and each horse has a connection. Each horse has a unique lineage. A horse racing fan reading through the generations is oft-jolted with the familiarity of previous winners.
The culture on race day is also a throw back to the old days in ways good and bad: the classes are separated with people who can afford a seat watching from around the racetrack, and those who buy infield tickets watching from the inside-out.
Unique cultures exist in each area, and each hearkens back to a different part of America's past.
A horse racing program allows any idiot to become an expert within seconds of browsing. With every bit of a horse's history contained in a rectangle, bettors become convinced there pick is right because of how their horse has finished in his last three races, or how he has performed on turf or in rain, or even the timing of his final split in his previous race.
Horse racing is accessible to those who don't know much about the sport, and this is integral in its current growth. Because so many people are unfamiliar with horse racing, the program allows people new to the sport to make informed bets.
Or at least they think they are informed, no matter how much one knows about horse racing, races often prove that no matter what statistic is examined, there is no surefire way to pick a winner.
Horse racing attracts some unique people. Enormous and creative hats are a theme at many horse races, and seeing them all is hilarity on its own.
The actions of the people, very likely not sober, add to the spectacle and make the time between each race at least as entertaining as the race itself.
Some races are working to make race day an even bigger spectacle. The Preakness has Bruno Mars and Train coming in to attract new fans.
No horse has won a Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. Americans love to see the impossible happen, and with every passing year without a Triple Crown winner, the feat seems more and more impossible.
The attendance at the Belmont Stakes is entirely dependent upon whether the same horse wins the Derby and the Preakness. The possibility of a Triple Crown is enough to bring masses of people to the track.
The excitement surrounding the Triple Crown races can trickle down to smaller race courses. After a day at the tracks, many want to try another race. Rather than waiting for next year, people often find other options in the area.
Horse names are awesome. OK, Animal Kingdom not so much. But here are some of the best from the past few years:
Mucho Macho Man
Paddy O' Prado
I Want Revenge
Horse racing is on an upswing for a number of reasons, but horse's names make it unique from names of sports teams. They are far more creative and change every year.