Will America forgive and forget?
Bad news does not seem to stick very long in the American psyche. We're a society that one day shrieks as Brittney Spears dribbles her child off the pavement, and the next month lauds her on the morning talk show circuit as she promotes her "comeback" album. In sports, it takes only a few Tom Brady touchdown passes to turn one-time miscreant Randy Moss into a team player.
That said, the public relations hole dug by horse racing throughout 2008 might not have as much depth to it as first feared.
Proof of that came Wednesday night, when the racing industry got about as good of a PR jolt as could ever be concocted. The wildly popular mainstream reality show "American Idol" featured Simon, Paula and the crew from Louisville's Churchill Downs. At every commercial bump, Ryan Seacrest, the modern-day Dick Clark, voiced over beauty shots and staged racing clips that glamorized all things horsey. Consider that the "Idol" telecast likely will top 20 million households in the Nielson ratings, compared to the approximately 14 million who watched this year's Kentucky Derby telecast.
Nowhere in the 60-minute postcard were mentions of drugs, Eight Belles, PETA, horsemen's disputes or anything even loosely tied to a frown. The closest thing to controversy came when Simon Cowell, in all of his cynical splendor, told one awful aspirant that her performance was like a donkey racing against 22 horses. Cowell, you might know, actually has some racing in his blood. He has been a partner in an ownership syndicate called the Royal Ascot Racing Club, which campaigned 2005 Epsom Derby champion Motivator.
Of course this week's "Idol" will not suddenly send music lovers and pop-star wannabes to the $50 minimum window. Anyone who thinks that is foolish. It may not bring one butt to the track. But what it did prove is that racing's self-imposed ills are not a deal breaker with mainstream America.
The "American Idol" segments were taped in September, just four months after the Eight Belles tragedy could have easily sent squeamish television producers looking for another venue. After all, part of the "Idol" audition was held down the Watterson Expressway at Freedom Hall.
It would have been easy to cross Churchill Downs off the "cool" list after the 2008 Triple Crown. But that did not happen, and all of horse racing is a big benefactor because of that non-decision. The mere fact that "American Idol" came to the Downs after the tragedies of mainstream horses like Barbaro and Eight Belles is a testament that the track remains firmly a piece of Americana, and that its signature race, the Kentucky Derby, can withstand anything.
This is not to applaud forgetfulness and sweep bad tidings under the rug. The cause and effect of tragedies like Eight Belles and Barbaro need to be investigated, learned from and hopefully prevented. But the diligence due these animals and their handlers must take place while the show goes on. Tragedies should not wreck an industry if it is willing to find their cause, root out its problems and move forward and better itself. As a lover of Thoroughbred racing, I was devastated by the malaise that was 2008. Maybe I was a bit too insular as a member of the industry to fully grasp what the outside world thought. Their outrage and anger toward the game's problematic run certainly is justified. But maybe we insiders take the criticism much harsher than those who give it.
Horse racing rests far off the mainstream radar. It's a niche within a niche, whether you subscribe to its followers as sports fans or gamblers. And maybe, just maybe, that's what is best for it. If horse racing's problems are too grave to police, as most admit when discussing the drug situation, for instance, than the game might be better off by avoiding the public eye but for two wondrous minutes a year.
Let us in the industry fight one another over the battles that plague racing and work to make it the best we can. But, for mainstream America, let them drop by every so often with a bugle call on "American Idol" and enjoy only the best sights and sounds of the game. What they don't know won't hurt them, and that way we racing fans don't have to feel like we're the scum of the Earth when we pick up a copy of the Daily Racing Form at the local newsstand.
Jeremy Plonk has been an ESPN.com contributor since 2000. You can e-mail Jeremy about this topic or anything racing-related at Jeremy@Horseplayerpro.com.
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