No sporting event in Delaware history has had a longer run and this is perhaps the one time of the year that Delaware Park can turn back the clock and feel that it is once again home of The Sport of Kings.
The 77th Delaware Handicap will be held at the Stanton track on Saturday and Delaware Park always draws its biggest crowd of the year for this race. Everyone knows that attendance at most horse tracks – thoroughbred and harness – has dwindled down to almost nothing over the years and the tracks couldn’t survive without the additional revenue from simulcasting and, in the case of Delaware Park, the slots.
That, of course, is a different, albeit related story – the golden egg that the slots once laid at the feet of the tracks in Delaware continues to shrink. So, that’s a double whammy for horse racing in this state – the lack of revenue from slots and the lack of people who really care about the sport.
But, for one day at least, we can travel back in time and remember how it used to be when sports like horse racing and boxing were at their peak of popularity and professional football and basketball were rag-tag operations that few people cared about.
Those two sports — horse racing and boxing — seem to represent the era of the 1930s and 1940s (call it the Fedora Era, since no man back then would leave home without his) more than any other. Millions of people huddled around their radios every time Max Baer, Jimmy Braddock or Joe Louis defended his heavyweight boxing championship. And millions more would listen in to the big races of the day, and horses like War Admiral and Sea Biscuit and Citation were big stars, as big as Joe DiMaggio or Dizzy Dean.
Even if you weren’t around in those days, you still have plenty of old, black-and-white movies that can tell you what it was like. Something about those two sports attracted more Damon Runyon type of characters than any others and that made for great theater. And that’s because more diverse characters hung around gyms and stables than anywhere else. Not all of them were shady, but almost all of them had interesting stories to tell.
Now, horse racing and boxing have lost their appeal with the masses – quick, name the current heavyweight boxing champion – and nothing will ever get it back. There are simply too many other things to do and too many other sports to watch and only the hard-core fans remain for the two sports that used to rule the front page of the daily sports section. Of course, the newspapers that covered those two sports so faithfully are also fading away, but that, too, is another sad story for another day.
There aren’t many people around from that era anymore and every day there are fewer and fewer who remember the glory days of Delaware Park, as well as the two sports known as The Sweet Science and The Sport of Kings. But those days did exist and we should remember those times, just as we should remember all history, good and bad.
So, if you do head out to Delaware Park on Saturday, take a minute to imagine what it must have been like in the 1930s and 1940s, when tens of thousands of fans crammed into the bleachers on a daily basis to watch the action, the men wearing their fedoras and puffing away on big cigars as they studied The Racing Form. It probably smells a lot better now, but it’s not nearly as much fun.