Sports Nut

Blue-Collar Bluebloods

The myth of the working-class racehorse.

If you paid any heed to the advance coverage of last Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup, you might’ve thought some combination of Tom Joad and Cesar Chavez was fixing to run six furlongs at Belmont. It was, in fact, a 3-year-old named Lost in the Fog, the favorite in the sprint and, as his trainer kept telling reporters, the embodiment of the American Dream. “I think he’s got the blue-collar thing going a little bit,” Greg Gilchrist noted, going on to characterize himself and the horse’s owner, 85-year-old Harry Aleo, as “two hicks from Northern California who do a little huntin’ and fishin’ once in a while.” He summarized the horse’s appeal as follows: “People like rooting for the little guy. That’s us.”

Only in horse racing could anyone say something so patently silly without getting laughed out of the press room. Blue-collar? Like all thoroughbreds, Lost in the Fog is the product of careful breeding—horse racing’s time-honored eugenics program—not to mention untold millions in breeding and training fees. If his stardom persists for another few years, he will retire to a blessed life of very lucrative humping. In other sectors of life, we call these creatures “Kennedys.”

But so churns the racing hype machine. Today, it’s the peculiar fate of great horses to be molded into working-class heroes. Before Lost in the Fog, there was Smarty Jones, winner of the first two legs of the 2004 Triple Crown. Smarty got the same sort of mythic treatment largely because he was owned by affable racing outsiders from Philadelphia, not by a sheikh or a Steinbrenner. Never mind that his owners aren’t particularly working-class—they own a chain of car dealerships—and that his pedigree is anything but humble—his father is Elusive Quality, one of the country’s top sires. “In Fitzgerald’s brilliant novel from the 1920s, Jay Gatsby sprang from humble heartland origins and chased the American Dream to Long Island,” wrote the normally lucid Pat Forde before the Belmont Stakes. “Smarty Jones and his people have done the same.”

Why does the putative Sport of Kings swoon for its commoners? Seabiscuit, for one thing. The hero of the eponymous book and movie continues to do dray-horse work as a metaphor for Depression-era America, a symbol of a downtrodden country’s steely resolve. It muddies the picture a little to note Seabiscuit was the grandson of the greatest racehorse in history, Man o’ War, and the possession of one of the richest men in California. But those are treated as just minor details. Today, Seabiscuit is invoked constantly by a sport in need of a marketable star who isn’t either dead or exiled on the stud farm. All it takes to get tagged a “modern-day Seabiscuit” are a few stakes wins and a stable outside of Kentucky. As one columnist for the Daily Racing Form recently told me, “We’re looking for the Seabiscuit story.”

I suspect the sport’s long, slow decline in the last half of the 20th century also encourages obsessions with the under-horse. Having long ago drifted to the back of the sports section, perhaps racing as a whole finds a kindred spirit in a long shot, as if an unlikely champ would bring deliverance from the sporting world’s lower classes. “He’s good for racing,” goes the refrain whenever a new horse bivouacs in the public imagination.

The up-from-the-depths storylines may also be a matter of noblesse oblige in a game that’s owned and operated by the wealthy. Perhaps the blue-collar jones is a nod to the underclasses that populate the grandstands, filling the sport’s coffers with their unemployment money.

In the case of Lost in the Fog, it took a little shoehorning to fit his story into the formula. Consider that he went undefeated in his first 10 starts and in 2004 posted the best speed figures of any 2-year-old. Until the Breeders’ Cup he had rarely trailed, winning half of his races by at least seven lengths and only one by less than four. He was so dominant that people began to trot out the only comparison that’s more inevitable than Seabiscuit—Secretariat.

But somehow Lost in the Fog still came to be seen as a lower-class long shot. People pointed to his “modest” bloodlines, though in reality he’s a horse who demonstrates that breeding is as much a matter of fashion as science. Until his offspring started setting track records, Lost in the Fog’s father, Lost Soldier, wasn’t a well-regarded sire; now, his stud fee is more than double what it was when Fog was born. Then there’s the horse’s arriviste owner, Harry Aleo of San Francisco, an outsider to the racing Establishment but far from blue-collar—this is a guy who decorates his real-estate office in Ronald Reagan paraphernalia. Furthermore, to his fans in Northern California, Lost in the Fog represented a retort to the snobbery of horse racing elitists. (The Bay Area’s tracks, wrote a ChicagoTribune reporter recently, “are the Oaklands of the racing world.”) It’s a stretch for Northern California to claim possession of a horse foaled, reared, and broken in Florida, with a stop or two in Kentucky. But again, those are just details.

Before the Breeders’ Cup, some speculated that Lost in the Fog might win the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. That’s a near impossibility for sprinters—they’re considered a lower breed of race horse. On Saturday, NBC worked the underdog angle tirelessly. “In recent years,” one of the broadcasters intoned, “Funny Cide, Smarty Jones, Afleet Alex have all come from modest circumstances and pushed previously little-known personalities into the spotlight. Well, now, along comes Lost in the Fog, who’s trained in relative obscurity in Northern California …”

The race, however, did not go as planned. Lost in the Fog, running as a 3-to-5 favorite, faded from the lead after the eighth pole, then almost disappeared from the TV screen entirely, winding up seventh in a fairly weak field. Sportswriters cranked out the elegies. “[O]n this nippy, damp day, there was a visceral sense of opportunity lost, never to be retrieved,” wrote George Vecsey in the next day’s New York Times.

But no matter. By the end of the day, the sport had already moved on, finding another unlikely hero in Juvenile winner Stevie Wonderboy, a horse owned by entertainer and racing dilettante Merv Griffin. He will likely run in next year’s Derby, and by then someone will doubtless see in his story some expression of the American Dream. He’ll be an underdog, just like you and me.