In its heyday, horse racing had it all. It was the speed and danger sport before NASCAR came along; movie stars and gangsters rubbed glamorous elbows; and a couple sawbucks on a winning long-shot could put you on Easy Street.
As with all nostalgia, the reality could never match the legend. But there was a current of excitement and passion around horse racing back in the days of fedoras and two-toned shoes. Perhaps the popularity of racing was as simple as the fact that Americans used to grow up around horses and knew them as personalities.
(MORE: Twilight at the Track)
And they are personalities. Some are born with loads of talent, but won’t do the hard work to become a champion. Some love a challenge, and won’t stop working until they win. Some are playful; some are mean. Some are smart; some aren’t. Such traits seared the names of great racers into the public consciousness as deeply as the names of some presidents and some billionaires: Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Citation, Seabiscuit.
The glory days endured through a golden age of racing in the 1970s, when Affirmed battled Alydar to join Seattle Slew and the incomparable Secretariat as winners of the Triple Crown. Since then, a long twilight has settled over the Sport of Kings. Attendance, wagers, purses, and new foals all are in decline. Such storied tracks as Hialeah in Florida, Bay Meadows in California, and Garden State in New Jersey have padlocked their stables and turned out the lights for good.
The causes are many. Competition for the gambling and entertainment dollar is more intense than ever. But even more damaging is the widespread culture of doping in the racing business, and the high rate of fatal breakdowns that goes with it. As these photographs make clear, amid the fading memories of glamor and excitement, the beating heart of the sport is, and always will be, the horse. Whoever wants to save racing must first care about that.
David Von Drehle is an editor-at-large for TIME, where he has covered politics, breaking news and the Supreme Court since 2007. He is the author of four books, including Abraham Lincoln and America’s Most Perilous Year, published in 2012, and Triangle: The Fire That Changed America.