It’s both celebrated and controversial—the Sport of Kings, it was once called—horse racing.

It’s been a dismal year for both railbirds and casual fans.  Casino gambling’s arrival as a way to prop up degenerating tracks as well as to energize new locations has changed the metrics of what was once viewed as a gentleman’s and gentlewoman’s domain.  While there have always been Damon Runyon characters in the grandstand and at the betting windows, it was assumed that blood ran blue on the farms and in the stables—both that of the horses and that of the owners.

A fiction, perhaps, but not far off the mark in the heyday of racing when the names Vanderbilt, Whitney and Astor were paired with the sport,

Now the reality is that aging thoroughbreds, propped by painkillers and other drugs, are raced over and over in pursuit of purses sweetened by slot machine proceeds at tracks that have diversified.  Recently, Governor Andrew Cuomo pf New York appointed a task force to investigate the correlation between the size of purses and the worth of horses entered in a race—an algorithm long ago thought to have been decided in favor of safety.

This year, the HBO cable network came face to face with the ugly side of the public’s attraction to competition among beautiful horses.  Though the show’s producers averred compliance with the strictest rules of animal safety, three horses died in he course of the production of the dramatic series called “Luck,” which was, among other things an insiders look at the seamy side of the race game. The show was cancelled though many thought it was destined to dominate ratings.

Photo: Associated Press

This brings us to yesterday.  Derby Day.  A record   165,307  attendees saw  a 15 to 1` long shot named I’ll Have Another (right), ridden by a jockey (Mario Gutierrez) riding in his first Kentucky Derby, beat 19 other horses– many of them with bloodlines and records that were far more likely to propel them to victory—to win the Run for the Roses.

Before the media coverage, most people assumed the lovely chestnut colt’s name came as the result of a cocktail lover’s enthusiasm.  In reality, the owner of the horse named his colt in honor of his love for his wife’s homemade cookies.

The next two jewels in the Triple Crown (The Preakness on May 19 and The Belmont Stakes on June 9) will reveal whether I’ll Have Another is a true champion or just another horse who won horse racing’s most revered race. One thing is certain: In the face of what is wrong with thoroughbred racing, the sight of a long shot– ridden by a rookie, named for a ritual between husband and wife–  closing in on and beating a hands-down favorite was a beautiful thing to see.

It’s a frivolous thing for sure, but in these days of malfeasance and mayhem, it just may turn out to be something grand after all.