CREDIT: Benoit Photo/AP
By the time California Chrome breaks from the number two post at Belmont Park tomorrow, sometime just before the sun starts to fade, only a mile-and-a-half of dirt will stand between the chestnut colt and sporting immortality. Chrome has a chance to do what 11 other horses since 1978 have tried and failed: to follow up victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes with another at the Belmont, completing horse racing’s Triple Crown.
The last time it happened, when Affirmed outdueled Alydar in one of the most thrilling final half-miles in racing history, racing was still an iconic American sport. Champion horses were still heroes, the sport still healthy and at the forefront of our sporting conscience. Today it is different: beset by scandal, the rise of other sports, and a business model that looks increasingly outdated, horse racing now barely registers among America’s favorite sports to watch.
There is an understandable and palpable sense, then, both in the industry and especially in the media that covers it, that a California Chrome victory is something the sport needs. On its face that belief makes sense, and Chrome makes an apt character to put at the center of such a drama. He was home bred, the masterpiece of a mare who cost only $8,000 after a claiming race. He doesn’t boast the pedigree of a champion. He wasn’t foaled on a big money farm. He wasn’t even born into one of the Triple Crown’s hotbeds. Instead, he’s the first Californian to win the Kentucky Derby in five decades and would be the first ever to capture the Crown.
And so there is the question: can California Chrome, all thousand pounds of finishing fury that he is, reverse the declines horse racing has experienced?
The answer is almost certainly no.
Timothy Capps, the director of the University of Louisville’s Equine Industry Program, said he used to be in the camp that believed a Triple Crown winner could heal the sport’s wounds. Today, he is not.
“I’d love to see it happen. I think the horse is a great story. There’s a great backstory there — it really is a rags-to-riches story in terms of how racing works. I think a win by him Saturday would have a salutary effect on the sport,” Capps, who has also served as the executive vice president of the Maryland Jockey Club, told me over the phone this week. “But I don’t think it fixes what ails us.”
One of the reasons that is true is that the Triple Crown races — and the lack of a horse that can win all three — is not what ails the sport.
The Derby drew its second-largest attendance figure ever this year, falling just short of the record it set in 2012. It drew 15.3 million television viewers for NBC, hitting the 15 million mark for the fourth time in six years. Chrome’s win at the Preakness drew record attendance and wagering records and earned the race’s best television ratings since 2009, making this the second consecutive year in which at least 9.5 million viewers watched the race. The Belmont, where ratings fluctuate based on the possibility of a Triple Crown, is sure to see some of its best numbers in years.
When it comes to the Triple Crown, at least, America is still in love with horse racing.
Away from those three weekends, the problems are larger. There are the well-publicized safety and medical concerns, which have driven fans away from the sport and today are more prominent than ever (both because of increased scrutiny from outside groups and the media and because segments of the industry are working harder to address them). Those need to be fixed, whether with the national medical standards some have pushed for or the regional compacts others favor.
And there is the fact that the sport’s business model has not always kept up with the changing realities facing it. There is more competition, not just from other sports on television but from other gambling outlets too, as casinos have spread across the country. Attendance on typical race days is down at many tracks, in part because different forms of betting have made it easier to do so without coming to the track. The number of races has dropped from more than 80,000 in the late 1980s to fewer than 50,000 today, Capps said, and that reality exists both as a symptom of some ills — the number of newborn horses registered each year, for instance, has declined for much of the last decade, thanks in part to the economy — and as a potential cure: fewer race days, Capps said, could help foster a sense of novelty around the idea of going to the track.
That’s not to say racing is dead. Far from it. Some tracks, like Keeneland, sitting as it does in the heart of horse racing in central Kentucky, and Del Mar, a beautiful southern California track, have found their own niches based on their location. Other tracks still have success with smaller, popular meets and graded stakes races. Others, though, and the industry as a whole, are perhaps in an awkward transition phase, in flux as they attempt to find their own niche and draw new fans.
The efforts are widespread. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, installed lights in 2010 and started running night races on several Fridays a year, a move that proved popular and drew large crowds and significant numbers of young adults — a crucial segment the industry has targeted. It and other tracks have marketed holidays like Mother’s Day as family days at the track. The entire industry has ramped up efforts to market directly to young people, sometimes with success and sometimes without it. Other tracks, like the famed Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles, have made major facilities upgrades in an attempt to draw fans.
California Chrome can’t repair all of the problems. But as the sport tries to reshape itself to market its product to new audiences when the bright lights of the Triple Crown, the Breeder’s Cup, or other big races aren’t on, a fresh Triple Crown winner would certainly help its efforts. For a sport in which superstar horses are fleeting — 41 years after his Triple Crown, Secretariat remains the sport’s most recognizable name, and only a few horses, like Zenyatta and Barbaro, have captured nationwide attention in recent years — a champion that spends a considerable amount of time in the headlines is a potential marketing tool.
And that’s why seemingly everyone is rooting for Chrome tomorrow, pinning their hopes to Saturday’s outcome. He will leave the gate somewhere well south of an even-money favorite, with many of the bettors casting their lot with him not so they can win money but just to have a ticket bearing the name of the first Triple Crown winner in 36 years. Jockeys have already spoken of the bittersweet feeling that comes with robbing the sport and its fans of a Triple Crown. On a call with others in the industry this week, Capps heard a fellow horseman who liked another horse in the race say that his only wish is that the horse “runs a strong second.” To California Chrome.
“People remember those golden moments. That does create fans, and not only fans but new participants,” Capps said. “If he wins the Triple Crown and people start to look at him as a really special talent, what happens after that is hard to say. But for awhile, every move he makes…somebody’s going to write about it.
“This horse could become that, and that’d be good for the sport.”
He just won’t fix all of its problems by himself.