Triple Crown would be historic, but that doesn't mean it would change the sport

California Chrome's popularity won't dramatically improve the health of horse racing, experts say

June 06, 2014|By Childs Walker | The Baltimore Sun

ELMONT, N.Y. — For months now, California Chrome has carried the outlandish dreams of his little-guy owners and his unsung trainer every time he's roared around another racetrack.

As his victories have mounted, so has his cargo.

When he enters the starting gate for Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the dashing chestnut colt will carry the dreams of every thoroughbred racing enthusiast yearning to see the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.

It would be great for the sport, they say. And it's hard to argue against the value of a transcendent hero to offset years of drug scandals, declining crowds and fractured governance.

"We need new idols," says Ron Sanchez, whose horse Social Inclusion challenged California Chrome in the Preakness. "We need to bring young people to the sport."

There's little question California Chrome's quest for history will create a big-event atmosphere for the Belmont. If recent history is any guide, the crowd and television audience will at least double the figures from last year, when no Triple Crown was on the line.

On the other hand, some of California Chrome's biggest fans say that even if he wins, the glow will be short-lived and unlikely to cure what ails the onetime "sport of kings."

"This is a lovely horse, and he's done a lot for the game, getting people interested," says longtime turf writer and historian William Nack. "But the shot in the arm doesn't last long."

Several scholars of the racing business agree.

"The reality is no one horse can change the overall trajectory of the sport," says Tim Capps, who analyzes the industry as a professor at the University of Louisville. "It's not like you'll suddenly see attendance and [betting] handles go up 10 percent around the country if he wins."

'A local market business'

If California Chrome becomes the first since Affirmed to win a Triple Crown, he will be a bona fide sports star, Capps says. He'll battle LeBron James for headlines, garner endorsements (he already has one from the shoe company Skechers) and draw big crowds to his future races.

"But racing is still a local market business," Capps adds. "Just because California Chrome draws a lot of people to an appearance in say, New Jersey, doesn't change the fact business might not be good in Texas at the same moment."

The sport has already seen this with recent stars such as Smarty Jones, who drew more than 8,000 just to watch him work out when he chased the Triple Crown in 2004, and Zenyatta, the great filly who appeared on 60 Minutes and in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine as she built a 19-race winning streak.

As Zenyatta drew big crowds in California in 2009 and 2010, for example, attendance and wagering still plummeted in Maryland and other locations. The U.S. betting handle declined 26 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to The Jockey Club, a New York-based racing advocacy organization.

Thoroughbred racing will never occupy the place it did for past generations, in part because there are so many more options for entertainment and especially gambling, says Doug Reed, who directs the racetrack industry program at Arizona State University.

"I'd rather have a little boost than no boost," Reed says in assessing California Chrome's potential impact. "But the reality is racing will still be off the radar compared to where it was in the 1970s."

Given the industry's fragmented state, with no national governance and states operating under significantly different rules, it will be harder to take advantage of California Chrome's popularity. It will be entirely up to his owners and individual racetracks to construct major events around him.

"No one's driving the bus," Reed says.

Early retirement

Thoroughbred racing has always struggled to create longterm stars, because of the great economic incentives to retire champions to the breeding barn. But the problem has grown worse.

Of the recent Triple Crown near misses, I'll Have Another never ran again after the Preakness, Smarty Jones never ran after the Belmont and Big Brown ran just twice after he failed to finish in the Belmont.

That's a significant contrast to the 1970s Triple Crown winners. Both Seattle Slew and Affirmed ran full schedules as 4-year-olds. Secretariat ran six more times after his majestic triumph in the Belmont Stakes.

Capps argues that generation provided a more lasting benefit to the sport in part because fans could continue watching their favorites.

Early indications are that California Chrome might continue running for some time after the Belmont. His co-owner, Steve Coburn, and his trainer, Art Sherman, have both talked about the possibility of future races. Coburn and his partner, Perry Martin, already turned down a $6-million offer for 51 percent of their horse, so they're not above rejecting a big payday in favor of an exciting narrative.

"They understand they're on the verge of something historic, and they seem genuinely grateful for it," Capps says. "I expect that we'll continue to see them act that out."

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