For the first time in 37 years, and certainly for the first time in my lifetime, we have a Triple Crown winner in horse racing. American Pharoah capped off his incredible accomplishment with a dominant win in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday.
I wondered what the national reaction would be after we finally had a horse finish off the tough test. We've seen several attempts come up short in recent years, some in the Belmont itself and one the day before when I'll Have Another scratched on the day before the race.
The casual sports fan will turn on NBC on the first Saturday in May and pick the best name as their pick to win the Kentucky Derby. They'll wear their big hats and drink their mint juleps (delicious), but as soon as that race is over, the Sport of Kings goes out of sight, out of mind for two weeks. By the time the Preakness comes around in Baltimore, they'll turn on NBC again to see if the Derby winner can bounce back and take the second jewel of the Triple Crown. Some might say the Preakness is the most important, most impactful race of the spring. The result of the Preakness determines the attendance at Belmont Park three weeks later, and also the TV ratings for that race on NBC.
The Triple Crown is a grueling test for the horse that wins the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Three long races in five weeks, finishing with a distance that they'll likely never run again. Any horse that runs in, let alone wins, all three deserves a long vacation.
So, back to the question...Will American Pharoah's Triple Crown win "save" horse racing? First, we have to take a quick look at where horse racing was, and where it is now. In the early-to-mid 20th century, horse racing was at the top of the American sports consciousness, along with baseball and boxing. Everyone knew who the top racehorses were, much like they knew who the heavyweight champ was at any given time.
Now, horse racing isn't even close to cracking the "Big 4" of football, basketball, baseball, and hockey. It's probably not even in the top ten. Tracks are closing (more here), betting handle is down slightly, and there are fewer horses making starts. Also, horse racing won't enter the casual sports fans' minds again until American Pharoah starts again, whenever that is. Plus, come November, the sport's newest star will make his final start in the Breeders' Cup Classic and then be retired to stud. You won't hear his name again, outside of replays, until his offspring make it to the racetrack several years down the road.
What would need to happen for American Pharoah to "save" horse racing? In my opinion...
- On-track attendance and betting handle needs to go up
- Handle as a whole needs to go up
- He needs to win his final two races (going out with a bang on national television at the Breeders' Cup)
- Racetracks need to work with new fans to educate them about the sport
#4 I think is the most important. We here in Chicago are familiar with learning a new sport...hockey was a foreign concept to many of us just five years ago and now the Blackhawks are the hottest ticket in town. Horse racing is a sport that you don't have to wager on to enjoy...but it helps. Knowing what you're looking at when you're looking at the program will help you understand the sport and perhaps cash a ticket or two as well. It's on the racetracks to provide this kind of help to their new fans. It's on the racetracks to attract people back to the track more than once or twice a meet.
In my list above, I wish I could include American Pharoah racing during his four year old season. While that would be exciting, that's just not fiscally responsible for his owners. Pharoah could be worth ten million dollars every year in stud fees. His owner is saying all the right things, but they can't get this colt to the breeding shed fast enough.
American Pharoah did his job. I'm interested to see what happens in the near future with the sport based on the indicators I listed above. Years down the road, we'll know more about American Pharoah's impact on the sport. If he starts a new great bloodline, the sport could be revived with multiple new stars.
We'll just have to wait and see...and that's the problem with horse racing.