NEW YORK — Will the long, long wait finally end in the Belmont Stakes on Saturday?
If it does, and American Pharoah becomes the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, it may not be enough to help the troubled sport of horse racing stay relevant.
“It would be a shot in the arm for racing,” says Tom Hammond, who hosts NBC’s horse racing coverage. “But racing does have many problems, and a Triple Crown winner is not going to solve all those problems.”
Amid a push to improve drug testing, a dwindling fan base and horse breakdowns, racing is a far cry from the popular sport it used to be in the days of Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed.
The weeks leading to a Triple Crown try always create a buzz in the racing world and draws tons of interest from casual fans hoping to see a little history. The buildup usually results in higher TV ratings, not to mention huge crowds at Belmont Park.
The anticipation for another Triple Crown has been going on since 1979, a year after Affirmed became the 11th horse to sweep the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont. Twelve times, horses entered the starting gate in the Belmont, only to come up short at the finish, from Spectacular Bid in ‘79 to California Chrome last year. I’ll Have Another won the first two legs in 2012, but was scratched the day before the race with an injury.
“I know every year it seems like people are so fired up about the fact that a horse is finally going to win the Triple Crown,” says Larry Collmus, Belmont’s new track announcer who also calls the race for NBC. “And then they all leave and say, ‘I can’t believe this, it didn’t happen again.’ People are certainly ready for it.”
Then again, maybe not.
“Susan Lucci lost the Emmy award 18 times and it made her famous,” notes John Hendrickson, husband of Saratoga socialite Marylou Whitney.
It’s been a generation since the last Triple Crown, so it’s tough to figure if ending the drought will help. The short-term answer is: yes, it will.
“It’ll be a temporary high,” said retired Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero, Jr., who finished well back in Belmonts that resulted in Triple Crowns for Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the 1970s. “It will only last a little bit, and then back to usual.”
The reality is horses don’t run as much as they used to. In fact, many top 3-year-olds end up being retired to stud before their 4-year-old seasons because the breeding industry is so lucrative.
American Pharoah owner Ahmed Zayat said his colt will race until the end of the year, but breeding rights have already been sold to Coolmore’s Ashford Stud for what could end up being $30 million. With a win in the Belmont, why risk injury by running him again to draw a few more big crowds?
“I don’t know if it’s going to resurrect the sport,” says Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito, who will try to play spoiler a third time with 30-1 long shot Frammento. “But it will definitely help.”
Affirmed, who dueled with rival Alydar throughout his career, continued racing after winning the Triple Crown through his 4-year-old season and drew large crowds everywhere he showed up. Same with Seattle Slew, who ran through his 4-year-old season. Secretariat, who ended a 25-year Triple drought in 1973, finished off his 3-year-old season before being retired. He was a magazine cover boy, and remains one of the most well-known names in all of sports.
“I think racing is strong businesswise,” says Zito. “There are a lot of people buying horses. A lot of people are new in the game, a lot of rich people that like to compete in this game.
“Fan wise, I’m not too sure because of all the electronic stuff going on ... the only way you’re going to get them out is a big event. So if American Pharoah wins, I don’t think you’ll get that fan base again — not at the track. That’s the way it is.”
Hammond, an avid racing fan from Lexington, Kentucky, has been through so many failed Triples he understands the allure of the buildup. But he wants to see it happen.
“It would be better than just to keep waiting, keep waiting,” he said. “I know that that does have an attraction to it ... a Triple Crown winner is not going to solve all those problems, but I think it will show people, our casual fans, how exciting the sport can be, and maybe shine a spotlight on the horses themselves.”
Maybe just temporarily.
“I don’t know if it would help the game as much as people think,” Zito said. “I never thought I’d say that.”
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