The sport with the biggest one-and-done problem is not college basketball. It is horse racing.
Every spring, the Triple Crown instantly makes heroes out of equines, who then vanish. It’s why California Chrome’s return to the track this Saturday is the biggest story in sports.
For the past quarter-century, horse racing has fought a losing battle with general public on many fronts. However, its greatest problem has been the consistent lack of a recognizable, mainstream media star.
The three Triple Crown races are among the most-watched sporting events of the year. If a Triple Crown is on the line in the Belmont Stakes, as with California Chrome, it becomes one of the biggest television events – sports or otherwise – of the year. How many events can get 20.6 million viewers in today’s age of fractured audiences?
It is a predicament college basketball knows all about – the NCAA Tournament creates stars, who take their talents to the NBA, and the sport scrambles to create another roster of stars, and it repeats annually.
Think about the list of Triple Crown stars that stole headlines and then disappeared. Smarty Jones and Afleet Alex never raced after the Belmont Stakes. I’ll Have Another never even made it to Belmont. Big Brown and Point Given didn’t make it to the Breeders Cup.
Even when a Triple Crown/Horse of the Year did return – Curlin in 2008 – he embarked on an ambitious, historic 4-year-old season in relative anonymity. His races were rarely, if ever, on basic cable as a four-year-old. Even though he set a new career earnings record, he was shown zero times on network television.
From the depths of 2008, the sport has shown life the past couple of years. Horse racing leaders, particular the formerly incompetent New York Racing Association, have figured out that event days are need in 2015 to bring out the masses. The packed 2014 Belmont Stakes card led to multiple records, with on-track handle of $19,105,877 and all-sources handle of $150,249,399. A new program on July 4th weekend led to 11,118 people in the stands, $2,825,797 wagered on track (56% increase) and $18,829,265 all-total handle (37% increase)
While the sport has turned the corner, it needs more. It needs a face. It needs a star.
The Breeders’ Cup Classic in November provided a glimpse into the potential of 2015. The three best three-year-olds – California Chrome, Shared Belief and Bayern – all made it to the starting gate. Viewers responded in November, as ratings went up 25 percent from 2013. It was the first time three-year-olds dominate the race since 2007 when the Triple Crown trio of Curlin, Street Sense and Hard Spun dominated that year’s Classic.
In 2008, only Curlin raced. In 2015, all three stars are expected to race full campaigns.
Even more exciting – and why this is sport’s most important year – is that the pieces are in place to take advantage.
In early 2013, Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom tried turf against superstar Point of Entry. It was a race that a horse racing nut like myself was geeked about. It was incredible. It was not televised.
In early 2015, Kentucky Derby winner and reigning Horse of the Year California Chrome returns for a rematch against Shared Belief. It is one of the biggest February races in recent memory. The San Antonio Stakes has not been aired nationwide on basic cable in my lifetime. It will this weekend on Fox Sports 1.
The glut of sports on television – namely, the expansion of NBCSN and the creation of Fox Sports 1 – opened up an avenue for horse racing. In 2014, the number of stakes races widely available exploded exponentially. Sure, the ratings outside the Triple Crown and the Breeders Cup have been forgettable or downright disgusting, but you have to start somewhere.
For the first year in ages, the sport does not have to deposit all its eggs into the Triple Crown basket and hope against hope that a horse shows up in New York in June in pursuit of history.
Please do not take this to mean that California Chrome will magically solve horse racing’s problems. Slots revenue can’t fix horse racing in every state. The number of thoroughbreds born continues to decline. Drug regulations are a joke in some jurisdictions.
California Chrome is a bright shining star in this mess. He brings people to the races. Unlike the sport’s previous savior, Zenyatta, he has the benefit of a Triple Crown campaign that made him – for both good and bad reasons – an actual household name.
When California Chrome leaves the starting gate to face Shared Belief, it would be overwrought and cliché to say he is carrying the sport in his saddle.
He will give the sport a chance to thrive. It hasn’t always had that in February.
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