Can a Triple Crown winner save horse racing?

Photo Credit: USAToday
Photo Credit: USAToday

With 36 years and counting since Affirmed became the last Triple Crown winner, the horse racing world is placing its proverbial bet on California Chrome to do the improbable during Saturday’s 146th running of the Belmont Stakes. And, perhaps in doing so, bring the sport back to prominence after decades of fading interest from the American sports fan.

In this era of instant gratification in which we live, the once unique climax of horse racing is actually losing its luster. With smart phones, tablets, wireless internet, DVR’s etc. we’ve become conditioned to seek out sport’s biggest moments with the flick of a finger. The thrill of a horse race that lasts 150 seconds just doesn’t register given the attention span of today’s sports consumer, as the drama and excitement of just about anything can be condensed into mere minutes.

Horse racing interest and viewership measures have dropped precipitously in recent years. So much so, that in response to the nearly 50 percent decline in attendance in just two decades, the racing industry appears to have stopped releasing annual attendance figures. Worse still, the recent boom in ease and availability to gamble on anything and everything sports related neutralizes one of the most important aspects that drew fans to horse racing in the first place – the thrill of the win:

“Horse racing thrived when a lot of people still had a connection with horses, and when it was not legally possible to bet on much of anything but horses. But, of course, in America today, gambling is wide open…Americans would rather play slot machines and point spreads and watch automobiles race, because they grew up with cars and can relate to them. But horses, like American dreams, are harder for us to connect to these days.” –Frank Deford (Senior Contributing Writer, Sports Illustrated)

Since Affirmed last won back in in 1978, 11 thoroughbreds have come up short in the final leg of the Triple Crown. California Chrome, the overwhelming favorite, is set to run for the record books on Saturday. But even on the heels (or hooves) of Triple Crown history being made, serious doubts linger as to whether horse racing, from an intrigue standpoint, will ever re-emerge as a sport to be reckoned with.

With the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness already in hand, California Chrome is knocking at the door of horse racing immortality. But bringing the sport back to prominence and the golden era of years past? Don’t bet on it.

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