Horse Racing Not Desperate For Triple Crown Winner

by John Furgele

They say it every year, and when they do, you can sense the disappointment in the voice of the broadcasters.  And, after Oxbow won the 2013 Preakness Stakes, you could hear the resignation in NBC’s Tom Hammond, when he said, “for the 35th straight year, there will not be a Triple Crown winner in horse racing.”

Later that night I was viewing the local sports and the sportscaster—a good one—stated that horse racing is “desperate for a Triple Crown winner”, but with “Orb’s fourth place finisher, it won’t happen.”  We all know that winning the Triple Crown hasn’t happened since 1978 when Affirmed turned the trick.

The 1970s made attaining the Triple Crown look easy.  Secretariat in ’73, then Seattle Slew in ’77 and Affirmed in ’78.  In 1979, Spectacular Bid won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness—easily—before finishing third at the Belmont Stakes.  Even with that defeat, as an 11 year old, I viewed that as minor setback and figured the 1980s would see at least three, maybe four Triple Crown winners. 

Of course, it hasn’t happened, and there are a myriad of reasons as to why it hasn’t happened, and since horses dont’ talk and don’t give interviews, there will always be some mystery to be sure.

Every year, you hear it, that horse racing needs a Triple Crown winner in the worst way, to save what some call a dying sport.  And, every year, I chuckle and think quite openly…..why?

Let’s be honest, will a Triple Crown winner really save horse racing?  What will it really do?  Moreover, how will it be measured?  If a horse wins the Triple Crown, does attendance increase at Aqueduct on February 15th?  Do more people flock to Churchill Downs for the Stephen Foster Handicap?  Does the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park in the fall attract over 50,000 fans? 

What would ESPN do?  Would they devote huge segments to stakes races on Saturdays and Sundays?  WIll they send a crew out to cover the draw for the Travers Stakes, the Haskell Invitational or the Pennsylvania Derby?  Will TV ratings soar through the roof?  Would there be a Horse Racing Show of the Week every Saturday to showcase the Ohio Derby and the West Virginia Derby?

The Kentucky Derby gets a very nice TV rating, this year it was somewhere between 9.7 and 10, which is quite good.  But, even with Orb’s convincing win, a win that got the experts excited and thinking Triple Crown, the Preakness rating is certain to be lower, and that’s with the Triple Crown hope still alive.  Had Orb won, the casual American would probably be intruiged enough to watch the Belmont Stakes on June 8th, but then what?

A Triple Crown winner would certainly be a popular story for a few days.  On Monday, all the morning wake up shows would have some sort of feature story on the impact and the perverbial, “does (insert horse)Triple Crown win insure horse racing’s survival?”  But, by Wednesday it would be over.  No more stories, no more talk, everybody going in a different direction.  A Triple Crown would not lead to ESPN and Fox Radio having horse racing segments on their daily shows. 

Would I like to see a horse win the Triple Crown?  Of course, it would be an exciting thing to see, and it would be nice to see the impact it would have, but horse racing is lucky.  Unlike a lot of niche sports, horse racing does have moments in the sun.  The Kentucky Derby is its grandest moment.  They get 150,000 plus at Churchill Downs, and as mentioned, good TV ratings.  Many in the northeast consider the first Saturday in May as the sure sign that spring and the warm weather are here to stay.  That’s one day.  

The Preakness may count as the second day.  As Preakness officials say, “the one thing the Preakness has that the Derby doesn’t is the Derby winner.”  Because of that, there is intruigue for the Preakness, because if the Derby winner wins at Pimlico, then…….

The Belmont Stakes, when a Triple Crown is on the line is the third big day in the sun for the sport.  We have seen it.  War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004 and Big Brown in 2008.  New Yorkers don’t just show up in big numbers for anything.  A horse going for the Triple Crown brings over 100,000 to Long Island, and remember, no infield at Big Sandy.  With no Triple Crown on the line, expect 50,000 to 60,000.

The other day in the sun is the Breeder’s Cup, and even though the BC is really for the die hards with all the betting that can take place, the Classic gets enough attention that the casual fan does show some interest. 

Think about it.  At least three days in the sun, sometimes four.  How many of the other non-major sports get that many?  Auto racing gets two—the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500?  Major League Soccer, though growing, really doesn’t get one.  The MLS Cup simply doesn’t draw enough to warrant the big time coverage that the major horse racing events do. Even golf, a sport that people of all shapes and sizes can attempt to play has four at best—–the majors— and really it’s the Masters and U.S. Open that garner the big ratings.  Tennis has four majors, but only Wimbledon and the U.S. Open get Kentucky Derby like ratings.  The Australian Open plays their final at 3:30 AM on the east coast and the French Open is played on the red clay, a surface foreign to the average American sports fan.

In the end, I’m disappointed in the disappointment.  The Preakness was a great race with a great story.  The winning jockey, 50 year old Gary Stevens came back from a seven year retirement, and the 77 year old trainer, D. Wayne Lukas was by many written off as a guy who sends sub-par horses to Triple Crown races just for the attention.  There’s really no disappointment there at all.  Orb just isn’t that great of a horse and to win the Triple Crown, you have to be greater than great.  Seattle Slew was great, Affirmed was great, but Spectacular Bid and Point Given were not.  It’s plain and it’s simple.

The sport of horse racing has limitations, limitations that a Triple Crown winner will not help it overcome.  But, despite its limitations ,several times a year, the sport puts on a fantastic show.  It will happen again.  One of these years, a colt, gelding or filly will rise up and sweep the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont and the country will celebrate it.



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