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American Pharoah can deliver boost to horse racing with Belmont win

| Saturday, May 30, 2015, 10:00 p.m.
American Pharoah, ridden by Victor Espinoza, comes out of the final turn during the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 2, 2015, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.
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American Pharoah, ridden by Victor Espinoza, comes out of the final turn during the 141st running of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, May 2, 2015, at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky.

American Pharoah will carry much more than jockey Victor Espinoza in the Belmont Stakes.

The bay colt with an unusually short tail also will shoulder the hopes of a declining sport and its fans in Saturday's bid for an elusive Triple Crown.

There is no doubt of the immediate impact on horse racing if American Pharoah can end a Triple Crown drought dating to Affirmed in 1978.

A strong belief resides within the industry that it would provide a needed boost to the sport. The sense is the positive impact would help reverse a decades-long slide in horse racing's popularity and ease some of the issues facing the “sport of kings.”

“I think it would be great for racing,” said Steve Cauthen, 55, who rode Affirmed. “That's what racing needs.”

“I think it would be terrific for racing,” said Dr. Jim Hill, co-owner of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. “It would stimulate a lot more interest.”

The sport has not gone this long without a Triple Crown winner since Sir Barton in 1919 became the first to do it. This will be the 14th time since Affirmed that a horse won the first two legs, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. The previous 13 hopefuls failed at the Belmont in their bid to become the sport's 12th Triple Crown winner.

The second-longest drought was 24 years, snapped by Secretariat in 1973.

“I just think the time has come,” Affirmed owner Patrice Wolfson said.

That's easier said than done.

The Triple Crown requires a 3-year-old thoroughbred to win three races at three different distances in three different states against as many as 47 challengers — all in a five-week span.

The grueling demands are unprecedented for the hopefuls, who never have run as far or as frequently. Most well-meant horses these days get at least one month's rest between races, and in an age when they are bred for speed and brilliance more than stamina and durability, the ability to accomplish the feat, quite simply, isn't in their blood.

And that doesn't count bad racing luck and twists of fate that nine times in the past 18 years have seen the mile and a half at Belmont reduce the sport's desires into another letdown.

But all of those factors and the rarity of the event ensure the national spotlight shines on the Belmont — and all of horse racing — when a Triple Crown is at stake.

American Pharoah trainer Bob Baffert, winless in three Triple Crown tries at the Belmont, said the impact of horse racing's signature achievement is anyone's guess.

“I don't think anybody knows because last time it happened was 37 years ago, and we lived in a totally different world,” Baffert said. “We won't know the answer to that question until it happens.”

The interest in horse racing's biggest days is undeniable. This year's Kentucky Derby drew a record 170,513 fans to Churchill Downs.

Two weeks later, a Preakness record crowd of 131,680 witnessed American Pharoah's seven-length romp in the rain.

An average of 22 million viewers watched on TV as Smarty Jones came up short in the 2004 Belmont, and the crowd that day, 120,139, remains the largest to see a live sporting event in New York.

Belmont officials capped ticket sales at 90,000 for Saturday's card to try to ensure the facility isn't overwhelmed like last year, when 102,199 fans — burdened by huge lines at betting windows, a shortage of food and drink and massive transportation delays — saw California Chrome's failed bid at history.

Seeking attention

For sure, gone are the days when horse racing was among the more popular sports in the United States. Total handle — money wagered on horse races — was down 26 percent from 2007-13, according to The Jockey Club, a breed registry aimed at supporting and improving thoroughbred racing. Attendance dropped 30 percent from 2000-10. In 1975, tracks attracted roughly 78 million spectators. Twenty years later, it was about 42 million. National industry groups since have stopped releasing attendance figures.

In a 2014 Harris Poll, only 1 percent of respondents who follow at least one sport named horse racing as their favorite compared to 32 percent for the leader, pro football, and 16 percent for No. 2, baseball. Over the past decade, horse racing was roughly as popular as men's tennis, boxing and swimming.

In the 20 years of the Harris Poll, only baseball (7 percent) and men's tennis (4 percent) suffered a larger drop than horse racing (3 percent) as “favorite sport.”

Secretariat owner Penny Chenery, whose 1973 Triple Crown winner graced the cover of Time, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated in the same week, said the sport does a poor job of marketing itself.

“The people who run the tracks don't seem to be tuned into what works with the public,” she said. “Marketing the sport seems not to be their best skill. I don't mean to be negative here, but we can do a lot more to make our fans welcome, to intrigue them to come and to treat them well.”

While horse racing isn't atop U.S. sports fans' wish lists, Triple Crown attempts — successful or not — are good for the sport.

In 2005, after three consecutive Triple Crown attempts by War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones, horse racing saw the biggest increase in popularity of any sport in the U.S., according to an ESPN Sports Poll. Interest jumped 5.1 percent, to 37.4 percent of the U.S. population from 35.6 percent. It was the fifth consecutive year the sport's popularity increased.

According to research from Luker on Sports, which manages the ESPN Sports Poll, interest in horse racing peaked at 37.8 percent in 2008, dropped to 30.7 percent in 2010, peaked again at 38 percent in 2012 and has dropped just a bit since.

Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey, 64, who saddled 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb and 1989 Belmont Stakes winner Easy Goer, has no doubt a Triple Crown would have a positive impact.

“I will get people right now who say they got interested in horse racing watching Easy Goer run,” he said. “It would be a lot more now, with the widespread use of social media. A lot more people could be introduced to it than back in those days. ... I don't know about long term. But short term, it would be tremendous.”

Fleeting impact?

Some industry experts believe the boost from a Triple Crown win wouldn't cure the problems facing the sport: safety and medical concerns; other gambling options and high takeout rates; the percentage of a wagering pool withheld by the track to pay for purses, expenses and profits.

“If I had to be honest, I think it would be a great thing, but I think you are looking at a temporary shot in the arm,” said Jeff Platt, president of the Virginia-based Horseplayers Association of North America. “Three days later, it's kind of forgotten. Does it bring new fans to the racetrack? Does it help racetracks retain new fans and convert them into horseplayers? No, it doesn't. And that's the sad thing.”

Timothy Capps, the director of the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program, agrees the overall, long-term boost could be fleeting.

“I think in terms of the positive image issue — Does it help the industry? Does it put a good face on things? — it's like anything that happens in any sport that's historical. When you get a performance that's exceptional or unusual, that has a salutary effect on the entire sport,” Capps said. “But does it turn business around or mean next year you are going to have twice as many fans? No.”

Pharoah's future

One reason the glow could fade is because American Pharoah isn't likely to race next year, regardless of what happens Saturday. Owner Ahmed Zayat said he plans to run the colt through the end of 2015, but earlier this month he sold Pharoah's breeding rights to Coolmore Ashford Stud, which almost certainly will retire him to the breeding shed in 2016.

Historically, Triple Crown hopefuls rarely stick around on the track, and that makes it difficult for the public to keep an attachment. I'll Have Another, who scratched from the 2012 Belmont with an injury, never raced again. Neither did Smarty Jones or Charismatic (injured in the race). Big Brown, who didn't finish the Belmont in 2008, raced twice more. California Chrome has raced four times since his missed shot at history.

By comparison, Affirmed ran 13 times after winning the Triple Crown. Seattle Slew raced eight times and Secretariat six more times after his 31-length Belmont win. Spectacular Bid and Alysheba each raced 13 times after their near-misses in 1979 and 1987, respectively, and Silver Charm raced 15 times after coming up short in 1997.

Affirmed owner Wolfson said the impact of a Triple Crown — should it happen Saturday — would weigh on American Pharoah's connections.

“It depends on what (American Pharoah) continues to do,” Wolfson said. “I think that if he doesn't (race), if he is retired right after, I think it would not help at all. But initially it would be wonderful.”

John Grupp is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at jgrupp@tribweb.com or via Twitter @JohnGrupp_Trib.

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