This year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes have reminded America about what's great about horse racing. California Chrome has been a display of magnificence, and his story, and those of his trainer and owners, have been endearingly human. The mere possibility of the first Triple Crown winner in nearly four decades has rekindled the optimism that must be at the heart of every racing fan.
But this year's Belmont Stakes has the potential to remind America about what's so maddening about horse racing. The race frequently plays the role of buzzkill, as a dozen horses since the last Triple Crown winner have managed to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness only to fall short or pull out before the Belmont. The schedule — three big races in five weeks — is taxing, and so is the Belmont's distance; it is a mile and a half, substantially longer in thoroughbred terms than the Kentucky Derby or Preakness.
Even the casual racing fan can understand that and appreciate why it makes Triple Crown such an impressive achievement. But the casual fan might have had a harder time digesting the news that California Chrome's trainer was floating the idea that the horse might not even try for the Triple Crown, not because of the inherent challenges of the Belmont or even because the horse is injured. No, the issue was whether California Chrome will be allowed to wear an adhesive nasal strip at a race in New York State. Cooler heads prevailed, and the governing authorities at Belmont decided that Chrome (and any other horses that want to) can wear the strips.
But that's almost beside the point. We're talking about the equine equivalent of the Breathe Right strips popular among National Football League players and those with stuffy noses everywhere. An industry that has been rocked in recent years by reports of dangerous levels of use of steroids and other drugs that have contributed to a rash of horse deaths nationwide was getting picky over what is, essentially, a fancy Band-Aid.
It's ridiculous New York regulators haven't come up with a policy for something that has been commonly used in racing for 15 years — and which was an issue for Derby and Preakness winner I'll Have Another two years ago. And it's ridiculous that Chrome's owners and trainer even contemplated skipping the chance at history over something so piddling.
And the horse racing industry wonders why the fan base is eroding?
The Wall Street Journal pointed out on Monday that the television ratings for the Kentucky Derby were roughly equivalent to those for the first round of the NFL draft. That is to say, one sport's most storied event drew about as much popular interest as a sporting event in which no sports actually took place. It's not a coincidence. Several of the story lines swirling around this year's Triple Crown are reminders of why pro leagues like the NFL are flourishing at a time when the horse industry is praying for a miracle on four legs to resurrect it from irrelevance.
Imagine, for a moment, that the Ravens make it to the Super Bowl next year, but instead of playing the NFC champion, they are forced to square off against a team that had skipped the playoffs altogether so its players could rest. That's what happens basically every year when whole new fields of horses sweep in for the Belmont without running the Preakness and, in some cases, not running the Derby either.
Or what if Barry Bonds had been allowed to use whatever steroids he wanted when the Giants played in some states but not in others? That's more or less what happens now in horse racing, where the rules for what medications can be given to horses and when vary widely from state to state. (For the record, New York State has been relatively strict about drugs, too, and not just breathing strips, since a New York Times expose into a string of horse deaths there a few years ago.)
How about if the owners of the two teams that make the NBA finals this year arbitrarily decide to hold the championship in August rather than June? That's more or less what Maryland Jockey Club President Thomas Chuckas was suggesting when he threw out the idea of monkeying with the schedule of the Triple Crown so that the Derby would be held in May, the Preakness in June and the Belmont in July. All that would take would be the agreement of the heads of the three tracks.
The horse racing industry has deep-seated problems in the way it markets itself and seeks to convert the brief flashes of interest that accompany Triple Crown races into a sustainable fan base. No matter what California Chrome does at Belmont, it's going to take a lot more than one great champion to change that. It's well past time for the industry to develop a national governing body that can unify the arbitrary patchwork of regulations that control the sport and start making decisions that put fans or potential fans first. If it doesn't, the industry is going to find it has problems much bigger than nasal adhesive strips.
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