ELMONT, N.Y. — For months now, California Chrome has carried the outlandish dreams of his little-guy owners and his unsung trainer every time he's roared around another racetrack.
As his victories have mounted, so has his cargo.
When he enters the starting gate for Saturday's Belmont Stakes, the dashing chestnut colt will carry the dreams of every thoroughbred racing enthusiast yearning to see the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
It would be great for the sport, they say. And it's hard to argue against the value of a transcendent hero to offset years of drug scandals, declining crowds and fractured governance.
"We need new idols," says Ron Sanchez, whose horse Social Inclusion challenged California Chrome in the Preakness. "We need to bring young people to the sport."
There's little question California Chrome's quest for history will create a big-event atmosphere for the Belmont. If recent history is any guide, the crowd and television audience will at least double the figures from last year, when no Triple Crown was on the line.
On the other hand, some of California Chrome's biggest fans say that even if he wins, the glow will be short-lived and unlikely to cure what ails the onetime "sport of kings."
"This is a lovely horse, and he's done a lot for the game, getting people interested," says longtime turf writer and historian William Nack. "But the shot in the arm doesn't last long."
Several scholars of the racing business agree.
"The reality is no one horse can change the overall trajectory of the sport," says Tim Capps, who analyzes the industry as a professor at the University of Louisville. "It's not like you'll suddenly see attendance and [betting] handles go up 10 percent around the country if he wins."
'A local market business'
If California Chrome becomes the first since Affirmed to win a Triple Crown, he will be a bona fide sports star, Capps says. He'll battle LeBron James for headlines, garner endorsements (he already has one from the shoe company Skechers) and draw big crowds to his future races.
"But racing is still a local market business," Capps adds. "Just because California Chrome draws a lot of people to an appearance in say, New Jersey, doesn't change the fact business might not be good in Texas at the same moment."
The sport has already seen this with recent stars such as Smarty Jones, who drew more than 8,000 just to watch him work out when he chased the Triple Crown in 2004, and Zenyatta, the great filly who appeared on 60 Minutes and in Oprah Winfrey's O magazine as she built a 19-race winning streak.
As Zenyatta drew big crowds in California in 2009 and 2010, for example, attendance and wagering still plummeted in Maryland and other locations. The U.S. betting handle declined 26 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to The Jockey Club, a New York-based racing advocacy organization.
Thoroughbred racing will never occupy the place it did for past generations, in part because there are so many more options for entertainment and especially gambling, says Doug Reed, who directs the racetrack industry program at Arizona State University.
"I'd rather have a little boost than no boost," Reed says in assessing California Chrome's potential impact. "But the reality is racing will still be off the radar compared to where it was in the 1970s."
Given the industry's fragmented state, with no national governance and states operating under significantly different rules, it will be harder to take advantage of California Chrome's popularity. It will be entirely up to his owners and individual racetracks to construct major events around him.
"No one's driving the bus," Reed says.
Thoroughbred racing has always struggled to create longterm stars, because of the great economic incentives to retire champions to the breeding barn. But the problem has grown worse.
Of the recent Triple Crown near misses, I'll Have Another never ran again after the Preakness, Smarty Jones never ran after the Belmont and Big Brown ran just twice after he failed to finish in the Belmont.
That's a significant contrast to the 1970s Triple Crown winners. Both Seattle Slew and Affirmed ran full schedules as 4-year-olds. Secretariat ran six more times after his majestic triumph in the Belmont Stakes.
Capps argues that generation provided a more lasting benefit to the sport in part because fans could continue watching their favorites.
Early indications are that California Chrome might continue running for some time after the Belmont. His co-owner, Steve Coburn, and his trainer, Art Sherman, have both talked about the possibility of future races. Coburn and his partner, Perry Martin, already turned down a $6-million offer for 51 percent of their horse, so they're not above rejecting a big payday in favor of an exciting narrative.
"They understand they're on the verge of something historic, and they seem genuinely grateful for it," Capps says. "I expect that we'll continue to see them act that out."
The stallion market is also weak, and with questions persisting about California Chrome's pedigree, he might not be able to approach the reported $50-million breeding deal Big Brown's owners received in 2008, the year their horse won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. So Coburn and Martin might be able to make more money by racing their colt for awhile than by immediately sending him to stud.
Coburn has referred to California Chrome as "America's horse," and the colt's connections say they want to inspire everyday people to follow them into the sport.
"I hope so," assistant trainer Alan Sherman says the morning before race day at Belmont. "We can use all the new owners we can get in this game right now. Get some more breeders — the breeding industry has been on the decline for about 10 years now. We need to get more people in the game."
'Good for the game'
Those who question the horse's potential impact hasten to say they love California Chrome.
"I just think he's wonderful," Nack says. "He's game. He's tough. Art Sherman could not have done a better job training him. He's already done a lot for the game."
From Manhattan bars to segments on late-night talk shows, California Chrome has claimed a healthy corner of American popular culture. Reports on everything from his nasal strip to his feline barn buddy Mademoiselle have made national headlines.
Such news is welcome relief for racing lovers, who have grown tired of unpleasant stories such as the March New York Times report on animal cruelty complaints against top trainer Steve Asmussen or a recent HBO segment about equine deaths on the track.
"I think he's absolutely connecting," says NBC racing analyst Randy Moss. "The majority of my good friends have nothing whatsoever to do with racing, and they're all talking about California Chrome. He's a huge story with sports fans in general."
Already, California Chrome has been the star attraction for the second-largest Kentucky Derby crowd and largest Preakness crowd in history. The 6.0 rating NBC drew for the Preakness was the highest for the race since 2009.
It's hard to find a person in the racing world who isn't pulling for him to complete the Triple Crown. And that includes the connections of the last horse to pull off the historic feat.
"I'd love to see another great horse — it's good for the game and it attracts outside people into the sport," says Steve Cauthen, the jockey who rode Affirmed in 1978. "Plus California Chrome is a great story. He's an 'It' horse. He reminds me a lot of Affirmed — he's quite relaxed, he walks around like he owns the place and he likes to stop at the post for pictures."
Baltimore Sun reporter Mike Klingaman contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun