Critical crown

To fully grasp what a big deal it would be for Big Brown to win the Triple Crown, you have to understand what horse racing was back when it last happened, what it is today and what has happened in between.

What's going on now was on display all day Saturday all around Pimlico Race Course. Another impressive attendance figure, an announced 112,222 - eight straight years of 100,000-plus - but still the lowest in five years and the end of four straight years of increases.


A noticeable decline in corporate tents, coupled with a noticeable rise in beer-fueled rambunctiousness (to put it politely) in the infield.

TV overnight ratings slightly off last year's numbers, according to NBC, even with the hype accompanying Big Brown into the race.


Also, PETA picketers outside the gates, and T-shirt handouts by supporters of the slots initiative inside the gates. Around the track, jokes about the aging grandstand, P.A. system, scoreboard and other amenities and how they'll all be solved "when they get those slots." Within that, somber reminders that the raucous atmosphere will be replaced by empty seats at Pimlico and the other Maryland tracks until next May.

And, hanging over the proceedings, the fervent hope by all that things wouldn't end with another ambulance on the track.

Those who can remember that far back know that in 1978, most of the aforementioned scenarios were all but unimaginable. But that's a factor today, too - more than a full generation has grown up believing that horse racing's Triple Crown is something that almost happens every year, but never really does, much like the Grand Slam in golf. In both cases, the annual story line eventually concludes with observers wondering whether there is even anyone still alive who remembers the last time it happened.

Racing has all sorts of issues, some real, some perceived, others at the center of an argument about whether they're real or perceived.

A Triple Crown winner would change all that, the insiders are convinced. Three decades of near-stars haven't been enough to keep the sport on the national radar. The blink-and-you-missed-him short time in the spotlight for even the near-stars does racing no favors, either.

The candidates have less race experience every season, leading to a field of unknowns on Derby day, something that never happened back when even the youngest of regular sports fans knew the favorites, such as Secretariat, in advance. In addition, even the near-misses, the Funny Cides and Smarty Joneses, fade into triviality so fast after their Belmont Stakes losses. And the horses who might be on the cusp of greatness are retired to stud so fast, their names have no staying power and their windows for fame open and close in an instant.

This is why nobody except Big Brown's owners and the holders of his stud rights - negotiated over the weekend for a reported $50 million - should be thrilled by the big-money deal. Have fun absorbing the glory of Big Brown the glorious racer, because win or lose at the Belmont, he's history at the end of this year.

But it still would mean everything to the business if he does complete the now seemingly eternal quest. No more almost-stars - let's have a real superstar, on the level of Secretariat and Seattle Slew and Affirmed (and Alydar, more of a legend as a runner-up than nearly every winner since his duel with Affirmed in 1978).


How can this generation of fans, whatever ones are left, stick with a sport whose biggest names are not just beyond their memories, but way beyond? It would be like telling NFL fans today to maintain their allegiances fueled solely by the exploits of Terry Bradshaw, Roger Staubach and Walter Payton.

What do twentysomething, even thirtysomething, fans have in their memory banks about this sport? Big hats in Louisville, Ky., porta-potty racing in Baltimore, unsuccessful Triple Crown candidates in New York. Anonymous horses marched on and off the stage every spring. And Barbaro, and Eight Belles.

It's hard to say exactly how much the record gap in Triple Crown winners, as well as all the near-misses, has contributed to that.

But we'll never know how much an actual winner will elevate the sport beyond all its issues until it actually happens.

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).