This time, after 13 attempts had come and gone, horse racing finally has a Triple Crown winner. But now what?
In some ways, American Pharoah’s win isn’t a great thing for the sport, one that is struggling across the board as wagering is down and track attendance continues a steady decline. Sports fans really only tune into horse racing on Triple Crown days. If Belmont doesn’t have a Triple Crown hopeful then the sport gets lost in the shuffle of other events; years without a Triple Crown contender at Belmont could be half of the roughly 90,000 in attendance on Saturday. The 37-year pursuit of the Triple Crown breeds interest, with the pursuit of greatness perhaps the sport’s biggest selling point.
In some ways, the mystique and allure of the unattainable Triple Crown is good for the sport. Now that American Pharoah has captured this race, the sport may have nothing left to sell.
“Maybe people will slow down a little bit to see the next Triple Crown. I don’t know. A Triple Crown is a Triple Crown,” said Hall of Fame jockey Jorge Velasquez, who had his own Triple Crown spoiled in 1981 aboard Pleasant Colony, told Metro. “This is the best of racing. So people are going to come back anyway. When a horse has win the first two, they’re going to come back. They’re going to come back. Secretariat wins in 1973, they come back in 1977 for Seattle Slew and then Affirmed. They will come back.”
But horse racing then was closer to being relevant than what it is now. Those were simpler times, not far removed to when horse racing was known as the “Sport of Kings.” Today, the sport barely registers outside of moments like this. It takes a big moment for the sport to get attention and the past five weeks show this.
Consider that the Kentucky Derby five weeks ago had 16 million viewers, up from 15.3 million the year before. The Preakness registered 8.9 million viewers, down about seven percent from the year before but interest in Saturday’s race remained high.
With the Triple Crown on the line, Belmont had an overnight rating of 12.3, numbers that show that mainstream interest is there for the sport’s big moments. Now that the hunt for the Triple Crown is over, it will remain to be seen if interest is as high the next time there is a Triple Crown contender pulling into New York.
For Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed 37 years ago to the Triple Crown, he likens it to today’s NBA. He laments the decline of the league without a true Michael Jordan figure in the game, a player he says was the greatest of all-time.
And horse racing suffers from a similar malaise. That can be solved, Cauthen said, if a Triple Crown winner emerges. He sees a Triple Crown win as one that can elevate the sport and generate more talk, more eyeballs.
“I can’t remember the last horse to be on the cover of Sports Illustrated or a jockey or anything to do with racing,” Cauthen said. “So, yea, to get a horse back on the cover of Sports Illustrated and get it back into the general public’s knowledge would be a great thing for racing. Every sport needs a star.”
The good news for the sport is that American Pharoah’s owner Ahmed Zayat said after the win that he would like to continue racing his horse. This could help sustain interest in racing, not unlike Secretariat in 1973 who had a well-publicized and highly-attended victory tour following his Triple Crown success.