ABelmont Stakes win on Saturday afternoon by I’ll Have Another would be the first Triple Crown winner in 34 years for a sport — teetering on tough financial times — that appears to be in need of a jolt of enthusiasm.
A sport that should be focused on the moment is instead placing the burden of an entire industry on one horse.
It wasn't always like this. In the 1960s and 1970s, horse racing was as big as baseball and football and routinely was featured in prime-time spots on television. But without a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, coupled with an overall decline in attendance and wagering, horse racing seems always to be in need of resuscitation.
“If we were to get lucky and win on June 9, I think it would be great,” trainer Doug O’Neill said earlier this week. “Anything we can do to show what a great game it is, how beautiful these horses are and how well they’re cared for is, I’m hoping, a positive step.”
There is no denying, however, that I’ll Have Another’s bid for history has already provided interest in Saturday’s stakes race. When reserved tickets went on sale to the general public on May 21, the race was completely sold out within five minutes. Only general admission entrance is available for the race, meaning that the Belmont Stakes could well draw upwards of 90,000 spectators on Saturday, likely making it the largest attended sporting event in the metropolitan area this year.
Last year, attendance for the race in wet, damp weather was 55,779. In 2010, the Belmont Stakes was attended by 45,243 amid rumors that due to financial concerns, Belmont Park might be permanently closed.
A Triple Crown hopeful always generates a temporary interest in the sport and leads to enthusiasm for the Belmont Stakes. Most recently, in 2008 when Big Brown made a bid at Triple Crown history, the Belmont Stakes drew over 94,000 fans. The last four Triple Crown hopefuls to reach Belmont Park, all of which have happened since 2002, have brought an average of 104,970 fans to the race, double the usual gate in a non-Triple Crown year.
Hall of Fame trainer Wayne Lukas, who has four times won the Belmont Stakes and has entered Optimizer in Saturday’s race, said that a win by I’ll Have Another “would be a great boost for all of us and I wish that was more of the story.”
Instead the talk is all about the rumors that racing is on life support, even as the crowd on Saturday should easily top the 69,138 who watched Secretariat’s record setting time in the 1973 race. That horse made the cover of three national magazines in the week leading up to Belmont and with the help of a Disney movie, still remains a pop-culture icon.
“I think it would be wonderful to have a Triple Crown winner. You have no idea how much enthusiasm that sparks and it brings people who don’t know about thoroughbred racing into the sport,” Secretariat’s owner Penny Chenery told Metro New York.
“Racing certainly has its problems today, but I want to be an ambassador for the good in racing and having another Triple Crown winner would be a great shot in the arm and would bring in new fans. They say ‘Triple Crown, what’s that all about?’ They get on the internet and find out more about racing and they become fans.”
Follow Kristian Dyer on Twitter @KristianRDyer for more coverage of the Belmont Stakes.