Could Triple Crown winner revive fading sport?
By Saturday night, the horse racing world will know if a chestnut colt named I'll Have Another has done what 11 other contenders have failed to do since 1978: Win the Triple Crown.
But even if he beats his competitors in the Belmont Stakes, questions remain over whether that singular triumph can reinvigorate a sport that has experienced precipitous drops in fan interest, gambling dollars and prestige in the American sports landscape.
And the home of Saturday's pivotal race is an emblem of racing's troubles: Last month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo replaced management of the agency that oversees racing at Belmont, Aqueduct and Saratoga following years of scandal and mismanagement. The three tracks stage more than one third of all the country's top stakes races and generate a large chunk of gambling income nationwide.
''Just having the Triple Crown on the line is a shot in the arm for the business and from a public relations point of view, we have seen a media bump already,'' said Alex Waldrop, president and chief executive officer of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association. ''We will absolutely have a superstar on our hands if I'll Have Another wins the race. We have to be prepared to take advantage of that; the problem is we don't know how many more races he may have.''
Doug Reed, director of the Race Track Industry Program at the University of Arizona, predicts a Triple Crown victory will spark something like the bump a presidential candidate enjoys after a political convention. But, he notes, there have been monumental changes in the culture since Affirmed won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes 34 years ago.
''The media back then was nothing like it is today, with the Internet and so many other things to attract attention,'' he said. He recalls there were slight upticks in interest after the release of the films ''Secretariat'' and ''Seabiscuit'' in recent years, but it didn't last.
''Everything moves so much faster,'' Reed said. ''Will there be interest in horse racing because of the Triple Crown? Yes, but it will probably fade.''
The Jockey Club, which advocates for thoroughbred breeding and racing, commissioned a 2011 study and developed recommendations to improve the sport. The study found that since 2000, the amount bet - called the handle - is down by 37 percent, track attendance has fallen by 30 percent, and starts per horse and race days both dropped 14 percent.
Only 22 percent of the public had a positive impression of racing, the report said.
Jockey Club President Jim Gagliano said recommendations include a new branding effort called ''America's Best Racing,'' intended to showcase the sport's top races and personalities. He said an affiliation with NBC Sports, which aired a series of races before this year's Kentucky Derby helped boost viewership on Derby day by 6 percent over 2011.
Plans are to attract a younger audience with online video games and social networking, including blogging by some of the sport's top personalities. There are even plans for reality based television shows. One idea is to follow a syndicate of inexperienced horse owners, showing the process of developing a potential winner from the yearling auctions to actual competition.
A turnaround of the New York Racing Association, whose three tracks accounted for about one-third of the national wagering handle of $11 billion in 2011, is seen as a key to the sport's fortunes. Cuomo last month struck a deal to create a new NYRA board after years of scandal, a dispute over $8.5 million in winnings that hadn't been paid to bettors, and concerns about treatment of horses and backstretch workers.
The new board is charged with enhancing racing at the state's three tracks, although officials have not said how it will do that. It also will try to integrate racing with video slot machines and other electronic gambling as Cuomo pushes to expand gambling in New York.
''NYRA has been a very important cornerstone in the national racing market for a long time,'' said Eric Mitchell, editorial director and editor-in-chief of the Lexington, Ky.-based magazine The Blood-Horse. The three NYRA tracks last year staged 39 of the 112 Grade 1, or top level, races in the country.
''A lot of the most talented and well-bred juvenile horses make their starts in New York,'' he said, noting that the Saratoga race card every summer holds two of the sport's marquee races outside the Triple Crown, the Travers and Whitney Stakes.
''It has been shown that people are more likely to wager on the quality races, so the more stakes races you have, the better horses and more competitive fields will find more people wagering on those races,'' Mitchell said. ''If NYRA were to go away, that would create an awfully big vacuum.''
Justin Nicholson, a 26-year-old who left Georgetown law school to join a family business that develops race horses in Elkton, Md., is encouraged by the moves to overhaul NYRA and the Jockey Club initiatives toward attracting younger fans.
''The greatest thing is the stories that we have to tell,'' he said. ''We need to get serious about an aggressive marketing strategy. When people see all great stories that surround horse racing, they will begin to feel invested in the sport. What happens is we spend a lot of time responding to criticism rather than showing the positive stories.''