LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — In four days, we’ll know. We’ll wake up next Sunday morning and have our first Triple Crown winner in 36 years, or we’ll feel that old familiar frustration.
Let’s do a little positive visualization. Imagine California Chrome wins the Belmont Stakes. Imagine the chestnut colt rounds the sweeping turn for home, gathers himself through that heartbreaking stretch and gives horse racing the moment it has lusted after since the newness wore off of Affirmed’s Triple Crown in 1978.
We’ve heard about how the sport needs a Triple Crown winner. Fans want it. Even the media want to see it. They’re so eager to see it happen in New York that Belmont Park officials have scrapped Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” in favor of the old “Sidewalks of New York” number that was played before the race for decades. Anything to shake the bad luck.
But for all of its luster and historic difficulty, what would a Triple Crown do for the sport? Or, more to the point, is horse racing in any position to take advantage of the marketing potential of a Triple Crown winner?
It’s fair to say that thoroughbred racing as an enterprise has never been in greater need of the kind of positive news that California Chrome could offer with a win. The debate over performance enhancing drugs and treatment of the animals has grown louder in recent years. Just this spring, trainer Steve Asmussen was implicated in a video obtained by an undercover worker in his barn who turned out to be an operative for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.
The sport has steadily slid from the American sports consciousness after holding a central place there through the middle of the last century. These days, it’s just as likely to move the needle for bad news as for good. Barbaro was a bigger story even than Big Brown’s Triple Crown quest.
In California Chrome, racing could well have its super horse. They’re going to say he beat a bad Preakness field. They’re right. He also, if he wins on Saturday, will have beaten more rivals over the three-race Triple Crown series than any other colt to accomplish the feat. Saturday’s field is stocked with fresh horses. It’s a quality field.
Horse racing, as a sport, generally finds a way to muck up these moments. One problem is that the sport has no central authority. There’s no commissioner of the sport to set policy nationally and look out for the sport’s well-being.
Nor does horse racing have any central authority for marketing or promotion. If California Chrome wins Saturday, his connections will do whatever TV appearances are able to prevail upon them. They will try to do as many as they can. Owner, trainer, jockey will fan out over as many national shows as they can get to.
In some ways, it’s a refreshing departure from the way sports — and marketing — are done these days. But in another, it depicts a problem for the industry.
Everybody is a free agent. The Triple Crown is run in three states, all of whom have their own racing commissions, which even worse than being independent of each other, are largely governmental bodies, which ups the dysfunction exponentially.
California Chrome’s owners, though they seem to be making a good-faith effort to do everything the right way for the sport, also are going to be doing their own thing. They signed a deal with Sketchers shoes this week to wear the brand’s logos on their hats and in other places, while having it represented somewhere on the horse.
If California Chrome wins, everybody will want a piece of him. And how will that be handled? And what is the best way to handle it?
When an NBA or NFL, even NCAA team, wins a big national competition, the T-shirts and hats go online before the telecast is off the air, and players are already wearing the merchandise on national TV. Crass? Maybe. But people want to be a part of the event. And buying something like that is part of how they do it. It’s a powerful marketing tool.
If California Chrome wins the Belmont, how will casual sports fans at home get a piece of it? Sports Illustrated may have a commemorative issue ready to go. Maybe fans will buy and keep newspapers. But by and large, there’s no large scale mechanism to put a part of California Chrome and his story — a T-shirt, a hat, anything — into peoples’ hands.
And then there’s the question of the horse himself. If he wins a Triple Crown, does he become too valuable to race? The best thing for racing would be for him to finish out this racing season — culminating in a run in the Breeders Cup Classic, and then perhaps to run a full season as a 4-year-old.
But few think that will happen. He’ll bring $30 million or more as a stallion if he wins, and it’s likely we’ll have seen him run his last race — even as a great many Americans are meeting him for the first time.
Maybe the marketing of it doesn’t matter. I’d like to think it doesn’t. I’d like to believe that the absence of such blatant commercialism is one of the charms of horse racing. But I can’t. Racing doesn’t just need a Triple Crown, it needs to find a way to take advantage of the series. Otherwise, California Chrome wins, is a big story for a few days, then fades away, and the Triple Crown series is even less of a novelty.
Racing’s magic moment could be coming. But will anyone be surprised if the sport can’t capitalize?