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Saturday, June 15, 2002
Why can't the Triple Crown magic last?

By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com

As the Belmont Stakes approached, War Emblem's many fans seemed to be pulling for a Triple Crown not just for the horse but for the good of the game. Racing is starving for attention and a Triple Crown winner would put racing back on the front pages of the sports sections, which would inevitably put more fannies in the seats, which would all but save an industry that had seen better days. At least that seemed to be the conventional wisdom. It's a nice theory, but (and sorry to be so gloomy and doomy) it's overly simplistic.

It's not that War Emblem's run through the Triple Crown series didn't have a positive impact on the sport or help put an unimaginably large crowd in the Belmont grandstand, but it's not going to change a thing when it comes to the daily realities of this business. With or without War Emblem, with or without a Triple Crown winner, the Belmont Park crowd today, tomorrow and the next weekday is still going to be the same old 3,751 or so. The sport has some complex problems and the its leaders need to think well beyond the positive implications of a Triple Crown run. They can start with the unfortunate disparity between a great event like the Belmont Stakes and the mundaneness of an average day at your average racetrack.

On the day after 103,222 crammed Belmont to watch Sarava upset War Emblem and the rest, only 8,517 (down from the 10,376 who showed up the day after the 2001 Belmont) turned out to watch the Vagrancy Handicap and eight other races. The next day's New York Times included a follow-up story on the Belmont, but not a word was written about Xtra Heat, a champion with one of the most remarkable race records of modern times. It was already back to business as usual.

Didn't anyone among those 103,222 people go to the Belmont and have such a great time that they fell in love with the sport and couldn't wait to come back as soon as possible? Surely, there were some, but probably a lot fewer than the optimists had hoped for. Racing needs to get those fans to come back, and not just for next year's Belmont Stakes. The sport needs to find a way to inject some of the specialness of the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup into the rest of the racing calendar.

The Triple Crown is white hot. The three races combined to draw 349,393 this year and the Belmont crowd shattered the all-time attendance record. Twenty five years earlier, when Seattle Slew successfully swept the Triple Crown, the three tracks lured a combined crowd of 272,410. That's a dramatic increase that has occurred over an era in which the sport was supposed to have declined in popularity.

The Triple Crown gives people everything they want in a sporting event. Thanks to the torrent of publicity the races receive, the horses and top-name trainers are recognizable figures, the races have championship implications and tensions, the fans have rooting interests and the crowds are large and festive.

They're more than horse races; they're events. The NBA, NFL and Major League Baseball operate at such a fevered pitch almost every day. That's why they're so popular. Racing isn't nearly so lucky. The day after the Belmont, the star horses and the media had gone home, the crowd had dwindled down to the hardcore regulars and the only reason to care whether or not the 6 beat the 8 had to due with who you bet on. Had a potential new fan come back the day after the Belmont, they would have found the experience to be nothing like the day before and they might not have had a very good time rattling around an empty cavernous racetrack that had the energy of a dead battery. That much is never going to change.

But the excitement that is the Triple Crown can be delivered on more than just three days a year. One of the problems with racing is that there's no cohesion to the racing schedules, rivalries rarely develop and fans have a hard time building up any rooting interests or following their favorites. It would be nice if Sarava, War Emblem, Proud Citizen, Medaglia D'oro and Magic Weisner could face off every Saturday on national television with the outcomes of the races tied to some sort of standings, but the fragile nature of the animal makes that impossible. Then again, why should it be that each one of these horses will spread out across the country, take different routes to the Breeders' Cup and compete in races that aren't part of any schedule or lineup? Triple Crown season is the only time of the year when the best meet the best on the racetrack and you can follow a horse's progress from race to the next. That's one of the main reasons it works.

The Belmont Stakes and NYRA are getting a lot of positive ink and deservedly so. The race is getting more popular every year and that has to be a good thing for the sport. Meanwhile, NYRA has returned an additional $33 million to its customers since it cut its takeout rate at the beginning of the 2001 Saratoga meet, which has had a tremendously positive impact on business. Yet no one seems to be paying that much attention, which goes to show you, the sport seems to be missing the point. A big crowd at the Belmont is nice, but not nearly as important as something like lower takeouts.

War Emblem was indeed good for the game. But, win or lose, he wasn't the answer. It's a great sport and there are a lot of indications it is heading in the right direction. The Triple Crown is over and everything is back to normal. For those whose jobs it is to make this sport more popular, it's time to get back to work.