Everyone wanted California Chrome to win on Saturday.
Hardly anyone in the world – save for those who had a personal or financial stake in the colt’s opposition – was rooting against the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner in the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
We all wanted to see history made. We all wanted the 36-year drought broken.
But maybe we shouldn’t have wanted that. Maybe, when California Chrome turned for home with nothing left in the tank and finished tied for fourth, we got lucky.
Timing, they say, is everything. And right now, for racing, the timing couldn’t be less right.
In recent years, The New York Times has written numerous times on what they describe as a trend of “death and disarray” at America’s tracks, criticizing the industry for an alarming number of on-track racing deaths. Weeks before the Kentucky Derby, they wrote again on the sport, publishing a video obtained from the animal rights activist organization PETA alleging that unnecessary and dangerous drugs are being given to horses for non-therapeutic means. HBO’s Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel followed up on those writings with a segment of their own, diving deeper into the sport’s “pervasive drug culture.”
In response, the racing industry as a whole has done little to combat the allegations and the uncaring, win-at-all-cost reputation that has developed.
Perhaps, because, there is no “racing industry as a whole.”
The Daily Racing Forum counts nearly 100 different Thoroughbred race tracks in North America – each subject not to the oversight of a sport-wide governing body responsible for the health of horse racing, no such organization exists, but only to their own whims or individual concerns, or those of their state government.
The result is as chaotic as you might expect, with horse racing having become a hopelessly complicated mess. Dozens of tracks host thousands of Thoroughbreds covering a multitude of divisions – two-year-old, three-year-old, older horses, turf, dirt, distance, sprint and every permutation of each. And with no structure in place to help organize it all, fans are forced to play a hellish game of “Connect The Dots” and closely monitor the likely runners in hundreds of different, independent stakes races if they’d like something to follow.
It’s an apocalyptically complicated Rubik’s Cube, solved only by those who are truly committed and those who don’t care about animal abuse.
At least that’s what it looks like from the outside, and a Triple Crown wasn’t going to change that. Any gains picked up by a California Chrome win on Saturday would have been given back in short order; no long-term, sustainable growth could be built on the foundation just described.
Is it true that a Triple Crown winning horse could bring new fans to the game? Probably. The spotlight that would shine on the sport would be bright enough, I believe, to introduce scores of new patrons to the racing world.
But not right now.
Instead, in today’s horse racing world, that Triple Crown winning spotlight would be no welcomed step into the public eye, but, rather, an interrogation lamp under which only the sport’s flaws would be visible. California Chrome would have brought fans to the game, but, turned off by the complexity and the ever-surfacing drug and abuse scandals, said fans would not have stuck around.
In fact, long-term, all Chrome would have done on Saturday is shattered the mystique of racing’s only national spotlight event.
The Triple Crown races capture the casual fan’s attention for one, simple reason. The drought. For 36-years no horse has been able to win all three events. That’s why people pay attention. To see if history will be made.
When the history is no longer there to be made, neither will the public.
And so while I rooted with unapologetic fervor for California Chrome on Saturday, the truth is that if I want this sport I love to grow into something more than it is today, I shouldn’t have been.
I should have rooted, instead, for the drought to continue until as racing is ready to accept the attention it will bring – until a governing body is formed; until a followable season featuring marquee tracks is established; until uniform, scientifically backed, doggedly enforced policies with regard to drugs and equipment are developed.
Because if the Triple Crown drought is still alive at such a time, so too will pubic interest and the chance to improve the sport’s long-term circumstance – there will still be casual fans around to lure into an improved sport with something to offer.
But if California Chrome had won on Saturday, or if a Triple Crown is claimed before the sport has fixed itself, no good will ever come.
I was disappointed when California Chrome finished fourth. I shouldn’t have been.
Author: Joe Bianchino
Joe Bianchino is a writer, producer, and radio host located in upstate New York. He is a life-long New York sport fan, Chelsea supporter, and Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon enthusiast. Follow him on Twitter @Joe_1045. Email him at Joe@noticketsports.com.