California Chrome goes into Saturday’s Belmont Stakes hoping to be the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 to win horse racing’s triple crown (winning the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes). Dozens of horses have come up short after winning the first two races since Affirmed. It seems like it happens far more frequently than it does though.
After Sunday Silence finished 2nd in 1989, no horse got the first two legs until 1997. This started a run of three straight two and out horses. After a two year gap, there was another three year run, including Smarty Jones and Funny Cide, who both seemed like good bets to win it all. In the 9 years since only twice has a horse had a chance at history. Big Brown got hurt in the Belmont in 2008 and didn’t even finish, and I’ll Have Another was scratched leading up to the Belmont in 2012. In other words, it’s been 6 years since a horse has come out of the starting gate at Belmont Park with a chance, and 10 years since a horse (potentially) will cross the finish line still in the hunt.
In a couple of days, none of that will matter because in about 2 minutes time history will either be made, or it won’t. But the better question is, what’s better for the sport?
Horse racing has a very long history, and was dubbed the “Sport of Kings” long ago. There was a time when it was something that catered more to high society. But expect for three Saturdays in the Spring it has become more of a seedier landscape mostly traveled by heavy gamblers. Those three Saturdays draw everyone in though.
The Kentucky Derby is probably the most famous race in the world. It draws a massive crowd and massive attention. The Preakness stakes, run two weeks later, doesn’t draw the same excitement, but any attention it gets is focused on whether or not the horse than won in Kentucky can pull off another win. When that happens, the run up to the Belmont means something to even the casual racing fan (and perhaps casual sports fan in general). Part of that hook though, is that this hasn’t happened in 36 years. That means there are a good chunk of sports fans who have never seen a Triple Crown winner. Everyone holds their breath for two minutes on two Saturdays hoping for it to happen.
But when it does, then what? No longer will people utter the words “not since Affirmed in 1978”, or “12/13/14/15 horses have won the first two legs but failed in the Belmont since the last Triple Crown winner.” And then, will anyone care? The 86 years the Red Sox had to wait for a World Series was a massive deal in 2004. When they won, it was the end of the “Curse of the Bambino.” But then they won in 2007. And again in 2013. And non-Boston fans didn’t care. The streak had long been broken. The allure was gone. The same thing will happen to the Cubs, who are going on 106 years since they won one. Once it happens, most people won’t care about their next one.
For at least two Saturdays every fall, horse racing is relevant again. It’s mainstream sports news, and gets to be mainstream news if a horse wins the first two. When the novelty goes away though, it’s hard to see most people having any interest. That’s why the best thing that can happen to horse racing is for California Chrome to come up short on Saturday, so the streak lives on. Otherwise, people won’t care.