Mainstream coverage of American racing seems to focus on one question this week: will a Belmont Stakes victory and Triple Crown clinch by California Chrome “save” the sport?
It's part of the narrative that emerges every year at this time: A pastime in decline searching for a hero to resurrect it. Except this year, the overall picture painted in these pieces seems bleaker. Things are so bad that even the perfect Hollywood ending can't save racing now. Headlines that read “No, horse racing can’t be saved - even by a Triple Crown winner.” Win or lose, a lot of the people writing these columns will not give racing another thought until early May next year. Perhaps surprised to find it still around, they will then pull out their hammers and find another nail for the coffin.
This is all greatly overblown, of course. If Chrome should win the Crown, the American public will not return to racetracks in droves, and the issues that plague racing - perception, competition from other forms of gaming - will not magically disappear. If he should lose, America's racetracks will not shutter on June 8. Instead, racing will pick itself up and soldier on, as the collective entity has done after every failed attempt since Affirmed, and as the individual participants do every day. In this game, you're guaranteed to lose more than you win.
So, for anyone who really follows racing - that is, more than one month out of every year - knows, the question is a silly one. Silly or not, it does reflect mainstream perception of the sport and raises another query: What will we do if he wins?
Seriously. What will we do? Racing people are understandably caught up in the romance of this, myself included, and it would be impossible not to be. Racing people will inevitably tell you that a Chrome victory would be "great for the sport" without really thinking about what that means. Even those with the good sense to appreciate the fact that a Triple Crown winner won’t make the sport’s troubles disappear, there does seem to be a pervading sense that it would offer a soothing balm for our wounds, maybe buy us a little more time to straighten things out while the public is caught up in the afterglow.
While the mainstream media debates whether Chrome is the needed savior, turf journalists chronicle the horse's every preparation looking for a sign he is invincible or a chink in the armor. On Saturday at 7 p.m., that will all be over. Racing will still be there when the dust settles and the TV trucks leave Belmont, but what will it be doing to preserve the momentum of a victory or even prop itself up after a defeat?
There's no plan to keep engaged the people captivated by Chrome. Do we even know who they are? If he loses on Saturday, how do we find them to tell them a different story? If he wins, how do we find them to explain he'll run next in the Travers Stakes - or to tell them that he'll never run again because the structure of the sport too strongly incentivized his owners to retire him?
The story of one horse can be fantastic, but it's too fallible. Racing media and marketers know this lesson well. Even if Chrome stays sound and around, he can't run forever. The cache of a Triple Crown winner has an expiration date, and when it runs out, American racing will still need to confront all the issues shoved aside in the run up, and the afterglow may not be as long or soft as we might hope. We'll be back to trying to pull the people in, rather than opening up the gates and watching them pour through after being encouraged by breathless media reports and stunning video of horses galloping at sunrise.
Chrome can help racing, but only if we can learn to help ourselves.