Ten years ago, a chestnut colt by the name of Smarty Jones was on the brink of capturing the first Triple Crown in 26 years. More than 120,000 fans had descended on Belmont Park to watch the undefeated three-year-old compete in the Belmont Stakes, a record to this day for a live sports event in the state of New York. And 120,000 people have rarely been as quiet as they were when the lightly regarded Birdstone eclipsed Smarty Jones just before the finish line, winning by one length.
On Saturday, the cavernous grandstand at the racetrack on the western edge of Long Island, just across the Queens border, will again swell with racing fans hoping to witness sports history. Barring injury or illness, California Chrome will be the first horse since 2008 to compete in the Belmont Stakes after having won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes—the first two legs of the Triple Crown.
There are doubts about California Chrome's suitability for the Belmont’s one-and-one-half mile distance, a quarter-mile longer than he has ever raced before and a length he will likely never race again. That hasn't stopped racing officials, writers, and fans from hailing the horse as a savior.
“The possibility the charismatic horse could pull off the sport's signature achievement has the thoroughbred racing world abuzz. For years, racing lovers have said the sport needs a superstar in the mold of Secretariat or Seattle Slew to mitigate declines in attendance and mainstream interest,” Childs Walker wrote in the Baltimore Sun.
The Tampa Bay Times's Gary Shelton wrote that a California Chrome victory would provide a jolt for a sport that has “taken on the feel of a black-and-white movie," adding, “In just a mile and a half, horse racing could be cool again."
But even if California Chrome becomes the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978, it won't be enough to arrest horse-racing's inexorable decline. Once at the apex of the American sporting landscape, alongside boxing and baseball, horse racing has been hobbled both by cultural forces beyond its control and internal problems that it has been slow, or entirely unable, to fix. According to Jockey Club, an industry group, the amount of money bet on horse racing peaked at over $15 billion in 2003 and fell to $10.8 billion in 2013. Television ratings for the Kentucky Derby, the sport’s marquee event, has held steady at around 15 million viewers for the last decade, but in the 1970s the race drew more than 25 million. A decade after Smarty Jones’s failed bid, it’s too late for any single horse to revive the sport as one that inspires raised voices year-round—from the wider public, that is, as opposed to the declining pool of die-hard bettors still shouting at banks of televisions at racetracks or off-track betting parlors.
That’s a shame, because California Chrome arrives at Belmont with the most compelling back story since at least Smarty Jones.
In a sport whose stars have no discernible personality—apart from a tendency to perk ears and preen in front of adoring crowds, occasionally noted in certain champions—a horse's story is key to attracting the non-betting public.
Smarty Jones started his racing career not at the big-money tracks of Kentucky, Florida, or New York, but rather at humble Philadelphia Park. (Now rebranded as Parx Racing and Casino, the track is best known not for the exhortations of racing audiences but the digital ringing of slot machines: It’s the largest, most lucrative casino in the state.) And his racing career almost ended before it had even begun: During gate practice as a two-year-old, he "had reared up and smashed his head on an iron bar, fracturing his skull and driving his eye deep into his head," the Associated Press reported in 2004. Smarty Jones was knocked out cold, and his trainer thought he was dead. The horse made a full recovery, even retaining full eyesight.
California Chrome, as his name suggests, also comes from a region not known for minting Kentucky Derby winners. While the quality of racing in Southern California is undeniably better than in Pennsylvania, the Golden State hasn’t produced a Derby winner since Decidedly in 1962. California Chrome also has relatively blue-collar roots. In a racing world in which oil sheiks, real estate tycoons, and other assorted one-percenters fly into Lexington, Kentucky, to snap up top prospects at the annual Keeneland Yearling Sale, where 18 horses sold for more than $1 million each in 2013, his owners bred him themselves. And they did it cheaply, paying $8,000 for his dam, Love The Chase, when she was still racing, and then matching her to a sire, Lucky Pulpit, for a stud fee of $2,500. Compare this price to 2006 Preakness winner Bernardini, who commanded the steepest stud fee in 2013, fetching $150,000 per go. Even before the Kentucky Derby victory, on the eve of the prestigious Santa Anita Derby, the two men who own California Chrome—a press operator for a company that makes magnetic strips and the owner of an airbag-testing company—turned down the opportunity to sell just 51 percent of their $10,500 investment for $6 million.
Meanwhile, California Chrome's 77-year-old trainer, Art Sherman, has already moved into a retirement community with his wife, but he still spends half his time living with his son close to the Los Alamitos Race Course and training a stable of horses, although smaller in number than once before. In May, he became the oldest trainer to win the Kentucky Derby, and he hadn’t had a personal stake in the race since 1955, when he accompanied eventual winner Swaps to Louisville as an exercise rider.
This all makes for a good tale, and the media and general public have taken notice. Throngs of television cameras and reporters captured Chrome's arrival in New York just days after winning the Preakness last month. At a barbecue over Memorial Day weekend, an acquaintance of mine who didn't know the slightest thing about racing asked me about the “controversy”—already settled at the time—about whether California Chrome would be allowed to wear a nose strip during the Belmont Stakes. It's safe to say that Saturday's race will be the most-watched horse race in America since Smarty Jones drew nearly 22 million viewers in his Belmont bid.
"I think the industry could use a Triple Crown winner, especially with the story this horse has," Art’s son and assistant, Alan Sherman, told Newsday. "It gives the little guy hope, and the chance something like this can happen is what makes racetrack people get up in the morning."
The trouble is, the number of "racetrack people" dwindles by the year, and the negative stories swirling around horse racing aren't going to win the sport any new diehards. The subject of many of these stories is one familiar to fans of America's most popular sports: performance-enhancing drugs.
There’s no question that when Smarty Jones was racing, and even earlier, trainers were medicating and overmedicating horses to push them to run faster and overcome infirmities. Nearly every horse that leaves the gate does so after having been administered a drug called Lasix, which works to prevent internal bleeding. But even for horses that don’t suffer from internal bleeding, Lasix serves as a diuretic, one that supposedly flushes out the system, making the horse lighter.
Ryan Goldberg, writing for Pro Publica, noted earlier this year that Lasix might have had a role in horse racing as long ago as 1964, when Northern Dancer won the Kentucky Derby victory, although he never turned up definitive proof. The public wasn’t paying attention to drugs in horse racing then and few were ten years ago. But the question of permitted medications like Lasix as well as prohibited substances and techniques has received a wider public airing as a result of the sport’s last two Triple Crown contenders.
In 2008, Big Brown rolled into the Belmont led by trainer Rick Dutrow, who had previously served a 60-day suspension for giving his racehorses painkillers and who admitted that Big Brown had received doses of permitted but controversial anabolic steroid Winstrol. Big Brown never made it across the finish line, as he trailed badly before his jockey pulled him up in the home stretch.
In 2012, I’ll Have Another never even entered the starting gate, having been scratched before the race with tendonitis. Leading up to the race, news broke that his trainer, Doug O’Neill, awaited a 45-day suspension from the California Horse Racing Board for racing a horse that had a level of carbon dioxide in his blood above the legal limit, a likely sign that someone has administered a "milkshake"—a prohibited practice that involves tubing a mix of baking soda and water into a horse’s stomach in the hours before a race.
Prior to the ascendance of California Chrome—whose trainers have never been accused of doping horses—the biggest racing story of the year came in March, when PETA released video from an undercover investigation that purportedly showed Steve Asmussen, trainer of Derby contender Tapiture, mistreating and abusing horses in his care. More bad publicity came in May, on HBO’s "Real Sports With Bryant Gumbel," where Asmussen admitted to administering three drugs, including Lasix, which are banned in the sport in Europe to his racehorses, but defended their usage as therapeutic and legal. That last one is a key point: as long as these drugs are permitted, trainers looking for an edge will put them to use.
The racing industry is also plagued with problems that aren't self-inflicted. Casinos, once found only in Nevada and New Jersey, now exist in 38 states. Elsewhere, there’s the lottery and bingo. Why would a novice gambler take the time to learn to decipher the complicated, almost runic numbers and symbols in a racing program when there are easier ways to get some action?
The are many other reasons for horse racing's decline, but the doping and mistreatment of animals—along with sport's failure to solve the problem, perhaps with a national oversight body to replace the current, fractured state-by-state patchwork of regulations—exacerbates every other failing. Any controversy over the care of its four-legged athletes is not one that a declining game, beset with competition from human-centric sports and other forms of gambling, can possibly withstand.
It would be a stretch to argue that Smarty Jones could have saved horse racing, that a Triple Crown victory would have created a whole new generation of loyal fans to help the sport survive its many scandals, as baseball and football fans do theirs. So the notion that California Chrome could save the sport today is downright laughable. The weight the racing industry is asking California Chrome to bear far exceeds the 110-pound jockey, Victor Espinoza, that he will carry to the starting gate on Saturday. Whether or not the race ends in the sound of hushed voices and torn betting slips or rapturous cheers, in the end the volume will continue to slide.
Dan Packel has written about horse racing for the Daily Beast and the Classical.