The news spread like wildfire late Friday morning – the favorite to win the first Triple Crown in 34 years was scratched from the race and retired after being diagnosed with tendonitis. I had arrived at the barn shortly after 6 a.m., only to find that I’ll Have Another had already been to the track and back; his usual schedule was an 8:30 a.m. gallop. A few hours later, it was official – there would be no Triple Crown attempt this year.
That it happened so late in the game was probably one reason why the crowd on Belmont Stakes day was a record for a year in which no Triple Crown was on the line. Advance tickets had sold out and it was a nice day; plus it didn’t hurt that the connections of I’ll Have Another had agreed to a retirement ceremony so New Yorkers could get one last public glimpse of the horse who had started everyone dreaming once again. Fans were then treated to an exceptionally thrilling Belmont Stakes finish, with Union Rags slipping through on the rail to edge the pacesetting Paynter.
The attendance of 85,811 was the sixth highest total ever, and almost 12,000 more than the previous high for a non-Triple Crown year (set in 2001). While not officially a record, it capped a year where attendance at the three Triple Crown races was astounding, totaling 372,427 for just three days of racing. That’s a remarkable number. Just for fun, compare that with one of the most prestigious race meets of the year – the 2011 Belmont Park fall meeting, loaded with stakes races and championship contenders, drew a total of just 133,369 people over 36 days of racing. Of course, the numbers improve with special meets such as Keeneland and Saratoga, but the Triple Crown this year proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that the big events are big draws.
But what about the rest of the year? The daily grind of races just doesn’t interest most people these days, especially with internal squabbling and animal rights issues taking up most of the headlines. The special security barn set up for Belmont Stakes contenders only served to emphasize even further that the industry has problems. And unfortunately, most of the 85,811 people at Belmont also saw the worst racing has to offer, as New York-bred Horse of the Year Giant Ryan broke down in the stretch in an early race and fell to the track; it is hoped he will be saved with surgery, but his is not an easy injury to repair.
This year’s Triple Crown also proved the fallacy of counting on the next “big horse” to save the sport of Thoroughbred racing. I’ll Have Another raced a total of seven times before he was retired due to injury. Other recent stars have had similar short careers, either due to injury or because they had “nothing left to prove” after just a few starts. How does one make an industry-saving hero out of those numbers? Even Zenyatta, one of the most popular and talented runners ever, raced just 20 times (high compared to other recent runners; low compared to racing heroes of the past); most of those races were in California so her national awareness factor among the general public was limited.
There is clearly a marked contrast between the big events and the routine of daily racing. Some in the industry already know that less is more, while others fight that theory tooth and nail. And if the industry doesn’t make changes voluntarily, the choices will be made for them.