Win or lose at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday, Triple Crown hopeful California Chrome will be racing with the weight of a TV network and a beleaguered horse-racing industry on his powerful shoulders.
NBC expects to more than double the TV audience of a typical Belmont to 17 million viewers because of Chrome's story and his chance for the coveted Triple Crown -- the last one was Affirmed in 1978.
In the past dozen years, four horses raced for the Triple Crown in the Belmont without winning: War Emblem in 2002, Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004, and Big Brown in 2008.
Absent a Triple Crown hopeful, the Belmont Stakes typically draws 5 million to 7 million TV viewers.
Saturday's anticipated huge audience will then be funneled into NBC's airing of Game 2 of the Stanley Cup finals between the Los Angeles Kings and the New York Rangers.
"We will throw that entire audience ... into the hockey game. The NHL has never had that lead-in before," Jon Miller, the president of programming for NBC Sports and NBCSN, said this week. "We are using the Belmont as a springboard."
Once one of America's top sports -- along with boxing and baseball -- horse racing has lost its glory. Competition from casinos and lotteries drained some of the racing industry's vigor.
The industry also has created some of its own woes by not marketing itself effectively. Traditionally, the sport has faded from TV after the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont -- the three races of the Triple Crown, all televised by NBC.
This year, NBC will give the sport added exposure by televising 18 qualifying races for the Breeders' Cup World Championships over the summer and fall, which will place horse racing in front of more eyeballs. The races will be televised on the broadcast-TV network or the NBCSN cable channel.
These "win and you're in" races take place at the storied horse tracks of Keeneland, Monmouth Park, Del Mar and Saratoga. The Breeders' Cup World Championships will be held Oct. 1 and Nov. 1 at Santa Anita Park in California, which also will be televised by NBC.
"We've invested a lot of time and money into growing the sport," Miller said, noting that televising the Breeders' Cup qualifying races could create a narrative that keeps horse fans engaged through the summer months.
If California Chrome wins the Triple Crown, some believe the popular horse could race in one or two of the Breeders' Cup qualifying events -- which would be a windfall for NBC and the industry.
Scott Jagow, editor-in-chief of the Paulick Report, a thoroughbred-horse-racing news website, said the hope has been that more people would watch horse racing with a Chrome victory and be intrigued by the drama of the televised Breeders' Cup qualifying races.
"I would say that people in the industry have been worried about its health for many years. It's not dying," Jagow said. "I would say it's contracting, and that's a good thing."
The big races -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont and Breeders' Cup -- have retained big audiences. But nationally, there are too many racetracks and too many races. Many times, people visit a track, and there will be only a smattering of fans. "There should be fewer tracks and fewer races," Jagow said.
Craig Fravel, president and chief executive officer of the Breeders' Cup, said that parts of the horse-racing industry did not recover from the financial crisis, similar to other luxury businesses.
But racetracks that modernized and have an entertainment quotient keep fans satisfied and coming back, he said. Fravel was excited about the broadened exposure on NBC and about California Chrome's possibly winning the Triple Crown and then racing in the Breeders' Cup.
"That," he said, "would be good for all of us."
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