Is thoroughbred racing, moribund for so long, beginning to show it has a pulse?
Charismatic's bid to win the Triple Crown generated more public interest than any event in the sport in years. More than 100,000 people attended the Preakness, and an all-time New York record of 85,818 watched the Belmont Stakes.
Two years earlier, when Silver Charm was attempting to complete a sweep after thrilling victories in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, the attendance at Belmont was a relatively modest 70,682.
The mainstream media -- from U.S. News and World Report to National Public Radio -- paid attention to horse racing this spring. Ratings were up for ABC's television coverage. And, on the basis of anecdotal evidence, casual fans seemed to be much more aware of what was happening in the sport.
Charismatic's rise from claiming races captured the public's imagination, and so too did jockey Chris Antley's comeback from near self-destruction. Visa's effective ad campaign focusing on the Triple Crown has given the sport more visibility and credibility. And the industry's own efforts to obtain more media exposure are beginning to pay off, too.
The Triple Crown series is, of course, unique -- its races are recognized by fans who barely know what the Breeders' Cup is and who wouldn't dream of going to Belmont Park on a Wednesday. (On the Wednesday after Charismatic's appearance, 5,120 people rattled around Belmont's massive plant.) Is the interest in this spring's Triple Crown an isolated phenomenon, or is it something the sport can build on?
Tim Smith, commissioner of the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, believes the popularity of the Triple Crown races is a building block, but there is a lot of building yet to be done.
"We need to explain to viewers how other races relate to the Triple Crown," he said. "There is a compelling rhythm to the year that doesn't come across yet. Fans know there's a Triple Crown, but what's this about Behrens and Silver Charm and Real Quiet?"
The NTRA has tried to broaden fan interest in the sport by creating a series of races for older horses televised by Fox. Eventually, it should be able to generate public enthusiasm for races such as today's Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs, where Silver Charm, the hero of the 1997 Triple Crown events, is facing Victory Gallop, one of the stars of 1998. The industry may heighten interest in important televised races and special events, but horse racing can't prosper unless it attracts new fans who bet enthusiastically. People may come to the Triple Crown races because they're big events, happenings, but many fans don't return to the track until the next year. Can the sport turn some of these casual fans into gamblers?
"We're very focused on that," Smith said. "In our advertising we are trying to say that it's thrilling to go to the racetrack because you're watching and you're participating. That's what makes this game uniquely exciting."
Of course, the racing industry has been trying for decades to broaden its fan base with various marketing techniques, most of which have failed. But now the industry is beginning to reach its customers in a new way -- with televised races and telephone betting.
Tom Aronson, vice president of the Television Games Network, a racing channel that will debut this summer, said, "We've failed mightily to get people comfortable with the track experience. We've got to bring the product to the people. If we don't support [racing's current upswing] with processes that let you participate from home, it's going to be short-lived."
Racing also has the potential to attract a whole new generation of customers through the computer. When I rode the special train from Manhattan to Belmont Park last Saturday, it was filled with people in their twenties, most of whom were racing neophytes. But I would bet that most were comfortable with computers. The whole racing experience is available online now: You can download past performances, use handicapping software, make your wagers and watch the races, live, via computer. It's a game made to order for a generation that loves computer games. What the industry has to do is help this generation make the connection.
Most people in the industry sense that this is a moment of great potential. Tom Meeker, president of Churchill Downs, said that while he always has felt confident about racing's future, many track owners worried their sport was declining and couldn't compete with casinos.
"Now," he said, "you see a spirit of confidence at other tracks. On the day at the Belmont Stakes I saw things I've never seen there -- in the attitude of employees and their enthusiasm."
In addition to operating the home of the Kentucky Derby, Churchill Downs owns four off-track betting facilities in Indiana, one of them in a large mall in downtown Indianapolis. For most of its three years of operation, it has drawn a typical racetrack crowd -- a hard-core male audience. But Meeker noted a surprising development.
"In the last few months," he said, "we're seeing a whole new demographic. We're getting young people and couples who enjoy the environment. There's no doubt that there's an increased level of awareness of racing around the country. Something's happening."
CAPTION: Charismatic's Triple Crown quest fell short Saturday in the Belmont but drew a New York record 85,818 fans.