Belmont and horse racing can still win for losing

Exercise rider Willie Delgado, center, leads Kentucky Derby

Exercise rider Willie Delgado, center, leads Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome to his stable as trainer Art Sherman, right, watches after a workout at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, Thursday, May 15, 2014. Photo Credit: AP

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Here's a two cents' worth bet on a big thoroughbred racing victory Saturday, with the conviction it is a winning ticket to be cashed whether California Chrome wins the 146th Belmont Stakes.

More than completing the Triple Crown is the tantalizing drama of yet another attempt at it. Already the fuss, fueled by California Chrome's Kentucky Derby-Preakness sweep, has been ratcheted up by each of the 12 previous Triple Crown almosts.

The chalk is that more than 100,000 spectators will be at Belmont Park on Saturday, one of the eight largest crowds in the race's history -- all since 1998, and all when the (unfulfilled) possibility a Triple Crown would be completed.

"Of course, of course, it's the buildup," said Terry Finley, whose West Point Thoroughbreds partnership will send Derby runner-up Commanding Curve against California Chrome again. "Win, lose or draw [for Chrome], people are going to be talking on Monday morning at work about our business, and about the race. There has been an incredible push of interest."

It could be argued that, after having three Triple Crown winners in six years in the 1970s, Spectacular Bid's near-miss in 1979 increased the suspense -- and the attention -- when Pleasant Colony couldn't win the Belmont in 1981, and further intensified the focus on Alysheba's 1987 attempt, and Sunday Silence's 1989 try, and so on through the 11 failures, plus I'll Have Another's late scratch two years ago.

That a Triple Crown win was no more a boost to the sport than simply having a Triple Crown hope in the Belmont, retired jockey Richard Migliore said: "I think there was a point where it was very true. But if you think of Smarty Jones [in 2004] and how the air went out of the building when he was caught by Birdstone, the disappointment. Now it's kind of turned in a cynical way to, 'It's never going to happen again.'

"I really think, 36 years since Affirmed did it, we need a horse to do it, to prove it actually can be done. I think we're past the point now where it's just the buildup. People want to see it. People are starting to lose faith that it can be done."

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Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey acknowledged that "the longer you go without it, the more attempts it takes without success, I guess the anticipation does go up. That's a valid point.

"But I'm going to go on the side of thinking it's better for racing that we finally actually get it done."

Migliore recalled how, before the Triple Crown victories of Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in '77 and Affirmed in '78, "the talk was that it was too hard. Then that talk stopped at the end of the '70s and it was that it was too easy; they should make it harder.

"Now it's 36 years and we're back to talk that it's too hard; they should make it easier." Migliore does not want to make it easier, but: "I almost feel it's enough already. I just really want it to happen."

Still, if "it" is widespread excitement about thoroughbred racing, Finley believes it already has happened.

"We have a lot of challenges in the business," Finley said, "and NBC is going to have 20 million sets of eyeballs watching the Belmont Stakes, the track is going to be packed, six or seven horses will have a legitimate shot to win, and the whole package is a wonderful stage for our industry that, I suggest, is very helpful."

A winner, no matter the winner.

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