For 36 years, through 13 near misses, the air whooshed out of the Triple Crown balloon. Something bad always happened at Belmont Park. Then came the glorious spring of 2015, when American Pharoah swept the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. This year, Justify performed an encore for the same trainer, Bob Baffert.
Just when it seemed impossible, it occurred twice only three years apart. What was amazing was that American Pharoah actually did it; equally stunning was how Justify did it. Pharoah, the reigning 2-year-old champion, was no secret. Justify was unknown before his debut Feb. 18 began a six-race perfect storm that made him an undefeated immortal in only 112 days. Baffert called it “the longest, quickest journey.” Justify was the first Derby winner since 1882 who didn’t run as a 2-year-old.
American Pharoah inspired thousands of Pharoahites who turned Saratoga into Pharatoga on Travers weekend. The mainstream media got on board, saying he might spark a renaissance for a niche sport that once formed America’s big three with baseball and boxing. Justify rekindled such talk.
Some call it wishful thinking, saying American Pharoah’s “2015 halo effect” never can be repeated. Others point to positive trends in wagering, television ratings and social media that may be related indirectly to Pharoah and Justify. Will their historic achievements matter in the long run, or be only brief spikes?
In a paulickreport.com poll, 45.56 percent of 2,807 voters said they would have no overall impact, 37.87 percent said the fan base would increase, and the rest weren’t sure.
Baffert’s take can be considered self-serving, but he thinks his heroic colts could have a long-term effect.
Before the Belmont, Baffert said: “I think a lot of people still feel a connection with American Pharoah to this day. Strangers still come up to me at airports and say how happy he made them feel. Now Justify is getting a following. People say, ‘Your horse is so beautiful. I hope he wins the next one.’
“People fall in love with these animals.’’
But love is fleeting, and can racing make it last? That depends on whom you ask.
Jack Wolf’s Starlight Racing owned a small share in Justify. “I don’t really think American Pharoah’s Triple Crown had so much overall impact on racing,” Wolf told Newsday. “But having the second one come along so close, maybe it will.
“I think it could help with the need to appeal to a younger crowd. I know Churchill Downs and NYRA are aware of that. It’s going to take a concerted effort of the tracks and owners to do it.”
Trainer Dale Romans calls racing “tailor-made for the Internet. I think a lot of younger people are finding it there. I have seen them showing a lot of interest, and once they start getting into it, they’re going to love it. A lot of people are down on the sport, but I think it’s in a good position.”
The high-end yearling market definitely is. This week’s Fasig-Tipton sale at Saratoga grossed a record $62.794 million for 170 horses. Nine from American Pharoah’s first crop averaged $519,000 — one for $1.2 million and another for $1 million, whom Baffert will train.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, winner of 14 Triple Crown races, said: “If you’re in the 1 percent with those deep pockets, you go to Bob Baffert. I don’t know that the Triple Crowns had any effect on many other trainers’ business.”
Along with rich owners, betting drives racing, and Equibase, its official source for statistics, reported that through June, overall handle rose nearly 6 percent compared to the first half of 2017. Credit much of that to relaxed IRS withholding rules on winnings that free up more money to be wagered again. When Newsday suggested that the two Triple Crowns didn’t spark the betting bump, Lukas said, “I couldn’t agree with you more.”
Finances aside, the Belmont buzz for a Derby-Preakness winner is overpowering. As New York Racing Association director of media relations Patrick McKenna said: “A Triple Crown victory is undoubtedly a positive for NYRA and the sport. The sustained momentum behind a Triple Crown campaign ... introduces racing to people who otherwise might not attend or tune in. It is reflected in an uptick of fan interest, TV ratings and media coverage.’’
Before NYRA began capping the Belmont crowd at 90,000 in 2015 for safety and logistical reasons, four Triple Crown bids drew more than 100,000. According to NBC, 22 million viewed Pharoah’s Belmont, and his Breeders’ Cup Classic’s rating was 53 percent above the previous year. Justify’s Belmont attracted “only” 15 million, a 32-percent drop undoubtedly related to the “just been there, just seen that” vibe.
In an email, Dan Masonson, NBC vice president of communications, said: “We promoted American Pharoah throughout that summer and fall in all of our publicity and marketing. [The retired] Justify’s Triple Crown will be highlighted heading to the Breeders’ Cup.”
Beyond ratings and megabucks are the horse’s beauty, power and grace, which dazzle racetrack newbies. As Breeders’ Cup media consultant Jim Gluckson said: “In a highly mechanized world, people still gravitate to the mystical quality of the thoroughbred.”
Let Lukas, racing’s 82-year-old elder statesman, have the last word.
“I think the interest in our sport is established well enough,” he said. “I don’t know that the two Triple Crowns will help racing, but they certainly didn’t hurt it any.”