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Horse Power
Mark Beech
June 07, 1999
Thoroughbred racing makes a late-century stretch run
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June 07, 1999

Horse Power

Thoroughbred racing makes a late-century stretch run

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Anyone seeking signs of life in horse racing needs look no further than this Saturday's Belmont Stakes. Sports fans everywhere, it seems, want to see a Triple Crown winner. Charismatic, the former claimer and 31-1 long-shot winner of the Kentucky Derby, will be the 26th horse—and the third in three years—to journey to New York with a shot at immortality, and even fans who think racing lacks charisma are asking, "Can he do it?" � Back when swing and cigars were in style, horse racing wasn't just the sport of kings. It was the king of sports. Then came the late 1950s, when racing's leaders made a mistake they're still paying for. Offered the chance to put their product on television every week, as the NFL and major league baseball were doing, the thoroughbred industry's clubby, insular brain trust said no. If racing were on television, they reasoned, nobody would come to the track. The consequences of that decision are visible today in the sport's awful TV ratings and in attendance figures that have been tumbling for three decades. Competing forms of legal gambling also sped racing's fall into obscurity, and by the early '90s it was stuck somewhere between billiards and boxing on the sports barometer.

Things aren't much better now, but at least racing's kingpins have a plan. In an unprecedented display of unity—and desperation—track owners and other prominent horsemen formed the National Thoroughbred Racing Association last year to boost racing's profile, largely through aggressive advertising and expanded TV coverage. Their Go-Baby-Go ad campaign may be gathering steam: In New York, for instance, attendance was up in '98 for the first time in 17 years. With swing and stogies trendy again, who's to say horse racing won't be the third jewel in a Triple Crown of comebacks?

Fans who trek to the track might applaud what they find. In what other game can you make a dizzying array of legal bets and enjoy a thrilling two minutes of action 10 times a day? In the era of the $50 box seat, a day at the races is a bargain, too. For less than it costs to buy two beers and a hot dog at Yankee Stadium, a family of four can see a wall of horses turning for home near the Pacific surf at Del Mar or enjoy the grubbier charms of Pimlico, shoehorned into a neighborhood overlooking downtown Baltimore. Better yet, you could spend this Saturday with 80,000 or so other railbirds at Belmont, the Taj Mahal of American racing, and maybe watch history unfold before your eyes.

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