The Triple Crown Myth
Ray Cotolo
June 5, 2014
This Saturday marks California Chrome's attempt to conquer the dreaded mile-and-a-half distance in the Belmont Stakes, which would make the beloved colt the twelfth horse to win the Triple Crown. In the standardbred realm, it has been an ongoing debate on developing a Triple Crown, which already exists for both gaits (Pacing consists of Cane Pace, Messenger and Little Brown Jug. Trotting consists of Hambletonian, Yonkers Trot and Kentucky Futurity). The ultimate goal for these Triple Crowns would be to attract a new fan base with the best our sport has to offer. Yet, the main question should be if the Triple Crown actually expands the thoroughbred audience.
After Affirmed's dramatic stretch battle with Alydar in 1978, his victory would initiate the biggest Triple Crown drought in the history of the series. In order to properly judge a Triple Crown winner's affect, the annual handle on thoroughbred racing would be the main indicator. Oddly enough, from The Jockey Club website, annual handle was not recorded until 1990, meaning that they would not be a reliable source to base judgment upon.
Since those numbers are not liable, the next most reliable would be television ratings. Analyzing the numbers, the 1979 Kentucky Derby saw an audience of 20.82 million, a decrease compared to 1978s audience of 22.4 million (source). One can argue that the Triple Crown in fact did attract a bigger audience based on the 1977-1978 season. The 1977 Kentucky Derby, with an audience of 20.7 million, increased after Seattle Slew's sweep of the Triple Crown.
Now, looking at the Belmont data (source), after Seattle Slew's Triple Crown victory in front of a televised audience of 17.2 million, only 10.9 million watched Affirmed do the same. On-track attendance could not compensate for the deficit, as the record attendance was 120,139 back in 2004 with Smarty Jones.
This article is in no way trying to be pessimistic, rather bringing the idea to create other ideas. The Triple Crown itself, though gaining its own fan base, cannot create new bettors. If that is the case, then it's time to put on the thinking caps and begin thinking innovatively, rather than trying to mimic something that "works". It's fun to watch the Triple Crown series as an avid fan, but it is not working.
California Chrome can certainly change the trend in this game where long shots are not frowned upon, but coincidently, the odds are against him. He has gained a following based on his story, a foal from a broodmare purchased for $8,000 by "Dumb-Ass Partners" Steve Coburn and Perry Martin. The main question, if California Chrome manages to ingrain himself into thoroughbred history, is if after the Belmont, will his fans continue following? This will answer the myth, on whether a Triple Crown can actually bring new race fans. I know from my academic colleagues that, even if he wins the Triple Crown, they will not be heavily invested in the game.
After looking at it from a data perspective, there should be a rational analysis, too. Harness has shadowed thoroughbred racing for most of its existence, primarily after the industrial revolution. If our current Triple Crowns do not work, why should a new one? These horses are much more versatile, making it an easier task. But overall, it does not influence the amount of money heading into the windows. The races themselves are the showcased events, rather than the series.
There lies another issue with trying to mimic ideas implemented by other industry. For example, in the world of apps, there are nearly 1,000 apps reaching the mobile store a day. Only few will succeed and reach the top 100 in the app store, even with advertising. Plus, there exist several apps for the same purpose, with the gaming genre being the most reliable for this comparison (based on the goal of the game). In terms of horse racing, if there exists a thoroughbred Triple Crown, what is incredible about the harness Triple Crown? Should not the versatility of the standardbred be much more impressive?
There are many questions involved in the Triple Crown myth, as well as trying to advertise racing as a whole. But for now, from the stats shown and analyzed, as well as a rational thought of how harness is advertised, the main goal should is to be creative, to create new initiatives that are different and will attract an audience. For creativity is the key, and we'll save that for another column.
Ray Cotolo, long time follower of the harness racing industry, is a presenter on North American Harness Update.
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