Yesterday, a one-day crisis over the possibility that Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome would not run in the Belmont Stakes was resolved: Belmont Park officials approved Chrome's use of breath-enhancing nasal strips on race day. The Triple Crown contender had worn the strips in his victories at Churchill Downs and Pimlico, but they had not previously been approved for use by thoroughbreds at New York tracks—and now, California Chrome has a chance to become the first winner of thoroughbred racing's Triple Crown since 1978.
Given the amounts of money and publicity involved, there can't be much surprise that New York's racing officials backed down over a prohibition that wasn’t enforced in the Kentucky or Maryland legs of the Triple Crown, or in California Chrome's eponymous home state.
But for many in the racing business, more than a single race outcome was at stake; many have pinned their hopes for the sport’s return to prominence on the possibility of a Triple Crown for California Chrome. As Childs Walker wrote in the Los Angeles Times, "The possibility the charismatic horse could pull off the sport's signature achievement has the thoroughbred racing world abuzz. For years, racing lovers have said the sport needs a superstar in the mold of Secretariat or Seattle Slew to mitigate declines in attendance and mainstream interest."
Horse racing is about hope, if nothing else, whether that manifests itself in the tradition of "breeding the best to the best and hoping for the best" or placing a winning bet on the next race hoping to break even. And hopes are justifiably high for a bump up in the television ratings for this year’s Belmont, as has been true whenever a Triple Crown has been in play. But hoping that a Triple Crown for California Chrome can jump-start a turnaround in the fortunes of the erstwhile sport of kings is almost certainly a hope too far. The time when horse racing ranked with baseball and boxing among the nation's top sporting passions has long since passed—as it has for baseball and boxing as well, sports that retain a strong following among men of a certain age but hold less appeal for anyone not eligible for a Medicare card.