Can Silver Charm save horse racing from extinction?

NEW YORK (AP) — OK, Silver Charm crosses the finish line first at the Belmont Stakes on Saturday and becomes the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown.
Is thoroughbred racing saved?
“Oh, I hope so,” says Penny Chenery, who owned 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat. “If Silver Charm can win, and if two new people go to a racetrack, have a good time and bring a few friends the next time, then maybe we can turn this thing around.”
With all the dramatic developments leading up to Silver Charm’s run at history, once again racing is receiving scads of good ink. Last year, of course, there was Cigar. And before that, let’s see, there was … well, it’s been a long time since racing generated so much national interest.
Eight years, to be precise.
The year was 1989, when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer dueled through the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, with Easy Goer spoiling Sunday Silence’s Triple Crown bid with a victory in the Belmont before 64,959 cheering fans.
No crowd since has come close; indeed, after a steady decline, a record low turnout of 37,171 showed up to watch Preakness winner Tabasco Cat pick up the third jewel of the 1995 edition of the Triple Crown.
Throughout the country, on-track attendance has plummeted as racing struggles to keep pace in an increasingly competitive field for the entertainment and gambling dollar.
If the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 can’t rekindle interest, then the sport seems destined to go the way of its distant cousin, harness racing, which barely registers a blip on the national sports scene.
“The impact will be pretty much short-term,” says Jim Andrews, vice president for Chicago-based IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks sports sponsorships. “Aside from the Triple Crown, racing really doesn’t have much of a national presence. Sure, it helps fan interest for now, but in a month, racing will be faced with the same problems.”
For now, though, thoroughbred racing is riding a wave of recognition.
“This has been a marvelous experience. The first two legs of the Triple Crown, with Silver Charm’s photo finishes, have been a great stimulant for racing,” Bob Lewis, the 72-year-old owner of Silver Charm, said. “And I think that should increase public awareness and enthusiasm.”
“We need a hero, and we need it now,” Hall of Fame jockey Angel Cordero Jr., said. “A horse like Silver Charm, with the way he’s won the first two races, he will make people blink. If he does it, I think people outside of racing will take notice.”
Adds Steve Cauthen, who rode Affirmed to his Triple Crown sweep: “For seven years, nobody called me at Belmont time. Now I’m getting hundreds of calls.”
The short-term effects of a horse winning the Derby and Preakness heading into the Belmont show a rise in interest. In the 1990s, for instance, the average attendance for the Belmont Stakes is 45,399, with New York Racing Association officials hoping for a turnout of 60,000 on Saturday. On a daily basis, however, attendance is often one-tenth that figure.
Following Silver Charm’s head victory over rival Free House in the Preakness — the 3-year-old colt won the Derby by a head over Captain Bodgit — trainer Bob Baffert said Belmont would now get a chance to use some of the seats it hasn’t used in years.
So far, he’s right. Terry Meyocks, NYRA president and COO, won’t predict a crowd figure but says the clubhouse seats are gone and box seat and dining space requests are overwhelming. But grandstand seats are still available at one of the country’s most spacious racetracks.
“Hopefully, this will generate some interest,” Meyocks said, “and the fans we lost in the last generation will come back and be aware of a what a great sport this is.”
If Silver Charm wins, two major groups are poised to pounce on the golden opportunity: Visa USA, sponsor of the Triple Crown Challenge, and the Thoroughbred Industry Alliance, which seeks to bring national unity and purpose to racing via a comprehensive marketing plan.
Visa, which will award a $5 million bonus for a Triple Crown sweep, already has intensified its publicity. Two days after the Preakness, Visa reshot a TV ad to include Silver Charm’s run at the Triple Crown. If he wins, look for congratulatory ads in several major newspapers on Monday.
“Silver Charm’s bid to capture the elusive Triple Crown has certainly helped to fuel renewed interest in the sport of thoroughbred racing,” Visa USA President and CEO Carl Pascarella said.
Added Visa spokesperson Lori Smith: “If he wins on Saturday, we’ll look to keep the momentum going.”
The TIA, meanwhile, is trying to unify racing industry groups who have rarely been in agreement on how the sport should operate.
“All the organizations, such as the Jockey Club, Breeders’ Cup and National Thoroughbred Association, are coming together to create a national marketing plan,” said Lewis. “The national media has a right to have one voice speak on behalf of the industry. I think if you bring that to racing, you will see a resurgence in that sport that would be the biggest in thoroughbred racing’s history.”
And with Silver Charm creating so much excitement, perhaps the industry can use a Triple Crown winner as a springboard to success.
Both efforts are steps in the right direction, Andrews says, but thoroughbred racing has to follow through.
“They need a unifying voice,” Andrews said. “Every racetrack operates on its own. So do football teams, but they are in a league, with a strong centralized body. Racing doesn’t have that.
“And sponsors need some kind of platform so they can promote racing year-round — and that’s missing.”
If Silver Charm wins the Triple Crown, it won’t be hard to promote the rest of his career.
“If they say he’s going to rest until the Travers, then you won’t be able to get near Saratoga to see it,” said Billy Turner, who trained 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew and knows all about post-Triple Crown popularity.
The key is longevity.
“If we have a horse who stays sound and keeps racing, it will mean a lot,” Chenery said. “If he wins and then doesn’t race, the general public will think it’s a once-a-year phenomenon and then it’s off to the breeding shed. It’s very important he win and demonstrate some durability.”
Lewis agreed.
“Beverly and I would like to see him go on for his fourth or fifth year and beyond if he’s sound,” said Lewis, who co-owns Silver Charm with his wife, Beverly. “A long racing career is the best way to make equine stars.”
And fans.