ELMONT, N.Y. – All week long, the narrative was that California Chrome would be horse racing's savior – that this horse and the Triple Crown burden he carried into race No. 11 at Belmont Park would redeem a sport thought to be on life support.
But even with a disappointing fourth-place finish on Saturday, California Chrome lifted the sport in ways that only a Triple Crown contender can do. And perhaps for a sport that lives on big moments, another year without a Triple Crown winner is more good than bad.
The talk all week centered on if this horse could end the Triple Crown drought that has stretched on for 36 years. Would California Chrome wear the mantle last worn by Affirmed in 1978 and write his name among the immortals? The racing world was told it needed this horse to win this race. But what it really needed was this past week and the hope and expectations surrounding this race.
An announced crowd of 102,199 proves the point that Triple Crown hype can lift the sport – even if only for a day.
No fourth-place finish on Saturday can diminish what this horse brought to the industry over the past few weeks. A palpable buzz had hung around Belmont Park the five days leading up to the 146th Belmont Stakes, a buzz that will continue to grow and await the next Triple Crown hopeful. A Triple Crown win and maybe this anticipation isn't there next time, the allure and aura of the Triple Crown perhaps lessened. But the loss by California Chrome heightens the expectation for the next hopeful to sweep the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and come to New York with dreams of making history.
The great expectation surrounding the Triple Crown is that it is an event, and a rare one at that. The fact that 60 home runs let alone 50 home runs is no longer a rare accomplishment in modern day baseball diminishes the number in sports lore. By that same logic, a frequent Triple Crown makes it less special. A loss by California Chrome is not a loss for the sport; it just makes the next hopeful all the more special.
That the favorite didn't do it in the end doesn't matter for the sport. That the stands were packed does. That a record handle both at the track and for the total handle means there is a temporary lift for the sport.
With the buildup to this race, the natural connections have repeatedly been made between California Chrome and Secretariat, who in 1973 took the Triple Crown and won the hearts of the nation in the process. Considering this latest Triple Crown contender's own story from humble origins to Saturday's trip to Belmont Park, the fanfare around California Chrome is certainly within the same ballpark as Secretariat. But the differences likely will end there.
In 1973 following that historic win at Belmont, Secretariat embarked on a victory tour of sorts. From late June to late October of that year, he made six starts and notched four wins in a national series of races to highlight a horse that had become a household name.
If California Chrome had won the triple there likely wouldn't have been a similar victory tour – perhaps one stop in Saratoga at the Travers Stakes or one final lap at Santa Anita before an adoring home crowd. But after that, it likely would have been out to stud for this horse and no grand farewell.
There would be no sustained bump for the sport – a Triple Crown winner today would likely retire the moment that horse crossed the finish line.
Those connected to the sport want a Triple Crown for the sheer moment, not recognizing that sustaining the drought creates more anticipation and more hype.
"Not really. I'd like to see a Triple Crown winner," Secretariat jockey Ron Turcotte told Yahoo Sports. "We should have had one along the way. But there were mistakes by the jockey, some mistakes by the trainers leading up to the race and some were just too slow.
"But I think we would need one. It'd be exciting."
On Thursday before the race, California Chome's owner Steve Coburn called his horse "the Secretariat of this century." His horse may not have won on Saturday, but for a week in June he won headlines and broad appeal for a sport that struggles to get any sort of traction. In that way, he was every bit the horse of Secretariat.
He may not have won a bed of white carnations, but California Chrome did something more important in the five weeks leading up to this race. He got us all talking about horse racing, and for that he's more than a winner.
He was indeed the sport's latest savior – at least until the next one.