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BELMONT STAKES

Triple Jeopardy

Even as War Emblem is poised to become first Triple Crown winner in 24 years, there is concern whether sport can rally in public eye

June 08, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ELMONT, N.Y. — The computer man from Tustin was having a mid-evening drink at the lobby bar of a Manhattan hotel.

The mention of today's Belmont Stakes jogged his memory slightly.

"Oh, yeah, that race," he said. "That's the one that white-haired guy's got something to do with, isn't it?"

This is the reality for all of racing: Even though a record crowd of more than 85,000 may attend the Belmont as War Emblem and trainer Bob Baffert--he's the white-haired guy--shoot for the first Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed in 1978, the time-warped sport still operates in a vacuum.

A victim of its own indifference to TV exposure about a generation ago, and now struggling to retain a dwindling gambling niche in the face of competition from lotteries and riverboats and Native American casinos, racing seldom succeeds in capturing the spotlight. When Secretariat became the ninth of 11 Triple Crown champions by winning the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont in 1973, he was an all-around cover boy, his picture splashed on the front of Time and Newsweek as well as the expected sports publications.

A more immediate litmus test for racing is that Sports Illustrated hasn't devoted a cover to a horse winning a race since Sunny's Halo's Derby victory 19 years ago. Don't bet on a victorious War Emblem making that magazine's cover this time, either. The Mike Tyson-Lennox Lewis fight tonight in Memphis, Tenn., has more of a cover smell to it.

No greater champion of racing than trainer Wayne Lukas, who has won 13 Triple Crown races, questions whether War Emblem can do a bootstrap number on the sport.

"You could get on almost any airplane, walk up and down the aisle and ask people about War Emblem, and not 10% would be able to tell you who he is," Lukas said.

If Lukas, who will try to stop War Emblem with Proud Citizen, a colt who ate the winner's dust in the Derby and Preakness, is exaggerating, he's still not far off.

"The sporting public is very callous," he said. "The top events have a way of coming and going in a hurry, because there's such a glut of them. One result comes in, then everybody says, 'That was fun,' but then in the next breath they're saying, 'What's for tomorrow?' "

Because of what happened 20 miles from Belmont Park last September, there has been a surfeit of psychobabble about whether racing needs a Triple Crown winner owned by a cocky, oil-rich Saudi Arabian prince who seems to sneer back the answer whenever a tough question is posed.

"I just hope the horse wins because we need another Triple Crown champion out there," said Karen Taylor, one of the owners of Seattle Slew, the 1977 champion who died on May 7.

This is the first time since Sir Barton scored the first Triple Crown sweep in 1919 that none of the champions are alive.

"We need another star," Taylor said, her eyes welling up once more at the thought of losing Seattle Slew. "We need that big horse to put back on a pedestal."

Baffert makes regular attempts at depersonalizing the moment.

"This is not about the owner, the trainer, or even the jockey," he said. "It's about the horse."

The raw numbers are not encouraging. According to the Jockey Club, the racing handle of $14.55 billion last year was a record, but the growth rate was only 1.6%, the smallest increase in eight years. There were 60,738 races run, a drop of about 10,000 since 1994. Foal crops have shrunk dramatically. The 2000 group had an estimated 36,700 registrations, down almost 8,000 from 10 years earlier.

War Emblem is a bona fide needle-in-the-haystack story, a horse who couldn't be sold as a yearling, a last-minute purchase by Prince Ahmed bin Salman who mushroomed into a Triple Crown powerhouse. The NBC telecasts of the Derby and Preakness, however, did not generate exceptional ratings. War Emblem was an afterthought for many observers at Churchill Downs, where the Derby ratings sank 12% from the previous year. The Preakness ratings were 2% better than in 2001.

Barry Schwartz, chairman of the New York Racing Assn., which runs Belmont Park, said War Emblem's marketing potential will hinge on how much the horse runs after the Triple Crown.

"If he comes back in races like the Travers [at the NYRA's Saratoga in August], then the ball will keep rolling," Schwartz said.

That possibility is remote. Last year, the prince and Baffert campaigned Point Given, who danced some more dances after winning the Preakness and Belmont. By August, Point Given was injured, his career over. The same handlers of War Emblem are not likely to over-race this lean colt with marginal legs.

Horse owner Bob Lewis would prefer to see the industry's glass as half full. On the Triple Crown sidelines this year, Lewis has previously raced two Triple Crown wannabes--Silver Charm and Charismatic, who were beaten in the Belmont in 1997 and 1999.

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