If any sport needs a jolt of excitement, it's thoroughbred racing. But with I'll Have Another out of the Belmont Stakes, the sport has once again lost a chance to transfix the world with a Triple Crown winner.
The last horse to win the top three prizes in horse racing—the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes—was Affirmed, in 1978. By coincidence or not, that more or less marked the end of the glory days for racing. With victories in the Derby and the Preakness, I'll Have Another seemed the like best shot in years for a historic achievement that might revive interest in the sport. But the horse has now bowed out with a leg injury and may never race again, indicating the fragile nature of the race and the sport itself.
Racing has been in serious decline for a number of reasons. Part of the problem is new competition from other gaming industries, such as poker, gambling and lotteries. Horse racing also has an image problem, due to numerous doping scandals, allegations of corruption, and reports of poorly treated horses.
Racing groups have begun to push for reforms, but it's slow going. A New York Times expose earlier this year, for instance, documented abominable treatment of horses at a variety of second- and third-tier tracks, many in the southwest.
This once-glamorous sport, meanwhile, is at risk of becoming a big money-loser. Attendance at races has been falling since the 1970s, and the "handle," or amount wagered, peaked in 2004, according to a 2011 McKinsey study conducted for the Jockey Club, a thoroughbred registry. The average age of racing fans is 51, and 4 percent of the fan base dies every year. If the sport doesn't turn itself around by 2020, McKinsey predicts, many tracks will go out of business, total handle will fall by another 25 percent, and losses borne by owners will skyrocket.
Had I'll Have Another pulled out a Triple Crown win, it could have marked a turning point for the sport and generated momentum to speed up reforms and win back fans. The Belmont is still a major race, but press coverage and TV viewership will surely drop off. Meanwhile, the hunt will begin anew for a fresh racing star.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.