NBC and Belmont Park officials can breathe easy, now that the track’s stewards have ruled that Triple Crown contender California Chrome can wear equine nasal strips during the 146th Belmont Stakes on June 7.
The ruling is “great for horse racing,” said Heather Larson, a race horse trainer and former junior Olympic rider.
That’s an understatement. Without a Triple Crown on the line last year, the Belmont drew a crowd of just 47,562. From 2002 to 2004, with consecutive Triple Crown contenders, Belmont posted its three highest attendance marks ever: 100,000-plus spectators each year. New York-based Smarty Jones’ quest in 2004 brought in a record 120,139 attendees.
The difference in TV ratings is equally stark. A spokesman for NBC Sports said the average viewership for the Belmont hovers around 16 million when a horse is in contention for racing’s most prestigious prize, and just 7 million when no horse poses a threat. Smarty Jones helped NBC set a record with 21.9 million viewers and a rating share of 13.1, according to the network.
NBC would not predict whether California Chrome’s run would break ratings records, but his success already provided the network with a 5-point ratings bump for the Preakness compared to last year, the best ratings for the second jewel of the Triple Crown since 2010. Ad revenue also rises. NBC’s Sports Group Chairman Mark Lazarus said the network holds back some Belmont ad slots and raises rates if there’s a Triple Crown on the line, knowing that viewership will be high.
The key to California Chrome’s appeal, of course, is that he could be the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. (Five other horses since then have won the first two “jewels,” then faltered.) But he’s also got a perfect made-for-TV narrative. He was bred for a dirt-cheap $10,000. He’s an “outsider” from California -- not one of those aristocratic, Kentucky equines. His owners are Denise and Perry Martin (the shy, quiet ones) and Steve and Carolyn Coburn (the chatty, quotable ones). His trainer, Art Sherman, is a 77-year-old former jockey who has never had a horse competing in any of the Triple Crown races. And jockey Victor Espinoza was afraid of horses as a child. The uplifting backstories and sun-lit landscapes could fill hours of airtime on Belmont Saturday.
But none of this would be happening if track stewards hadn’t reversed the New York Racing Association’s ban (in effect since 1999) against the use of equine nasal strips. California Chrome has worn the strips throughout his six-race winning streak, and his owners let it be known that he might not race without them. Days after the Preakness, New York State Gaming Commission (NYGC) Equine Medical Director Scott E. Palmer determined that breathing strips “do not enhance equine performance nor do they pose a risk to equine health or safety.”
No one seemed eager to disagree.
“It’s not a pharmaceutical fix,” said Larson. “It’s harmless to the horse and it’s therapeutic.”
And this year, at least, it’s also very good for racing’s bottom line.