Can Horse-Racing Be Revived?

American Pharoah became the first Triple Crown Winner in 37 Years, leading to speculation that the popularity of horse-racing could be revived.

Did you put money on American Pharoah earlier this month?

If so, your bet was among $134.8 million wagered on the Belmont Stakes — the second-highest day of betting in New York history. Some 22 million TV viewers tuned in to watch American Pharoah become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

However, the excitement and media coverage around those big three races — the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes — masks the precipitous decline in popularity of thoroughbred horse racing overall during that same 37 years.

Horse racing is, after all, a sport that is entirely about gambling. And while track betting is a $4 billion industry in the United States, it’s only a sliver of the gaming market.

Money wagered on horse races has fallen almost 30% since 2006. Last year, when similar hype followed Derby- and Preakness-winner California Chrome, betting was still at its lowest since 1995. Attendance at horse tracks has nearly collapsed except for a handful of marquee races. Even the Triple Crown, undoubtedly the biggest competition in racing, hasn’t attracted a unified sponsor since 2013.

The leading factor in the decline, according to business research group IBIS World, is the proliferation of casinos and lotteries. Others have noted a general drop in the popularity of individualized sports (see boxing). Horse races are also difficult to televise. Even the big races last only a few minutes.

Today there are essentially two tiers of horse racing: the big-purse races like those included in the Triple Crown, or the Breeders Cup and the day-to-day races the industry relies on. What has become apparent is that most bettors care very little about a $50,000 race at Churchill Downs, even if they tune into the Kentucky Derby.

Can American Pharoah revitalize the track scene?

“Since we know it as the most exciting two minutes in sports, I guess you can’t expect it to have a long shelf life,” David M. Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, recently said to USA Today. “For the most part, horse racing will go dormant again.”

National Thoroughbred Racing Association President and CEO Alex Waldrop is more optimistic. “Certainly in the short term there will be huge mainstream media interest in thehorse and that will give us more exposure for a longer period of time than we’ve had for many years,” Waldrop said. “It is an opportunity for tracks and horsemen to reach out to a new fan base, capture perhaps even a younger demographic with a compelling story.”

Sure enough, the horse’s owners are already capitalizing on the victory. They’ve signed deals with Monster Energy Drink and private airplane company Wheels Up. There are rumors of a Wheaties Box in the future. They also plan to continue racing American Pharoah, at least for a little while.

“Forget about analytics and demographics, this is about making history, doing something unique,” said Ben Sturner, CEO of Leverage Agency, the firm hired to market the new Triple Crown Winner.

“American Pharoah is more than just a horse, he’s an icon.”

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