Hopes Ride On California Chrome, As Colt Bears Down On Triple Crown

The third jewel in horse racing's Triple Crown will be run Saturday at the Belmont Stakes. Sportswriter Stefan Fatsis joins Audie Cornish to talk about California Chrome's chance to become the first horse to win all three races since 1978.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

And I'm Audie Cornish. Tomorrow, for the 12th time since 1978, a horse will enter the starting gate in Belmont Park in New York with a chance to win the Triple Crown. Now, the previous eleven, of course, failed, which has only increased the attention and hopes for this year's contender, California Chrome. Sportswriter, Stefan Fatsis, joins us to talk about what winning that elusive title could mean for horseracing. Hey there, Stefan.

STEFAN FATSIS: Hey, Audie.

CORNISH: So it this point, it seems like pretty much everyone wants California Chrome to end this Triple Crown drought.

FATSIS: People love seeing history made. NBC is expecting around 17 million viewers, compared to five to seven million for the Belmont, when a Triple Crown isn't at stake. We're seeing the same kind build-up with Chrome that we saw with Funny Cide in 2003, Smarty Jones in 2004, Big Brown in 2008. He's a special horse. He's America's horse. He's a horse of destiny. There are warm narratives about his breeding and training. And how the horse has changed lives. And then comes the race.

CORNISH: Right. I mean, although the Belmont is different from like the Kentucky Derby or the Preakness, right, the other two Triple Crown events. I mean, what are the of the main challenges, here, for California Chrome?

FATSIS: Well, at one and a half miles the Belmont is a quarter mile longer than the Derby, three-eighths longer than the Preakness. And Andrew Beyer, of the Washington Post notes that, Chrome didn't blow away the field the first two races. And that some of the ten other horses, that'll be running at Belmont, are better suited to the extra distance. Another issue is running the three races in five weeks. Chrome looked great in a training run last week. But the amount of rest that the rest of the field has had could be a disadvantage for him. Beyer points out that only one horse, in the last twelve years, has won the Belmont after competing in all three races.

CORNISH: But this is bigger than one horse, right? I mean, this would be a pretty big deal for horseracing if California Chrome was able to win the Triple Crown.

FATSIS: Yeah. Short-term, lots of positive coverage, maybe more viewers for NBC, which is showing 18 qualifying races for the Breeders' Cup, this summer. California Chrome might race in one or two of those. But overall, there have been proposals, lately, to spread out the three races more, to improve a horse's chances of winning. But I wonder whether the mystique of this elusive Triple Crown might not be bigger than finally having a winner. Though, I guess, at some point, people might get frustrated by the tease.

CORNISH: But no matter what happens tomorrow, I mean, horseracing will still have problems right? I mean, it's not like this has been a sport on the rise.

FATSIS: No, betting is down billions of dollars, in the last decade. Attendance at tracks is down, tracks are closing, like 75-year-old Hollywood Park in Los Angeles, which shut down in December. California Chrome, by the way, won the final stakes race at Hollywood. And then, there are drugs. In March, an undercover report, by People for The Ethical Treatment of Animals, included graphic videos of horses breaking down because of drugs used on them to block pain and enhance performance. It also discussed the use of electric shocks, called buzzers, on horses. Racing officials in Kentucky and New York are investigating. The New York Times, HBO sports, just this week, 60 minutes have done similar stories. There's been federal legislation proposed. States are proposing new rules, too. So no matter what happens with California Chrome, you still got this backdrop for horseracing.

CORNISH: Stefan Fatsis, he's an panelist on Slate sports podcast, Hang Up and Listen. He joins us on Fridays to talk sports and the business of sports. Stefan, thanks so much.

FATSIS: Thanks.

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