It is, in effect, the determinate of whether or not the nation pays attention to horse racing after the third Saturday in May.
If this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Street Sense, fails to capture the Black-Eyed Susans, you can put horse racing on a Lazy Susan. It’ll take a full turn of the year to learn anything about the sport in the general media again.
Moreover, the result of the Preakness represents in economic terms 50,000 fans in the stands, 7 million TV viewers, and $25 million in betting revenue - staggering numbers which constitute the difference between a Belmont Stakes with the Triple Crown on the line and one without a horse that has won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
This being written, there’s another effect of the Preakness that bears watching. It is more subtle, and therefore less obvious, but in the exercise of brand building, it’s a reality that brand managers should wrap their brains around. The guess here, based on past performances, is that they haven’t.
Undoubtedly, a Kentucky Derby winner deserves the highest accolade. The task of gearing a three-year-old up to be at his very best for one specific day in May is a challenge without parallel. As the only horse race that most Americans know about, the Run for the Roses, at least for the foreseeable future, will remain the most visible prize in the sport. But is it the most treasured?
Winning the Derby these days seems to be the equivalent of capturing a conference championship. The gap between Triple Crown winners has been stretched so long, and the anxiety over ending the drought so high, a race such as Street Sense ran last Saturday is…well, it’s nice, but not the pinnacle.
American society is conditioned to accept nothing less than ultimate achievements from its heroes. Teams like the Yankees, who win the American League pennant in most years, or the Bills, who played in five straight Super Bowls, are often considered under-achievers, instead of examples of excellence.
Conceptually, in recent years, Smarty Jones, War Emblem and Charismatic are horses that failed at the Triple Crown, not horses that triumphed at Churchill Downs and Pimlico. Within this context, their Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses, therefore, were playoff games for a championship that was never won. Coincidentally, in some years, that championship is never played.
When Barbaro broke down in the first furlong of last year’s Preakness, all hope for the first Triple Crown winner in 22 years was dashed. The Belmont, won by Jazil, became a funeral ceremony for the horse expected to be crowned the race’s winner.
You can imagine, then, the sigh of relief on Tuesday of last week, when Street Sense’s trainer Carl Nafzger declared, “I realized last night that I had focused so hard on the Derby that I hadn’t looked past it. It doesn’t matter, because the horse will take you to the Preakness. The way he looked this morning, we’re on the way.”
Where there’s hope, there’s a chance in horse racing. And Street Sense is, at least, in the hunt for the Super Bowl on Saturday. How he fares will determine if horse racing, at last, gets its rightful place on the front page, and on the calendar.