06/08/2015 2:04PM

Fornatale: Triple Crown could have ripple effect


We were there in Section U, row H, seats 10 and 11. The grandstand was shaking like Shea Stadium during the 1986 World Series. My wife, Susan Van Metre, and I were jumping up and down, arm in arm. There was a lot of shouting. I stood on my chair to take the standing ovation to the next level. Finally, we were on the right side of history.

In the first conversation I ever remember having with the woman who was to become my wife, I told her to bet on Silver Charm in the 1997 Kentucky Derby. I had just started following racing around that time and I embraced Bob Baffert’s gray colt with the zeal of someone born again.

I was there when Silver Charm lost in the ’97 Belmont, and it felt to me as if the Mets had lost Game 7. I took it personally, and not seeing a Triple Crown was part of that loss. I stayed up late that night watching the VHS tape over and over again, somehow expecting to see a different result.

George Vescey wrote in the New York Times the next day that when the Triple Crown finally happened, it would be all the sweeter because of Silver Charm’s close call. And of course, we had an even closer call the next year, and then several more attempts over the ensuing 15 plus years. Some of them I rooted for, some of them I rooted against, but I didn’t share a strong emotional connection with any of those horses.

Last year, I was a little slow to warm to American Pharoah – I voted for Texas Red as champion two-year-old for 2014. But once he returned to the races at three, I was on board. The more I talked to people I respect who look at horses for a living I became convinced – this was the horse worth waiting for. And Vescey was right: I wouldn’t have appreciated it nearly as much without the disappointment of Silver Charm.

So what happens for racing now that we’ve finally seen a Triple Crown once again? Frankly, the idea that his win will be a panacea for racing is a non-starter – racing’s issues are too ingrained for any event, no matter how exciting, to be a cure-all. But I do think this could mark a sea change.

Looking back at the poker boom for comparison, many have identified the key moment as Chris Moneymaker’s World Series of Poker triumph. Here was a guy who qualified online for $40 and parlayed that into $2.5 million. I’ve already written about contest players like Bob Traynor and Patrick McGoey, both of whom turned $100 buy-ins at BCQualify.com into more than $250,000 each at the Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge. In the next few years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I have the opportunity to write about some young man or woman, inspired by Pharoah’s flying finish, who qualifies inexpensively online and wins $1 million at the National Handicapping Championship.

From my perch within the world of handicapping tournaments I’ve seen a lot of growth and opportunity. I have seen a way into racing for younger people, for people who enjoy competition and camaraderie, for those who are comfortable with gambling as long as the risks and rewards are clear. These are people who might not be quick to cotton to the pari-mutuel model, but can find a place to thrive in contests – and from there I see them also learning to play through the windows.

When people ask me how they should get involved more in racing – and many have since 6:53p.m. Saturday night, I am happy to suggest contests as a way in. The proliferation of daily fantasy sports – which is essentially gambling with a better PR campaign – can be a wonderful thing for horse racing, especially horse racing contests. Here is a proven audience of people willing to take financial risks on sporting events – and they’ve just seen the most exciting sporting event in the last few decades. For every hardcore fan like Susan and me, there were probably ten newbies in that Belmont grandstand, and if that stretch run into history didn’t leave them wanting more, nothing will.

What’s next for racing? I don’t know and neither does anyone else. But I say this with certainty: I’m excited to be a part of it and can’t wait to find out where we go from here.